Most of us are fascinated by people who are mysterious and even eccentric. This is especially true of creative artists. For over a hundred years, the American public has been intrigued by the poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote hundreds of poems, most of which were unpublished during her lifetime.
We are fascinated for another reason. I suspect it’s because we all believe in the principle: hard work + dedication = reward. Most of us expect some kind of compensation for our hard work and sacrifice. A better job, time off, a raise, or the recognition of our coworkers, friends, and family. Some of us need rewards on a regular basis. (Like me.) These small indulgences might be a piece of chocolate. (My first choice.) A frothy cappuccino. (My second choice.) A juicy hamburger. A massage. Or, time for yourself.
So, we assume that everyone, including creative artists, seeks public recognition, fame, and fortune as rewards for hard work. Even though we might acknowledge the burden of fame, which includes the loss of privacy, most of us still see it as desirable or a necessary evil. So, we think it’s strange to choose anonymity and work without recognition.
I recently discovered two reclusive creative artists in Chicago, whose stunning creative work came to light after their deaths. Needless to say, I am intrigued by them.
Vivian Maier worked as a nanny for several wealthy Chicago families who had no idea of the treasure hidden in the monumental pile of boxes that filled her attic room.
Her lifework was unearthed only after her death in 2009 by the Chicago historian, John Maloof, who bid on an unclaimed lot being auctioned at a local warehouse. When he opened the box, he discovered thousands of photographs and undeveloped rolls of film, a collection of hats, and diaries. Through his efforts, Maier’s scenes of Chicago street life have been widely publicized and exhibited all over the world. Her street photography is masterful and powerful. I was fortunate to see her first American exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011 and I have been captivated by her work ever since. To read more about Vivian Maier and her work, click here.
I also recommend this fascinating film by John Maloof about the mysterious artist and her work.
The second artist is Henry Darger, whose work was discovered by his landlords right before his death in 1973. When Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner unlocked Darger’s tiny studio apartment, they found a massive 15,000 page manuscript, hundreds of illustrations and scrapbooks.
The reclusive Darger, who was their tenant for 43 years, worked as a janitor for most of his adult life and collected trash on the street, so it was a complete surprise that he was also an artist. Through the efforts of Darger’s landlords, his work has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
Darger’s magnum opus consumed his life. It was a massive 15,145-page, single-spaced manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, illustrated with several hundred drawings and watercolor paintings. To create the figures in his drawings, Darger copied or traced cartoons and illustrations, collected over his lifetime in massive used telephone books. To read more about Darger and his work, click here.
A victim of abuse in his childhood and institutionalized in an asylum after his father’s death, Darger championed children’s rights in his creative work. He was the subject of Jessica Yu’s documentary “The Realms of the Unreal” released in 2004.
Perhaps in time we’ll discover that these artists sought recognition and never attained it. Or, perhaps they understood that the creative process is its own reward:
The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure,the process is its own reward.–Amelia Earhart
Without a doubt Amelia Earhart’s view is the minority opinion, but I respect it and understand the truth in it. What do you think? Could you work without recognition or rewards? If you need rewards, what are they?
This post was inspired by this week’s photo challenge: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/reward/