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Updated: Dec 5, 2020

Stephania Smith here. As a sociologist and sometime writer and poet, I have now been married to Breck, a full-time artist/painter, for 28 years. I thought it might be helpful to people out in the blogosphere to get a little advice on the pros and cons of being married to an artist. Please forgive my exclusive use of the male pronoun for artist, but I find he/she cumbersome, and I am a woman married to a male artist, so this fits for me. Also, I should point out that these characteristics apply to my husband and I am generalizing from them, without any scientific data whatsoever. Buyer beware. Given these caveats, here are my pros:

1. There is the romantic artist ethos – The basic archetype holds that he’s such a brilliant, creative genius he spends all of his time on his oeuvre and ignores his personal needs, hence he needs a loving woman to take care of him, this being you. You Juno, you.

2. They generally have a nice attitude about bodies – Like 66% of the population of America, I am overweight. Overweight women are a highly discriminated against group in America, with size discrimination falling just behind gender and age discrimination as the most common form of discrimination we experience. (Size discrimination is more common than race discrimination among women.) Artists, however, are trained to seek beauty in different forms, and are exposed to a variety of female body shapes that have been considered beautiful at different times. As a result, many of them see beauty in overweight women as well as skinny ones. Imagine my surprise and delight at being described by him as being “succulent, like a ripe peach.” Yes, you may park your slippers under my bed!

3. You may get an ego boost by being his muse or model – Directly related to #2. Never in my life did I even consider the possibility that an artist would ask to paint me nude. Breck did. It was quite strange going to an art show where some of these nudes were on display. But someone purchased one! Woohoo!

4. You’ll have a never-ending supply of wall decorations to vary the look of your home – I love our living room wall art (see #2 in cons) now and probably won’t change it for some time to come, but the art in the other rooms can rotate according to my whim. A few pieces I especially like so they stay: one of me at my computer desk and a view of a Roanoke, VA neighborhood is another. However, when he goes through his work picking pieces for his shows, I pick pieces I want to put up in our home.

5. He is usually a good handyman around the house – Your artist has likely tried different forms of art making as part of his artist’s education, plus he has to work with wood cutting, drilling, gluing, staining or painting and nailing, plus wall hanging, as part of his framing. This means he has worked with a variety of materials. Breck was an Exhibit Designer at the NC Zoo, where he did welding, carving in concrete, and painting. He has also worked construction, because he is good with his hands and with material things, as opposed to working with people and ideas (although he is good at that, too, being a teacher). The result? He can fix lots of things around the house. Whether he actually does them or not is a different matter!


1. Things may disappear from around the house – When we first married, I was going crazy because ingredients that I had bought for recipes I was planning to make kept vanishing. Did I not buy them?? Was I losing my memory? No. I would find jars and cans of things, plus fruits and vegetables I planned to cook with, in his studio – often rotting. Eeeww.

2. The house will eventually overflow with the supply of paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, etc. that your artist lovingly produces – We began renting a self-storage room about 10 years ago. It is full and the house has filled up again. You can’t walk in the spare bedroom for paintings leaned against all sides of the bed. They are also stacked on virtually all wall space above cabinets (the small ones), layered in four-foot high drying/holding racks (works on paper), and stacked two high in the computer room against the wall. It is positively claustrophobic. At one point he was using the living room wall as a drying area. This was convenient because we have a vaulted ceiling and there is a lot of wall space. There were so many paintings the wall looked as busy as a Los Angeles freeway, and sitting next to it was bad feng shue and caused me anxiety. I put my foot down and now we just have one large painting, which hung in the NC Museum of Art some years back. Aaaahhh. I now have a coordinated living room décor and happier feng shue.

3. He may have less time to spend with you than you would hope – He is going to be a very busy man since he has both a day job (to pay bills & get benefits) and his art business (which is ideally profitable, but usually not enough to live on. The starving artist stereotype has some basis in fact.) Since this is two jobs, this may require him to be working very long hours. Be prepared to have hobbies.

4. Rotten at Pictionary. This is counter-intuitive, but my sweet husband actually tries to draw things when he gives Pictionary clues. Complete shapes. I do stick figure equivalents, which are faster and generally communicate just as well. I creamed him in Pictionary at a recent neighborhood block party. Tyah-hah!

These are a sample of advantages and disadvantages of an artist spouse from my perspective. Good luck with yours!

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One of the important lessons I try to teach students is how to use negative shapes or negative spaces when they are working. Normally we think of the objects in an artwork as positive space. Negative space is the space around and in between the objects. Drawing negative shapes is a very useful tool because it helps you to think more about overall shapes and lines and which directions they are going in. They also help to get your mind off things like, “I’m drawing a tree, so I’ve got to make it look like a tree.” That’s an impediment to drawing, or it can be an impediment.

Nude, 1962

Richard Diebencorn

Note how the black negative shapes define the body of the nude woman.

Ocean Park No. 45, 1971

Richard Diebenkorn

Diebenkorn evolved into these rectilinear abstracts.

Two of my favorite artists who use negative shapes especially well in their artwork are Stanley Lewis and Richard Diebenkorn. Diebenkorn, during his life, made the transition from representational work to abstract work, and I feel that his emphasis on drawing and painting the shapes that he saw were an important element in that transition. Stanley Lewis once did a wonderful artwork of a sidewalk scene that I have tried to find since and have not succeeded. You got the feeling that Lewis was drawing while he was waiting for someone to come out of a store. But there was this beautiful shape of the sidewalk that took up about the bottom third of the drawing. It had a diagonal shadow that defined the upper edge of the sidewalk. The whole scene was so mundane that most people wouldn’t think of representing it at all. Most people think that the subject of an artwork needs to be something special or pretty, like a waterfall, or else something arranged in a particular way. But if you’re used to drawing, and if for example you are waiting for someone to come out of a store or something like that, and you start drawing whatever it is you see in front of you, many times it can turn out to be an exceptional work of art. And you could tell from looking at that sidewalk that Lewis saw something that was interesting to him and he wanted to represent it, and the result was a great artwork.

Porch, Rainy Day

Stanley Lewis

In the mid ‘70s when I was in school Betty Edwards came out with a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It was a very influential book and talked about negative shapes a lot. One artist that this discussion brings to mind is Giorgio Morandi. His paintings are mostly still lifes, mostly the same objects over and over, but when you look at them you can tell that he poured so much attention into shape and negative shape that the paintings are at the same time both representational still lifes and beautiful abstractions.

Natura Morta

Giogio Morandi

A good exercise for me is to take a pencil and shade in the shape of whatever it is I am drawing, rather than outlining first. Another good exercise (and I tell my students to do this) is when you’re drawing something, try to imagine that your pencil is out there in space touching whatever it is that you are drawing as you draw it. Drawing negative shapes is just a very helpful tool in drawing and painting.

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Stephania: As an artist, you go back and forth between abstract and representational art. Some of your Hurdy Gurdy paintings seem similar to the Haiku paintings. What is the difference between them?

Breck: They’re related. The main difference is the Haiku works were all done with a brush and acrylic or oil. On some of them I used oil stick or pencil, but not many. There’s an element to painting where your brush can only hold so much paint and then you have to go back to the palette and get more paint. So it’s hard to create a continuous line while you’re painting with brush. I like to draw – I’ve always liked to draw, and that aspect of brush has always been frustrating for me. I found that Liquitex Artist Paint Company makes acrylic markers, so I started using those in the Hurdy Gurdy paintings to incorporate continuous line more. As a result of this continuous line, there are elements of the Hurdy Gurdy paintings that were done quickly. Painting is a more deliberate process because of the mixing of the paint, the going back to the palette to get more paint on your brush. By its nature it’s a slower, more deliberate process. Now, there were parts of the Hurdy Gurdy paintings that were deliberate. That is, I would use the paint markers and draw some lines, usually very quickly, and after I did that, I would put the painting up on the wall where I could look at it. A few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months later I would add to it or change it. So there is that deliberate element to the Hurdy Gurdy paintings, plus in some of them I did use brush and paint.

Haiku Painting: Her Hand Dropped

Oil, acrylic, and pencil on canvas

Stephania: Why did you use the name Hurdy Gurdy for the series?

Breck: I began calling them Hurdy Gurdy paintings fairly early after I started making them. I

only realized later there was a subconscious prompt to calling them “hurdy gurdy” paintings because when I was doing the drawing with the acrylic markers I was “hurrying” – which sounds like ”hurdy”. What I was conscious of at the beginning was the hurdy gurdy man. He was a man who came and played a stringed instrument that produces sound by the turning of a crank (a hurdy gurdy). A related image I have is very early memories of a character in the Dagwood comic strip of a man who would be on the street playing an accordion with a little monkey on a leash holding out a cup. This has always struck me as an image in my mind of what an artist is or does in society.

Stephania: That seems pretty negative.

Breck: It does. But it is a person who is outside of society, or on the margins of society.

Stephania: And they’re begging?

Breck: No, I’ve never liked that negative connotation, frankly, but I do have the association. And I also associate that character in the Dagwood strip with the court jesters that royalty in history would keep in their courts. The role of the jester was to speak truth to power. In recent years some scholars have said that jesters didn’t perform this function, but you can look in literature and in history and find examples of jesters who did do so. Jesters (or fools, as they were sometimes called) could speak freely to those in power because they were outside of the social norms for that time. They were entertainers, true, but some were able to criticize powerful public figures and get away with it.

Jesters died out by sometime in the 18th century in most countries, but their tradition was carried on in France and Italy by travelling groups of jesters who performed a form of theater called the commedia dell’arte. Picasso referenced some of these figures when he did artworks of harlequins. Harlequins were comic characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte.

Hurdy Gurdy No. 2

Acrylic marker on paper

Stephania: So, you see part of the role of an artist as social commentary?

Breck: Part of the role, yes, but jesters were also entertainers. So social commentary would only be part of the role.

Stephania: Do you see yourself doing a lot of social commentary in your work?

Breck: No, I don’t see myself that way. To me, the image of the Dogwood character or the hurdy gurdy man is analogous to being on the edges or outside of society, and that is how I see artists, including myself. But back to your earlier question, titling the paintings “hurdy gurdy” came from two things, one conscious – the image of the court jester, and one subconscious – the word “hurry” being close to “hurdy.”

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