An Appreciation of Art and Labor

Eakins, Three Spirals, 1860
Eakins, Three Spirals, 1860

Much of our experience of work today is described as drudgery. This dissatisfaction about one’s work seems to be on every one’s lips. Why is this so? Should not work be a pleasure, something we are proud of, something that contains an integral part of our being? William Morris believed that “no human ingenuity can produce work without pleasure being a third party to the brain that conceived and the hand that fashioned it.” (William Morris, The Art of the People ,1882) Our labor should be a joy. “If a man has work to do which he despises, which does not satisfy his natural and rightful desire for pleasure, the greater part of his life must pass unhappily and without self-respect.” (Ibid) How does one put the creative investment back into our work, for it is only when we feel we are creating something- fashioning something that speaks of an inward impulse, do we feel a certain joy.

In Japan there is a special holiday in the spring where families gather to travel to the countryside to picnic and to paint and draw from nature. Time is spent on contemplating the beautiful and refreshing one’s eyes to the nature of all things. Appreciation is basic. Appreciation creates a greater sensitivity in the individual allowing him to feel connected to the world and to others. It becomes the main platform for activity. When we authentically appreciate something it calls us to action and leaves apathy behind. The power of creativity manifests a consciousness of beauty  and the connectedness of all things. It is powerful that Japan sees this as so significant that it is a special holiday.

Where has our own country failed us? We have so many arts programs, yet this has had little effect in regard to our work later in life. We are all still dissatisfied in our labor. Somehow these programs have failed, have not satisfied our basic need to understand what it is about creativity that enriches our life. Morris states, “So I will say that I believe there are two virtues much needed in modern life, if it is ever to become sweet; and I am quite sure that they are absolutely necessary in sowing the seed of an art which is to be made by the people and  for the people, as a happiness to the maker and the user. These virtues are honesty and simplicity of life.” (Ibid) Although our children spend much time exploring crafts, little time is spent on why we create at all.

In the nineteenth century children spent time in school learning how to draw. There is evidence of this in Thomas Eakins early work. In school, he was taught to see clearly and accurately the objects around him whether it was a gear, an apple or architecture. Through such training Eakins was clearly able to see his world  attaining a consciousness that can only be understood intuitively and expressed visually- an understanding that leads to a judgment of a different kind. This shaped him to be the artist he was later to become.

It is this creativity and sensitivity to the world and to our work itself, that needs to be taught.  And possibly, we just need to return to the teaching of basic drawing. Possibly, this is an honest approach that will grant us greater simplicity of life achieving that which Morris speaks of- where things are reduced to pure observation, allowing a moment of real appreciation, allowing us to pause from all of our restless activity and spend time in the contemplation of the incredible beauty before us and in that simplicity find real meaning.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

0 thoughts on “An Appreciation of Art and Labor”

  1. This has been so true for me Judith. Learning to draw and paint from nature has enabled me to appreciate beauty in the world around me in a way I never could before and opened my eyes to different kinds of beauty I did not see. Trying to draw or paint what one sees accurately is an active form of contemplation for me. Through the intense concentration on the subject being depicted that this kind of work requires nature in stages reveals herself to the artist. Before when someone would remark what a beautiful sun set or flower it was lost on me. Now I see colors I never saw before and marvelous rhythms. Learning to draw takes some practice. I hear many people say ” I can`t draw ” but I believe that with practice and a procedure that works almost anyone can become competent and its a process that forces us to slow down and really take in what we are looking at. Your blogs are always thought provoking and insightful Judith.

  2. When I was a young man, this was how people lived. We appreciated nature, observed the changings of the season with glee, and grew things of beauty. I was encouraged to write and draw not only at school but by my nuclear family as well, and these things were a bigger part of our lives sometimes than labor. Although we worked hard, it was not unusual to stop in the middle of plowing a field to watch the deer at play, or to visit nearby streams to cool our feet and watch the small fish at play.

    As I grew older, and entered the war, this all seemed to be left behind, although the memory of it is still strong to me. I often am troubled over living in the city, away from nature and something as simple as mowing the grass. I think that the budget cuts and elimination of many of the art and music programs we see today is a bigger loss than the three R’s. I often wonder how much of what I learned in school is useful to me today. I fought for these programs when my daughter was in secondary school, and found that the narrow-mindedness of a few administration officials was much more powerful than the needs of school grade children for art appreciation and music. How sad…



    1. Alden, Thank you for your comment. Even though there are very few arts programs that speak about the wonder of life and the appreciation that we all need to foster, it is important to express it to ourselves and to others. Even though we know with our mind that we need this type of appreciation of the world, we constantly need to bring it to our consciousness- we need to be reminded. It is only with this deep love of life that change can take place in our world and within each of us. Judith.

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