When she first moved to New York City from Alexandria, Va. in 1997, Barbara Ratchko was "lonely and wanted to be part of a group of other artists, to talk about what's going on with our work." In the classified section of the magazine, Art Calendar, she found an advertisement from a woman in Manhattan who wanted to form that very type of group -- "she also felt the lack of people to talk to," Ratchko said. "You feel very isolated in New York, too." Within a matter of weeks, Ratchko became part of a group of fellow women artists, talking about their work and their experience as artists."
Support groups for artists like this one pop up in various forms all over the country. They differ from "crit" groups in that the individuals are not specifically looking for critiques of their artwork from other members, from associations since they are not necessarily pursuing common economic interests and from societies since they are not formed around the idea of staging an exhibition. Support focuses on the emotional aspect of being an artist.
"There are a lot of feelings of isolation, of not being connected to a community, and we talk about what that's like and how we deal with it," said Rivkah Lapidus, a Somerville, Mass. therapist who "facilitates discussions" of groups of artists and writers. Among the commonly brought-up issues in groups are mental blocks to starting, or completing, an artwork, anxiety about exhibition, making time to make art and seeing themselves as artists in a positive light. "With so many artists, their minds are hung up on suffering," said Linda Shanti McCabe, who leads support groups for artists in San Francisco. "We think that artists are starving or addicted or mentally ill, or it doesn't count."
A wide range of artists participate in one support group or another, but the majority are women between the ages of 30 and 60. ("Women in their 20s may be just out of art school and don't know how isolated they are," said Karen Frostig, a teacher at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, who has led several artist support groups.) Some groups may be only women by design, such as the Women Artists Support Group in Florence, Mass., whose founder, Rythea Lee Kaufman, noted a commonality of self-esteem issues for both women and artists. "Members let down their hair sooner, get genuine quicker, in a single-sex group than in one that's coed," she said. Other groups are often comprised exclusively or primarily of women by default, "because society stigmatizes men who ask for help," McCabe said. "Women are more likely to go to therapy or seek medical advice than men, and support groups follow that same pattern."
There are many ways in which an artists support group may be found. They may be listed on a bulletin board at an alternative or New Age book store, and some notices have been placed at food cooperatives, as well as at art supply stores. The alumni or career offices of art schools sometimes have information about them; on occasion, groups looking for new members advertise in an art magazine or they may be discovered through an Internet search engine. In certain instances, they come about spontaneously when one artist mentions the idea to another.
Within the support group itself a range of activities may take place. At the beginning of every meeting of the Women Artists Support Group, members engage in improvisational theater games, with the remainder of the meetings devoted to writing and sharing what they have written on the subject of isolation, creative blocks or other specific issues. The creativity support groups run by Shawn McGivern at the Counseling Center for Artists in Arlington, Mass., begins most sessions with visual relaxation exercises (based on Jungian principles), moving on to round-table discussions of members' "goals in their work and in their process of artmaking" and, occasionally, presentations by individual members of their work that are followed by "feedback loops, which allow the person to articulate and others to make meaning," rather than critiques, "which cause fear," she said. Rivkah Lapidus's groups, on the other hand, sit in a circle and talk about the artwork individual members are pursuing (or want to create) and the struggles they have in accomplishing their artistic goals.
At Artist's Anonymous, an organization with chapters around the United States (P.O. Box 230175, New York, NY 10023), Europe and Australia, there are weekly meetings following a regular pattern that is adapted for artists from the 12-step model of Alcoholics Anonymous and focusing on "gaining control of the creative process," According to Claudia, regional facilitator for the Boulder, Co. chapter (last names are not used, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous). For the first week of the month, members may bring in artwork in progress and receive feedback if they wish. On the second week, members discuss the 12 steps of the program (1. "We admitted we were powerless over our creativity -- that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him...). On subsequent weeks, individual members will describe what has been taking place in their lives creatively, or there may be a topic in which everyone may participate.
The largest network of artists support groups is The Artist's Way, which is also based on a 12-step creativity recovery program formulated by Julia Cameron in her book (The Artist's Way) and workshops. Week One is "Recovering a Sense of Safety." Week Two is "Recovering a Sense of Identity." Week Three is "Recovering a Sense of Power." Individual groups, which are not licensed or sanctioned by Julia Cameron but have come into existence in order to follow her program in a group setting, pursue the 12 steps closely or with a wide degree of latitude, depending upon who has organized the group or its members. For instance, The Christian Artist's Way takes the basic structure of Julia Cameron's program but identifies the source of safety, identity and power as God.
Support groups are usually defined as a number of people who congregate in order to talk about their experiences, assisting others as they describe their struggles with particular issues. However, in the electronic age, a growing number of groups -- especially those already familiar with basic tenets of The Artist's Way -- communicate through e-groups and website chat rooms, such as Artist's Way in central Florida and Seattle Artist's Way, and there is a central organization offering workshops and other information.
How a given support group is run depends on the concensus of its members or the person who is the designated leader. For some groups in a democratic art world, leadership can be problematic, while others find that a leader preserves focus. Artist's Way groups, which usually last 12 or 13 weeks (new groups form after that), have a person in charge, but the overall format is determined by the teachings of the Julia Cameron. There is no one leader of the Women Artists Support Group and different members direct the activities at each meeting, whereas Rivkah Lapidus, Karen Frostig and Linda Shanti McCabe all run their respective groups.
Because discussing emotional issues involving creativity (anxiety, creative blocks, fear, spontaneity) and related topics have brought everyone to the group, it is not uncommon that psychologists (or people who are quite interested in psychology) lead them. However, these psychologists are quick to claim that there role is not to run therapy sessions for artists. "When things come up, I'm there to offer psychotherapeutic frames," Lapidus said. "But I don't hit people over the head with over-psychologizing. I just want to lead the discussion."
Members of groups with specific leaders generally pay that leader a fee ($20 per one-and-a-half hour session for Rivkah Lapidus, $195 for an eight-week group for McCabe), while leaderless groups may all chip in to rent a meeting room or simply meet at someone's home. "Groups that are led are safer, more focused, get to the issues and translate the underlying issues more clearly than groups that are leaderless," said Karen Frostig. She noted that some members worry about revealing personal details -- that individuals may go off on tangents that are extraneous to the group and that hostility may arise within the group dynamic. "I try to monitor the safety of the group and keep people focused on why we all came together in the first place." McCabe noted that charging members is beneficial in itself, since it insures attendance and a positive approach to dealing with creativity issues. "If people don't pay, they don't show up," she said. "Or, they think, 'I didn't do anything important this week,' and they don't show up, but that's when they really should show up."