Artists' Support Groups May Bolster Confidence

When she first moved to New York City from Alexandria, Virginia 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 focus 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, Massachusetts 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 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, Massachusetts, 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, Massachusetts, 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' 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.