Mending Walls – Riding Fences – & The Courage to Paint What You Feel

I remember the day that I first read Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. That was when I first realized that fences have at least two purposes: they can either keep critters inside a fenced area, or they might serve to keep critters outside a fenced area.

Ozarks Fence Row – Jacki Kellum Watercolor
Painted December 13, 2018

We have all driven past farms and have seen cattle or horses restrained within a fenced area. I would say that is a situation where critters are being held inside a designated area.


Jacki Kellum Garden Gate in New Jersey

But when I am at home, I love my privacy. For years, I have built privacy fences around my gardens. That is an example of fencing critters or other people out.

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Jacki Kellum Deck and Wall Garden in Harrison, Arksas

Either way, I believe it is safe to say that a fence is a line–it is a demarcation–it is a division. On one side, there are the in’s and on the other side, there are the out’s. In most cases, I don’t like rigidness. People who only see life as in versus out 0r radical versus conservative or black versus white make me nervous. I recognize that there are many gray areas in living, but that is not to say that I advocate a life of always riding the fence.

Fence Riders compromise on every issue. They seem to have no real opinions of their own. People without opinions are like piles of mashed potatoes.  Mashed-Potato-People have had the life boiled and whipped completely out of themselves, and they like to play it safe by tending to ride the fence on every issue.

Life is not lived on the fence. We must have opinions. In daring to have opinions and to voice those opinions, our lives can be differentiated from the faceless mob. The only way to be meaningful in life is to let your life mean–to let it actually stand–to let it stand out, and to let it stand for something that represents yourself, as an individual. I find this to be especially true in art.

My painting style is a little bit edgy. My painting strokes tend to be bold and free, and at least once in every painting day, I fight myself to prevent myself from over-painting my subject matter, When I paint the life out of my paintings, I do so not because I feel that my painting needs more work but because I feel that my viewers need more explanation. In other words, something within me wants to over-work my art because I want my work to be liked. That is a type of fear. That is a type of fence riding. It is a type of standing in the middle of the road, and fortunately, I realize that in painting, standing in the middle of the road yields boring, lifeless paintings.

Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides. – Margaret Thatcher

If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.– Margaret Thatcher

“You can please some of the people some of the time all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.” –  Abraham Lincoln

Herein lies the key: If you try to please all of the people all of the time with your painting, you yourself have elected to stand for nothing concrete. To stand for something is to get off the fence and to get out of the middle of the road and to dare to be yourself. In painting, this is how an artist’s style evolves.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my students said to me that she had been cruising the Internet, looking at one watercolor painting after another, and when she saw one random painting, she thought: “That looks like a Jacki Kellum painting.” After that, she clicked on the image, and it was my painting. It has taken years, but I have finally painted myself into a style that is recognizably my own, and that has happened because I have dared to get off the fence and to paint the way that I feel. I call this painting by intuition.

Everyone Can Be An Artist – A Tribute to My Adult Art Students – Use Your Intuition When You Draw & Paint – Don’t Allow Your Fear to Curtail Your Art

When it comes to painting, I recommend that the painter get off the fence and t0 paint exactly the way that he wants to paint and not to paint the way that he believes that people want him to paint.

I also recommend that painters get over their own demands of themselves that every painting be a success. This is especially true of painting in watercolor. My watercolors are loose and carefree and they often have a mind of their own. I like some of my own watercolor paintings better than others, but I have ceased treating painting as a precious activity that I should try to overly control. I simply paint and after I paint, I place the paintings on a shelf. Time will ultimately determine the fate of most of my paintings. I am fully aware that especially in watercolor, I am not the artist. I am simply the vessel through which my art pours.

When you paint, remember these things:  

  1. You are not painting to be liked by the web or by anyone else. You are painting to be liked by yourself–to learn to live with yourself.  
  2. Painting is a way to spend time with yourself–and to Hear Yourself Think.  After hearing yourself, paint what you are hearing. 
  3. Painting is a way of Learning to See.
  4. Look into your mind’s eyes and see the images that best exemplify your thoughts,
  5. Allow Your Intuition to Paint What You See–Through Yourself.
  6. Simply Allow the Rest of the Chips to Fall Where They May.

“I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.” – Gilbert Keith Chesterton

In closing, allow me to tell you a bit more about Robert Frost’s poem The Mending Wall. It is a poem about Fences, and the words suggest that the poet is in favor of fences — of walling others out. The words are repeated: Fences Make Good Neighbors,” but in context, we understand that Frost is saying those words rather satirically. The speaker’s neighbor believes that fences make good neighbors. But in the speaker’s opinion, walls are unnatural. The speaker observes that every year, the stone fences between him and his neighbor naturally fall apart–that the animals tear them down–and that they simply move out of position. In response, the speaker and his neighbor ceremoniously meet each spring–each on their own sides of the fence row–t0 replace the stones that have fallen from the wall.

Mending Wall

By Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
I wanted to share Frost’s poem Mending Wall for several reasons. First, Robert Frost is the first American poet that I truly loved. Second, I believe that Frost’s poem offers a final bit of advice, and that we, as artists who strive to be individual and to make fresh and “different” statements need to consider what he is saying. When we are painting, we need to stand firmly on our own sides of the fences, but I don’t believe that we always have to exclude ourselves from the rest of the populous. For several years, I taught art in schools, and I remember one teenager who was offensively different from everyone else. In fact, she used her uniqueness as a weapon. One day, I told this girl: “Yes, it is good to march to your own drummer, but once in a while you need to listen to other peoples’ drums, too. Otherwise, one day you may find that you have missed the entire parade.”
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The Garden Gate – Jacki Kellum Watercolor
In closing, enjoy your uniqueness as a painter and take a stand with your art. Paint things the way that you feel that they need to be painted, and when you paint, dare to stand on your own side of the fence. But don’t forget to build a gate along your fence row. That is where you might occasionally commune with the rest of the world.
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