Réal Fournier, Canadian ArtistMay 2012 Conversation with Réal Fournier (10am to 11:30) at the Webster Galleries (Inc.)
Today I had the pleasure of sitting down with an accomplished Canadian artist, Réal Fournier. We chatted at his studio, in and among all the paintings on top floor of the Webster Galleries (Inc.) in Calgary. I met Réal earlier this year when he did a painting for our family. Réal is one of a handful of artists in Canada who can earn a living through his art. Of course when you see his work, it is clear why people love it.
Through our short conversations in the past, I started to understand that his path was similar to nearly all accomplished professionals; challenges, persistence, faith, vision, and hard work. At this meeting, I wanted to discuss with Réal 'the process' of his development. Specifically, what are the events, people, circumstances, qualities, and sacrifices that were part of the journey to this point.
As Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book "Outliners", what were the 10,000 hours that helped create the artist that I spoke with today. I really want to share this insight because it provides us with great perspective, it gives us another nudge towards what we hear all the time, but deny to ourselves. That is, anyone who has accomplished anything is no different than you or I, they are not super-human, but in fact very human. It is their humanity that propels them, a persistence in light of fear, doubt, and adversity that we should all feel and put forth in our own lives. This strength is natural, we all have it, we just lose sight of it as we distract ourselves with all the fear and noise in our lives.
During our discussion, Réal started at the beginning, as an orphan in Quebec walking me through the twists and turns of his life. He describes his love of drawing, how it has brought him peace throughout his years and how he continued to draw through public school, in the military, university, as a varsity athlete, and as a schoolteacher. As he pursued his vision of becoming a full time artist, he felt as much fear as any of us and faced the same challenges we all do. As we finished chatting, the similarities between Réal's path and other's that have been described to me or that I have read about became so glaringly similar it seems like a scientific certainty to happiness; Vision, persistence, gratitude, strength, and some hard work now and again.
Hear are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Réal Fournier was an orphan from a young age. While at an orphanage in Quebec he had a friend who was a superb artist, he could draw anything directly from memory. Réal saw this, and although he could not draw as well as his friend, began drawing constantly. It was drawing that brought him peace throughout his childhood, a passion that continues to this day.
As a boy, Réal would ride his bike into the country to draw and paint landscapes. When he first started to describe his adventures it sounded like a great way to spend summer vacations but as he explained further, I realized that he did this all year round, even in the bitter cold.
Having a Vision for your life
Drawing at an early age did not just create a passion in Réal but also helped a vision emerge. He understood that this is what he wanted to do, creating art is what he was put here for. It is this Vision that he returned to throughout his life when he faced fear and adversity. On several occasions, Réal's dreams reinforced his Vision and provided clues that helped resolve doubts he was having. Réal would use these dreams as signposts along his life's path and act on them accordingly.
The Path is Never Straight
It would be nice to believe that Réal liked to draw as a boy, went to art school, graduated and became a successful artist. But that's not how it worked. Following a path takes you many places and in many directions. After spending his childhood and teenage years bouncing around different foster homes, Réal realized that he needed some money to support himself and pay for tuition, so he enlisted with the army. During his three years a field engineer, he continued to draw and paint. The army was just part of the path along the vision.
Persistence and Attention to his Vision
A common reason we do not achieve our goals is that we give up too easily. You can only achieve what you focus your attention on. This is what Réal continued to do. After he left the army, with money carefully saved, it was time to further his education. Ironically, Réal was denied entry into art classes while registering for college so he kept marching forward and followed other interests, sports and teaching. Throughout his life, Réal enjoyed playing sports and was particularly good at gymnastics and volleyball playing on his college volleyball team. As a result, he became a phys-ed teacher when he graduated as well as a committed coach for many school and community teams.
During a staff meeting on his first day teaching he turned to a colleague (whom he had never met) and mentioned to her that "I am only here for 10 years, then I'm gone" referring to the time limit he set for himself. After 10 years he wanted to quit teaching and devote himself full time to his art.
His colleague laughed and responded "Oh, that's what we all say. I've been here 25 years and I have another 10 more".
At the beginning of each school year Réal would inform his colleague of how many years are left, "only 9 more years...8 more years,..." Before long, his tenth year arrived. When it came time to update his colleague, he was terrified.
"It's actually here, 10 years are up", he thought.
But he did it, he made his annual announcement to his teaching friend. During his 10 years, Réal became a well-respected teacher and coach and his leaving was not going to be taken well. In addition to his teaching and coaching duties, Réal continued to draw and paint and had many local shows exhibiting his work. His dream never faded, even among the day-to-day chores of work and life.
That final year was difficult, a mixture of elation and terror. He would often say to himself "I can't wait to spend entire days drawing and painting" followed by "Am I crazy to leave a great job, security?" This is the kind of fear and doubt we all face regularly in our lives. In fact, it is this fear that keeps us chained to jobs that drain us of our vitality. But what most of us fail to do is make a change.
Réal was able to do this with strength, persistence, and a little help from a dream he had just three months before the school year was over. This dream showed him that he would regain the bliss he felt drawing as a child, he would be able to support his family doing so, and he would achieve the freedom that comes with pursuing your passion. This was the dream showed him that change was necessary, important, and fulfilling. The very next day he told his principal that he is resigning immediately. With heavy discussion, Réal agreed to stay the remainder of the year on the condition that he would not be allowed to return and his pension would be revoked. Réal did what Cortes did when he landed in Mexico in 1519, he burned the ships so there was no way back, just move forward.
If you want to fulfill your vision you need to have faith. Faith that, in the end, things will work out. This doesn't have to mean religious faith, just the strength to trust your instincts in light of all the noise, pessimism, and doubt around you. It is this faith that Réal possesses which brought him singing into the art world. But again, this did not happen as neatly as we all wish it would.
In fact, after leaving the security of his teaching job, Réal and his wife sold their house and would travel around Canada and the US drawing, painting, and trying to sell some work. This lasted for 7 years. Even after eventually running out of money, the shear joy he felt pursuing his dream and the optimism he held in his vision was enough to keep him going.
After 7 years of following his dream and reaching out to galleries and patrons, things came together. By applying what could best be described as the power of intention, he began sending his message out to the universe "come and see my beautiful work". Within 6 months the phone began to ring and within a few years, his work was in high demand. In total, it was almost ten years after Réal quit teaching that his paintings would start selling widely. Those were lean years, but very happy ones. Most of us would have given up.
The lean years fit very well with Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour hypothesis. He shows that people who excel in their vocation do so as a result of having at least 10,000 hours of experience at the point where they break out. This is the case with The Beatles, Tiger Woods, Steve Jobs, or just anyone at your work who people respect and admire. The 7 years that Réal spent developing and refining his craft were his 10,000 hours. As a result, when he got better and better and began to gain attention, he could respond to the demand from the experience he had built.
But don't just focus on the amount of painting experience he generated. It is very important to note the other skills Réal practiced, like perseverance, faith, focus, positivity, visualization,...These 'soft skills' are critical to emphasize since they are what separate good artists who quit and move on from those who eventually make a living doing it. What ever we put our attention on grows. That goes for optimism, gratitude, compassion, goal setting, in addition to artistic ability.
One theme Réal mentioned several times in our discussion is Freedom. This is not just freedom to do what we want when we want, but also freedom of the mind. We cannot do what we aspire to do if we are trapped, either by outside influences or our own fears and compulsions. Either way, we have a choice to transend our constraints and be free. Réal has always sought this freedom, and as you can imagine, creative acts such as art help deliver this freedom. But we don't all need to Become artists to enjoy this kind of freedom. We just need to refuse to listen to criticism, gossip, negativity, fear, and doubt. This is not easy, but it's not the hardest thing in the world either. Just practice.
Gratitude and Giving
Réal sites gratitude and graciousness as driving forces throughout his life. As a sports coach he gave freely of his time and on several occasions financially supported his teams when school and community funding was cut. He donates several of his paintings every year to support fund raisers across Canada.
I am always amazed how many times we hear stories like these and yet still wonder if the cycle of goodwill is real.
Réal's story is made up of many fascinating parts. By themselves these parts are interesting but it is the whole story that is truly inspiring. When we add up the vision, fear, strength, persistence, faith, practice, and gratitude it is hard to deny Réal has earned his current life. In fact, everybody earns their lives and we all deserve the best. That is what Réal has shown us and what I hope we can all reflect on.
You can see more of Réal's work on his website and links to galleries where his work is available.