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Inessential Beauty: Writing and Reading Emma Dial

Samantha Peale's The American Painter Emma Dial

In the spring, my first novel came out, the story of a virtuoso painter who earns her living as a studio assistant, executing the works of a renowned artist. Reactions to the book have included a few surprises for me.

The American Painter Emma Dial has irritated some readers because the protagonist has affairs with two men, one of whom is married and her boss; the other is also a successful artist. Yet adults in the same line of work often become involved, not always in ways we can admire. Other readers couldn’t accept the idea that an artist would hire someone to paint his paintings for him, despite a tradition of studio assistants that is centuries old. These art aficionados prefer to see a work of art as a direct line from the artist’s hand, emotions and intellect.

But the most surprising reaction to the novel and its heroine has come in the form of letters and e-mails from men and women all over the country who found that reading about Emma Dial’s struggle to put aside her boss’s paintbrushes, as well as her other distractions, and find the beauty in playing the long odds and betting on herself, has inspired them to make their own art.

I’ve heard from painters and sculptors who have identified with Emma Dial, not about the wealth and mores of the New York art world, but the difficulties of building a life around art when other urgent and powerful forces beckon: earning a living, caring for family, being a social and responsible person.

Each letter-writer describes a similar scenario: years of training (art school or something less formal), followed by years of work including a smattering of acknowledgment and appreciation (an exhibition or commission or collaboration), and then the tailing off — a break to have children, a job that became demanding, growing older and further from an art practice, further from an art community. Practicality setting in. Fear settling in. The hiatus growing longer.

One painter in Michigan described her “rut” as including too much time worrying about “the news, the economy; too much NPR.”

Along comes Emma Dial, whose art-making rut is somewhat camouflaged because she paints every day and the pictures, exhibited under the name of her boss, are sold for high prices. She knows that she has something significant to make, that it’s imperative to harness her abilities and ideas to create something new and beautiful of her own. Dial’s interest and drive are rekindled by her proximity to great art, by the growing agony of not being responsible for any of it herself, and her awareness that the time to create is finite. Like the people who’ve written to me from California, Massachusetts, Missouri and Florida, Dial believes in herself but, like every artist, she must confront all the facets and guises of doubt that come with making something inessential, like paintings.

It’s a unique problem: the aspiration to contribute to an esteemed aspect of our culture, but one that is not easily or readily supported. Once you’re out of art school and squarely in your 30s, except in rare cases, you’re on your own. Even your mother expects you to get a real job. Real jobs are the opposite of making art because they serve practical purposes. A painting serves no practical purpose, it possesses no urgency; nobody lives or dies if it doesn’t get made. Yet there are the rare practitioners able to create two-dimensional images that another person might remember forever, perhaps being moved in a way that changes a point of view, a long-held belief, even the course of a life.

One of my interviewers said that the art world is ripe for satire and yet I “play it straight.” Yes. To me, the struggle to make something out of nothing, to create aesthetic beauty, is a noble effort. It’s a bold and generous way to live. When you accept the artist’s invitation into his or her world, you gain a perspective that you didn’t have before. It’s an opportunity to think, to reflect unhurried, perhaps in solitude. The artist’s invitation can be an inspiration and a gift, as these letters have been to me.

Samantha Peale is a writer in Los Angeles. Her novel The American Painter Emma Dial is available from W.W. Norton.


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