On Painting and Smoking

Pablo Picasso. Photo: allposters.com

I’m thinking a lot about cigarettes and how nice it would be to have one. As a long time smoker (and long-time quitter) living alone during this quarantine, I’m remembering how they used to be such good company, especially in the studio where cigarettes measured brush strokes, decisions and executions. Also triumphs and failures. While it’s not PC to say, I simply loved smoking. I suppose that’s why vices are vices: what is bad for us sometimes feels so good. There is a payoff somewhere, no matter how sinister that may turn out to be.

If you are a smoker, a cigarette is one of those things that is always what you want while going through practically anything. Angry? Have a cigarette to calm down. Stressed? Have a cigarette to sort through the problem. Sad? Have a cigarette to wallow in your wine and cry. Celebrating? Pop the cork and then share a cigarette with friends! Besides being an emotional crutch, smoking was so much a part of my creative tool box, that I mourned its necessary passing with true grief.

I began way too teenage-young stealing my sister’s Parliaments at fourteen and making myself power through coughs in the locked bathroom until I could smoothly get through a cigarette with the “cool” I was after. By the time I reached young adulthood, everyone I knew smoked.

Over the years, I engaged in activities and employment where smoking was tolerated and encouraged. The whole act of it appealed to me. I had even reached my epitome of said cool when at age 19, I and my friends discovered — made in the UK — Balkan Sobranie cigarettes along with the ultimate nicotine chic black and white tin they came in.

There was a camaraderie among smokers. We acknowledged our shared devotion and “shunned” addiction. Having a smoke together created a kinship only we understood.

Smoking and art were intertwined in my world of university critiques and smoke-filled gallery openings (back when you still could) and I imagined creative people treating cigarettes like tools. The perfect studio companion. It seems romantic and cliched now, but bios are filled with photos of artists working or contemplating with a cigarette, or hanging rakishly in the corner of a painter’s mouth like a prop, dangling an inch of ash. Smoking fits in perfectly with the reputation of poets and artists as “brooders”.

Jackson Pollack, circa 1950. Getty Images.

In art school days we’d all make sure to stock up before critiques. Hours of coffee and chain-smoking while discussing big ideas. I loved it. The smoking and the big ideas. It’s not hard to see how this grand association formed a habit.

It was the same in my own studio. An accoutrement of pause, a cigarette was the ultimate excuse for a break to assess what I’d been working on. It’s been said that smoking stimulates the mind and helps us think deeper and more clearly, (or so we think) so that when I eventually quit, one of the most difficult changes for me was to learn how to concentrate without a cigarette scissored between my fingers.

Painter and enthusiastic smoker, David Hockney, 82 has stated that he smokes for his “mental health”. I have no doubt that is true. It’s not a leap to understand that creative people fear their muse will take its leave along with the bad habit after the quitting. Science seems to bear some of this out as a withdrawal symptom that persists psychologically, long after the physical demand has abated.

It is ironic that for many, smoking conjures gritty barrooms, stained fingers, filthy ashtrays, swirling clouds of suffocating smoke and messy art studios, when in fact, smoking first became associated with the upper crust — hence the ‘glorification’ of smoking — long before its ill health associations were discovered.

Seventeenth century playwright and poet Moliere, believed smoking was “the passion of the well-bred”. Oscar Wilde proclaimed the cigarette to be “exquisite” and the “perfect type of pleasure”. The creative class and the intelligentsia adopted smoking like a sport and in later years, training in underground clubs featuring jazz and Beat poetry, smoking was de rigueur.

Poets at The Cedar Tavern, NYC (anon.)

Vintage photographs of writers and artists gathered together at legendary bars such as The Cedar Tavern or Max’s Kansas City have them huddled over in deep conversation, packs and ashtrays on the table. You just know there were important theories being developed in that atmosphere. Smoking played a big role, as it did in my own artistic development.

The habit no longer plagues me. It was a hard addiction to kick, but by far the hardest place to let go of cigarettes was in the studio. I’m pleased and surprised that I have maintained my abstinence for over ten years now. And while my lungs (and my pocket book) thank me on a daily basis, I am not a righteous reformer. I tolerate others’ smoke habits more than most and actually enjoy the smell of a lit cigarette from time to time. It reminds me of big ideas. We can change our habits but harder to change our (addictive) natures.

Mark Twain said that when he tried to quit smoking, he felt “too lonesome”. Creating is a solitary endeavor. It always has been. Perhaps that is one reason, so many artists take to smoking. It is a constant companion in that sometimes lonely and puzzling studio world. Hearing the sizzle of a lit match on the end of a cigarette was like a signal fire. A reminder of being less alone with my images and the task at hand. A smoke to help stoke the fire.

Photo: Author. The only known evidence of (much) younger smoking days, circa 1982.

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© 2020 by Linda Laino Words + Pictures.