Expressionist Painter Joan Mitchell—strong and resilient against the odds

“Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead.”

New York art dealer to Joan Mitchell in the 1950s

How come some people burn with the light of optimism, while others are easily defeated? Why do some people bounce back from repeated frustrations and others are crushed? These are questions that a group of 3 authors explore in their book on increasing personal strength and resilience.

In their opinion, there are five factors that secure personal resilience. At the top of the list and the most important is active optimism. This is more than a belief. It is the sure sense that you have the power! You learn from your mistakes and use the knowledge of these experiences to influence and shape your world. This is the kind of positive conviction and confidence in yourself that moves you forward again and again.

The American artist Joan Mitchell painted against all the odds and the trends. Early on her success was a total surprise to the established art society who focused at that time on the masculine energy of Jackson Pollock and his gang of New York city 10th Street artist clan. Her early success was striking at a time when very few women artists were recognized as serious painters. Joan was considered tough, disciplined, courageous, dazzling, and went up against the masculine art world at its most entrenched, made her way in it, and disproved the notion that women could not paint or contribute to the advancement of the genre.

Despite the constant struggles, she followed her instinctive sense of artistic purpose, this inner creative calling and actively advanced her career. Even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when others considered her abstract expressionism to be out-of-touch and old fashioned, she persisted and continued to develop and deepen her own artistic language which was inspired by landscape, nature, and poetry. Her artistic intent was not to create a recognizable image, but to convey emotions. We might call her work and life as colored by defiant optimism.

Joan Mitchell was a person who some would call “mentally tough”, this filled her with the light of certainty. She set her goals, was willing to put in considerable effort to reach those goals and she felt certain she would win in the face of adversity. This is an example of taking on responsibility for creating the life that she wanted and loved. She pushed forward on many levels and continued to probe and benefit from a kind of creative life-long learning. Joan was animated by a growth mindset and positive self-talk which is revealed itself in a “Yes, I can” attitude!

The group of authors, George Everly Jr., Douglas Strouse, and former Navy SEAL Dennis McCormack explore in their book Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed just this set of criteria that is necessary to engage and live this kind of active optimism and resilience.

Besides active optimism which the authors see as much more than a belief, it is, in their opinion, a mandate for change. This optimism is the inclination to move forward when others are retreating. This mandate can be so strong that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They name these other important factors:

  1. Decisive Action. Optimism is not enough. You must be decisive and act in order to rebound. As Clare Boothe Luce observed, “Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount.” You need courage to make difficult decisions.

  2. Moral Compass. Use honor, integrity and ethical behavior to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances.

  3. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. Be persistent! As comedian Jonathan Winters once said, “If your ship doesn’t come, swim out to meet it!” Be persistent, but still know when to quit.

  4. Interpersonal Support. Get the love! Feel acknowledged! Go after your dreams and goals with a partner who really makes you push yourself. Even better, find someone who has already accomplished what you are striving for and have them coach you.

  5. Self-control and discipline

  6. Calm, innovative, non-dogmatic thinking. I’d add creative thinking.

Resilience, as you’d expect, has a biological as well as psychological background. Before you can develop resilience and active optimism, however, you need to know yourself. More on that another time ☺


Karla Schlaepfer is excited to talk with you about Joan Mitchell at the next ArtTalk in Museum Ludwig on January 7th at 10 am. Her blog shares tips and short articles on life and work through the lens of creativity, transformative technology and mindful innovation. She lives in Cologne and works in-company and privately as a creativity consultant, design thinking facilitator and systemic coach for life change.

“Know yourself. Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”

Ann Landers