That Cult of Personality? Don’t Let it Ruin my Retreat

Boomer artists are tapping into the power of online communities, just like us.

Text Gracie Hadland
illustrations Mary Zet
Published 19 Sep 2023

A good-looking middle-aged man with silver hair, slightly curly, stands in front of a painting made of drips and big gestures of deep blue, overlapping with scribbles and squares of paint. The man holds a mug that has stains of paint around the handle. He talks to the camera in a tone that is serious and slow-paced, slightly rehearsed but not forced, breaking up his sentences with a carefully placed smile. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sell your art,” he assures us. “But you want to double down on your own unique vision.”

The man is Nicholas Wilton, and I’m watching a YouTube video he made called “So you want to sell your art?” With the calm humility of a preacher and the suave authority of a talk show host, he explains to the viewer that if they prioritize their own interests, hone their skills, and make art that feels authentic to them, then the sales will come. His discussion of art-making focuses on developing confidence and authority within one’s own practice, deferring specifics about navigating the art market or creating a collector base to a distant and ambiguous future. The video ends with Wilton thanking everyone for the comments about a recently deceased pet, followed by some platitudes about grief and the happiness a pet can provide.

Wilton is the founder of Art2Life, a company that offers painting workshops via Facebook Live and other platforms to help amateur painters improve their technique and style. Though participants can expect to learn how to mix colors or work with different brushes, the workshops are advertised as a form of self-improvement. The company’s website is cluttered with bolded, serifed inspirational phrases, suggesting that the Art2Life method can improve not only your artistic practice but your life. A horizontal flow chart on the website illustrates this process with colorful circles, outlining a journey that gets progressively deeper and more abstract: “Design —> Value —> Color —> Texture —> Risk —> Soul.”

I became curious about Wilton and the group in the summer of 2018, when my mother attended a week-long course hosted by the company at Esalen, a historic and iconic New Age retreat center in Big Sur. When I picked her up from the retreat center after the week’s end, she gushed about how heavenly it had been to wake up in her cabin and head down to the painting tent where Wilton and 15 other women started the day by painting and listening to music. She recalled the fun she and the women had had together and the encouragement Nick had given her about her work.

She planned to keep in touch with them and even introduced me to a couple of the women. Most were mothers or retired women who painted on Sundays in their guest bedrooms, though there were some who had never painted before. My mother had studied studio art at a prestigious liberal arts college in the 1980s. It had become a hobby by the time she had me and worked full-time. But, following her divorce, she’d taken up the practice more seriously, making it easy to understand the retreat as a kind of post-divorce, soul-searching activity.

By using social media and the internet to display and sell their work, artists from my mother’s generation were tapping into the power of online communities.

When she got home from the workshop, she joined the company’s private Facebook group, officially becoming part of the Art2Life “Academy,” for painters who have taken at least one physical or digital workshop. Members of the group share images of their work, chat about different techniques, and share tips about branding yourself and turning your painting practice into a small business. Academy members are encouraged to invite others to take classes, and they receive a small sum whenever someone signs up through their personalized affiliate link.

After she returned from the retreat, my mother began selling paintings out of her studio to neighbors, friends, and relatives. She hosted an open studio in our house, putting out paintings with price tags and serving wine and cheese on the deck. I was in charge of handling the transactions. She sold a number of paintings and was happy with the turnout.

I began thinking about how, by using social media and the internet to display and sell their work, artists from my mother’s generation were tapping into the power of online communities in much the same way that younger generations were, in a similar spirit of optimism and with a parallel understanding of these tools as a potential form of resistance to the elitism of the art world. “It felt hard figuring it all out alone,” a quote from Wilton on the website reads. “I didn’t see many people pulling this off and the artists that were successful wouldn’t share.”

The Art2Life community’s optimism about figuring it out “together” is complemented with a kind of cynicism about those with success, a sense that powerful elites have hoarded a golden ticket to success and wealth. Zora’s manifesto hits a similar note, criticizing an ambiguous “they” that seems to refer to some combination of Big Tech, the entertainment industry, and the establishment art world: “They have a monopoly on ownership, a monopoly on creativity and they have been robbing us of the value we create for as long as there’s been a creative industry.”

In an interview with Dazed, Zora co-founder Dee Goens speaks emphatically about the community aspects of crypto. “The superpower of crypto that no one talks about is community,” he says on the magazine’s podcast. “And now we’re seeing what crypto can do when that superpower is applied to art … like when communities can collectively organize on the internet and accrue capital.

Here, Web3 and something like Art2Life seem to be driving toward the same goal: the idea is making money together, for one another, in a democratic way. The community is the draw, because people want to connect with other people. And yet, more often than not, these communities offer little more than an illusion of connection, disembodied through platforms like Discord and Facebook Live. Together but alone.

In Noema, Lana Swartz addresses this contradiction in an essay about Bitcoin, writing that “the logic of crypto memes is also one of deferral … Everyone tells everyone else to keep the faith as they themselves sell off while the price is high. Eventually, it’s revealed that not everyone is actually hodling, and the price comes down.” In typical capitalist fashion, an individualistic mentality takes over, and it’s every man for himself.

Art2Life is a company about community, but it’s hard to detangle that community aspect from the cult of personality around its founder. Across its website, Wilton appears as the avatar and mascot of the program, an older white man with a following that consists mostly of women. At the end of the day, Wilton is selling a product, using himself and his charisma as a selling point. And he’s there to help his followers sell a product too, a product that he continually reminds them is a natural extension of the self.

Art2Life’s public Facebook group, a general forum where people can post their paintings and solicit advice, has over 50,000 members. On a day in August, a poster shares a painting she made called Girls Having in the Sun, which depicts four women on a beach: “Should I do it vertically or horizontally?” she asks. As the comments fill up with effusive praise and thumbs-up emojis, she is gracious and engaging, in a way that suggests she has read a thing or two about how to build a following online: “Thank you, Nancy.” “Appreciate the feedback!”

The future, whether you’re talking about a new economic market or your art career, isn’t something that is ever guaranteed, which means that perhaps a better way of thinking about it is as a product being sold.

The feed is also filled with countless videos, posted by the administrators, with clickbait titles like “WHAT MARY DISCOVERED THAT SHE NEVER HAD BEFORE,” or “FEAR KNOCKED AT DANYELLE’S DOOR. RISK ANSWERED.” In one of them, “Now it is time to Be You,” a middle-aged woman from Ireland talks about her struggles to find her “path.” She says that she’d always been interested in art, but struggled with her self-worth and lacked the confidence to get her there. She speaks to the camera about her failed marriages and troubled relationships, about men who dismissed or even destroyed the art she made. It’s a triumphant story that ends with her activating a dormant desire to make art and be in charge of her own life.

In the world of Art2Life, awakening your inner artist and reaching your full potential always seems to involve a process of breaking with the past, of moving forward from the self that kept you from achieving these things. Many of the most popular self-help programs and books from the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s—The Artist’s Way (1992), Eat Pray Love (2006), and Daring Greatly (2012)—were oriented around similar ideas. And they frequently targeted, or ended up being embraced by, middle-aged women and divorced mothers, a demographic that was quietly struggling with self-worth.

As I fell down the Art2Life rabbit hole, I began thinking about the way Web3 has drawn people from so many different backgrounds to start buying art, making art, or investing in cryptocurrency. The goal of achieving autonomy over one’s work, or over one’s financial destiny, is the galvanizing idea behind both of these movements. And both hinge on the belief that technology will free the individual from her attachment to larger institutions or systems, or at least allow them to take back a degree of control. As Zora’s manifesto puts it: “The current system is fucked and we want out … We want to win together.”

But who is this royal “we,” and how strong is it to begin with? In the world of Art2Life, women gather at a retreat center to support one another and build a community. But the organization is still helmed by CEO Nicholas Wilton, the person who has the most to gain, both financially and in terms of his own public profile, from the selling of these workshops. Crypto bros will rally behind an exciting new coin or NFT collection, only to splinter off based on their changing affinities and goals. Members of both communities ascribe to a kind of faith in the future—the idea of investing in a better self or world—while taking on a degree of personal risk that is encouraged by the collective. There’s a group buy-in, made by individuals whose investment may or may not be earned back.

The future, whether you’re talking about a new economic market or your art career, isn’t something that is ever guaranteed, which means that perhaps a better way of thinking about it is as a product being sold. Or perhaps the product is a belief in the future. If the investment goes well, we’ll be affirmed in our belief in the world, in our communities, in ourselves. If it goes poorly, we’ll feel bereft and alone, looking for the next bet that can restore our faith again.

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