22 Guidelines for Developing Artistic Character




“It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. Who are we to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous… Actually, who are we not to be.”

(From Nelson Mandala’s Inaugural Speech - Marianne Williamson from ‘A Return to Love’)

Metis artist Dennis Lakusta has been referred to numerous times as a modern-day renaissance man - the Vancouver Island resident is currently involved in eleven artistic endeavors simultaneously, each a bona fide, full time career on its own. These include singer, songwriter, musician, composer, photographer, visual artist, producer, recording artist, author, inventor, comedian and educator. Over the past ten years Dennis has been invited to speak at many high schools and universities across Canada, presenting his unique science and history-based perspective on hot-button issues of the day, which include racism, ethnicity, multiculturalism, Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as environmental, human rights and social justice issues.

In total, Dennis has produced approximately thirty to forty hours of material for the high school and university circuit and it is only fitting that he should one day write a document specifically designed for art students. 20 Guidelines for Developing Artistic Character is an informal and interactive workshop that draws from the real-life experiences of one of this country’s most prolific and creative artists. This workshop is a down-to-earth, heart-to-heart examination of the ‘inner’ workings and inherent qualities that all human beings are born with and it is Dennis’ deep conviction that the simple awareness of these intrinsic tools (gifts) can provide some assistance and guidance to ‘budding’ artists and, in a broader sense, to ‘budding’ human beings.

Threading its way though these thought-provoking sessions is Dennis’ patented brand of earthy humor, original songs and a display of his amazing, out-of-this-world photography. These workshops are not dull and Dennis guarantees your money back if you don’t laugh.

It is essential that students become fully engaged in this discussion, therefore the maximum number of attendees is limited to 40 students. In rare cases, and if the students have been prompted before-hand on the necessity for a focused and dedicated environment, the maximum number can be increased upwards to 60 students. If students wish they can jot down cursory notes but this is not required and there are no tests or examinations at the conclusion of the session. Dennis feels that the workshop is most effective if the students do not get ‘caught up’ on any one specific aspect, but instead are given the latitude to grasp a holistic over-view of the material presented. The following is a brief summary of this material. Enjoy…

Pre-amble: What is Art?
Our Distorted, Materialistic Understanding of a ‘Work’ of Art

(A work of art is a manifestation, a facsimile, an outward expression of an inner need to say something… the inner need is often referred to as the ‘muse’. The essence of art is not what you see on the wall, read in a book or hear on the radio, but in the soul/mind/character of the artist.)

(Art is not a business, it does not have a ‘bottom line’ and cannot be produced within the repressive environment of corporate dead-lines and contractual agreements.)

(A work of art could be created and never ever seen -or purchased - by the general public and it would not take-away from the true ‘value’ of the work or its meaning to the artist.)

(We live in a culture that shells out a 100 million bucks for an original Van Gogh but totally rejected him when he was alive - how sad is that?)

(Art is not about the money - earning an income as an artist is fine and dandy but should be a secondary consideration - the dynamics and integrity of the art/artist relationship should always come first.)

“Folksingers have been known to make hundreds of dollars.”

(Utah Phillips, folksinger)

(Art can be a person’s creative approach or attitude towards what they do with what they have - my barber is an artist... the guy who fixes my car is an ‘artist’.)

(Art provides a medium for expressing one’s personal views and inter- relationships with the complex and fascinating world we live in.)

(A work of art does not necessarily have to be ‘pretty’, ‘nice’ or ‘safe’. Many great works of art throughout the ages have helped formed the vanguard of social, political and moral change… these works can often be controversial, rebellious and even dangerous, reflecting the personal views and ethos of the artist.)

(Remember - art is primarily the ways in which we live our lives, face our challenge and the means by which we develop character - we are the ‘works’ of art.)

Identifying the Intrinsic Tools (The Gifts) for Developing Artistic Character

(Humans are genetically ‘hardwired’ for excellence, brilliance and creativity - we are born with all this stuff inside of us.)

(‘Perseverance’, ‘determination’. ‘risk-taking’, ‘individualism’, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘self expression’, etc. - these are ‘inherent’ human qualities.)

(Society and ‘factory schooling’ tend to nurture mediocrity by placing limits on ‘free thinking’ and individualism - see: herd mentality. Some art colleges, like factory schools, are heavy on technique, but light on fostering ‘hidden’, inherent talent - students feel like cattle when they leave.)

(Art programs can teach methodologies but artistic genius requires only a ‘free’ and ‘unobstructed’ pathway of release - it’s pre-designed for flight.)

Cellular Memory and the Muse

(To the casual observer the ‘muse’ is often trivialized as a romantic, airy-fairy notion much along the lines of say, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. To the true artist the ‘muse’ is a real and discernible force originating in the solar plexus region of our ‘guts’ - the feeling center - and from which emanates the urge or innate drive to say or express something. Creative types often refer to the feeling as their ‘voice’.)

(Cellular memory refers to ancestral ethics and principles deeply encoded in human DNA… this cellular memory doesn’t just go back a few generations but in fact thousands and even tens of thousands of years into our ancient lineage.)

(No matter how much we try to domesticate cats and dogs - or humans - living organisms still retain the memory of their ‘wildness’. Stuff a cat full of ‘kibbles and bits’ and then release it in the back yard and watch what happens… the animal will immediately begin to hunt and, if possible, kill its prey… this is genetic atavism at work.)

(For human beings, cellular memory doesn’t only encompass hunting and survival traits but, more importantly, the memory of social, environmental and natural ethics/laws practiced by our distant hunter-gatherer forbearers. Another term for this memory of natural ethics - knowing the difference between right vs. wrong, ethical vs. unethical is ‘conscience’.)

(The communicative properties of deeply codified information stored in our cellular memory provides the urge and driving force that inspires the ‘muse’ to express itself. We may create a work of art that is representative of an event that occurred yesterday but the moral and ethical underpinnings of that work are anchored in sometimes ancient cellular memories.)

20 Guidelines for Developing Artistic Character

(Note: Each guideline is broken down into sub-sections for discussion - in brackets - each sub-section can take between 5-30 minutes, depending on the student’s interest and engagement in the subject).

  1. Befriending Silence & Solitude - The Ultimate Challenge of the Electronic Age
    • Human beings, and especially artists, need tons of this stuff - in the rarified atmosphere of silence and solitude we can begin to hear the ‘muse’ within our own soul and in addition, begin to ‘think’ for ourselves
    • Learning to be ‘alone’ but not ‘lonely’ - developing a close ‘friendship’ with one’s self
    • No need to become a hermit or recluse - strike a healthy balance between social interactions and periods of quiet reflection and solitude
    • Television, the net, cyber-space, consumerism and the ‘malls’ - mediocrity’s ‘weapons of mass distraction’ - warning: use with caution
    • The average 12 year old American youth has been exposed to 300,000 television commercials - this is what kids are up against these days
    • Stillness, presence of mind and introspection - essential tools for developing one’s ‘own’ voice, expression or artistic statement
  2. Dream Big!!!!
  3. “For those who have the vision to dream big dreams and the courage to work towards them, all the forces of the universe will conspire to assist in the realization of those dreams.”

    (Paulo Cuelho - Author of ‘The Alchemist’)

    • True art is the actualization of inner feelings and intimations - it is important to maintain a strong and clear vision of what you want to say through art
  4. Learning to Color Outside the Lines
    • Artistic genius often begins just beyond the limits of ‘what is known’ and what is comfortable
    • Art that endures through the ages is often produced by individuals who took chances, bent the rules and created outside the box
  5. Developing the Artist/Warrior Archetype
    • The greatest limitations encountered along the artist’s journey will not come from without, but from within
    • The artistic warrior’s fiercest adversary is often the person who stares back at him/her every morning in the mirror
    • Limitations like fear of failure, self-doubt and self-judgment are direct reflections of deeper psychoses existing in the human mind
    • Limitations may be influenced by outside circumstances but can only be overcome within one’s own self
  6. The Art of Living in the Moment
    “When my ship comes in, I’ll probably be at the train station.”

    (The guy who missed the boat)

    • Genius is a profound inspiration, a ‘bright idea’ that manifests itself only in the present moment - if our minds are way-off somewhere, pre-occupied with worries and concerns about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow, then we will miss the beauty of what is happening in the moment called now. This present moment is the only time-frame in which the ‘divine muse’ or ‘inner voice’ speak to us and we need to be ‘where the ship comes in’ or we’ll miss it.
    • A pure moment of inspiration can happen at any time, in any place - learn to capture it. Unless you have a photographic memory, get in the habit of writing down the ideas as they come to you - carry a notepad through your day, keep it by your bed-side at night. Once the idea is gone, it’s gone.
  8. Tapping Into, and Maintaining a Healthy Sense of Humor
    “What’s invisible and smells like worms? ..... Bird farts.”

    (Marjory LeBlanc, Dennis’ Mom)

    • Nothing can help human beings weather difficult times like the gift of laughter. Need proof - just ask Canada’s Aboriginal folks
  10. Balance, Balance, Balance
    • This word should be used at least twenty time during this workshop - an artist’s life is sometimes like walking a tight-rope without a safety net - keep your balance
    • The human mind tends to see things in ‘black and white’, in one extreme or the other - nature, on the other hand, has a lot of in-between, ‘gray area’ - go gray
  12. Turning Rejection into Fuel
    • Know this: you will face rejection - convert rejection into a powerful force that fuels your ‘inner’ determination to continue evolving your artistic ‘self’
    • Internalize rejection, feed off it, use it as a motivational tool - the words that best describe this inner process are ‘tenacity’ and ‘stick-to-it-ivness’
    • Rejection will come in all forms, from all directions - when the going gets tough, the tough get going - the weak go to Maui
    • There’s nothing that irritates mediocrity more than to see ‘one of it’s own’ reaching for excellence - see peer pressure
  14. Mastering Artistic Ego
    • A moderate helping of artistic ego can be beneficial - too much can result in F.H.E.O.F.N.F. Syndrome, i.e., fat-head-egg-on-face-no-friends"
    • Many brilliant artists throughout history were ego-maniacs - Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Lakusta, for example - extreme cases, these
    • No need to go to these extremes - but some ego is ok in affirming a healthy artistic identity, e.g. ‘I am’ blah, blah, blah or ‘I can’ blah, blah, blah - in moderation
  16. Get out of Town!!
    • Travel, re-locate, broaden your horizons, learn a foreign language, see the world - and don’t forget to take Plato, Rumi and H. D. Thoreau with you
    • On a small, practical scale, take the occasional ‘retreat’ from friends, family, and everything familiar - perhaps a day-trip to some place where nobody knows you
    • Prepare for some ‘hard ridin’, some ‘lean times’ - how you survive these is an ‘art form’ in itself - an integral part of the journey
    • Art is a reflection of one’s own life experiences - so, damn the torpedoes and get out there and ‘get a life’
  18. Breaking Free of the ‘Herd Mentality’
    “It is difficult to soar with eagles when you are surrounded by turkeys.”

    (Chief Dan George, I think)

    • Thinking for one’s self and developing your ‘own’ voice requires a transcendence of exterior influences which often translates as negative opinions, discouragement and peer pressure
    • Slap a couple coats of ‘Teflon’ paint on your psyche and stock up on ‘hear plugs’ - there will be days you‘ll need these
    • Developing a strong sense of ‘self-worth’, ‘self-reliance’ and ‘self-respect’ - tapping into one’s own ‘inner’ source of strength
  20. Becoming One’s Own ‘Person’
    • We come into this world with no distinctive character traits of our own… everything that constitutes ‘who we are’ is borrowed. Our looks, our hair color, our shape, our sexuality, our blood-type, etc. are all inherited through someone else’s genes… at the early stage of our lives all of our distinguishing features are, in a sense, nothing more than hand-me-downs
    • From early childhood on we are molded and shaped by the ideas and values of others. This indoctrination is achieved via the education system and the influence of our parents, families, peers, religions, the internet, television, movies and especially the advertising industry… through these various means we are conditioned to think as others would have us think and value what others would have us value
    • We, who live in fast-paced, modern, industrial societies, are bombarded daily with ideas coming from outside of ourselves… we inevitably become extensions of those ideas making it a daunting task to become our own ‘persons’ and to think for ourselves
    • By acknowledging that we are the product of a powerful and all-pervasive system of ideological conditioning and are thereby unwitting extensions of the values and ideas of others, budding artists (and budding human beings) can at least begin to affect necessary changes in their relationship to the exterior sources of their conditioning. This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to move to another planet but instead can be as simple as creating a ‘buffer zone’ between ourselves and the ‘system’ (see; Befriending Silence and Solitude)
  22. Small Talk and The Downside to Having Too Many ‘Friends’
    “Your friends will become your enemies… and your enemies, friends”

    (Rumi - 13th century Sufi Poet)

    • In the above quotation Rumi is speaking metaphorically about a person’s spiritual journey into his/her own essence, divinity or soul… the term ‘friends’ refers to the many worldly distractions (perhaps small talk and chatter) that can side-track a traveler from his/her intended path… thus, your friends become your enemies. His use of the word ‘enemies’ in the quote is equally prophetic and profound… the term symbolizes the exterior forces that reject, deride and belittle the traveler and his/her journey along the path to self-discovery. According to Rumi’s reasoning, enemies can play a supportive role in a person’s inner journey by adding fuel to the traveler’s determination to stay the course… thus your enemies become your friends
    • Whether one is on a spiritual journey or in the pursuit of artistic excellence, the above same rules apply
    • In the development of your own individual voice or in the pursuit of originality and uniqueness, exercise caution in the area of friendships. Tons of friends can oftentimes mean tons of conversation and that can further translate into ‘tons’ of small talk and chatter
    • The objective is to reduce, as much as possible, the number of distractions that prevent one’s inner ‘muse’ from expressing itself… in the relationship between an artist and his/her own muse, small talk and chatter can interfere with that artist’s inward trajectory
    • Develop and nurture a small circle of close friends and confidants (perhaps four or five) who you can rely on for stimulating and enlightening conversation about substantive issues and interests. The point isn’t to completely eliminate small talk altogether, but to reduce it to a workable minimum
    “Never have so many… spoken so much… but said so little.”

    (Scrawled into a wooden table-top at a local Starbucks)

  24. Mastering the Fine Art of ‘Minding Your Own Business’
  25. “Nothing in this world weighs less than a bystander’s critique”


    • Developing ‘single-mindedness’ in the pursuit of artistic excellence - develop an inner set of ‘blinders’
    • Learn to distinguish between influences that can help you grow and those that will hinder - there’s seems to be a heck of a lot more of the latter
  26. Use Caution with Chemical Stimulants (Alcohol, Drugs, Hallucinogens, Caffeine, etc.)
    “The down-side of the ‘live fast, love hard and die young’ mentality is that you live fast, love hard and die young.”

    (James Dean)

    • A brief over-view of the history of drugs and chemical stimulants in the creation of art and music
    • Sunshine, fresh air and exercise trigger the release of endorphins, the human body’s natural opiate - a safe way to get high
  28. Mastering the Art of Making Mistakes
    “The only people who never make mistakes are the people who never try anything”

    (Napolean Hill, Author)

    • Making mistakes and learning from them is our divine ‘birthright’ - a most precious gift in the art of living
    • Human beings are genetically designed for experimentation, taking chances and trying new things - mistakes come with the territory
    “When a problem comes to you, it comes bearing a gift”

    (Buddhist Proverb)

    • The problems and challenges we face and how we deal with them are a potential ‘gold mine’ for developing character
  30. At All Costs, Avoid a ‘Safe, Complacent’ Existence
    • Artistic genius often synonymous with ‘risk taking’, ‘living on the edge’ and ‘pushing the envelope’… creatively speaking
    • Society generally marginalizes and ‘poo poos’ individualists, risk-takers and free thinkers - don’t expect a lot of support
  32. Mastering the Fine Art of Idleness
    • Developing the technique of ‘drifting’ or ‘meandering’ through the magical and cerebral landscape of artistic ‘stimuli’
    • The best ideas often come when we are looking the other way - when we are too busy ‘being’ an artist
    • The artist’s ‘transmission’ has a ‘neutral’ positioned at the center of it’s many gears - learn to balance creative idleness with technical busy-ness
    • Remember, much of the joy of music is hidden in the silent spaces between the notes
  34. Developing a ‘Coyote’ Consciousness (a.k.a. the ‘trickster’)
    • For the Black Foot and the Plains Cree cultures, Coyote was more a verb than it was a noun
    • Coyote is the ultimate survivor - he’s flexible, adaptable, doesn’t adhere to his or anyone else’s expectations and always has a ‘plan B’
    • Like a young, struggling artist, Coyote does whatever it takes to succeed - even if that means taking a ‘regular’ job now and then to get by
    • Coyote is that element in the human psyche that never lets us get too full of ourselves - he knocks us down to size and, basically, keeps things real
    • Depending on the choices we make, Coyote can become an artist’s best friend or his/her worst nightmare - I know this from first-hand experience
    • Every time I get a little big-headed or ‘think’ I know what the heck I’m doing, Coyote comes up behind me and ‘bites me on the arse’
  36. Trust in Your Jeans (oops – I meant genes...)
    • The recent mapping of the human genome has provided conclusive evidence that many of the essential qualities we need to survive, thrive and excel were already ‘written’ into our genetic code at conception - buried deep within the nucleus of every living cell of every human being is the information necessary to fuel this all-too-brief but wildly colorful sojourn through, what Will Shakespeare referred to as, ‘our one hour upon the stage’. Trust your genes.)
    • Learn to ‘get out of the way’ - through the magical wonder of genes, the human body is pre-programmed to survive, thrive and excel at the art of living - we oftentimes create our own obstacles by thinking and worrying about way-too much stuff, thereby interrupting the natural ‘flow’ of creative brilliance and genius - we need to ‘get out of the way’.)
  37. Creative Genius is 10% Inspiration and 90% Perspiration  
    • Child prodigies and over-night sensations are far and few between - most of us have to work long and hard at developing a career in the arts
  38. Art is Not the Destination - It is the Journey
    “Once you have begun this journey, you have arrived”

    (Buddhist Proverb)

    • Humans come into this world, each equipped with a blank canvas, brushes and a bunch of raw colors - from early-on we begin to paint our life’s ‘work’ - some will create a masterpiece, others will leave their canvas blank - some will learn to paint-by-numbers or in boring monotones, while others will trip the light fantastic ala Chagall, Kahlo or Van Gogh - it’s always up to us. (Enjoy the ride!!!!!)

A comprehensive information package, including a wide variety of program summaries, teacher’s comments, photos, tour schedules and fee structures is available by contacting Dennis using our contact form.

Thank you, Dennis Lakusta