Category Archives: myths about artists

DIFFERENT KINDS OF SMART

A reader left a comment on a post I wrote years ago, refuting my belief that artists come in all shapes and sizes, and that innate talent alone does not determine who is and who isn’t an artist. ( They pointed to an interesting study showing that artist brains are indeed different than normal brains. (Aha! We ARE crazy!)

I liked the article. The findings did not change my mind, especially since the study focused solely on drawing. I drew a lot as a child, so many people called me an artist. But I never really progressed past drawing horses, mice and rabbits. I took a few figure drawing classes in college. I enjoyed them–I like drawing bodies!–but didn’t pursue drawing after that. I still don’t really care for it.

I have no idea if I have that “innate” talent for drawing or not. I don’t know if I have the “artist’s brain” the study described, or not. And I don’t care. I rarely draw out my designs before making them. I work them until they feel “right”.

But I can see the headlines now: “Luann Udell Finally Unmasked! NOT A REAL ARTIST after all!!!”

Drawing is an admirable skill. But what about a beautiful singing voice? What about a honed sense of rhythm, timing and hand coordination that’s so critical to drumming? What about making a beautiful pot? Or weaving/quilting/wood working and other fine crafts?

Why do we value one form of art-making above all others, and make that the definition of an artist?

And why do we value one kind of intelligence–I.Q.–above all others?

So here’s my meandering thought trail….

1) When I was in middle school, there was a bright, well-liked young man. He didn’t get good grades, so I assumed he wasn’t a good student. After getting a particularly bad grade for a project he’d poured his heart into, he ran out of the classroom. I hate to admit this, but we laughed.

And the teacher–Mrs. Nancy Nash, one of my favorite teachers–scolded us. She said, “You think he’s not smart. But he is! He’s just not good at reading. Haven’t you ever realized how well he does in class discussions?! You should be ashamed!” She went out after him, and eventually they both returned to class.

And we sat, chastened. And thinking.

This was in the early ’60’s. No one knew about dyslexia, or learning disabilities. If you didn’t get good grades, you weren’t smart. Period.

But now there was a new thought in my head….. Different kinds of smart.

2) Fast forward to freshmen year in college. No, I wasn’t in art school. I couldn’t get in! But another woman across the hall from me was. Curious what a “real” artist looked like, I asked her about her major.

She was taking the prerequisite drawing classes, the ones every art student had to take. She hated them. She sucked big-time at drawing. (I know–I saw her work!) So why was she in art school?

“I don’t want to draw! I want to make stuff! Things that do things!” she exclaimed. Like what?, I asked. She pulled out some of the items she’d made in her high school art classes. We sat on the floor while she showed me all her little mechanical contraptions.

And one of them was a traveling salt cellar.

I don’t know why it stuck with me lo these many years. It was a silver salt holder, with a tiny handmade silver spoon, mounted on a sort of cart-like contraption with little wheels. You pushed it across the table.

It was adorable. Badly made, but adorable. The wheels were uneven and not mounted properly on their axles, so the salt shaker sort of lurched across the floor.

“I need to know how to make good wheels that really work. I need to know mechanics or something. I don’t know! But I can’t do anything else til I take all my prerequisites!” Which at the time was about two to four semesters of…..drawing.

I know there is discipline to drawing. I know it is a deep way of really “seeing”. I know for many people, drawing is a way of working out design elements, structural elements, etc.

But this woman had taught herself casting and soldering and metal working. Figure drawing didn’t figure into her game plan. (Sorry for the pun.) Her “smarts” were in a different area, one that, at the time, was not acknowledged or respected in regular “art school”.

3) Now let’s really fast forward to the mid-90’s. I’m a Tae Kwon Do student with a wonderful teacher who later became a good friend. He was patient, accepting, emotionally-evolved and funny. As I got to know him better, I learned about his school days.

Allyn never graduated from high school (though he did complete his GED). He had severe dyslexia. Like my fellow student in the ’60’s, his not-understood and not-diagnosed condition meant he didn’t do well in school. He did so poorly, in fact, that when he was in middle school, he was given a “permanent hall pass.” What does that mean, I asked him one day. It meant that he was considered stupid. He was so “uneducable” that he was allowed to roam the halls during regular classes, as long as he stayed out of trouble. Everyone pretty much assumed (and some still assume) he’s just not very bright.

Allyn also happens to be one of the most perceptive, insightful, emotionally-evolved, and intelligent people I know. He listens deeply, and observes carefully.

Whenever I encounter a puzzling social situation (and I encounter many, because that’s who I am), I call Allyn. And within a few minutes, he can tell me exactly what’s going on. In one sentence. I kid you not, he understands the motivation, the behavior and the dynamics and can summarize it quickly and easily.

I mentioned this to a friend who was taking graduate coursework in stuff like organizational dynamics. What she told me knocked my socks off.

Turns out that many people with so-called “learning disabilities”, especially dyslexia, cannot easily process information through reading. But their brain, like anyone else’s brain, is still trying really, really hard to learn, to make sense of their physical, social and emotional environment.

So these non-readers pay very close attention to everything that’s going on. They learn to see, to observe, and assess. They become highly skilled in areas that don’t involve reading and writing.

Unfortunately, since so much of our educational system is based on reading and writing, they rarely make it to college. They aren’t considered “smart” by most of the markers we consider for intelligence.

A different kind of smart……

I think it’s getting better. We “normal people” are learning.

We’re learning that there are indeed many kinds of “smart”. There are many kinds of “talented”. There are all kinds of “artistic”. There are a jillion kinds of “beautiful”. There are a cajillion ways of being kind, and accepting, and tolerant. (Cajillion is a whole lot more than a jillion.)

I like to think that if we spent less time drawing lines around who is and who isn’t an artist, who is and who isn’t talented, who is and who isn’t creative, who is and who isn’t smart/pretty/famous/whatever…..maybe we could simply be astonished by the incredible diversity around us, the remarkable creative range and emotional depth and loving heights the human spirit is capable of.

Maybe we could just let people enjoy the making of whatever makes their heart sing, and give them permission to do so.

And in the end, it’s not so much what’s in our brain, as what we do with it.

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Filed under art, myths about artists

ODE TO JON (Who Will Never Be Mozart) (Thank Goodness!)

We are creative because that’s part of being human. I believe the greatest harm, the greatest loss, is when we deny the world–and ourselves–the beauty and power of our individual creativity.

I got a comment on a blog post I wrote awhile back. You can read the original article here: TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Prevent You From Becoming a SUCCESSFUL Artist…”

The reader wrote a scathing argument against my assertion, noting the usual suspects (Mozart, et al.) “Artists ARE born! Talent IS innate!”, the writer stated.

I thought long and hard about my decision. I love to hear your thoughts, your insights, your experiences, and I especially love to hear that what I’ve said has resonated with you or helped your on your own artistic journey. And I don’t mind being corrected from time to time (unless I suspect your motives.)

But finally I deleted the comment.

Let me tell you why.

First, I don’t write this blog to argue with people.

This isn’t a forum. This isn’t a venue for debate.

These are my opinions, my thoughts. My blog is a vehicle to get those thoughts out of my head and share them with others.

This blog is part of my creative process.

I totally get that you may violently disagree with me. If that’s the case, go start your own blog. Seriously. I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Just not here in my living room.

Second, the reader totally missed the point of my article.

Of course talent is innate. Of course Mozart had tons of talent. Of course most of us aren’t Mozart, and no amount of practice will ever make it so. Heck, I can barely carry a tune anymore, let alone play an instrument.

My point was, that many, many people don’t recognize the talent they have.
They believe they’re not “good enough” to use their talent.
They believe that because they’re not good enough, there’s no use putting their work out into the world.

Look, creativity IS innate. Everybody is good at something. Even a sociopath is very, very good at lying.

Creativity is a human trait. It’s just that throughout the ages, the definition of creativity–the lines we draw around it, the forms we deem acceptable–have narrowed, and broadened, and narrowed again.

We don’t just use our hands, or our voices, to grub for food, or to yell when a predator appears on the horizon. And we don’t just use our hands to draw things. We use our hands to make things, build things, grow things, cook things (yummy chocolate things!). We fix things, heal living things, comfort living creatures. We sing, we write stories, and poetry (and blogs!) We work for peace, or freedom, or equality. We work for understanding, and acceptance, and recognition.

Even destruction can create a space for something new to appear. (I am not advocating destruction, I’m just sayin’ that Shiva’s dance does both.)

When we create, we are all that, and more.

I believe the greatest harm, the greatest loss, is when we deny the world–and ourselves–the beauty and power of our creativity.

We get way too judgy about creativity. (I made that word up. See how creative I am?)

We care waaay too much what the world will think of our efforts. We care way too much about what WE think of our efforts.

Quick story: My husband’s mother was a talented pianist as a young woman, with dreams of performing in public. But at some point, she realized she would never be a world-class pianist.

She never played the piano again.

Another quick story: My husband has been “noodling” on a guitar for as long as I’ve known him, thirty-five years. The last few years, he’s gotten more dedicated about it. He’s reaching out to play with others. He’s found new online methods of learning. He’s taking lessons. He’s considered performing in public venues, on a very modest scale. He reads books about music, about musicians, about the effect of music on the brain. He watches documentaries about music. Lord love him, he tries to drag me to every live music performance in the area.

Will he ever be famous for his guitar playing? Probably not.
Will he ever make money doing it? Nah.
Is he good? I think so, especially when he actually plays instead of practices. (I’m one of those people who winces at every sour note.)

So why does he do it?

Because he likes it. Actually…he loves.

And it makes him happy.

Innate talent?
Mozart?
True vocation?

Yes, maybe.
No.
I dunno.
Who cares?

When I look at him, deep in his practice, struggling to master a new tune or a new technique, I know he is also deep within himself. Truly himself. In the best way possible.

And that, my argumentative friend, is all that truly matters.

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Filed under art, creativity, myths about artists

MAKING ART WITHOUT A LICENSE

I subscribe to a great newsletter by Canadian artist Robert Genn called Painters Keys. Sometimes it’s about technique, sometimes it’s about marketing, sometimes it’s about the journey of making art. It’s always an interesting read.

Today’s letter about artist credentials reminded me about an article in my series, specifically, the one asking DO YOU HAVE TO GO TO ART SCHOOL TO BE A REAL ARTIST?

It came at a good time. I’m feeling self-judge-y and unfocused today. (That’s what happens when I clean my studio.)

But I know when a surface is cleared and I sit down to work, the muse will return.

No license needed to practice art.

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AT THE FAIR: Muscle Memory

Sometimes we could–should–listen to our hearts instead of our bodies.

It’s been a long, wonderful week at this year’s League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair up at Mt. Sunapee Resort in Newbury, NH. Busy! So busy the time seems to fly by. Lots of new faces, and familiar ones, tales of happiness and sorrow.

My heart is full when I come home, but my body is racked with pain.

Last night, I had a session with a chiropractor, who, like me, has a martial arts background. I mentioned I was thinking of returning to my practice. The hurdle is this: Usually I return to classes to get in shape. As I age, I should really be in better shape before I attempt to do that.

He said it was a wise choice. I’ve had a lot of injuries and another surgery in the last year, and things–alignment, balance–are out of whack. “If you return now, without letting your body heal, your muscle memory will kick in. Your body will try to do the things you used to do. But you can’t do them right now, and you’ll injure yourself trying.”

Aha! That’s why some of my ‘returns’ have been so short-lived!

That phrase–muscle memory–stuck in my mind, and helped me understand where some of my discomfort at the Fair comes from.

Most people think we artists and craftspeople are like a big family. Well, that’s more true than you know. When I first joined the ranks, I felt like I’d found my tribe, my true heart’s home. It was a shock to realize it really is like a big family. (I have personal experience–I’m the oldest of seven children.)

Some of us don’t speak to each other. Others come to us for support and comfort and inspiration constantly. Professional jealousy rears its ugly head constantly. And there are others who cheer us on with every step.

Set-up is the hardest. One minute you’re offering someone your precious stool, and the next you’re snarling at them to move their junk out of your booth space.

Sometimes too much has passed between you. Then there is no opportunity missed for a caustic remark to be made, even as you win an award. Some cannot even bring themselves to greet you as you pass on your many trips to the bathroom or Fair office (or the bar at the top of the hill.)

For these times, there is muscle memory: Your body, remembering the acts of unkindness, shrinks when you see them, and you cannot bring yourself to even pretend to be polite anymore.

But there is a way out.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, 99% of the time, someone who is causing you anguish, is carrying their own tight anguish inside their heart. In short–it’s not about you. It’s about THEM. You happen to be a convenient target.

And sometimes it’s us. We’ve done somebody wrong, and it’s time to admit that. Take responsibility for it, and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. And if you can’t, I understand.”

Then try to live with the fact that we, too, are imperfect people.

I have done things I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. And sweet Jesus, I received it. I have others who have asked forgiveness from me, and I am overwhelmed by their humility–and courage. It takes real courage to apologize. I know. I’ve been there.

In the end, we have to trust the work of our hands, and the work of our hearts. We live in this tribe, in many tribes, actually. We live in this world.

I like to think if we could trust the muscle memory of of hearts and spirits, a little more than the muscle memory of our bodies, just a little….

Then maybe someday we could even have peace in the Middle East.

Okay, that last line is a family joke, and perhaps not even a very good one. (“I hat you” is also a long-standing family joke.)

But that’s what families are for–a place where we can work out our little dramas and big heartaches, and ultimately find a place where we can stand and say, “You’re a poop, but I love you, and yes, I forgive you. Seventy times seven.”

And cross our hearts and hope for the best.

May you be able to forgive, seventy times seven. And may you also be forgiven, at least ten times as much.

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Filed under art, courage, craft, finding your tribe, jealousy, life lessons, LNHC Craftsmen's Fair, martial arts, mental attitude, myths about artists, professional jealousy

LIFE LESSONS: What Is the BEST Lesson You Can Learn Today?

Learn to look twice to get at the ‘better lesson’ from life’s setbacks.

My nephew Michael was a tiny hellion when he was young. He wasn’t mean, or malicious, or difficult. He was just….busy. We have many family stories about his escapades. One of my favorites is when my sister left him in the car briefly while dropping something off at my parents’ house. When she came out, he was in the driver’s seat with his hands on the wheel. Before she could say a word, he jerked his head and thumb to indicate the back seat and said firmly, “Get in back. I’m driving!” (He was four.)

Here’s another favorite story about Michael. He visited my folks, and all day he got into all kinds of mischief, including getting into my mother’s purse, looking for gum. Instead, he found a medicine bottle and ate some of her high blood pressure pills.

He was rushed to the emergency room, where his stomach was pumped and he was forced to drink lots of water to induce him to vomit. We were so relieved when he was declared out of danger. As he lay bleary-eyed in his little hospital bed, my sister asked him sternly, “And what did you learn from today’s little adventure?” Whereupon Michael snuffled quietly and croaked sadly, “Not to touch Gramma’s new refrigerator.”

Earlier that day, Michael had been fooling around with the features on my folks’ brand new refrigerator, and Grandma had told him to stop. Not to touch her new fridge anymore. (Gotta admit, that ice-and-water dispenser is pretty appealing.)

Years later, we still laugh at that story. But it’s sad, too.

Michael connected his emergency room ordeal as punishment for not listening to Grandma. He thought that was the lesson he had to learn.

(It’s sad that a loved and cherished child would think a stomach pumping was an appropriate punishment for touching a kitchen appliance, of course, too…. Such is the trustful nature of children. Makes you think.)

I refer to many of my life setbacks as ‘life learning experiences.’ Sometimes finding the knowledge and experienced gained helps offset the pain of falling, failing and flailing. This looking for something good and useful out of the bad things that happen…. It’s a useful skill. It’s part of being a human being and learning how to make our way in the world.

But sometimes, like a child, like Michael, we look at the easy lesson, the most obvious lesson. Not necessarily the deeper, more important lesson.

Sometimes the obvious lesson is not the best lesson.

Learning to choose your better lesson is a way to unchain yourself from your sad old story. Your sad old story about not being good enough, worthy enough, talented enough to achieve your heart’s desire.

Years ago I was part of a small artist group. We met monthly, to support each others’ efforts to fulfill our dreams as artists.

One person, a budding book illustrator, had singled out one lone book publisher as her ‘dream work place.” She submitted her portfolio to them and waited anxiously for their reply.

When she received a rejection letter, she tried to put a good face on it. “I’ll never get hired by that company. I guess I need to learn how to accept failure,” she said dejectedly. “I’d like help from the group on how to do that.”

We managed to convince her that piling all her dream eggs in one tiny basket was too limiting. We encouraged her to explore other possibilities, too. One person offered to put her in touch with a working illustrator who could offer her feedback on her portfolio. Another suggested other small publishing houses she could approach, to gain more work experience. But the last person, reading the letter carefully, opened an even bigger door.

She had experience in the corporate world, and read the letter differently. “I don’t think your portfolio was even seen by the appropriate person,” she said firmly. “I suggest you call the company and ask where to send it. Get a name, not a department. Make an appointment to follow up. You haven’t ‘failed’—you sent it to the wrong place. This line here actually sounds like they’d like you to resubmit it with more support materials, and more examples that match their current needs.”

Our friend, despondent and self-defeating, had looked no further than her own limited vision. Seeing the window barred, she failed to see the door standing wide, wide open.

When I trust a person, and they end up shafting me, it would be easy to say, “Well, that’s what I get for putting my trust in such a person.” But what I prefer to say is, “I like to expect the best of people, and I’m open to all kinds of friendships with many different people. That means some of them will disappoint me or take advantage of my openness. I accept this as an occasional side effect of trust. Bbut I’m not going to let that change the way I am .” (However, I am more careful about who I lend money to.)

Don’t assume life is giving you a smack-down because you touched the fridge door.

Look for the deeper knowledge, the more powerful challenge, the more meaningful message. Because YOU….are worth it.

Wanna here something funny? Michael ended up working as a receptionist at a nursing station in a hospital. He loved it. He’s now working as an emergency medical technician, driving an ambulance.

A much higher calling, for him, for us, than selling refrigerators at Sears, don’t you think?

P.S. I know young people who are proud to work at Sears selling refrigerators. I my intention is not to malign their efforts to be productive people earning their own way in life. But you know that about me already, right?

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Filed under art, life, life lessons, mental attitude, myths about artists, telling your story

TIME TO SIT ON MY HANDS AGAIN

I write for several venues now. Fortunately, my humorous column at The Crafts Report rarely draws complaints. (Or maybe it does and Jones Publishing is just shielding me from them….??)

There’s another blog I write for every two weeks, usually about getting your art out there. And it seems like every time I write, someone complains I’m not writing about “art”, just about “selling art”. And the monstrous idea of making art “for filthy lucre” raises its ugly head once again.

The idea of “art for art’s sake” is a very common one among many modern artists. I don’t really disagree. I do hold my art passionately, and with integrity, in my heart. Anyone whose read my blog for the last eight years, or heard me talk, or teach, or met me in my booth, knows that. I will always make my art and I will always write, whether I’m paid to or not. (For example, I’m not paid to write this blog and I’ve been doing it for eight years now.)

We all already create our art with passion, with joy and with zest. I often write about my art processes here. At this other site, I figured a bunch of artists might be less interested in my prattling about MY art, and more interested in how to get to get people excited when they prattle about THEIRS.

And most of them appreciate that. I’ve gotten many thoughtful comments and words of thanks for giving people another point of view, for sharing an insight that helps us be more successful artists, or simply more compassionate people.

But art does NOT exist in a vacuum. If our work only sells “if it’s good enough”, and nothing else should matter, that would limit much of the stuff we normally call “art.” And oh, if only it were that easy….

Exhibiting, publishing, marketing, selling are simply venues for getting one’s work out into the world.

I don’t know why our modern times puts such a judgment on that process. When did getting paid to make art get such a bad rap??? Many of the great masters had wealthy patrons or commissions to do their work. The Sistine Chapel was painted on commission, after all. Picasso was not only a famous artist, he is famous BECAUSE he was a master at self-promotion and marketing. Remember the picture he drew to pay his tailor bill? Or the check he wrote and told the recipient if he waited, the signature would be worth more than the amount of the check? Marketing. (See more “myths about artists” here. (I don’t know why all fourteen don’t show up, but if you do a little digging while you go through these, you should be able to find them all.)

Yes, it would be nice if artists only had to sit and paint/carve/sculpt/write/sing all day, and not worry about anything else. I would be terrific if we could all have someone else to promote, market and sell our work. In fact, it would be wonderful! But it doesn’t happen very often. In fact, that’s what that website for artists I write for is for–to help artists exhibit, show, market AND SELL their work.

Saying we shouldn’t care about exhibiting or selling our art is easy. But most of us DO care, very very much. IMHO, many people who say they don’t care of the world sees their work are actually afraid of the world seeing their work. It is so precious to them, they fear and avoid rejection, ridicule, humiliation. Those fears (very human, and very common to us all) are so powerful, the person would rather embrace obscurity than risk it.

And even if we don’t fear these and truly believe our art is ONLY for ourselves, then we inadvertently disconnect art from its very purpose–to enrich the world emotionally and spiritually. The cave paintings of Lascaux weren’t hidden because they were personal. They were protected because they were so powerful. The welfare of the entire community was wrapped up in their creation. Maybe it was hard to get to see them, but they WERE seen. Evidence of torches, evidence of men, women and children (foot prints, hand prints), even doggy foot prints prove that.

A piece of art that is never exhibited, that is not shared, or sold, is a loss to the world, like a song that is never sung, a poem that is never read. Emily Dickinson is often given as an example of a powerful writer whose work was never published and someone who never sought recognition. But she desperately WANTED to be recognized, and she worked hard trying to get her work published. She wanted her art to be visible in the world. And though it didn’t happen til after her death, the world is richer for her words. Her work was certainly “good enough” to make her successful. But for different reasons, that didn’t happen in her lifetime.

My articles serve many purposes. Sometimes I just need to write about an issue to find my way through it. Sometimes I find a deeper truth than what I originally planned. Sometimes I find myself in a hard place; I’ve learned that being honest about that, and sharing that, will sometimes help someone else through the same rough spot.

I ALWAYS try to encourage everyone who makes art, or who wants to make art, to just do it. The world is full of despair and sadness and hardship. Art serves many purposes, but the one I celebrate is its role in healing some of that. Every work that comes from the joy of our creating is an act of love and healing on our part.

Art is a constant reminder that we are all alike, and that we are all very, very different. I like to believe each of us brings something to the world that can be–should be–celebrated.

Some people feel art has a much narrower role, and a sharper definition. They will not be happy with my writing. And being so open about my thoughts will leave me vulnerable to people who are very comfortable with their own rigid guidelines. So be it. I’d rather be open than limited.

Normally, too, I sit on my hands awhile before responding to people. Right now, I’m in between two major gigs–I just finished a nine-day outdoor show (yes, 9 days!!) and I’m packing to leave for a week-long artist-in-residency (7 days). The mind boggles. Perhaps I am not at my most resilient today.

So for the next few weeks, I am totally immersed in the process of showing/talking about/selling my work. The joy of creating has segued into the power of people connecting with and reacting to my work.

It is a different energy, but part and parcel of the entire process.

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Filed under art, balance, craft, creativity, criticism, marketing, myths about artists, world peace

EATING MY WORDS ABOUT ART SCHOOL

A quick segue today, before the amazing artist statement I promised you yesterday.

I’ve had to eat my words re: what I said about going to art school.

Here’s what I said in a reply to a comment on that post:

Actually, Aza, I recently had an experience that made me see the value of a good art school education. And that is the connections and opportunities that are made possible. I attended a workshop presented by a young woman who just finished post-graduate degree studies at a prestigious art school. In the course of her studies, she visited the studios of many well-known artists; gained access to facilities (museums, galleries) beyond the reach of most people, even allowed access to their “backstage”, so to speak.

It was enough to make me wish I’d gone to art school, too! :^D

I think everyone has their own needs and desires re: art school. If you feel drawn to it, go. Explore. Take what you need and leave the rest. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect, network, and experiment.

And then, be sure to come back and tell us what you learned.

I’ve never said you shouldn’t go to art school. I say you shouldn’t rule yourself out as an artist if you don’t go.

I remember bugging a friend who decided to go to art school late in life. She was already a productive artist–why did she need an art degree??

She replied that no one in her family had ever gone to college before her, and certainly no one had ever achieved a master’s degree.

She wanted to be the first.

I realized that mattered very, very much to her. And that was a good enough reason to do it.

Sometimes you need a college degree for credentialing. Sometimes you need it to prove something to yourself. And now I know the connections, networking and opportunities you get can be worth every penny.

Just know your reasons.

And don’t use not going as an excuse to not make art. Because I know better.

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