I found this essay by Paul Graham today–advice for young people in high school, leaving high school, getting ready (or not) for college, and actually, for anyone else, too.
And it is exactly what I wish I’d known in high school. And college. And the first 30 or 40 years of my life. (I finally figured it out when I was 42, I think….)
I came across this by way of the Fine Art Views blog. Fine Art Views is a great resource for artists. It’s kind of geared towards 2D artists, but the advice is general enough for all creative folks.
I’m printing it out for my latest high school graduate. Pass it on to someone you know could benefit–it’s good stuff!
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.
MYTH: You need an MFA to be a real artist!
REALITY: The real proof is in the work.
I couldn’t get into the art school at the university of my choice (The University of Michigan.) So maybe my attitude about art school is pure sour grapes.
On the other hand, the reasons I chose U of M seem pretty silly in 40 years in hindsight. My best friend, my first boy friend and my first crush all went there, and they said it was the best school in the world.
So I wanted to go there, too. I gave up going to other schools with art programs that had accepted me, just to be with the boy who dumped me four months later.
I hope I’m a little more sophisticated about my choices now. (But I’m probably not.)
I’ve come to believe it’s a good thing I didn’t go to art school there (or anywhere.) I may have been an artist sooner.
But I would not be the artist I am today.
Getting a degree from an art school has its advantages.
Credentials, for one. A degree says you completed a course of study. It says somebody deemed you good enough to complete it successfully.
Art school gives you other precious gifts: Time, tools and resources to actually make art. You have many opportunities to experiment with different media and different techniques. Many students develop important relationships with teachers who become mentors, and with other talented students.
Art school also allows you to immerse yourself in a community that supports art. If you come from a family or environment that’s baffled (or even threatened) by your artistic attempts, this immersion can be powerful stuff. You may feel like you’ve finally found “your people”.
And of course, there is the confidence and validation you gain from holding a degree that proclaims you an artist.
But there is a downside to art school.
You spend a huge amount of time making work that fits someone else’s agenda and criteria, not your own.
You may find it hard to develop your own style. You are surrounded by the vision of other teachers and other students, and it can be hard to figure out what your particular vision is.
Or conversely, it’s all too easy to be influenced by the vision of others.
Or your vision doesn’t get the “strokes” from the group you desire, so you unconsciously begin to modify it so it does.
Or you don’t modify your style, and suffer the consequences We’ve all heard the appalling stories of vicious group “critiques” and the lasting emotional damage they can cause. We’ve all heard of the nasty teacher who never missed an opportunity to denigrate someone’s work.
You may fall for the tendency to make high-falutin’, theoretical, worldly/academic “statements” with your art. Read almost any art statement, preferably one you barely understand, and you’ll know what I mean. The actual approach to your art may be taught as a purely intellectual or academic exercise. There is value to understanding and practicing art this way, of course. But I personally feel something is lost when art is made only to provoke, or satirize, or insult, with no real emotional connection, personal experience, or “heart” in the effort. IMHO, of course.
And the biggest drawback–you may not ever actually encounter any working artists.
I once spent a day giving five high-school art classes a presentation of the business of art. I opened the first class with this question: “How many of you believe it is impossible to make a living by selling your art?”
The teacher raised her hand.
Some people who teach art do so because they don’t believe they can be successful selling it. (Though many teach so they can have the freedom to create the art they want, without worrying about having selling it.)
You can often tell which teachers are working artists and which ones aren’t. The working ones are making their art, at some level–entering exhibitions with new work, selling, taking commissions, whatever. The ones who gave up are telling you why it’s impossible to sell your work. These are the ones who make terrible role models.
Almost as bad are the teachers who convince their students that the art world is out there just waiting for them to graduate. Instant success is within their grasp. Famous galleries in New York City are eager for their work, and the party starts as soon as you walk out the door. Then, when it doesn’t happen in six months, or a year, or three, the new grad begins to think she doesn’t have what it takes–and gives up.
Some art schools now incorporate business skills for artists in their curriculum. Yay!
Either way, the art school experience can make the issue black-and-white. There are “artists” and there are “non-artists”. There are “rich/famous/successful” artists, and there are “failed artists”. No gray. No spectrum. No range.
Know that there are many “levels” of keeping art in our lives.
There are as many ways of making that work as there are artists.
Some will make good money with their pursuits. Others will cobble together different ventures and venues that makes them happy. Some will go into fine art. Some will go into design, or graphic arts. Some may teach. Some may do the show circuit. Some may find gallery representation. Others may find ways of using the internet to market directly to customers.
Some may find other work that is rewarding and makes them happy, and keep their art practice solely for their own enjoyment. And some will run up against life’s hard walls all too soon, and have to carve out tiny chunks of time to keep their vision alive.
Maybe we can’t all be rich and famous. But there are many ways to create a life that includes art as a daily practice. And there many ways of sharing our vision with others.
So go to art school, if that is your dream. Squeeze every drop of experience and knowledge you can from it. Revel in your freedom to immerse yourself in an art community. Learn to protect yourself against the nay-sayers.
But if you didn’t go to art school, know that you simply found your life’s work by another path. It may have wound around in the woods for awhile, it may have taken you longer to get here….
But you simply had a different experience. That’s all.
And those unique experiences are what made you the artist you are today.
UPDATE: See what Canadian painter Robert Genn says about artist credentials in his well-known Painters Keys newsletter.
ANOTHER UPDATE: So embarrassed that I missed this for YEARS, but I just found a powerful video/poem by Beth Murch, who says she was inspired by this article! So, proof positive that when we share the work of our heart, our unique vision, with the world, it will cross the path of someone who needs/wants to see it. It’s like tossing a pebble into a great lake. We may not see where the ripples go, but they are there. Thank you, Beth!
Myth: Real artists devote their entire life to art; real artists never compromise! (And its corollary: Artists sleep til noon because they don’t have real jobs to go to.)
Reality: Any time you can make art is a good time to make art!
I’m beginning to think that history books and movies have been the source of most our myths about artists.
Again, remember that what makes for a good “sound bite” doesn’t always reflect real life.
We’ve all seen the movies about artists who devote themselves passionately–and exclusively–to their art. Marriages, kids, friendships fall to the wayside in their relentless pursuit of their vision. Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo, lying on his back painting the Sistine Chapel as he exchanges barbs and retorts with the pope. Or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack, fierce in his artistic throes, with the entourage that devoted themselves to promoting his art (who ended up tossed by the wayside as they burnt themselves out doing so.)
And what do we know about artists throughout history? Usually a sentence or two, or at most a paragraph in the history books. An entire chapter, or maybe even a book, for the stellar ones.
So we’re only a “real artist” if we devote every waking minute to our art, and plow through our personal relationships with the sensitivity of a back hoe.
There are other ways to make art, of course. And the artists involved are just as “real” as you and me.
Yes, some artists are fortunate enough to pursue their art full-time. But their art becomes their profession–they work just as hard at it as anyone else does in THEIR profession. If they sleep til noon, it’s because they just spent 36 hours straight completing new work for an upcoming exhibition, or they put the finishing touches on a new CD, or they finally figured out how to use QuickBooks to bill their galleries, or they just got back from a grueling four-day wholesale show on the other coast.
Real artists run the gamut of everything you can say about artists. Some are so successful selling their work, they can support themselves and a family doing so. Some work part-time or even full-time jobs to pay the bills, painting in their spare time. Or they marry someone whose passionate profession pays more money than making art does.
Some get famous, some don’t. Some blow through people like kleenix, others have solid relationships and happy families. Some create public murals that cover tall buildings that thousands see every day. Others make wonderfully tiny artifacts you can cup in your hand and known to literally a handful of people.
Again….there’s room for us all.
Of course, the converse is also true. If you work full-time or engage in other activities, and don’t make time to make art, then you may be an artist at heart. But there will be nothing in the world that reflects that intention.
If you watch TV, do housework, put everyone else’s priorities ahead of yours, then your art will indeed only take up only the tiniest space you’ve allotted for it–nada.
Yes, life happens, especially if you are the caregiver in your family, the social planner, the “fall-back” person. Our sales fall off and we have to scramble to pay the bills. We get sick or injured, or a loved one does. We enter periods of self-doubt and despair. Our desire to create can seem fragile, tenuous during hard times.
But ultimately, we have to come back to this–the only person who can make your art is YOU.
Whether it’s a song, a prayer, a painting, a dress, a garden, a play, a dance, a necklace, if it’s in you, find a way to get it out into the world as soon as you can.
So make time for your creativity a priority. Carve out a little space for it in your life. Plan for it. Honor it. Respect it.
Because if, like I did once, you walk away from it entirely, you will always feel that empty space in your heart.
I will never go “there” again. And my wish for you is that you never go “there”, either, at least not for very long.
Tip: This is where a well-written, passionate artist statement comes in handy. The kind where you really talk about the WHY of what you do. When you read yours, YOU should be inspired to get back in the saddle and ride off into the sunset with your art.
Myth: Artists are not business people.
Reality: Successful artists have good business skills, or they marry*/partner with/hire people who do.
(This marriage tip courtesy of Wendy Rosen of The Rosen Group in Baltimore MD.)
A common myth about artists is that they are not good at the business end of making and selling art. The reality is, the better you are at the business skills necessary to promote and market your art, the better chance you have at being a successful artist.
I have a theory about artists and their lack of business skills. I think we tend to not like skills like math (balancing checkbooks, statistics, recording expenses). When it came to math, I liked story problems–if Bill and Jane decide to buy a house, and their options for borrowing money are a loan with an interest rate of 9.8% and no points, or a loan with an interest rate of 7.2% and 3 points, which is better? Because I liked to think, “Well, how much money does Bill make, and what if Jane has gone back to school to get a teaching certificate? And what if Bill gets a better job offer–is there a chance they might have to move in two years, and sell their house in a buyer’s market? Do they also like expensive cars, or do they shop at Salvation Army? Do they fight about how much to tip the waitress at a posh restaurant? Are these two even compatible enough to make a marriage work??” (You see the story potential here?)
Artists think they won’t need to take typing classes because they’re not going to be a secretary when they grow up. (We could not foresee the Internet and the importance of keyboard skills in 1968.) Talking about net profit and gross profit seemed, well, gross.
So we decided we would be artists. Famous artists. Successful artists! So successful that galleries would take care of all that bookkeeping stuff and marketing stuff for us. We would simply show up at the opening receptions in our cool black clothing, sip white wine and schmooze with our collectors.
That worked well enough for a fortunate few, for a few good decades. And then times changed. We grew up and realized we needed to pay mortgages, have health insurance, put kids through college. The artists who stuck it out had to learn how to sell, how to market, how to maintain positive cash flow.
And many of us found that these weren’t such awful skills to learn, and acquire, after all.
The same way artists are made, not born, business skills can be LEARNED and the incentive is huge. The more you understand the consequences of your business decisions, the better your decisions get.
Days of galleries “handling” all your business matters are gone, and as the Bernie Madoffs of the world should have taught us, good riddance. We’ve learned the hard way that galleries can go out of business (taking your art with them). We’ve learned that locking totally into wholesale strategies can also lock down your artistic aspirations, when galleries only want the work that sells. Even if we did embrace the business side of our art, strategies that worked beautifully in the 80’s and 90’s don’t work so well in the post 9/11 economy.
It’s always good to to know your bottom line. We need to know how to sell work, if only to understand why people buy it in the first place, and what they need to know in order to buy it. (More about that in Myth #5)
Marketing, promotion, sales, research and product development, teaching, writing–these are all business of art/craft skills that are good tools for a successful artist to keep in her toolbox.
Why was Picasso famous? Most people assume it’s because he was such a great artist. Well, yes, he was. But there were other artists of his time who were better at drawing. Other artists who were more skilled with color. Other artists who were better at all kinds of artistic things.
But Picasso was a master business person. Because he was a master at self-promotion and publicity, he was able to translate his name into the name everyone comes up with when asked to name an artist.
I read a story years ago about Picasso owing his tailor a large sum of money. He wrote the man a check. Then suggested the tailor not cash it because someday his (Picasso’s) signature would be worth more than the check was written for.
Not all of us will end up that famous (or with that much chutzpah. But learning appropriate business skills to get your art out into the world goes a long way to ensuring your efforts will come to fruition.
In fact, I’ve found I enjoy many of the business aspects of my art biz more than I thought. Because they are a labor of love. I choose, knowing the consequences, good and bad, of each informed decision. Gambling on formerly “sure thing” avenues is no longer part of my marketing strategy. I constantly forced to think hard about who my target audience is, and why they buy my art.
And I think I’m a better artist for it.
I had a simply beautiful email from a reader who enjoyed my post on making decisions. She even visited me at the show I’m doing this week, and we talked a little more.
She said, “So how do I know I’ve made the right decision??”
I told her she would know, because it would feel right in her heart.
But right after she left, I felt bad. Because that wasn’t a complete answer. Sometimes we’re in such turmoil, even those other options don’t feel like they offer much clarity.
What I should have said was, just do something.
Do one thing different. Take one step toward the goal of your dreams.
I have a friend who can’t decide if she wants to pursue a line of study she abandoned years ago. It’s too late to go back to college, right? What would she use another degree for? What will she do with it?? (See the either/or thing?)
We have several colleges in the area, many with continuing education classes. I suggested she simply take one course.
She could take a class, and see how it goes. Heck, she can take as many classes as she wants! Who says she “has to” continue, or “has to” change careers, or “has to” do anything with it. Maybe it’s okay to just take a class, or continue to study something that gives you joy. “Taking chemistry classes can be another one of your hobbies!” I told her.
I believe what will happen is, as she moves across this “different stream”, she’ll encounter new people, new conversations, and new opportunities.
She may choose to embrace those opportunities–or not. Maybe she’ll simply find everything in her life is just fine, and now she has a new interest that makes her happy. Or maybe she find a new career opportunity, or simply a new friend. Maybe after one chemistry class, she’ll realize it was fun, but she’s simply done with it. It’s all good.
A decision to do something–or even a decision to do nothing, oddly enough–simply puts you on a different path. It may or may not be better, but you can still always decide something else.
I drilled that into my kids (and I’m hoping it sticks): You always have options. You will learn and grow from any of them, very few will be totally wrong, and que sera and all that.
Use your options. It will get you out of the deadlock of either/or, this-or-that, yes-or-no. And once you start moving forward, your way will become more clear.
(If this post is not coherent, please remember I’m on Day 7 of a nine-day show!!)
In celebration of one of my New Year’s resolutions–the one about being lazy from time to time–I’m simply going to ask a question today.
What would you like your obituary to say?
I was reading the Sunday Dec. 30 issue of the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Lives They Lived”. It’s a collection of essays on noteworthy or well-known people (or people who should have been well-known) who died in 2007. It’s an astonishing array of people–and animals. (I was pleased to see Alex the talking parrot and Washoe, the hand-signing chimp included on the list.) Politicians and athletes, of course, but also the mother of a famous athlete. Soldiers. Inventors. A hacker. A blogger. A woman who helped hundreds of downed RAF pilots escape Germany under the very noses of the Nazis. Artists, writers, a fashion designer. People who set out to change the world and succeeded–or didn’t. People who had no intention of changing the world–and did.
It’s a fascinating collection of stories. I thought I’d read a couple. I couldn’t put it down til I’d read every one.
And it got me thinking about the obituary thing.
When all is said and done, and your live is someday beautifully summarized such on a page in the New York Times Magazine, what would you like it to say?
And more telling…
What do you think it would say now?
I’ve been doing a little coaching for close friends this year. They’re stuck at a crossroads in their life, or even at a dead end. They have no idea what to do next, or even what they want.
Here’s a trick I’ve learned. When people are really stuck about what they want to do with their lives, there’s a simple little question that helps unlock the log jam of “shoulda/woulda/coulda”.
“When you were in first grade,” I ask them, “what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Sometimes people swear they can’t remember. Or they laugh it off, because the answer seems so ridiculous.
I just poke at them harder til they come up with something. And they almost always get to a point where they pause, and think, and say, very slowly, “Well, this is really silly, but when I was really young, I really wanted to be a….”
Listen closely to the answer. Because it’s really important.
I’ve never met a kid, a very young kid, who didn’t have some dream of who and what they wanted to be when they grew up. It is the ultimate fantasy, the first dream.
And in it lies the seeds of what you could become today.
Look beneath the “title” of what you wanted to be, and think about why you wanted to do that.
We had those desires when we were young. But we don’t know enough about the world to interpret where those desires could fit in. So we look around and grab a name, an occupation that fits our desires.
Later, when we’re older, we remember the name of the thing. But we forget the feelings, the desires that brought us to that thing. That’s when it starts to seem silly, or unattainable. And that’s when we first let go of our dreams.
For example, lots of boys want to be firemen, or policemen. And obviously, not all of them become one. But that desire to protect and serve, coupled with action and physical activity, may still be part of their dream job. Or keeping people safe. Or solving crimes, or puzzles. Or gosh, maybe something as simple as wearing a uniform.
A desire to be a ballerina may mean you want to be in the limelight and wear fluffy tutus. But it could also mean that you were happiest when you were dancing. Or practicing your craft. Or performing it. Or simply moving. Or maybe it was interpreting the music. Or teaching the other kids a cool move. Maybe it was the pageantry, the costumes, the stage sets.
And it may be time to put some rigorous movement, or music, or coaching, or performance back in your life. (Or go buy a tutu, what the heck? Some dreams are cheap to fulfil.)
I think this exercise is insightful because our desires can be so pure and simple when we are so young. (I don’t mean “pure” in the altruistic sense, I mean in the the undiluted sense.) There is no fear or self-doubt overlaid, no real world sensibility intruding. No one is telling you at age five “You can’t be an artist, you’ll starve to death!”
The trick is to look underneath the job title and think about what intrigued you.
Did you want to make things? Maybe you want to be an artist or craftsperson. Did you love to hammer? A carpenter. Did you like to draw? Illustrator, architect, graphic designer. Break things? Demolition!
If you wanted to be a skater, maybe you wanted to skate. But maybe you just wanted to go fast. Or be outdoors. Or you wanted to feel everything about winter, including a cold crisp wind on your face.
Whatever made your heart sing, try to figure out how to go there again, even for a little while. It may not be your dream job, but it’s a thread you can pick up and follow there.
Me? What did I want to be when I grew up?
An artist, of course! Interestingly, I drew a lot, and I don’t like to draw now. But…I never drew anything I could see. I didn’t want to draw landscapes or houses, for example. I was always drawing imagined images. Especially…animals. I absolutely loved drawing animals. Especially…horses. I yearned for more animals in my life, too, especially horses.
I also collected things. Anything. Pretty stones, shells, bits of interesting lichen. Ribbons, scraps pretty wrapping paper, pictures cut from magazines. My mother called it “trash”, but it was all treasure to me.
Later, when I had money, I loved scrounging thrift shops and junk stores. My favorite thing to do, hands down, is to browse through a really good antique store/second hand store. (The affordable ones, not the pricey ones!) I love finding odd little treasures, especially the things most people overlook–carpenter’s folding wooden measures, bits of funky jewelry, rusty metal things, game pieces. (I treasure the measuring tape that was wrapped around a steer, with calculations to estimate its weight.)
I loved archeology and fossils. I think I loved the notion of finding something really cool and old, and digging it up. And imagining what life was like when that particular thing was around. My favorite scene in the book Little House on the Prairie is when the girls visit an abandoned Indian campground and find all those glass beads. (Trade beads!!)
You’d think when the current collage/assemblage phase burgeoned, I’d be a happy collage artist. But I’m not. I can’t bear to cut up any of my treasures. Instead, I love arranging them into endless vignettes. And I’m very good at that, too.
Animals…artifacts…ancient treasures…vignettes. Oh, did I mention I wanted to be a writer, too?
Who knew that fifty years ago, the artist I am today was already awake and thriving in that five-year-old’s heart?!