WayBack Saturday! ARTISTIC LICENSE: Credentials, Degrees, Awards….and Passion

I had plenty of college, but that’s not where I learned how to be an artist.
This post was originally published on March 7, 2003. Still relevant, IMHO!

Artistic License

Recently, someone on a discussion forum I participate in posted a plea for help.  A show the artist had been accepted into was requesting the usual artist credentials: resume, artist bio, degrees, etc.  After “wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes”, the artist began to panic.  Her work is something she’s picked up late in life, she didn’t attend art school, she hasn’t exhibited before, and though her work is solid, she just doesn’t have the credentials.  What should she do?

Here was my advice:

It would be tempting to puff up the slim credentials you *do* have (remember the domestic engineers of the 1970’s?)  It’s wicked easy to get caught up in the credentialing thing, and to overlook what’s really important.  Our society seems to demand credentialing for everything.  But what are credentials *for*, anyway?

A resume, bio, list of exhibits and a stack of art degrees amount to paper affidavits, “proof” to the world that you have been educated in your art, you’ve paid your educational dues, and made the effort to get your work out there through exhibiting and shows.  There are some situations in life where this kind of proof is important and necessary.  We don’t want to have surgery by someone who “feels in touch with his inner surgeon” but hasn’t gone to med school.  Fortunately, being an artist does not require a license.  :^)

If you haven’t gone the “traditional” route of artist credentialing (sounds like a contradiction of terms to me), then you have to think of another way to present a cohesive, narrative story about the “who/what/when/where/why and how” of “you, the artist.”  Who you are, what you make, why do you make it, and how did you get to where you are now?  And the chance to add, where do you plan to go next?  And how serious are you about this whole thing, anyway??  That’s really all that the bio/degree/award/exhibit thing is trying to say, in a more “official” format.  In a way, starting from “nothing” gives you an open door to talk about this in a more down to earth and direct way.

An art degree shows you’ve taken classes to master your techniques.  So how did you learn yours?  Did you take workshops?  Read a book?  Stay up late after work and on weekends, painting/knitting/carving into the wee hours?  Teach yourself?  Swap sculpting lessons for babysitting?  Apprenticed yourself to a potter?  Talk about the passion you discovered in yourself for this art stuff, and what lengths you went to acquire the skills to do it.

An art degree shows you had a vision or goal to make art part of your life, then you studied it, and put in the time and effort to get a degree.  You can show that you, too, have a vision for your work, and that you have steadily pursued it.  What are your processes & techniques?  Did you experiment, develop them yourself?  Research antique processes and recreate them?  How did you come up with that particular approach or outlook?  Have certain artists, cultures, whatever, influenced your style?

Use the education you have.  I have college degrees (also not in art!) and I mention them in relation to how they’ve influenced my work–coursework for an education degree taught me the importance of storytelling, coursework in art history provided me the original inspiration for my Lascaux cave-themed imagery, etc.  But don’t just stick in stuff hoping to “fill up” the page.  Whatever you put in, make sure it relates in some way to your artistic self.

Exhibits show that you’ve made a serious attempt to get your work out in front of a variety of audiences, and that your work was good enough to be selected.  You can present enough “credentials” for most purposes by providing a brief summary of what you’ve done to get your art out there.  How can you show you’ve been making the same kind of effort?  Through shows?  Through steady sales? How has the audience for your work grown since you started this?

Awards show that someone thought your work was pretty darn good, or unusual.  Are there other ways for you to show that?  Anybody famous buy one of your pieces?  Or did your work appear in a magazine or on TV?  Did you get into a terrific, exclusive show the first time you applied, just because your work was so drop-dead terrific?

I like to keep in mind that ultimately, the person who purchases my work isn’t *really* buying it because of a list of shows or exhibits I’ve been in.  That list may help them feel more confident about their initial desire to buy, but that isn’t *why* they buy.  They buy it because it moves them emotionally, and because it says something special to them.  Something powerful is going on in my work, and they respond to that.  Everything else is just icing on the cake.

In fact, last month I revised my retail customer brochure.  I used to have a list of exhibits and books my work has appeared in, in an attempt to establish myself as a serious player.   I took it out, replacing it with a little blurb about why I make the art I make.   I’m learning that people only have to talk with me a few minutes to realize I’m a “serious player.”  Ultimately, it’s all about my work, not the hoops I’ve made it jump through.

Try to avoid the ordinary when putting this piece together.  Don’t go on about how much you love color–*all* visual artist love color!  Don’t make too big a fuss about how much you wanted to be an artist when you were little.  Someone once addressed this one–we *all* wanted to be artists when we were little.  Avoid cliches.

Think about the special stuff in your life.  Is your studio on a mountain top, or do you build it yourself out of hand-hewn lumber?  Are your materials unusual?  Do you go dumpster-diving to find your stuff, or hound recycling centers for their glass bottles?  What do you do that no one else does?  What is your inimitable style?  What is your personal story?

On the other hand, don’t get obtuse and try to bury your lack of credentialing paper with high-falutin’ phrases and five-dollar words.  As Bruce Baker, a consultant and speaker for craft and art world issues always says, “People have a built-in bullshit meter.  If you rock that meter, then they will never believe whatever else you have to say.  Make sure what you say is *true*.”   Stick to the essence of who you are and what your art is.  Make it interesting, and make it unique.  Stick to the truth.  Keep it simple and powerful.

 

 

 

Be Your Authentic Self (or suffer the consequences!)

Just found this in Rob Brezsny’s Astrology Newsletter today and it is exactly what I needed to hear. Maybe you, too?

ADVICE TO MYSELF by Louise Erdrich

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.

Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.

Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.

Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.

Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.

Don’t sort the paper clips
from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.

Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.

Recycle the mail, don’t read it,
don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

– “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, from Original Fire: Selected and
New Poems”

So I have two questions today:

How can I best put this sentiment into practice for myself, today?

And how the heck did he know what our household looks like??!!

OK, three questions: IT IS NOT OKAY FOR YOU TO USE MY TOOTHBRUSH!!! (JON!!!) (Not a question, I guess.)

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: We Will Never Know Our True Legacy

Try our best, we are not in control of how we will be remembered.

There’s a brilliant cartoon called Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller that ran a few weeks ago. It starts with a caption, “The Get-Rich-Quick Correspondence Art School” and shows an artist standing before a huge empty canvas, paintbrush in hand, reading the first page of the instruction book:

“Step 1: Fill in blank canvas.

Step 2: Sell it for $1,000,000*

*Price triples if you die first!”

Funny? Not funny? Sad? All of the above!

We all know about Vincent Van Gogh, who sold maybe one painting in his lifetime, whose work (one painting) sold in 1990 for a record $82.5 million dollars.

Then there’s the most popular artist of the Victorian era, whose work, within a few decades after his death, was deemed saccharine and trite. He is so forgotten I can’t easily find him by Googling, I just remember that story from one of my art history books.

We have our own Thomas Kinkade, arguably the most commercially successful artist of our time, mass-producing paintings that look like a sickeningly-sweet Christmas card my grandmother might have sent out. Love him, hate him, he certainly knew how to manipulate the market, to the extent it’s estimated that 1 in 20 households in the U.S. own a print of his work. Will his work stand the test of time? We’ll see.

The irony is, we tend to concern ourselves with achieving fame and fortune, or at least a presence in the world. (Yes, I secretly dream of a time when people will clamor for my work!)

But we actually have very little control over that.

Oh, we participate in art events, we self-promote, we strive to work with the best galleries. We work for good publicity, we work our social media, we are delighted when the rich and famous buy our work. (Double publicity!)

Some of us use more extreme measures.

We could be famous for cutting off an ear (this was not done for publicity, of course, but this is how many ordinary people identify Van Gogh), or inserting a crucifix upside down in a bottle of urine. We could be famous for trademarking “Painter of Light”, (except that all painters, technically, are recording light.) It can be difficult to think of a more disturbing painting than Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, and yet, it has held its place in time. In my recent column about finding an audience,  I shared how the attention actress/writer April Winchell’s now-archived website Regretsy actually brought attention—and sales—to truly awful handmade items sold on Etsy.

So maybe we’ll be famous after we’ve been dead awhile. Maybe, if we manipulate the media cleverly, we can be famous now.

If not, well, maybe our art, like the images in those prehistoric Ice Age caves, will survive for thousands of years, to be discovered by an entirely new race of humans (or…..aliens??) who will marvel at our work, find its full beauty, and wonder what the heck we were trying to say.

We’re not wrong to feel this way. We’re just humans.

We all want to believe we matter.

We all want to believe we have made a difference in this world.

We all want to believe the work of our heart matters.

That is the central core of my artist statement, realizing that we all want to leave our mark in the world.

That’s not wrong. That’s achingly beautiful. It’s extremely human.

Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

In the end, though, all we can do is to do the best we can.

We have to work at our own pace, in our own manner, with our own style. We have to make a little room in our lives to do that work.

We must respect the work we do, and try not to be envious of the work of others, nor their reputation, income, or celebrity.

We have to discover the stories that mean everything to us, and share them, through our creative work, with the world.

In a perfect world, all creative work would foster tolerance, harmony, love, respect for our earth and all the people on it, and be a force for good in the world.

But there is also a darkness in every heart, just as there is a bit of light within the greatest evil.

 That, too, is what it means to be human.

And so my hope for you, today, is that this helps you set aside your agonizing about fame and fortune. I hope it can change your definition of success, so you feel fulfilled with your efforts to make art.

I hope we can create our work today and let go of focusing only on where it lands in the world.

I hope we can all find a way, and a reason, to keep on ‘making’. I hope we can let go of envy of the success of others, and our own fears of failure, and simply rejoice that we have the luxury, and the privilege, to be able to do this work.

Our only real obligation is to make it. And then share it with the world, through sales (yes!), through connection, through relationships, and mostly through our love for what we do.

And have hope that this will be enough.

(As always, if you enjoyed this article, pass it on! Someone you know may need to hear it, today. You can sign up for more articles at my blog here.)