With Canada Day over the hill, past the weekend at hand, I am mindful of my anniversary as a full-time artist. This July 1st, 2014 I will be celebrating seven years of making art, daily. With this anniversary, I offered seven original early paintings for sale and planned to produce a highlights reel of my seven years. I changed my mind. Though it comes with the territory, it is challenging continually working to sell your-self and your work, without feeding the ego. There comes a point when I become tired of myself and I just want to retreat to the confines of my studio and paint, nothing else, just paint.
Last week I came across a wonderful article on one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings creator, Maria Popova, recently wrote about her seventh anniversary and the seven most important things she had learned during this time pursuing her passion for writing. I love this idea. To reflect, purge and share, rather than promote.
Inspired by Popova, here are the seven most important lessons I have learned, in the last seven years.
1. Patience Is Required
When I hopped on the train to self-employed artist town, I was going full-steam ahead in my brand new, shiny locomotive. Sounding the horn as often as possible, with a big huge grin. After all, I have the time to paint daily and send out portfolios to galleries every week, why wouldn't I be receiving many quick responses? The thing is there are thousands of artists doing the same thing. Responses only happen if there is interest, and even then, gallery curators want to see you develop over time. They want to know you are in it for the long run, before they invest in you. Then you get invited to exhibit in a group show, surely this means after accepting you among their gallery staple of artists you will get a solo show? You fly out to meet the gallery owner, you have great discussion, and you share some ideas. Alright, I am ready, let’s get my solo show open! You return to the studio, you work on a cohesive body of work, based on your discussions. Over the course of time, and dozens of paintings, you edit the work down to a handful of exceptional, solid pieces that tell a complete story. You then wait to be scheduled into the gallery calendar. A year or two later your solo show opens. You get some good feedback, you have more discussion, more ideas, you sell some paintings, you don't want this to stop, and you want to keep the locomotive moving. You go back to square one and start all over again, building from your previous experience. Building structures on a moving flatbed and unloading them at different points along the journey. It requires balance, focus and patience. When I was in the film industry we called it, 'hurry up and wait'. It could take a whole day to light a scene and have things ready for the next shot, then you pack things up and move onto the next shot. Once you have all your shots you edit it together and make a film. It is the same with making art, only I am responsible for the entire production. Patience is required.
2. You Miss 100% Of The Shots You Do Not Take - Rejection is Part of the Deal
Thank you Wayne Gretzky for this quote. When I find my confidence lacking, or my spirit shaken after a rejection, I have come to repeat the above quote. Anxiety has become an ally of mine. It is that nervous energy, which keeps me moving. I always wish I could feel 100% confident going into a show, but I never do and I never know what kind of response the work will elicit. I painted it, I believe in it, but how will it be received? There are a million questions I ask myself before I put the work out in the world. Making it is one thing, putting it and myself on a stage for the world to experience, that is in some ways counter intuitive to an artist. My intuition lets me create, having to edit the work down for a show, those decisions have to come from my alter-ego and sometimes with the help of a gallery curator or agent. In the beginning it was 99% rejection, I am down to about 50% rejection now and I am getting better at it, I don't accept it, I use it as fuel. Every time someone tells me I can't do something, I take GREAT pleasure in showing them I can. Rejection is part of the deal, it has to be, and otherwise everyone would be an artist.
3. Anything Done From The Ego, or Purely For Media Response, is Crap.
I receive this annual email from a company that produces a hard copy book, 'Best Artist's In The World' or something to that effect. There is actually more than one book or company like this, there are several. Preying on the fragile artist ego is something that has become commonplace online. This is also where patience comes in, patience to make it as an artist without buying a trophy that says, "I am a great artist look at me!” For just $800 you can be featured in this book that tells people you are a great artist, if we accept you, but once we do you can pay just $800 and we will put the book in every store around the world! For an artist starting out, when all those rejections are coming your way, you want to feel like your work matters and you want to get your work seen. I learned early on to ignore these offers, they do not help your career and they quickly empty your bank account in the process. I feel the same about most awards, popularity contests and 'best of' contests. From my experience, I would say that most awards are bought, like 95% bought. The exciting thing about independent websites, blogs and publications on-line today is they are not sponsored, and therefore seemingly more genuine. I have learned that growing my art network through independents that truly support the work and the people they like, provides genuine feedback. Stay the course, your work matters, just keep making it! Anything done purely from the ego or for the ego, is crap.
4. Intuition and Spontaneity - Passion is Addictive.
When I met my first audience at my first solo show, I felt like a baby deer stumbling to get my legs. I felt disconnected and awkward. The gallery owner wanted me to take each person on a tour of my work by explaining each painting. I had been to art shows before and they weren't like being a docent giving a tour at an art museum, they were more organic. Trying to make the best of things, I gave it a shot and just found that I missed. Well, this is a tree and I liked it, so I painted it. Then I tried the art school approach, describing how the light hit the tree and how it made me feel, so that I was inspired to paint it, better, but still not quite what inspires an art collector. Then I met a collector that collects based on the artist intuition behind the piece. We stood in front of each piece and he said to me, "I see a tree, but what were you thinking when painting this tree." He was interested in knowing how I intuitively made decisions in the creation of the work. He was a businessman, he knows his business, he wanted to know how a non-business mind works, acting purely on intuition. He was more interested in the process, not the end result. I had the feeling that even if he did not like the painting, he would come to love it if he could feel the passion I felt when making the painting. I finally got it, this collector broke me down and offered a lesson. By putting myself back into the mind-set I was in while creating the work, I was able to draw on the intuition and passion of making the piece. Like hearing a proud mother speak of her child, you can see and feel the passion in her words, in her energy. There are many great paintings in the world, but from my experience collectors want to own a piece of the artist's passion, not necessarily a painting of a tree. Why do you buy a ticket to the concert, when you can listen to the album at home? You are investing in an experience, passion is addictive.
5. If You Are Good at Something, Never Do It For Free.
Almost weekly I get an email from a charity looking for donations of artwork for their fundraising event. When I was first starting out I thought that it was a good idea to donate to these events, the promise of exposure and helping out a good cause. (this relates back to lesson three and ego) What I quickly learned was that I was following in the footsteps of a famous artist who partially cut off his ear. Why do people bid on things at auctions? For the most part, so they can get a really good deal on something like a vacation getaway, while the money goes back to a charity. They do not care about the art, they are not art collectors, they have no idea who you are and in bidding on your piece and winning it for less than the value, they get a prize. They come away with an art piece, that in the real world would have cost much more and you devalue your work in the process. The cycle continues and charities continue to ask for art donations. There is no exposure, no elevation of your work, no connecting to a new audience, no art appreciation, there is just a transaction that hurts you in the long run. Now, I do have an exception to this rule and it comes in the form of a managed mutual business transaction. I do believe in supporting arts fundraisers, with art. I also believe in supporting gala fundraisers on a national level with a detailed description of what each party gets, raising the profile and introducing each to a new market of potential clients. If you want to make a donation to charity, give a tax deductible donation or your time as a volunteer. If you’re good at something, never do it for free.
6. Practice Daily - If You Are Not Practicing, Someone Else Is.
Thanks to Hollywood and Gonzo, we have the caricature of what an artist should be imprinted on our brains. Problem is, it goes against the true sense of every successful artist I have met in my life so far. A true artist is crazy, right? They make decisions on the fly, show up late, sleep all day, cut their ears off and drink too much. When I think about what it takes to be a successful artist, meaning being recognized for your art and being able to pay the bills, I think of this interview with comedic artist, Jerry Seinfeld. Basically what the interview boils down to is, discipline. Whether you are a painter, photographer, performer or writer. Success comes from repetition and discipline. While you must have time for spontaneity and freely exploring every option, no matter how crazy it seems, it is discipline that pulls it all together and keeps you creating strong work on a regular basis. This is very true of my work and of those who have been mentors to me along the way. Practice makes perfect, do it daily.
7. Take Care of Your Health
So, I developed patience to curb the anxiety. I smack my ego in the face weekly and amplify the mind and the heart. I listen to the little voice inside and encourage it to grow louder. I am mindful of the process and recall it when sharing the work with others. I don't give it away for free, but I do support others. I practice daily, with repetition and discipline. But, what about time for fun? When you are living your dream and your passion becomes your career, it is hard to put the brush down. Your work time and your non-work time are no longer decipherable. In my case, becoming obsessed with nothing but my studio time to myself and feeling Howard Hughes-esque at times. This obsession, after seven years of eating, sleeping and breathing it, led to a body breakdown. If my body had not have given out, I likely would not have adjusted a thing. Was this burn out? I don't get burned out! Repetition of things physical, leads to stress injuries. This was physical burn out. Upper back, neck, hand, wrist...you name it, the pain came and I had to stop painting and going to the gym, until I found a way to get rid of the pain. I never thought it was my job that was causing the problem, I Iove my job why would that cause physical pain? Got a new bed, new office chair, and new way of painting. Standing more, reading glasses for detail work, stretching throughout the day and a chiropractor. After three weeks of excruciating pain and physiotherapy visits, I was back to my love. Without the body, the mind cannot continue, as it becomes focused on the pain. Without your health, you have nothing. Adding a renewed interest in photography to my discipline, not only allowed me to gather reference photos and a new perspective, it allowed me a break from studio time and fresh air hikes. The most important lesson I have learned over the past seven years, take care of your health.
Seven lessons and seven years, I am sure luck played its part as well, with all these sevens. Even though I state I am responsible for the entire ‘production’, the decisions, rejections and tough bits were made more digestible with the support of a talented network of patrons, fans and family.
I am very fortunate to call them all friends. A special thank you to;
AllHabs Hockey Magazine
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame
Visual Arts Alberta
Federation of Canadian Artists
Sopa Gallery – Deborah Boileau
The Edge Gallery
Ray ‘Scotty’ Morris
Artists In Canada
VEVEX Crates - Rod Russell
A Portrait of The Visual Arts in Canada
Canadian Art Junkie
Galleries West Magazine
The Showroom Gallery/ Marty Smith Motors
Richard Pearce Law Corporation
Robert Assaly Professional Corporation
5th Street Bar & Grill
Sol Fine Foods
Fresh Cup Roastery Café – Jim Townley
My Art Space