I want to share are a few key truths about how a young artist might push forward and find balance and a voice in this complex world of ours where often times self worth and respect is tied too closely to our paychecks. It was not that long along that I too began this journey.
Well graduates, you have already finished a very important first step towards your goals. Your journey has officially begun! You believed in yourself and the power of art and dedicated the last four years immersed in the field. You have already begun to learn how to listen to your intuitions and act on them accordingly.
This honest way of listening to oneself and following a path that is fulfilling is often ridiculed in our society because it ‘not stable enough’, or there is ‘no guarantee you can actually make a living from it.’ When people speak this way it makes me think about a study that was done which documented the testimonials of hundreds of patients on their death bed. The conclusion of this study showed a commonality of the top two regrets that the patient’s lamented upon. The first regret is that they did not spend enough time with their family and the second regret was that they wished they had followed their dreams and did what they loved.
“This follow your heart business sounds wonderful and all”, says the parent sitting next to you who feels the normal anxiety of what career awaits their recent grad. But alas following your heart is WONDERFUL and VERY real and it’s about as honest a thing as you’ll ever hear. But graduates, the vocation of an artist is a journey that entails a tremendous amount of work. Sorry, you probably do not want o hear that right now but it is the truth. Because in the end, creative vocations such as artists, writers, scientists, and musicians often rely on processes and intuitions that are not easily understood which make it hard to measure and quantify . Society would like to think it has figured it out how to measure the success of the artist based on how much their painting sold for. But this is such a small part of the whole picture.
The truth of the matter is No one will hand over a check list of things you must do to succeed, you have to write that list for yourself everyday. Because YOU are in charge. With this comes empowerment and liberty. My journey in the last 26 years has been nothing short of amazing and I would not trade it for anything in the world.
These first few steps out of school of course feel scary and uncertain but I also hope that each and everyone of you are excited to dive into your creative selves with a great tenacity and grit. And when you dedicate yourself with unwavering focus get ready to Make Mistakes….it is how we grow. Try new ideas, work in new mediums, teach a class, volunteer, exhibit, share your work and do this 100 times over again. If you think I am exaggerating I’m not. Keeping your mind and options open with the jobs you choose along the way because it will only help you figure out what fit it the best for YOU. The most important thing is to not be afraid to fail and make mistakes. Recognize that when you do fail you understand your limitations and your strengths.
One example of what I initially thought was a failure in my career path ended up being one of the most influential experiences not only in my life but also in my artwork. A year or so after I graduated college I decided to explore my deep desire to help others and found myself in a social worker job working with foster children in Chicago’s most disenfranchised communities. I lasted only three years because I burned out. But this experience unknowingly put me on a tract with my art career that I would have never imaged when I first took that job. I saw humanity at its best and worst. Stories and themes of our shared struggles and joys started seeping through my art. It is important to note that even after a full day of social work or teaching I never stopped making art. Nearly every night I would come home from work and sculpt…it was after all, the thing that made me feel the most whole and truly at peace.
Recognizing How exhilarating it was to use the gift I had to express myself and help others at the same time was nothing short of awesome. Humm…perhaps this is what Joseph Cambel means by “Following your Bliss”…and your path will essentially reveal itself.
Still, at the beginning I did not know how I would go about finding my voice and produce thoughtful and engaging art about the things I cared for. But what I did know is that I needed to build a strong foundation. I needed to hone my modeling skills, knowledge of materials and build the courage to try new methods. This foundation would later give me the freedom to be able to tackle any new idea. But it’s still just the start.
I believe the more you make the more you grow. Early in my career I made such a large amount of work that I had to break, repurpose or discard earlier sculptures just to make room for new ones. Every few months I began to see a change in my sculptures, it was thrilling. It happened in a very organic and honest way. To this day the same process happens, one series or body of work leads to the next. My ideas are endless but it was not always this way for me. Think about it…. repetition works! The more you make the more ideas you have. You figure out what works and what doesn’t.
I had a great conversation with a fellow artist this morning. He is a successful writer and we often share stories of our weekly trials and tribulations as creative independents. Today we spoke about Talent. There is so much talent out there. And some of the most talented artist in the world we will never see, read from or listen to. There may be many reasons for this, some seemingly random while others have to do with one’s tenacity and grit to push forward or not. It seems so random, why do some artists make it while equally talented artists do not? I wish I had an answer for you. Sometimes it boils down to being in the right place at the right time…or who you know. Yes, more often than not, it appears arbitrary and unfair. This is why understanding your role as a creative person in the grander picture is important. You make art because you have to….period! Do not let others around you make you question and doubt yourself….keep your expression clear and direct! You must ask yourself, Why did I choose this field? What do I expect to get out of this journey? Am I ready to fall and pick myself back up again? Do I make art to make money only or is it something I have to do?
Perhaps this last question may sound severe but to some of us it is not. I just finished curating an exhibition at the New Haven Museum of 6 refugee artists who resettled in New Haven after experiencing war, persecution, and imprisonment in their respective countries. When I took their testimonials about what art means to them, they unquestionably said that making art was the thing that gave them the strength to live . Powerful indeed, but we can share their same certainty. I do.
I love having groups of elementary students come to my studio and talk about art. I enjoy speaking about what a “normal” day of a artist entails and it is a lot like other professions where you show up to work on time, produce to the best of your ability that day, push through difficult challenges, celebrate the successes, and go home to return the next day and do it all over again. It’s not hanging out at the coffee shop all day and hoping an idea comes to you. You need to engage yourself…extend yourself…create…do it again and again. There is a reason why you chose art to major in. You have a tactile and visual way of understanding the world around you. Art that gets woven into the fabric of our world is real! It is as real as the lawyer arguing a death row case, or an ER doctor caring for a patient. Art is what helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. Art can be deeply effecting in its capacity to make change and help us understand who we are as a people.
So with that said my friends your job is not easy but boy is it Awesome!