I consider myself at this point to be a “mid-career” artist, meaning that I’m no longer just getting started but I don’t think about myself as being firmly established either. It’s a rather strange place to be in your life/career: I don’t feel desperate to say “yes” to everything that comes along, and yet I don’t feel like I have a solid foundation of professional validation that I can consistently stand on and feel secure about. I feel like I’ve hit a plateau; meaning that I’m unfortunately living in fear that my career will remain where it is right now for the next many years. The more positive side of me is hoping that this is the lull before a break that could bring my career to the next level, which for me is becoming something more than just a regional artist.
So I was thinking to myself tonight, “what have I learned so far?” Whenever I start to get down in the dumps about my work/career my husband always says “what would you say to your students if they said the same thing to you?” So in today’s post, I try to address a few core things I’ve learned so far at this point in my career. I’m writing this for my readers, but also for myself as reminders of what’s really important as an artist so I myself can stay focused. It’s by no means a comprehensive list, I’m sure that I could write a novel about this, but it’s what I’m thinking about tonight.
1) Don’t burn any bridges.
The person who stood next to you in line at the cafeteria the other day could be in a position to positively impact your career some day, and vice versa. (when I say “cafeteria”, I’m talking about a cafeteria in an art school/college context) It sounds ludicrous, but in my experience it could not be more true. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, but be nice and know that it can and will come back to you in the future. The best professional opportunities I’ve had have been because I knew someone, not because I applied for something.
2) You can and will make time.
For some reason, I’m now at either the same or at a higher level of productivity than I was before I had kids. I’m a little puzzled about this, which leads me to believe that I must have wasted a lot of time before. Even an hour here, an hour there makes a difference, and those hours do add up over time. I don’t believe it people who say that they “have to be in the mood to make art”. I hate to be so unromantic about it, but in recent years my time in the studio has been alarmingly scarce, so I have no choice but to force myself to make good work with the time I have.
3) Never ever stop making your art.
I would rather be making the worst art I could possibly imagine than nothing at all. It’s perilous to halt your productivity, once you stop it can feel mentally impossible to start again.
4) Find your mentors.
Do you know who you would call crying to in a difficult professional situation? (your parents/family members don’t count) I do, and I’m fortunate enough to have not one, but two professional people in my life who I talk to when things get rough. I’ve known both of them since I was a student at RISD, and I always come away from our conversations with a sense of renewed inspiration, and a feeling and reminder that someone else out there believes in me.
5) Don’t work in a vacuum.
I absolutely hate the idea that someone could potentially tell me that my work reminds them of another artist I’ve never heard of, and then I look them up only to realize that I’m some lame rip off of this person who already did it before and better. Thank goodness this has never happened to me, and I’d like to think that it’s because I’m constantly working on increasing my awareness of the past and present.
6) Be able to sum up your work in a single sentence.
A student of mine once complained a few years ago that it was unfair for me to expect them to sum up the various complexities of their work in such an incredibly short, distilled manner. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in professional situations where I literally had 2 minutes to tell someone important what my work was about. If you yourself are so confused about what your work is about that you can’t do this simple exercise, there’s no chance that anyone else will understand it.
7) The creative process never gets easier.
I wish I could say that all of the fears and anxieties of the creative process would disappear after x number of years, but it’s just not true. In fact, for me it’s only gotten worse: I’m now even more nervous and fearful than ever, probably because of my increasing awareness of what’s been done, what’s out there, etc. This may come as a surprise to some of you who are my students but all of the concerns that my students express to me are the same ones that I myself encounter on a regular basis.
8) If you want to truly learn something, teach a class.
This seems like a complete contradiction, as teaching a subject should mean that you already have complete mastery over your content. There’s something about having to verbalize a process to someone else that forces you to truly understand what that process is really about. I learned a lot about printmaking by teaching it, and it was only after teaching my first course in that topic that I really felt like I had mastered the techniques.
9) If you don’t believe in yourself no one else will.
Sounds pessimistic? Actually, I find this very empowering: to know that at the end of the day, it starts with you.
10) Work harder than you ever thought possible.
There are so few factors that you can control in terms of where your career goes. You can’t control who likes your work, who you meet, etc., and yet you can control how many hours, thinking, and labor goes into the work. What do all great artists have in common? They all worked like hell.
If you enjoyed this post, you might consider purchasing my book, “Learn, Create, and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life,” which expands further on the themes in this post. The book is $9 on Amazon.
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Ask the Art Prof Live was a weekly live video broadcast on our Facebook page where Prof Clara Lieu provided professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015. See the full archive of columns here. Prof Lieu discussed being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more.