My Poisonous Checklist

John Waters speaking at this year’s RISD commencement

Since it’s graduation season, there are tons of commencement speech videos circulating right now. My perspective may be cynical and unpopular, but I will admit that I find most commencement speeches irritating because most speeches tell you that the world is your oyster, and that you can do anything!  Frequently, the speeches offer a bullet list of things to do in order to achieve success. What most speeches don’t mention is that things will probably go nowhere before they go somewhere.

What I’d like to talk about today is what to do when you’ve been consistently doing everything on those bullet lists for years, but nothing is happening. I would estimate that artists are more likely to experience this circumstance than phenomenal success.  The truth is that the vast majority of people will not be the top superstars in their field, most of us will not win the Turner prize or a Guggenheim grant.


At my MFA graduation in 2004 (I’m on the right)

When I was a graduate student, it was easy to imagine and aspire for the most prestigious professional achievements in my field.  After completing my MFA,  I felt ready to take a serious plunge into the professional art world. Everything seemed possible simply because I hadn’t experienced anything yet. At that time, I made a checklist of long term goals that was very specific:

1.  Win a top artist grant.

2.  Be represented by a respected New York City art gallery.

3.  Get my artwork into major museum collections across the nation.

4.  Become a tenured professor.

It’s been 11 years since I received my MFA, and I have yet to check off a single item on that list. I’m know that 11 years is a drop in the water compared to some other people, but it’s long enough that I don’t feel like I graduated yesterday. In retrospect, it seems like I must have been egotistical and naive to have thought at one point that one, even several of the items on my checklist could be in my future.

I’m not deluded enough to think that I would just wake up one morning to a call from the MacArthur Foundation. I was well aware early on what I had signed up for by choosing to be a professional artist, and certainly, I’ve made some personal choices that determined where my career could go.

Still, it’s tough to have toiled this hard for this long, and not feel disappointed. With every year that passes, I watch the ship sail further away. At this point, becoming an internationally renowned fine artist is just not in the cards for me.

Looking at what I’ve done so far, I know that I will never have a solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and that I won’t be representing the United States in the next Venice Biennale.

Whitney Biennial Exhibition

Over the past few years, I watched my checklist transform from a positive source of inspiration into a toxic distraction. Obsessing over this checklist became extremely unhealthy; I used to torture myself by reading articles about artists who had achieved meteoric success in their 20’s.

I became very resentful and making art wasn’t fun anymore.  What was supposed to be one of my greatest joys in life had mutated into something that just made me miserable.  If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll understand what a truly frightening place this is to be.

Below is an excerpt from a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled “The Small, Happy Life.

“Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, ‘was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.'”

That checklist wasn’t my own; it was a very narrow minded idea of success formulated by other people that I let myself succumb to.  Reading this column reconfirmed that I don’t need to fulfill those items on my checklist to be creatively satisfied.

I’ve moved the aspirations on my old checklist to the back burner. The goals are still simmering quietly, but they are no longer front and center in my mind. Oddly enough, letting myself not care has been remarkably effective, and this is the first time in a while that I have been able to think clearly. This week, I’m going to start writing a new checklist. is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorialsart critiques, and more.

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9 thoughts on “My Poisonous Checklist

  1. Great advice! It is important, I think, to stay true to one’s own dreams and not be captured by the destructive illusions of a larger society.

  2. I think the fact that you inspire your students, who create a variety of art is a great legacy for you and the art world. Also 11 years ago who knew what a blog was and so it could not be on your list. You have talked about your video series and that should be on the new list. You are a skilled artisan so you have nothing to feel badly about, thrive in the gifts you have as God gave them to you to build on, and what you do with the seeds of talent is up to you.

  3. Some how i missed the great competitive check list. However at the time i was happy getting jobs with an art bias, which for me meant teaching, TV and film work and later toy prototypes, and working for b list artists. The entire time, thinking i was protecting my own work from the expectations of the galleries ” its not finished” “do more of this”. It was easier for me to shapeshift if it was a commercial project. And i still agree with all that. I loved the work and i loved the people i worked with mostly.

    Now in my golden years, (ha!), i find another difficulty of having not worked long enough on my own work to keep the thread going strongly enough, and/or the thread not having the same relavence for me. Through a gruelling 6 years of redefining myself and my work without changing horses in midstream, i have only just begun to understand and grasp a new thread and started a new search for meaning. To be able to do the work regardless of shows and acholades. To find a community of my/ our ilk.
    To begin to undestand the meaning of it all, without the job defining life: It all seems to be about searching for meaning and relevance, to yourself and the world. Not about winning the prize/ show/ gallery/ recognition. We need to find a kind of internal satisfaction without external validation. It is a conquest of a different sort.

  4. Clara, I love this. So honest and disarming. We all benefit from your openness as most of as have been there, ARE there, with the yearning, stressful striving, and the need to rebalance!

  5. I relate so much to your feelings! You work so hard and your work is amazing! I admire your exhibition, teaching, grad school, writing/blogging opportunities. There are so many ways to be an artist outside of Artnews, Art fairs, biennials, etc. Maybe your path leads you there when you are 100 regardless, I applaud you for making peace/find balance with the path you are on now. I (too) have found it encouraging to discover residencies, coop galleries, public art and writing opportunities and maybe even more importantly, to make opportunities for myself and other artists. Keep going! You’re on a great path!

  6. Thank you for your transparency. We all have our “if only … then …”. For me it is “if I only start making money as an illustrator then … I’ll be okay”.

    You are at the top of my feedly reader. I appreciate your writings.

  7. This is such a beautiful sentiment that many art students need to understand. We all set out with such tall heights to reach for, often set by what we think we should do based on the influences around us at that time. Were we to hold onto every goal we ever set and belittle ourselves for it, I think we’d all be in a world of hurt. It’s good to know that you have aspirations as an artist to keep you going in a direction rather than being stagnant. However, we can’t set our sails in a single direction, the tides will inevitably change our course for the better on occasion.

    As always a devoted follower.

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