One of my students at RISD once wrote on their self-critique, “Art is hard.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. When you work professionally as an artist, there are the artistic challenges of creating the artwork, but on top of that, you have to build a very thick skin to handle the constant bombardment of rejection, and be incredibly tenacious despite difficult circumstances. From my point of view, creating the artwork is the “easy” part of being a visual artist.
For me, the greatest struggle is when my confidence in my work wavers. Some days, I feel empowered and confident, my artistic vision is crystal clear, and my work ethic and energy is boundless. Other days, I feel overwhelmed, terribly discouraged, and have no faith in myself. You would think after almost two decades, I would have figured out a permanent solution, but I don’t think that one exists.
Last week I had one of those moments, I know that fundamentally, I am extremely passionate about my work but it’s very nerve wracking to put in so much commitment and labor into something that might go nowhere. I knew that I had to find a way to maintain my enthusiasm and optimism.
I wrote to one of my friends, Gina Perry, who is a children’s book illustrator and expressed my fears and anxieties to her. She said that my situation sounded very similar to children’s book publishing, where you have no choice but to pour in hundreds of hours of unpaid work before you see a contract. Her words to me were: “You don’t achieve big things without that type of investment and risk.”
Illustration by Gina Perry
Her words really resonated in that moment, especially because I know that she has years of experience, deep in the trenches, dealing with rejection, chasing her artistic goals. Now I have a sticky note on my desktop with her words. When I feel my confidence sinking, that sticky note lifts me up.
Visual artists have to learn to live with uncertainty and still be willing to take intimidating risks despite the lack of guarantees. As a reaction to this, I frequently crave any moment in my life where something is guaranteed. I love baking because I know that if I buy the required ingredients, follow the recipe exactly as written, that in the end, I’ll definitely have muffins to eat. Unless the recipe is bad, or I make some really stupid mistake, those muffins are guaranteed. Sometimes being a visual artist is like doing all of those tasks, but then every time you open the oven, all you find is a pile of ashes. Gina got me back on track last week, and I’m hoping that sometime in the near future, there will be muffins when I open my oven.
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