The Ship that Sailed

Photographer: Mike Barnett

I have a student I’m tutoring to help her prepare her art school portfolio, and I mentioned Sarah Sze to them as an artist to look at in terms of composing seemingly unrelated objects together into fluid and dynamic compositions. Sze is an artist I’ve admired for many years and I’ve followed her career with great interest. Curious about Sze’s most recent work, I found myself looking at images of her work on Instagram.

Big mistake.

I acknowledged a few years ago that in terms of the capital A art world, the ship had sailed for me. While there are a few artists who do find success in the art world much later in life, I think those artists are the exceptions.  If you’re not in the Art world by the time you’re 35, the ship is gone, and it’s not coming back.

I spent a long time (way too long) grieving over the Art world career I pursued for so many years, but you can only do that for so long without going nuts. Starting helped me move on and try to find a new purpose and meaning as an artist.

When I think about how different my life is since starting, it’s really quite remarkable. let me to leave the bubble of academia and made my world so much bigger than I ever imagined. I’ve met so many people I would otherwise have never interacted with, I’ve traveled internationally, I have a consistent lecture schedule, collaborated with artists of all ages, received comments from my audience that make me tear up, and much, much more.

As much as there are visible, concrete results of that I am immensely proud of,  there’s still an tiny itch that comes back to haunt me now and then.

That itch tells me that the reason I didn’t “make it” in the Art world is because as a fine artist, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t stick it out and try long enough, and that it’s my own fault because I gave up.  I’ll be the first to admit how toxic this thinking is, and I really should know better after all these years to even go there.  But it’s hard not to when I pick up that RISD alumni magazine, when an article shows up on social media and I read about my peers and colleagues who did make it into the Art world, who won MacArthur grants, who are tenured professors.

The vast majority of the time, I’m so immersed in that the itch might as well not exist.  As a project, has grown to the point that it’s so much bigger than me, and it’s roller coaster ride that is thrilling, challenging, stimulating and exciting all the time. I’m grateful that I was in a place in my life where a project like that was possible, and I couldn’t be more proud of my team at for everything we have accomplished together over the past few years.

For all those reasons, it’s generally not difficult for me to ignore that itch, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less on the days that I can’t. is a free website for learning visual arts which features video tutorials, art critiques, and more.


12 thoughts on “The Ship that Sailed

  1. I know this is going to sound selfish, Clara, but I am SO glad ‘that ship sailed’ if it means you never would have started ArtProf had you ‘got on’ that ship.

    In my youth, I had faint hope I had enough talent, barely any awareness and little opportunity to know there was such a ship, let alone to consider boarding it.

    At 61, after a lifetime of faithfully fulfilling ‘that which was put before me’, I have arrived at ‘re-firement’, which state of life I hope to be filled with art, visual, written and vocal.

    That hope, in no small part, is fanned to fire, by ArtProf.

    Watching you work and teach at the same time with such incredible energy and the privilege of viewing your beautiful personal work [thinking of the age-themed ones with peeling paper layers] …I cannot adequately express my joy, nor how you have encouraged me.

    We all have gifts and I do not think the world is necessarily the best judge of them.

    Every week, I listen to a radio broadcast called In Concert in which the host brings to light composers and their music which, though absolutely stunningly gorgeous, for various reasons, were lost to the world stage.

    Recall Emily Elizabeth Dickinson who, after a brief training in a women’s seminary, returned home to write poetry in reclusive isolation. Her cache of 1800 poems was not found until after her death.

    I also like to remember Grandma Moses, who lived and loved her ordinary life until her 80s…then, discovered her art…and then the world discovered her.

    Do not, do not lose heart, Clara. You are so much more than the world can judge.

    1. Thank you for your “selfish” comment, that is such high praise and I seriously walked around with a little glow around me for the rest of the day because of your comments!!

      Glad that you mentioned Emily Dickinson and Grandma Moses, hearing their stories is really lovely.

  2. Clara, I was in the same kind of situation. It took several years away from academia for me to come to terms with not having achieved a tenure-track position, and all the grand CV entries. With a great deal of effort, I’ve finally distanced myself from thoughts of those trappings and am focused on getting back the pure enjoyment in making art that I lost somewhere along the way.

    1. Thanks for sharing Susanne, I really appreciate hearing your experience, makes me feel less crazy for feeling the way I do. I suspect that unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for many people who are in academia, especially in today’s climate when the vast majority of faculty at colleges and universities are largely adjuncts.

  3. Hello Clara,

    I have that same gnawing nausea when I receive our alumni magazine. I went to the School of Visual Arts (albeit for graphic design) and after about ten years washed out for various reasons. I spent the past 10+ years languishing in obscurity when I had a “get busy livin’ or get busy dying” moment. Returning to my love of drawing this past summer, I watched your video creating a still life in crayon. That video turned into a weekly ritual of going to the market and finding the most twisted, swollen and collapsed looking peppers to draw. It’s helped me knock off some rust, polish up and improve. For all of that I’m grateful you decided to take out your own boat.

    1. Hi Luis,
      Wow that’s so great to that my crayon video helped you get back into drawing! Glad to hear I’m not the only one who dreads the alumni magazine… 🙂

  4. The famous fine artist is certainly the more celebrated and glamorous boat, but I believe that the Artprof boat will eventually have a greater impact on a great number of people. Teaching is a noble professional that doesn’t get the respect it should in Western culture (comparing it to Chinese/Taiwanese culture). You have (1) a real gift for teaching (both in passing on knowledge and creating excitement around making art), and (2) have the heart and teacher-ly drive to want to make art instruction available to everyone regardless of whether they have the financial means to go to art school or not. That’s a powerful combination!

    That doesn’t mean you have to give up pursuing your own art, but you have found at least one amazing boat, which many of us will continue to search for.

  5. Ditto on the comments above.

    Your ship has sailed to where the map said “unknown”, “here be dragons”, rather than staying on the predetermined routes to locations that may seem safe and secure but are also predictable. You’ve forged a path that enriches, empowers and educates around the globe. Education should be about ability to learn, not ability to pay. Being an inspiring teacher is not second-best, it’s a whole new level of best, and it will feed back around into your own art. Don’t buy into the it’s all over by 35 bs; it’s over when you’re dead.

  6. I’m new to your site, still exploring. So far: WOW! ::applause:: But at 67 I’m not new to art or to feeling grief over the kind of situation you’re talking about here. After several careers I’m finally letting my art wings expand and every time they get flapping I bash into a wall of youth. How old is the oldest emerging artist? Bwahaha! No clue. I hope it’s someone who’s 68. 🙂

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