Artists are, I would say requisitely so, filled with doubts every day they work. We get it from outside in the form of people and family questioning our choices in pushing the arts, and from inside as we question ourselves our work, what we’re doing and where we’re going. Part of that is as I said, essential to the practice, but it can easily and often suffocate us beyond the point of being of aid to anything at all. We all wrestle with it in different degrees and in different volumes regardless of our station in the business and career of art. It’s important to remember that: no one at any stage of their career is free of these doubts and whisperings coaxing us towards surrender and failure. no one. The most important thing in navigating these waters is to always always ALWAYS remember, that these are choices. You have agency, total and complete in deciding how to proceed or if to at all. You may not be able to control how people see and receive your work, but you are Zeus on Olympus when it comes to every other choice that brings you to that moment, and what to do after that moment has passed. It’s never easy but I think that’s the point and great benefit of art making. There’s an inherent challenge to it. It’s a goal that is definitionally hard to grab hold of and because of that you are made worthy, through the grueling internal and external process of experience, made worthy of holding it once grabbed. The struggle is the value and the achievement only a mere benchmark along the path of more struggles.
The alarm bells that warn us when we’re straying our of the comfort zones are signifiers of doing so and important to hear and then disregard. They can serve and should only serve as boundary m markers, because that’s really what they are. because it’s important for us to pursue the untamed wild lands in our creative souls, it helps to know where they are. A lot of artists make the mistake of hearing those bells as a call to stop and turn back rather than a beacon to steer into and hit the gas. As someone whose seen a lot of work, taught a goodly sum of students and young and new artists, I can speak I think for a lot of us older folk by saying we always prefer and delight at seeing the rough unfinished, and not-altogether-successful-landing of a young artist pushing into a new voice or a new territory than one who hides under the the blankets of their honed tradecraft and polished skillset. It’s a natural thing to chase tradition, but only if it’s clothing worn temporarily before discarding for something else. it’s a bountiful thing to embrace genres of work, or ways of making pieces that one can see precedent for in our admired masters, but only if we are later to be killed off by the push beyond it. Art for all of us is a baton race that only works when we realize we’re not the ones racing, the baton is, and we’re just there to help it forward and deliver to the next runner as best as we can manage.
The above portrait for the first volume of Tor’s hardcover release of Nnedi Okorafor’s BINTI trilogy, was such an example for me. Very difficult and nervous job to get: take a series of books that were benchmark popular, who have all been covered by the great Dave Palumbo so deftly as to become iconic, and be a material I have already made a short series of covers for in a foreign edition, and do it again, but carve new ground. It kept me up at night, it forced me to rethink everything. But the process and the pressures forced me to question so much come back to the fore and keep the lane’s intact while pushing my process into utterly new realms. This particular image means a great deal to me because it pushed me into a new process of paint and mixed media, and color in a way I would have never gotten there without the forced challenge the job entailed. It was again, like so many other gigs I am gifted with, a say yes before I had a chance to realize how many good reasons there were to say no to it. Say YES and figure out later works most of the time as a rule, though even when it fails and it sometimes does, you still fail forward for at least in being put through a crucible that forges new ways of working and being an artist.
As for those of us who are just starting out, as young kids, older students, out-of-school early career folk, you know what I mean when I say that even if you are blessed with family that supports your desire to pursue a life in art, most around you will be worried, fret needlessly, and warn you off as a danger to pursuing a more secure and legitimate career path. Lucky for you all these days, the old institutions of what a proper career is have collapsed. The old arguments to have a backup plan or a degree in something more “legitimate” ring hollow the moment you look around and see how unreliable and stable those crumbling institutions are. When I graduated high school, I went to Pratt on an architecture scholarship, crazy as that sounds now. One cause was that I had in my senior year of high school at HSPVA in Houston, TX, a single architecture class that eschewed straight edges floor plans and engineered building forms in lieu of seeing architecture as creating sculpture for the human form to interact with. The buildings should be like paintings you can walk through… light, shadow, weight and air all intermixing to deliver and encourage an emotional response, whether that’s fear, joy, escape or spirit. (The fact of what architecture is as an industry for the most part the entire opposite sadly). That all made sense to me as an art student, but I’ll confess mostly I was glad to receive the scholarship because it seemed like a legitimate career choice, and one my parents could understand and approve of. When after the first year I dropped out and went into the painting department at Pratt, I was told in all manner of voice and volume it was a disastrous choice. It took years for that to ever be accepted and even to this very day as I write this after running an expanding career of working with giants and being able to raise two boys and support a family in a house that should legitimate any normal-job person and family, my choice in art is still seen largely as a dalliance they hope I will soon grow out of and get a real job. Seriously. It just never stops, but it’s an attitude that gets dustier with each passing year. I challenge anyone to name me a career choice that isn’t now in some ways less stable than art. More so treacherous it may promise stability falsely. If I had continued in architecture instead of the world of creative design and sculpture for the form and permanence, I would find a career of CAD drawings of prefabricated block housing, McMansion reproduction and contractor work. Sure a few, extremely rare elites architects get to build a grand skyscraper or a rich man’s home int he Hamptons, but by and large most are stuck chugging out engineering work and are finding themselves laid off in droves and out of work for the most part throughout the industry. I don’t mean to poo-poo architecture specifically, but only as a personal example of the false promise of what a “legitimate” career path truly is as compared to one of art. The trouble with one over the other is that the “legitimate” path promises a lot of empty bags and false hopes and the art path promises none of these things as a basic. There’s a freedom and truth in involving yourself in a career that screams from every corner in every age, that it is unlikely to bear the kind of career fruit one might hope for that I respect over the oasis illusion of one that does but doesn’t and can no longer deliver. Maybe it’s a misery-loves-company thing, or simply that the field has become more leveled as a result of the collapse of the career job, but the simple result is that in a land without the formal structures and boundaries artists have a leg up: this is where we are born and where we live.
The most treacherous era where our doubts come in is how we do our work. Whether you’re at IMC this week getting the absolute best possible one-to-one input from brilliant career professionals, or posting online, chasing a gallery show, or book work, the doubts that keep us from truly finding our own personal singular voice is our greatest threat. No matter how disappointed your Dad is for not getting a real job and “wasting” all that money on art supplies and lessons, the inner doubt is by yards and miles the greatest threat to your own success as a creative in the world. It’s a lonely fight and one for which there are no direct lessons to be applied from another’s struggles but there are commonalities that can help make your case against these demon monkey whisperings. The stakes are everything though and each battle is potentially the last battle, so it’s important to take this fight seriously. Looks t your work, the most recent one and ask yourself if you’ve carved new territory or that you stayed safe in a known corner. How often were you afraid while working? Which side won the argument while you were- the fearful or the bold contrarian? Do you feel energized to do another piece or are you exhausted by the one you just finished? Is there a sudden drive to do better or a resigned need to repeat?
In these fights our failures and successes can be used as weapons against our progress, equally. Our failures confirm the doubts and certainty that we aren’t up to the task. Our successes tell us we got lucky, or we need to try for that exact combination of elements to repeat it, or that we’ve hit our pinnacle and should stop climbing. In my experience the most common thought I have when walking around and looking at students work is “what are you waiting for?”. It’s a sense that they are at a moment of supreme potential, that many self-constrain, hold back, or niggle around the safe techniques rather than go fiercely and boldly forward. Small work artists keep making small work. Dragon painters paint another dragon. Horror genre fans manage yet another skull with a red light in the eye-hole, or landscape person paints yet another mountain or a beautiful cloud. When I call for something new and bold I don’t mean make a better dragon, or as a dragon person go and paint a marvelous cityscape necessarily, what I mean is to avoid the temptations of comfort and self congratulation. It’s entirely understandable to hold fast to given and safe areas of success, especially int he face of the barrage of internal and external doubt. But I beg of you… Stay frosty and bear forward against the winds that your instincts tell you to seek shelter from. The baton does not move forward from a sitting runner anymore than an artist’s career excels through hovering over the same landscape forever. As you get older and your natural ability to think differently begins to slow down… the inevitable weight of personal conservatism creeps in… it gets harder anyway. Don’t hate these young vibrant days playing it safe and assume your boldness will find it’s feet later when you’ve established a career. For god’s sake light a fire and burn your world down every year at the very least, creatively. Returning to form is the ideal of the manufacturer, not the artist. You are not here to make another series of products, that’s craft, not art. Build beyond yourself, leash techniques and expertise to wildness and purpose rather than a celebration of their own abilities. slash and burn and find your own voice amidst the din, rather than tap your toe to another’s drum beat.
It’s easier to get along and go along, but that’s not your job here.
You come into this thing with your voice intact and present. Like Michelangelo carving away all the bits of marble that aren’t the sculpture inside the block, so too is your own personal voice and vision. It’s already in there- find it. Trust your sensibility without falling into presumption and arrogance about its value. Listen to your teachers, and portfolio reviewers when their advice begins to repeat across different sessions and years. Witness the patterns of yourself and break them as an exercise whenever you can and slowly but absolutely surely, your voice will become clearer to you, and your work will be better stronger and mightier as a result. Investing in yourself is at its least ebb a financial event, and at its most potent one of personal growth challenge and intent. Allow yourself to be changed only so that new plates can be undercut later for a climb to another cliff. Fall, crash and fail and learn from those moments. We all of us have them, whether we Instagram those moments or not, believe me we do, (more than any of us care to admit fully). The only thing you need to succeed in art is what you already possess, so go find it, future it and grow it. At the end of it all the rest of the usual qualifiers, the famous people you work for and with, the acclaim and prizes that flow from every corner, none of these matter if your a simple puppet to convention or form. The work is never fed by comfort and we don’t ever learn, as an act of our basic evolved physiology, learn from success. Don’t chase failure necessarily, but invite its potential by chasing something that scares the shit out of you. And then be prepared to do it again. If you’re lucky you get to keep doing this. If you’re miraculously blessed you get to do this as your job, and if you can get away with doing this right to the skeleton days and no one managed to stop you along the way, then you are Zeus. In the end, reaching for Olympus and dying along the way is a far better life than huddling agains the possibility go getting there in the shaded village below. Throw the lightening, don’t live in fear of being its target.