Fear of Falling:
An Artists Life
Today, if you ask me who I am, or what I do, I will tell you easily
and naturally, I am an artist. It wasnt always easy.
It took years of doubt to get to this point, but I figured out how to
maintain my belief in myself as an artist, in the face of all obstacles.
Eventually, I began to also say, I am a designer,and I
am a teacher, leading me to want another two lifetimes to do it
all. I would like to share my conclusions with you, in the hope of making
your journey a little easier. You may recognize yourself in the following
When I was four years old, I started making pictures for the sheer joy
of it. I spent the long summer days drawing on a makeshift plywood table
in the back yard, completely enthralled. The sun would go down and all
my colors turn blue before I realized it was time to go in. I looked closely
at flowers and bugs. I drew horses and princesses.In junior high school,
my textbooks were filled with drawings; I illuminated the chapter headings
and drew dragons on the title pages. I drew what I saw in my mind
people turning into trees, a city on the back of a snail and it
seemed magical, this mysterious power to make beautiful things that did
not exist in real life. By the time I reached high school,
my talent had impressed my art teachers (and others), and when asked what
I wanted to be when I grew up, it was the most natural thing
in the world to answer I'll be an artist.
When applying to college, sending out my slides, and filling in the
part about my goals, it was more difficult to assert that I was an artist.
I was terrified. After all, by now I'd read enough and been taught enough
to know better. An artist was somebody like Picasso, or Jackson Pollack,
or Andy Warhol. A celebrity. A famous guy.
Later in college I realized that my figurative, surrealistic style was
unpopular among the faculty one teacher (the only female among
thirty art teachers) told me that I would never be taken seriously if
I continued to do representational work. She used the words 'dilettante'
and 'Sunday painter.' I overheard a (male) sculpture teacher telling a
small group of male disciples that they didn't need to worry about competition
from 'the girls' because ". . .they're just going to get married and make
babies." Since I didnt realize that I was already an artist, with
valid ideas Id been formulating for years, I wasnt ready to
question those judgements. To satisfy my teachers I tried to change my
style again and again and hated the results. My heart wasnt in it
and I lost my voice.
By the time I graduated, I had studied printmaking, jewelry, sculpture,
painting, 2- and 3-D design, anatomy, life drawing, ceramics, and more,
and earned a Bachelors degree in visual art, magna cum laude.
But for six agonizing years after college I could hardly make art. For
one thing, I was too tired to be creative always working or looking
for work or a place to live, and barely surviving. If I had children at
the time, the story might have ended right there.
Though not ambitious, I had somehow absorbed the idea that pursuing a
career was more important than creative activities, and the
adult thing to do. I had sold some drawings and prints in college, but
that seemed accidental, rather than a career choice. Pitifully unprepared
by my fine arts education to show or sell my work, let alone support myself,
the only marketable skills I had acquired were an eye for
composition, a willingness to work with my hands, and typing. So I made
molds in a dental lab, proofread blueprints at IBM and did layout and
design for a couple of ad agencies. Though I felt terrible anxiety because
I wasnt creating, I decided, Aha! Advertising must be the
career Im cut out for. Its something I know how to do.
In college I had been trained out of making art just for the fun of it.
Remember, now, art is a serious business. You're not supposed to
actively enjoy the pleasure of creation. It's work. On the other
hand, you're not supposed to worry about someday selling your work,
or even showing it because that shows a crass, commercial attitude. Just
concentrate on theory and make a meaningful statement about deconstructionism,
or form versus function, or the 'surface.'
Since my greatest joy in art was to create my own worlds, making a spiritual
connection to a larger universe, I hid my feelings about my work and didn't
talk to anyone about them. And now that I was out of college, I had even
lost the context in which to take art terribly seriously. I lost touch
with the student artists I had known. I had never joined an arts organization
and had no sense of community .
Though I still produced a few paintings and drawings for my own pleasure,
I stopped telling people that I was an artist, partly for fear they might
ask if Id sold anything, or what gallery represented me (which happened
often), and would find out that I was a fraud. A little voice kept telling
me I was no good, that my ideas werent important, serious ideas,
that I was just a girl, and a fraud, that I couldn't make money making
art, and that making art was a self-indulgent luxury. I told myself
to wake up and admit that I could never be an artist.
But being an artist had been the core of my identity, and now there was
nothing to fill the void (certainly not a career in advertising). The
less I painted, the worse I felt. I was seriously depressed for some years
before I finally became desperate enough to try to change my way of thinking.
In 1986 I decided to start a new life, one in which I could say I
am an artist to myself, and to anybody who asked, without excuses,
or feeling that I had to prove it. Since then, Ive been in dozens
of shows, worked in six art organizations, taught art workshops, and have
sold a lot of work. In order to arrive at this point I had to change my
approach to living life as an artist.
I admit to having uneven success at practicing what I preach (at right),
but even trying to put art first has made a tremendous, positive difference
in my life.
A NOTE ABOUT THE ART WORLD
to find the courage to create and the confidence to participate in the
art community is always difficult for a beginner. Aside from the
lack of political and community support for the arts in the United States,
there are class attitudes which consider art-making a luxury activity,
rather than a craft and a means of expression available to all.
This perception of art as a rare, high-brow
commodity is perpetuated by art purveyors, the auction houses and their
monied patrons who see a clear financial advantage in promoting the output
of a very few artists as an 'investment.' Just like real estate
dealers, art sellers make a profit per transaction. They directly benefit
by pushing some artists through boom and bust cycles, while ghettoizing
other artists and whole categories of style until they need to 'discover'
a major new talent.
As a result of these practices the bewildered
public only hears about a very few nationally-known artists like Hockney
or Koonts, both of whom are experts at non-stop self-promotion, aided
by their investors.The evident disdain of critics for local struggling
artists, combined with their adulation of the media pets, gives the term
"mixed-message" a whole new meaning.
Artists themselves share these perceptions and grapple constantly
with financial insecurity, isolation, lack of community support, feelings
of fraudulence, and a general sense of being doomed to failure.
art-makers in particular must overcome additional hurdles in a career
where success is intimately tied to self-expression, and where women and
minorities continue to be viewed as non-contenders or aberrations, as
in,"Her work is unusually strong for a woman artist." "In
spite of his lack of formal training. . ."
10-point Plan for Artist Survival:
Since your belief in yourself as an artist hinges on your ability
to create, you must put your creative time and resources ahead of all
other obligations in your life. If being an artist is central to who you
are, you must put that first. Everything else will follow.
1.) Tell people you are an artist. Say I am an artist
to your family, friends, mate, boss, or therapist
artistic, or Im trying to be an artist, or Im
an account executive but I like to paint. To be able to say it with
confidence you have to start by saying it at all. Try, "I'm an artist,
and I'm currently supporting my artistic career with work in another field."
This tells people what you think is important about yourself. Not your
day job, because one year youll be saying I am a salesperson,
the next year Im a legal secretary. Then who are you?
How will other people believe in your artist self enough to support your
If you want to make being an artist possible,
make the commitment, take a leap of faith. If you cannot tell people that
you are an artist, it will be impossible to do the other things you need
to do to make it come true.
2.) Make art your first job. If you are very lucky, you might
get a paying job in a related field fabric design, teaching art,
illustration. But if you have a job you barely tolerate because you need
the money, you must set aside a large chunk of time in which to be creative
or youll go crazy. Cut back on your hours or work part-time! Making
art is your first job. Its a real job, no matter how little money
you make doing it. (The IRS is happy to confirm this!) Other work, even
if it pays more, has to come second in your heart. Keep reminding yourself
and others that you have another, more important job to go to: creating
[I work in brief, very productive spells between long dry spells.
Since I cant schedule the creative urge, Ive arranged my job
to allow flexible creative time, whether I get the urge or not. A dependable
part-time job and paycheck have meant security. When I free-lanced as
a graphic artist I found myself spending my free time worrying
about the next job. With great difficulty, I also learned to refuse extra
work. Being firm about my commitment to my career as an artist eventually
convinced my employers that it was a conviction worth respecting, even
if they didnt understand it.]
If you can, put in a couple of hours a month with an arts organization
or gallery. This is real work, if unpaid, that can get you art-world connections
and credentials. And you'll get to talk with other people who understand
what you do!
3.) Put your studio first in your living arrangements. If you
need to create where you live, because you work at odd hours or cant
afford a separate studio, then arrange your home around your studio. If
your living room is the biggest room with the best light, make that room
your studio, and dont worry about guests. Which is more important
to you, making art frequently or the occasional party? You can always
make your studio comfortable enough for visitors or family.) If you need
a separate studio, but cant afford one, move! Find or share a cheaper
apartment or share a studio.
4.) Put your creativity first in your relationships. If youre
not able to create, youll feel frustrated, resentful, unhappy, and
will be no good to anyone. If your friends or family want to know why
you need time in your studio instead of socializing or supporting them,
explain to them clearly (not defensively) that you are an artist, that
you take your work seriously, that it takes a lot of time, and that being
creative is important to your happiness and your future. They will begin
to respect your commitment. (If you need to be more specific, you can
say that you are working on a show, because you are always working
on a show.)
If your domestic partner or children are not
actively involved in your work, you must separate your creative time and
resources from them, by schedule or location, or you will be constantly
trying to choose between them
an impossible task.
Sometimes crises in your relationships are
more important than whatever you are doing in your studio. But if you
constantly use up creative time and energy putting out emotional fires
there will be nothing left to give to yourself or your work. You have
to draw a line somewhere.
[At one point in a difficult relationship I realized that I was spending
my time waiting around for the other person and was too anxious to create.
When I realized how many months I had been away from my work, I
was distressed. I was sacrificing who I was for the relationship. I told
my partner that I needed time and energy to be creative, and that I should
not be forced to choose between my work and our relationship. When this
was clear to me, it was clear to my partner, who became more supportive.]
5.) Make art part of your social life. Making art can get lonely.
Attend art events, meet and talk to other artists, join arts organizations,
and create a sense of community for yourself in which art is important.
When you are creating, you spend a lot of time by yourself and you can
lose your perspective. If you spend time with other people to whom making
art is a worthwhile enterprise, you will feel strengthened and encouraged,
and it will validate what you do when youre alone. You will also
make the connections you need to survive, and you will get information
about shows, grants, supplies, and a whole range of opportunities that
you might not otherwise hear about.
6.) Sell your work. If you want to reach the point where all
you do is make art, selling your work will be very important. Because
if you dont sell your work ,you will end up doing some other job
to make money (unless you are independently wealthy). You will use up
your creative time and energy in a job that does not engage your heart,
though it might exercise your intellect.
Never give your work away without thinking about it very carefully.
Your work is your life blood. It is the fruit of years of training and
effort, and is the foundation of your portfolio. When you give away a
work of art, you lessen the value of the rest of your work, partly because
you appear to value it so little. However, a donation to a cause that
is important to you can create good publicity about your work.
Be careful about accepting commissions. Make sure that you will be paid
enough to compensate for compromising or redirecting your creativity.
Dont take a commission unless you are very comfortable with the
medium and clear about the concept involved, or you will probably regret
To support yourself through art alone, you must accept that part of
your precious creative time and energy will be spent on marketing your
- 1.) improving your presentation (framing, portfolio, slides),
- 2.) publicity (invitations, mailing list, artist statement &
- 3.) showing (contacting galleries, competitions, holding your own
open studios), and
- 4.) getting funding (grants, loans, residencies, or, yes, a part-time
job.) If you need instruction or support in these areas, take a class
or join an organization like California Lawyers for the Arts, Artists
in Print or Artists Equity.
7.) Be true to your art/heart. You must not allow the intention
to sell your work change your style or subject matter. For one thing,
all the joy will go out of it. For another, your style, your ideas are
what make your work unique! If your work is currently unfashionable, you
may have to work harder and longer to show or sell, but eventually you
will find the right audience for your vision. People will not buy your
work on the basis of whether it is fashionable, or a good investment.
They will buy it because they respond to it, for reasons of their own.
The clearer you are about what you are trying to convey, and the more
faithful you are in translating your vision into your medium, the stronger
will be the response from your audience.
Dont dismiss any of your creative ideas,
no matter how trivial. Curiosity is your best friend. Most of the things
that interest us deeply are things we were curious about as small children.
(Einsteins interest in invisible forces began with a compass he
got when he was seven.) Hold on to all your ideas. Carry a small sketchbook
or notebook whenever you can. Often your subconscious will prompt you,
when playing or doodling, to pursue an idea that will later inspire you
to serious work.
8.) Take classes and workshops. You may temporarily lose your
inspiration or become discouraged about your current direction. You may
find it difficult to schedule creative time, or you may have absolutely
no self-discipline and succumb to every distraction that comes along.
Sometimes its hard to keep up connections to the art community.
In all these cases, a regular class will get your motor going again. You
will always be working on something, even if its only an exercise
in color, or studies in a new medium. Artists, like dancers, never stop
taking classes, never stop learning.
9.) Dont worry. Be happy. You do not need to be unhappy,
an alcoholic or crazy to see visions and make beautiful things. In fact,
the true symptoms of creative thinking are joy, curiosity, clarity, and
a single-minded, almost obsessive concentration.
Dont harp on mistakes or losses; theyre
part of your training and may inspire new work. Take joy in your ability
to solve these problems and to make use of interesting accidents. Your
interest in problem-solving may have gotten you into art in the first
Take dry spells in your stride or the anxiety
will interfere with the creative thinking that your subconscious is always
engaged in. Your subconscious is busy day and night, turning over ideas,
memories, dreams, and making connections. Let it work, while you do something
calming or playful, renew your energy. Remind yourself often of the joy
you feel while you are creating, your satisfaction in problem-solving,
your delight in making discoveries, your sheer sensual response to shapes
If you experience a creeping feeling of fraudulence, especially as you
get ready for a show or talk about your work, keep in mind that this is
a well-known fear among artists, similar to stage-fright. (Women artists
seem to suffer more acutely from this feeling.) Just roll with it; it
will pass. There is a little critic in the back of your mind that sounds
like all the voices of your family and teachers rolled into one. This
critic or censor is a part of you that is terribly afraid of failure,
and may whisper negative things in your ear to make you stop trying new
or risky things, in a misguided effort to protect you. Know it
for what it is, and ignore it.
Most important: every morning when you wake up, give yourself a minute
with your eyes closed, and say to yourself I deserve to be happy,
or I am a wonderful, prolific artist. If it doesnt come
easily, you need to say it more often. This is not just talk words
have power, and as the days go by, you will discover that they become
10.) Return to the source. If you ever lose your way, re-think
your priorities. What things are you putting ahead of your artistic self?
Is something else using up your creative time and energy? You may need
to make some of the changes Ive suggested above. Go down the list.
Or perhaps you simply need to take a break. Even a corn field has to rest
between crops, or it becomes drained of all nutrients and is no longer
suitable for growing things.
Always remember this, once you are an artist, you are
always an artist. Like swimming, you cannot forget how to create.
The source of your inspiration may occasionally seem hidden by the brambles
of daily life, but it is always there at your center, like a deep pool
of clear water, a spring welling up from the depths of your persona, self-renewing,
and waiting for you to plunge in.
- To support your creative process, read Drawing on the Right Side
of the Brain by Betty Edwards, and Julia Camerons The Artists
- To understand creative thinking from a psychological standpoint read
John Briggs The Fire in the Crucible.
- For practical advice about the business of art, read Toby Klaymans
The Artists Survival Manual. (Order directly from Toby
Klayman. $25 plus tax and plus $3 shipping and handling. email@example.com)
- To support your goal of achieving your dreams, read Barbara Shers
More books (suggested by John Jacobsen)
- The Blank Canvas by Anna Held Audette. An excellent (and small!)
introduction to learning how to work and overcome obstacles as an artist
- Art and Fear by David Bayles (and others). Another excellent
book about the same topic
- The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nikolaides. A classic text
- Books by Robert Beverly Hale. Beautiful series on classical figure
drawing illustrated with old master drawings
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