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June 2015

The Other Side of Vulnerability

I’ve talked before about a workshop I attended, and how important it is for an artist to seek out new experiences to further their understanding.  Sometimes it feels as if doing such a thing is a great risk.  You know the sort of self-talk that goes on about fitting in or painting anything worthwhile or absolutely failing.  It requires opening that soft spot where you are truly vulnerable and human.

I recall attending the first evening event where students met up with old friends and new instructors.  I am awkward in such situations, but I had been contacted by a fellow blogger who was also attending, so I scanned the name tags until I had an opportunity to introduce myself to her.  Her look was blank.  I expanded beyond my name and mentioned the blog and her emails.  Still nothing.  As polite moments of conversation followed, I realized she had no idea who I was. 

Immediately following, one of the mentors passed by and asked if I had met any of the instructors yet.  Since I had not, she offered to introduce me to Rose Frantzen. 

Shaking hands, I mentioned that, yes, this was my first workshop, and I wasn’t sure what to do.  “Really?” she asked, and then announced that I should follow her back to the studio so she could show me “what it’s all about.” What followed was a ten minute one-on-one instruction period where I sat beside one of my major artistic influences and watched her paint.   

Awkwardness is part of our experience. Too often we use it to avoid risk. Life doesn't ask us to look inward, but outward toward all the possibilities that exist.  Vulnerability is born out of fear: the other side of vulnerability is generosity.

I was reminded of that experience when I recently came across this article by Jerry Fresia, titled 5 Ways to Develop as an Artist.  Here is an excerpt:

And it is when you cannot be bothered with product, you will look about the studio and find a few pieces that have a life. Your life. And so you gather them up and market them. And then after 30 years of painting, you will have had a career and the “later” you will have emerged. You will have grown. And you will have been an artist.

And it starts by taking the risk to be vulnerable. 


Creating a Nurturing Environment: Tips for the Self-Mentoring Artist

Years ago I went to the Impressionist Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, where I discovered the artist Marie Bracquemond.  The reclusive Marie had great talent, but her career was brief.  She was married to the famous conservative engraver, Felix Bracquemond, who, according to historical records, was resentful of Marie's friendship with Impressionist greats such as Monet, Degas, and Gauguin. Over the years Marie endured intense artistic criticism from her husband, and became discouraged over the constant strife.  Her painting, Portrait (Lady in White),  was exhibited, along with On the Terrace at Sevres, in the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, but she exhibited only one more time with the Impressionists, in 1886, before she ceased painting altogether in 1890.  According to the art critic Gustove Geffroy, Marie was "one of the three great ladies of Impressionism," but she eventually succumbed to her husband's disapproval.  Consequently, there are few Bracquemond paintings in public collections.

Life as an aspiring artist is complicated.  With all the misconceptions about an art career, or success, or authenticity, it's impossible to navigate the pitfalls without some kind of comfort and support. Partners can be our staunchest supporters, but they also present our biggest challenges.  Emotional conflict is uncomfortable, requiring us to be our own best mentors, navigating between a passion for art and a passion for family.

  • Painting is an extension of who you are.   While the drip drip drip of disapproval from others can be demoralizing, unless we acknowledge that art is not a priority for everyone, we will never be able to escape the need for approval.  The work you do in the studio isn't about impressing your partner.  It's about your humanity and your ability to express that in a visual form.  Focus on the value in what you do: prioritize it the same way others value traditional wage-paid work.
  • Honor your partner's needs, but ask for honor in return.  It's not easy for those who don't understand the intense drive that keeps the artist at the easel.  Art can be consuming.  But it's also beneficial to break from the work and enjoy the company of those around you.  Keeping your life in balance will help you keep your successes and failures in balance, and give you the resiliency to carry on. 
  • Work toward a simple form of financial security.  Take small steps to set aside the financial reserves you need to cover the cost of the materials that will allow you to create for a six month period.  If this means working and saving more, the pay-off is the lack of worry over money, as well as the independence of not needing permission to use joint resources if your partner is not supportive.
  • You define the value in your work.   By it's very definition, competition is a comparison of your work to that of others, and it can be exhausting.  Altering your mindset away from running after the successful artists and paying more attention to understanding your own intention will allow for greater growth.  Get feedback from those you admire, enter competitions, but for heaven's sake don't use it as a negative judgement of your own work.  Tell your insecurities to find someplace else to live, you have work to do. 

There is a seductive romance to the story of being an artist.  Life, though, is as real as it's going to get right now.  It is the daily effort, the small steps you take that matter, the personal relationships you honor and develop along the way.  Making art is part of what makes you human.  All the successes, support, discouragement and failures make up the steps in your journey from here to there.  It's at the heart of being an artist, the act of paying attention to what matters in the world, then showing it to others. There will always be mediocre work that gets attention, and great work that passes by unacknowledged.   But while it is about the work, it also isn't. It's about the purpose of life that isn't easily explained.