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Success in art February 10, 2004
Hardly an hour goes by without an email that uses the word "success." I've come to realize it means a lot of different things to different artists. Some consider simply feeling good about themselves to be the mark of success. Many get the good feeling just by producing a decent watercolour. Others think that success is wrapped up in something like a Porsche 911 Turbo.
For me a '38 Bentley is all I need--just kidding. But it does have something to do with self-vindication and self-actualization. In my case it was a matter of trying to get what these days is called "a life." I wanted to do something that I could live in. I observed clock-watchers who sold out short in what I considered to be unpleasant jobs. I wanted a mind-bending challenge that held my interest and fired me out of bed like a rocket. I didn't want compromise. Preferably I wanted everything I did to be my own thing. The idea of signing my name on things always appealed to me. I wanted to make a contribution and I wanted to enhance the lives of others as well as that of my family. All these wants were a tough order for a person who was known to be inadequate.
Then the problem of talent reared its ugly head. I found out that talent is what you make of what you have left after the other stuff fails. I also liked the type of work because it seemed like play. I was willing to work hard at play--lack of concentration at dull activities made sure of that. And I wasn't cut out for shopping. Shopping's a time-waster and a money-loser. I'm sorry, but staying out of stores is the thing. (I'm not talking about your regular tofu stores.) Non-spending is the path to security. That's how I got an idea about success. Success means having freedom. Freedom to follow your nose. You need freedom in order to create, and you need creativity in order to pay the price for your freedom.
Success may be a sticky business, difficult to pin down. I'm an authority on failure. Failure happens when you lose track of your chosen process.
PS: "Self-trust is the first secret to success." (Ralph Waldo Emerson) "No horse gets anywhere until it is harnessed. No stream drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows great until it is focused, dedicated and disciplined." (Harry Emerson Fosdick)
Esoterica: Anne Francoise Bayet of Couvin, Belgium, email is writing an essay about the influence of success on an artistic career. She sent some good questions and I'm wondering if you might help us out. "Is creativity a motive to reach success or is success a motive to create? In what way did success influence your art? Do you need success to exist as an artist? Does success inevitably include recognition? Could a successful artist be claimed as a complete artist?" (If you're writing to Anne, please copy to us at email Thanks for your friendship.)
Be sure to check our Archives for related material.
(RG note) Thanks to everybody who wrote to Anne and gave input on the subject of success. We were once again overwhelmed at our end. We have made a selection and we're going to call it a "special edition." Many excellent letters are being put into reserve and will be carried forward. Some of the letters are so brilliant and profound that we will someday include them in their entirety. Throughout all of this activity we have to keep in mind that your time is above all the most valuable commodity. This goes with an apology for some of our extensive editing. Thanks once again for your friendship...more RG notes...
Creativity is not a motive, it's simply an attitude of open-mindedness. Success is not
Window Sill Oil on canvas, 15 x 30 inches
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a motive, it's a matter of opinion. I have been influenced by paintings I have seen in books, and in museums, not because they defined success but because they suggested possibilities. For me, success is the freedom to spend my time as I wish. And free time is a necessity if you are to exist as an artist.
For a great many years now, I have viewed success as an artist as being known. Money doesn't really play into the equation; it is more of a by-product. I thought if people could look at my art and recognize that it was mine, that was true success; the greater the number of people who could do this, the greater the success. The only way for this to happen is to get the art into the view of many people.
I say that success has to do with my feelings about myself when I have used my God given gifts. If I don't use them--that is failure. If I use them and feel good about the process and the art then I am successful. If I can make a living selling these pieces of art...that is a different form of success. The first is necessary before the second is possible. For if I have not put a piece of my gift into its making, then it is not a genuine creative expression.
The moment I realized that I am an artist… it gladdened my heart and set me free.
Lorraine Acrylic on board, 9 x 12 inches
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I'm recognized as an artist in my own small territory and I think that it's because I'm a relentless painter. I have no idea if my art is good or great, except what I need to do to have a happy heart. I don't feel the urge to travel a lot or to have wealth or things that others have; I find my art takes me into many situations and homes and social affairs that are interesting and rewarding. As a painter, I don't need any diplomas or credentials to break the ice… I just need to be me. I've found my way in life and am accepted wholly for what I am. Art has made my life a beautiful place and I feel truly successful.
When I first started at Ohio State University, I was going to be an art teacher. I quickly learned that teaching was not for me, even though it ran in my family. Fear of not being able to make it as a fine artist lead me to a more "stable" career of Graphic Arts. It pays the bills--but sitting in front of a computer all day has the fulfillment of a wet sock... I just can't wait to get it off at the end of the day. You need success in your mind. Perhaps for some it is doing the activity perfectly. In my case, it is to experience as much as possible. Ultimately, sure I would like it to be perfect, but it is the process that I find most rewarding. Success is branching out and trying something new. I need success as an artist... as a person, otherwise I am completely empty and bored. Sure, I love it when other people appreciate my efforts, but--if I haven't enjoyed the process then I don't consider it a success.
One of the things I think is most difficult for many of us artists is allowing ourselves to succeed. Maybe it's individual, more related to our early life and self-confidence as children, but for some of us, success is almost a form of threat. Get good and you will have a gallery ordering you around, pushing you to do what sells over and over again. Get good and people will have major expectations of you. You will be asked to give talks, etc. And if that success does not last (you are this year's fad) then you are faced with the discouragement of being pushed aside. None of these things are real problems, just fears of sorts, and sometimes artists will go a long ways not to "stick out" too much (as in the old slavic saying "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down"). I find this a lot more with female artists than male, though I'm not sure I could say why.
Success is being in demand but still having control of your life. Being able to paint
The Hygienic Galleries outdoor mural, 30 x 50 feet
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what you want and having it greatly accepted for its skill, content, and artistic innovation by the people who matter and ignored by all the rest. Success is second cousin to survival. Mostly I feel like a lone warrior. To me a successful artist paints what he or she wants to paint. It's about 'Individual Creative Self-expression'. Oscar Wilde said, 'the artist should never try to be popular. Rather the public should be more artistic.' Whenever I compromise my standards the result is always weakness, arising from a diffused purpose. Should I paint it my way or their way? Painting it my way is tough enough.
Success is a kind of peace of mind. This peace usually stems from the idea of security
Valentine Wall-mounted Bronze edition
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and community (an understanding of the big picture and how I fit into it). Creativity is problem solving. Solving a problem makes me feel successful. Feeling successful is positive reinforcement for good behavior. I want more of that, so I get motivated to repeat my good behavior and create again. Success gives me the feeling of abundance and acceptance, which creates a safe atmosphere for more creativity. Success tells me that my ideas work and I should continue to explore and expand my visions. Do you need success to exist as an artist? Yes. Does success inevitably include recognition? Yes. Self-recognition comes first. Connecting with someone else is also necessary.
Ahead of her time Odette Gabriel Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada, email@example.com
My prime motivator is living life in full. I feel very contemporary and yet also a bit
unwinding series Acrylic on plywood, 24 x 24 inches
ahead of my time. Most of the ideas in my work end up becoming popular notions a few years after I have investigated them. Probably this is due to my personal intensity, and that I take time for contemplating. It also helps that I am totally in love with curiosity and seeking truths, thus the contemplative solitude is a place where I can stay for very long periods. I do not cling to the physical aspect of art production. I am only interested in the doing, the intellectual challenge and the near instant emotional pay off; all the rest is just fluff. Although I will admit that I've learned that when non-artists gaze at my work (or any work of art) they get good feelings -- so hey, if that's what I'm here for, to make people feel better, then knowing that I have done so is a good enough measure of success!
Rejection before recognition Barbara Schaefer, Brooklyn, NY, USA, LorcaB@aol.com
The work itself is what's successful or not. And an artist knows when her or his work
Finestra del Sogno #2 Acrylic on canvas, 47 x 42 inches
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works. If not they're in trouble. Whether the work is accepted or rejected is another story. How many times have you heard of great works of literature and art being rejected innumerable times until someone miraculously recognized them? This I tell myself when I want to give up.
Growth has always been easy. Read, do seminars, work consistently, network, find a mentor. Recognition has been hard. I have come to the conclusion that I must receive recognition from myself that what I am creating - I like. With this knowledge (and sometimes I have to actually write down what I like in my work to remain focused) I can continue to create what pleases me and discard what doesn't. In this manner I am allowed to grow and get recognition from myself. About the success part -- I think we need to feel true to ourselves first, because opinions and trends always change. "Is success a motive to create?" I don't believe you can stop a truly creative person from doing whatever it is that drives them - whether or not they receive money or recognition for it.
Success for me would be making enough money to live comfortably and continue to
Shadow Rock - Ausable River Watercolor, 30 x 18 inches
pursue my passion. To be self-reliant and be able to put my son in school. Basically, to live on my art without the need for a "true job". If my family isn't comfortable, I can't be. Guilt and need overcomes self-indulgence.
Success? Why strive for something that is second rate by definition: The Latin
Madonna Embrace Natural, riverine pebble
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derivation of succeed is "to go under," "to follow after." Successes, in their inexhaustible and subjective multiplicity, defy - and belie - accurate description and objective existence. No less Art. Attached please find a completely natural, riverine pebble, an object of Japanese/Korean-style 'stone appreciation'. Is it Art? No. It is not an artifact of human hand. But is my soul immediately transported when I experience that little stone… YES! Art and Success are ineffable modes of living. Artifacts by themselves are merely ambiguous.
I was interviewed and the reporter asked me what it was like to be such a success. I responded by saying I am a success because I do what I love and I do it everyday. I also speak at seminars to young artists about marketing and promotion. I'm convinced that the best way to learn is by teaching. It is also by teaching that we are a success.
Creative expression is a must for my well-being. Creativity is in my soul and I connect with the infinite in the process of creativity. So although on one level I was trying to fit into the world through a career in art or as you say success, I found creativity leads me on powerfully and instinctively. Artists are never complete. They can experience contentment, even experience bliss regularly, but they are continuously evolving with the life and work of art. The life of an artist requires that kind of flexibility, stamina and courage. That is the beauty of it. An artist's life is invigorating not stagnant.
For me success is all encompassing. It is every part and aspect of the whole: working
Fortunato Acrylic on masonite, 30 x 24 inches
in art and producing work which holds my interest months or years beyond its conception; mounting a show which has a cohesiveness and is engaging, evocative and stimulating to the viewer. Plus a show which sells is part of the whole and all these aspects I find not only important but necessary. Selling work is as important as every other aspect of being an artist because this allows for the resources to keep working. And the feeling of well-being knowing your efforts have produced work found desirable and in turn supports your ability to continue to be who you are: a working artist. For me when one part of the whole in terms of how I define success is missing, then I do not feel successful or fully realized as an artist; it is that fundamental.
To be a true artist, one is willing to go out on a limb and survive by whatever means possible. This means having the basics: shelter, food, a place to work. Luxuries are nice but unnecessary and distracting. Being an artist is not a choice, it is what we do because we must. It is self- fulfilling and gives our life a purpose. Most often it is what we do best. When we work, time is not measured. Our thoughts tunnel. In creativity there is euphoria.
It could be said that each day that we are allowed to create our art is a success. Of
click image to enlarge
course, recognition of our work, talent and abilities can fuel further growth and more art and that too is successful. I don't know too many artists who don't want those in some degree. However, to some who do not live this life, if it does not bring fame and fortune, it could be said we are not successful. An artist's frustrations are legion enough without having to be measured by another's benchmarks and yet we allow that to happen. Our insecurities plague us when we least need it. A question is: can we live by our own definition of success or must we labor under an imposed standard, not our own, of success? I think we have to answer that one individually.
Success is an attitude. It reflects one's belief system. I agree it has something to do with self-vindication (self-justification) and self-actualization. It also has to do with how one validates process and product experiences. When life throws me a curved ball, and I lose my place, it is my "chosen path" that guides me back, and I rejoice in the smallest of successes in getting myself back on track.
To do this requires a lot of compromise, a willingness to accept the smallest of success, while having an unquestionable belief that things would "heal" in time. Refusal to accept compromise, at times, can be self-defeating, and has, in the past, led me into the abyss of the black hole. Success is being all you can be while moving forward. At the moment, I cannot mark my successes with linear achievements that are highly regarded by society. That may come. But, being at peace with oneself is quite possibly the most important success.
My criteria for success is doing what I love -- having the freedom to do so, and be my
OCEAN KEEPER Mask
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own guide. And I totally agree that not shopping is a way. But my rent is paid by art work out of my focus...stuff I don't want to do. And for which others call me successful. So I am right in the middle of being called a successful artist, and I feel like a failure. It steals my sleep, it makes my body ache. Now you gave me words to understand my current situation, and maybe explain myself to others - because they find it very hard to understand my current artist-depression.
Here are some things that I consider successes in my art career: Still liking a painting
A New View of the Flatirons Giclee print, 11 x 14 inches
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a few years after you painted it. Seeing a painting go to someone who really appreciates it. Discovering something new, however small, during the painting process that is exciting. Conquering problems and challenges in painting. Enjoying color, finding new ways to use it. Persisting when roadblocks threaten to stop you from painting. Finding ways to share my art with other people, and keeping the "teachable" side of myself alive. If a painter has these things to be thankful for, success can be an everyday occurrence.
I was 50 years old in 1980 when I started to make a living at my art. I'm a realist in
Yet Grasses Grow Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
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every way, real in my painting, real in my expectations, real in my attitudes that one has to work for a living. So - success to me was being able to pay my rent, buy my supplies, buy my groceries. It has worked for me, and I did not have to go into print, did not have to compromise myself in any way! I had my own gallery, worked at anything possible, like gardening, waiting on tables, house-cleaning, during my "off-hours". Success for me is not having my works in the downtown galleries. I do not need to see my name or my art in the news or be featured in the media! My success has been in the support of my small-town citizens buying my work, recognizing me on the street, teaching other up-and-coming painters the value of doing honest work, having people come to me and telling me that they own something they bought in 1981! My success is getting an email from a distant city saying that they were given a pen-and-ink drawing of mine and that it has a place of honour in their home!
To be successful and to sell paintings is a big reward. An artist needs the interchange
Memories of Ixtapa Watercolour, 24 x 30 inches
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of the art lover. Whenever I have people coming to my studio and they enjoy my art it gives me a boost and keeps me painting. But even if I did not sell any more paintings, I would still be moved to paint. Sometimes I look at the big pile of my paintings I have stored and I think, do I need another painting. But then I remind myself that I paint for the joy of it all. My happiest hours are spent in my studio. When I spend several hours in my studio I put Mozart, Beethoven or Vivaldi on my disk player, then I retreat into my own world, for which there is no substitute!
As an artist I have always been drawn to things that are larger than life. Things that
The Flowering of Genius
take on a meaning beyond themselves and fill us with memory and emotion, embodying the spirit of a dynamic time or celebrating a special event and the best of human achievement. The theme running through all my work is greatness; something far beyond the ordinary. I find this same spirit in children, and in my own creative research I find this collation between the masters such as Montessori, Edison, Einstein, Franklin and DaVinci. Related to the child, their work became play that they were committed to and worked for hours--a lifetime devoted to their passion. The bad news in the world has motivated me to want to create good news. That should get equal time. I believe the desire of all good people is greater knowledge.
...More responses to Anne Francoise's questions...
Jamie Lavin, email "Janet says that since I took my art seriously and went into it full time, our life is so much better for it. For example, there's no need to rush dinner, since I'm home to cook it."
Phil Carroll email "The one thing I say to myself everyday and that keeps me going as an artist and a human when in times of doubt: "Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt." (William Shakespeare)."
Cindy Sue Hansen email "If success means being happy, I'm already there."
Janet M Trahan email "To grab as many of those wondrous ideas that flow in your brain and play with them as a child, passing over the need for the final goal only to come upon it through the fun of the process. That is success of the artist."
Doug Mays email "Painting a watercolour allows me to pursue happiness. I measure success not by the number of cars in the garage or the dollars in my investment portfolio but rather by the happiness and contentment that accrues through my artwork."
Sharon Coverstone email "My view of success is when your heart is filled with the warm glow of peace and joy at the same moment. A beautiful winter/spring day is out there... I want to find the little green sprouts. "
Janet Toney email "Your letters let me know "I ain't the only one!" Since no one else in my immediate family is "artsy", they usually don't know what the heck I'm talking about when I get going on colors and the way things look, etc. My family is my success, but not all there is to me."
Scarlett Decker email "How does one define "success" in art? … a nod by those in my field who do the same type of art (contemporary) that I am one of them. Pretty simple but not easy to achieve."
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