One of the most profound moments of my artistic career happened not with a great mentor or inspiring artist. It happened, instead, with a professor I quite detested at the time for their negativity, cynicism, and angst. I never took another class from her, in fact. But their advice to me in that moment was one that has stuck with me to this day, and I still think of it often.
In my first semester of graduate school, I struggled to find my voice as an artist, flitting from style to style and media to media like a toddler exploring a room filled with new toys. I did not stay with any one thing for long. My lack of focus was frustrating, for how do you get a grasp on creating an entire master’s thesis when you cannot commit in the span of one artwork?
One of these professors said something to me at a studio visit towards the end of the semester that encapsulated what I was struggling with quite succinctly. During a weekly studio visit, the professor looked at all the work I had created, and said, point blank:
“At some point, Julia, you will have to just make the art you are going to make, and you are going to have to be OK with that.”
Say that again?
You will just have to make the art you make, and you are going to have to be OK with that.
Both revelatory and a shock, this was a lesson that has slowly sunk in over the years. What this professor meant was: be the artist you are. Don’t be someone else– not your famous professor, best friend from art school, or that guy who randomly picked up a paintbrush one day and now sells paintings for $20,000 a pop. Not the Pop artist, or the friends whose art involves tagging the neighborhood. Don’t make someone else’s work; make yours, and be OK with that.
It has taken me decades of work as a painter and printmaker to hold my focus, creating abstract paintings and prints that explore my fascination with science and nature. Only once I stopped flitting about in the studio, and buckled down to a series that could sustain me for years, did I start to feel my confidence as an artist grow. These years of dedication were affirmed recently, when I met with a gallery director, who said to me, “You just keep your style, your palette, your vocabulary.” She said that if I don’t, my work is not authentic. And authenticity is something I value as much as beauty and craft.
So, be brave, artists. Just keeping making YOUR art.