To be successful as an artist has no exact definition, much like in any profession, but there are several clear indicators that one is successful. Your work sells, you are featured in shows, you are written about, you as asked to do commissions, etc. You can have all of these happening or just some and be very successful.
Or, there’s another way to analyze an artist’s success. An overlooked item that indicates success: being a master of your medium and making art because it comes from an inner drive to create.
There are not a lot of true masterful artists. I know a few. They are epic in their talent, hard work and dedication to being really good. They pursue their work with gusto, with chutzpah, with gal. But the thing is, I know is that even the masters struggle. Perhaps they just struggle better than the rest of us. I cannot know.
All I know right now is that my days in the studio, working away at my art, are a huge struggle. And they feel held down by the weight that many artists seem to languish under: fear, obscurity, ego, expectations and a profound sense of failure.
I walked into the studio this week for the first time in quite a while and actually felt like I knew what I was doing. OK, kinda sorta knew what I was doing. I made a piece I am so proud of, because it is truly beautiful. But it doesn’t fit in with the series of work I thought I was working on, the series of work that is now going to go to the dust heap of history, the literal trash, because I cannot stand to look at it or even think about it. This is a common occurrence for me: I think I will do a body of work that looks this one way, that explores this one thing, and them make a few pieces, realize it was a dud, and go back to making the work I already was making. Waste of paper, waste of paint, waste of time, waste of energy, waste. Then I feel like I’m wasting away as an artist; I need feeding.
I am told by other artists that process is never a waste, that, as one of my artist mentors once said, “Those paintings had to get made.” But that doesn’t mean the art was good, it was just necessary. (Oh, lord, NECESSARY? Like a vaccination or a physical or going to the dentist, it has to be done, for the maintenance of the artist? Get it over with and move on?) Like that, really?
As this sinks in as my reality, I am reminded that I because I don’t really feel like I have a choice except to be an artist. If I don’t make something, a part of me is not created. I don’t move, I don’t breathe, I’m just a robot. It is not just a part of my identity but how I interact with the world. Perhaps it is and is not a choice. I could stop doing this, but the thought of that seems horrible and crazy. Who does that? Who throws this away? I can’t.
Despite knowing this, the ego bears down on the artist with its fear and expectations, like a bully at the playground. The voice hammering, Why didn’t you sell anything? Why aren’t you represented by a gallery? Why is your work crap? Why doesn’t anyone write about you? And more questions. There are no answers to these questions, because we only have so much control over how the world perceives our work. You cannot force people to engage. They will do it if they want to.
I want to ask a better question. I want to ask, rather, does that artist need to make art? How hard do they work? How good have they gotten over the years, slogging away?
For if we, and I mean I, equate the worth of my work with only its ability to sell or gain recognition, it will lose something.
I will lose something.
Therefore, I keep going. I keep creating. I will fill my closets with art, hoping someone, someday buys it, gives it a home. But I cannot stop.
Guess I’ll just have to go back to the studio.
Happy painting, friends.