The Resilient Artist

One artist's path toward resilience and success.

Posted Jun 27, 2018

What makes an artist successful and resilient? The advice is full of contradictions: Pour your blood, sweat, and tears into your work. Maintain healthy boundaries. You must charge for your time. Don’t charge too much, you have to make a living. Don’t let money influence your expression. The customer is always right. Maintain your artistic integrity. You’re born with artistic talent. Art can be learned. Stick with it. Know when to call it quits.

Survival along the artist’s path is, for most, complicated, and for some downright tortured (think Van Gogh’s poor ear). To understand its complexities, I turned to an artist whose career spans over forty years. Someone who has experienced the ups and downs; the $20 commissions and the $2000 commissions. Someone who has stared down the pressure to give up the dream or push even harder, painting late into the night to help support her family. I needed someone who would let me probe deeper for the honesty that scares most professionals to reveal. Thankfully, my mom always answers my calls.

If I had expected straightforward answers I would have been disappointed. Maybe that’s not how the artists’ mind works. I know not to expect simple quotable responses. I expect contradictions. I expect answers that swerve and veer. Because we are all constantly evolving… sometimes while we’re on the phone. We circumnavigated a lifetime and here’s where we landed:

Were you born with the creative drive? 

I was one of four siblings. We all had the ability and opportunity to express artistic creativity, yet I was the only one who did. We had the same parents, the same DNA, yet I was the only one who took off with drawing at age four or five. It must be a biological drive. It’s not like my mother bought me paints and pencils because she wanted me to be an artist; she bought supplies because she noticed I liked drawing.

You’re saying artistic talent is biologically driven, but can’t a person who didn’t discover their creative abilities at a young age still be an artist later in life? Or practice an artistic pursuit to the point of it being a talent?

Yes. I just experienced this with one of my students (My mom leads a weekly art class at a senior center). This guy in his 70s walked into class one day and painted his very first picture. It was good. Really good (Author's note: I’ve seen it. It’s a wonderful vibrant peacock. I asked if I could buy it. He said he wouldn’t sell it if his life depended on it. I don’t blame him one bit.) But this guy’s father wouldn’t let him make art at a young age. He was told to learn “practical” skills. So he didn’t discover his talent until his 70s, after he retired, and it was an Oh my god moment for him. Maybe it was always there but something brought it out at a later age? I don’t know. It’s sad that someone couldn’t live a life of creating because he was influenced otherwise. There are obviously dynamics of both nature and nurture at play.

There are seeds that we’re all born with. Maybe they’re nurtured, maybe they’re not, but they’re there. I hear sad stories of parents who expected something different of their children than what their children wanted for themselves. It’s sad because when you like something like art when you’re young, you absorb it like a sponge. It quickly becomes second nature. I still see children now who aren’t nurtured that way. It’s frightening to me that parents allow their children to bury their faces in technology without trying other things and I worry it will affect creativity adversely. Sure, there are careers in technology, but what will happen to art?

By high school, were you thinking of your creative drive as a means to a career?

Those of us showing artistic talent were encouraged to consider careers like commercial art. Practical. But [the 1970s] was a time when girls were still expected to have children, so learning home economics and finding a man to marry was still an expectation for girls by the end of high school. “Successful” students were expected to follow the footsteps of their parents to become a doctor or lawyer. But I was stubborn and nobody was going to tell me what I was going to be or when I was going to marry. My stubbornness was just as much a part of my DNA as being an artist. I was driven to do the best that I could do with what was inside me and what was my most passionate joy in life- my art. Some people don’t have the freedom to express that joy until later in life, but it comes out eventually. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis that hits and tells you, “If I don’t do it now I’ll never do it.” Well, let me tell you, time is short and that someday is now. Do it now or life will eventually make that decision for you.

When you were a young mother and wife, how did you keep your art a priority when you also needed feed and raise two young children?

I wanted to have children at a young age. I always wanted to be a parent but I wanted kids young, not later when a career was established. I knew that I was giving up college at that point, but I’d read enough about art and artists and felt that college wasn’t necessarily needed. Like Grandma Moses and other self-taught artists who paid attention, kept true to themselves, and could put down paint without a college degree. I also knew I didn’t want to follow a popular genre. I always wanted to paint what I felt in the morning no matter what it was, no matter what was popular at the time.

Let’s get back to the topic of resilience. You survived some pretty lean years, how did you stay resilient when you hadn’t yet built a name for yourself and art wasn’t paying the bills?

It helps to have a family unit—whatever you consider your family, blood relatives or chosen family—it helps take the burden off so you can survive and not have worry overshadowing or dampening your creative spirit. It was always important to me to maintain a strong connection with people in my life who could teach me the traditional ways of creating. My Godmother taught me weaving. My aunt taught me German baking. My grandma taught me how to silently observe, to learn about life by listening and watching and being open. My great uncle taught me resilience, humility and immaterial living. He lived simply and frugally and from him I saw just how much, or little, we can actually get by with. We don’t need so much stuff. 

Of course, you have to have money; although I did dream about being a hobo and riding the rails with a stick sack of sandwiches. I learned at an early age to not be afraid of not having things. I wasn’t even afraid of being homeless. I knew I could survive. By the end of high school people were buying paintings from me for $10 or $15. So I knew I could sell paintings. I learned early on that I could take care of myself without going to college. I had mentors supporting me but I didn’t have teachers telling me what to paint or how to paint. Now in my class I only show the mechanics of painting—how to mix paints and mediums, how to lay it down on a canvas. But I don’t try to influence their vision. Sometimes what comes out of people’s heads when they’re not influenced is amazing. I love that I had nothing to do with their vision. 

I love that craftsmanship is coming back and more tools are available than ever. A lot of us are feeling insecure due to the political climate, so we need to teach people the talents of survival. How to cook, how to grow, how to care for ourselves, how to make it on our own just in case all that we take for granted is suddenly taken away. Living is an art. There’s an art to staying alive and a lot of people aren’t developing those skills. When somebody learns a craft they enjoy, they can survive. And their survival will be driven by their passion for their craft.

We need to foster our children’s interests, but young people do have to keep other options in sight. Graduating high school and being a successful artist is not guaranteed. Art the way I did it, as in two-dimensional paintings, is a tough go. Art in technology has more options and I know I would have loved it. Later in life I realized that if I had gone to college I would have been an architect. Then again, there’s no way I could ever sit at a desk long enough. I love to be out in the world.

How can parents support their children in a way that will nurture their talents and make them resilient? 

I think it’s important to have guidance and I didn’t have that early on. Somebody to show you how to venture out into the world. My parents were supportive but they didn’t think about how to guide me and I didn’t have a guidance counselor in high school. Maybe I was so stubborn as a teen I wouldn’t have listened to their guidance anyway, but I was witnessing their behavior and I was more focused on rebelling against their behavior and getting out of the house.

Some parents are supportive but don’t understand the difference between support and guidance. For example, I wish they'd pushed me to get a job in high school in order get experience and meet new people in stimulating environments. I wish I had known about all the possible options that were out there for me as an artist. But I didn’t, so I just went with the flow. I got married, had kids, sold art here and there, and it took a long time to make a name for myself.

My guidance to students today:

Take STEM classes, get a tutor, and get a high school job. Technology can be combined with art and the opportunities are endless. They need to keep their grade point average up, no matter what their interests are. Your grades follow you. They dictate your decisions later. 

Pursue opportunities that make you an independent person, not relying on someone else to sponsor you or take care of you. When times are tough, independence will give you the street smarts to survive. As long as you can survive, you can grow. 

Learn how to say “no” and also handle being told “no”. You must be able to handle rejection and peoples’ unfulfilled promises. 

Artists will get walked all over if they’re not careful. Charge for your art. Charge for your time. But be realistic and treat it as a business. Don’t charge a million bucks for a freshman piece, but don’t give away all your work either. Fundraisers will come knocking. You’ll have to learn how to say “no” even if it’s heartbreaking.

If your artwork isn’t selling, pay attention to the signs that it’s not what people want or that your concept hasn’t developed fully yet. Somebody along the way has to be honest with you about your art. Listen to their feedback without letting it crushing you. Grow from it. It will make you a better artist and a stronger person.

There’s so much competition. There’s so much art out there. And so much "art" that's not art. So much of it is no longer honest or suffered or beautiful. You have to put in your time and pay your dues to make it great. Keep at it. If you love what you do, you eventually won’t care what people think in the sense that criticism destroys you. You’ll see criticism as an opportunity to improve. 

I’ve noticed there are a lot of contradictions to being an artist. Don’t care what other people think, yet also listen to their criticism. But what about Picasso? Surely someone must have told him he forgot an eye, yet he kept right on forgetting eyes. He was considered a master, yet if I forgot an eye my painting would be thrown in the trash? 

Sometimes there’s a mysterious quality to an artist’s work that cannot be explained or critiqued. I don’t know what it is, you can just see it in the art that there’s something speaking to you. Outsider Art wasn’t created for a gallery or a million dollar client, yet it’s some of the most honest art the world has seen. It’s something that speaks to our deeper selves and can’t be measured or quantified.

So what is art? And how does one make a career out of it?

Art is fulfillment. It’s a desire that needs to be fulfilled. If you follow the desire, it can become a career. But art in itself is not a job. Creative fulfillment can come in other forms. If someone's art isn’t selling, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a successful career as a creative. If an artist isn’t successful in one medium, they may have to try another outlet for creative expression like cooking, photography, web design, woodworking, etc. Sometimes it’s not the medium in which you do it, it’s the desire to use your hands and your brain to bring something into the world that was not there before. 

There’s nothing wrong with pursuits that make money with your art, but it requires balance. You’ll burn out if you don’t keep sight of that which deeply fulfills you, forsaking your deep passions for cash. When it’s your own, it’s one of a kind. The culmination of your brain working in concert with your hands, manifesting something that fulfills you. 

Don’t follow patterns. Learn the rules and then break them. That freedom is what keeps you from going crazy. Maybe it’s maddening sometimes, but it’s worthwhile. What I create is me and only me. The whole thing is me. And once in awhile something should be all about you.