Roughly once a month, we pose a question to artists about an issue they face in their work and lives.
This month, we’re interested in how setbacks shape (or don’t) an artist’s work. So we asked artists in different disciplines, Have you ever had a setback that had a major impact on your trajectory as an artist?
Toni Pepe, photography artist
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett
Failure is an inevitable part of the creative process. It is something I try to welcome, understand, and put to use. After recently becoming a new mother I struggled with the balance between work, family, and art. That wonderful weight of guilt that settles in when I haven’t been in the studio started to become heavier and heavier. My previous method for shooting, which often involved locking myself away for hours and days to make one image, needless to say, was not feasible.
My time was no longer my own and I had to adjust my expectations drastically. I have always mined the family album and personal experience for content and incorporating my children into the work felt like a natural progression. At first, I failed magnificently. Each shoot led only to blurry baby arms and legs, and I was peed on more times than I’d like to admit. It took a full year before I made an image I was excited about.
Working with my children opened up a new avenue for spontaneity in my work. They are creatures with individual wills and while they’ll follow my direction, their interpretations are what make the images successful.
Emily Ross, writer
My biggest setback as a writer came during a meeting with an agent at a writing conference. Thanks to GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program I’d just finished the novel I’d worked on for seven years and was ready to find an agent. But I wasn’t ready for what I heard. After saying some nice things, the agent told me I needed to make my YA mystery thriller, set firmly in the Sixties, contemporary. Other sessions I attended confirmed that I’d inadvertently stepped into the Bermuda Triangle of marketing by setting my YA novel over fifty years ago.
It was hard to hear but I listened. I took a stab at making my book contemporary, but my story was intricately tied to the decade it was set in. Changing that would mean writing a new book. Then I put my novel aside for a while and read literary thrillers I hoped were like mine. They made realize that the most important thing was the dark story I was telling. When I finally started revising again I removed cultural references that weren’t essential and focused on strengthening my story. My setback had made me more aware of the market but also reinforced my commitment to the novel I’d written. A year after that writing conference, I started querying in earnest and found my wonderful agent Rebecca Podos. Half in Love with Death, my YA novel set in the Sixties, will be published by Merit Press in 2016.
Warren Mather, ceramic and photography artist
I don’t really want to answer this question because of the jinx possibilities in that I feel fortunate not to have experienced any recent “setbacks.” Contracting polio and nearly drowning as a child were wake up calls that happened too early to affect my art direction (unless now, subconsciously). Rejections in affairs of the heart during my 20’s pumped up the intensity and volume of my art production but there was no change in what I was doing. Now in my mature years, energy that fuels my working is more like water seeping downhill through rock ledges than, say, steam propelled geyser eruptions of years past. Recently, none of my emotional circuit breakers have been tripped by setbacks.
Warren Mather is a ceramic and photography artist who fires photographic, video, and computer drawn images in ceramic glaze. He has work in the Basic Black exhibition at the Concord Art Association (through 4/3).
Emily Ross graduated from GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, and she has been published in Menda City Review and Boston Magazine. Her YA novel Half in Love with Death is forthcoming from Merit Press in 2016.
Images: Toni Pepe, UNTITLED (from the series ANGLE OF REPOSE); Warren Mather, ASPEN GROVE (2013), ceramic mounted on wood, 30.5×30.5×2 in.