Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we asked: If you could deliver one message to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
Jo Ann Rothschild, painter
When I had just moved to Boston and had just gotten my BA, I went to the Boston Visual Artists’ Union for companionship and information. I complained to an older, more confident artist, not about the situation for artists, which has never been easy, but about the clumsiness of my own character and how poorly it matched other, more accomplished people. She (her first name was Virginia, but I’ve forgotten her last name.) said, “Plant a radish, get a radish,” quoting The Fantasticks. I was stuck with myself.
As a young painter, and even as an older painter, there are times when I wish for capacities that other people have: ease in self-promotion, a greater understanding of three dimensional space, better casual conversation. But at 71, I’m pretty certain that major character changes are both unlikely and undesirable.
Sometimes people pay attention to what you are doing, there are places to show, there are reviews and sales. Sometimes none of that is true. It is difficult to find words for thoughts about painting. Friends who struggle with you to understand what you are doing increase your understanding of yourself and your work.
My younger self painted no matter what was going on outside. But there were periods of great loneliness and uncertainty. I would remind my younger self that the best paintings come from who you are, rather than in spite of you. Good work comes from allowing the incomplete painting to speak to the imperfect painter and allowing that flawed artist to respond to the painting. It is a constant conversation. This doesn’t guarantee good work, but these are the minimal conditions for grace.
Jacob Strautmann, poet
You can’t do it alone. 100% of your quality writing will happen in solitude (and so you may be tempted to cut out others as distractions), but your success at remaining a writer depends deeply on everyone else. I don’t mean finding a couple of trusted readers to give you quality feedback – though that is essential to the writer you will become -, and I don’t mean anything as career-minded as networking – though being able to reach out to old friends you met in a workshop will save you. You will need your family to buoy you through the failures, your partner to take on the kids an hour earlier every weekday in order to gift you that solitude you can’t do without, and your friends and co-workers to applaud when you succeed. Lose them, and you lose your way. Sure, the page and pen will always be there, but the imagined audience (you would realize) is never wholly imaginary.
Ellen Wetmore, multi-disciplinary artist
I’d tell my younger self that your job does not define you. Artists take jobs for money, for joyful relationships, to learn, or to gain access to materials they can’t get on their own. We are system disruptors and the first system that needs to be questioned is the way jobs tend to define people in America, right down to filing your taxes.
Artists must make something from nothing: we envision the future, repackage the past. A good artist can sell fleas to a dog, make smoking, parking tickets, and garbage look sexy, convince the residents of Back Bay that Quincy and Fitchburg will be the next hot property.
People in management call artists content providers. High school teachers say they have ADHD because they draw all over their notebooks and drum on their desks out of boredom. Government calls them system disrupters. Their parents call them bums because they’d rather bartend for a few months, pimp themselves out for sadomasochistic play parties, or grow and sell marijuana illegally in order to buy a plane ticket to disappear into the sticks and make art, than get dependable jobs as medical technicians, UPS loaders, teachers, or administrative staff.
Perfectly good atheists will pray that their sons will develop a sudden interest in calculus, women, and football instead of see a kid for what he is: an artist doomed by an anti idolatrous country to make work that will be removed and destroyed for the sake of decency because no one wants to talk about how confusing it is to feel.
I tell myself every day that no one can define who I am as an artist but me; that continuous practice defines my work. Many artists use gallerists and curators as approval mechanisms to make up for a social and family lack of approval for what we do. This is a waste of time. Learn who you are and be true to that. The American economic system for art distorts truth and beauty and honesty to bolster the investments and values of a minority of rich people. Don’t go along with it. Do your own thing. Keep your friends close.
Jamie Cat Callan, writer
Relax a little. Live life. Get into trouble. Get out of trouble. Learn to listen. Keep your eyes open. Everything’s going to be okay. Maybe not now. But I can tell you this – one day, everything is going to be okay.
The tricky part about being an artist is that you are your greatest resource. Your life is your masterpiece, but you can’t see that while you’re in the middle of muddling through it and trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do and how to pay the rent.
The truth is, some of the answers to your most puzzling creative questions won’t come to you until many years later.
So what to do?
You write. Make art. Observe. Ask questions. Believe in your unique imagination and that things do connect. Knowing this, it’s okay to be a wanderer or as the French call it, to be a flâneur. It’s okay to be fickle or a bit feckless and indulge in more than a bit of daydreaming. In fact, this is actually the secret to great art.
Jamie Cat Callan is a best-selling author whose most recent nonfiction book is PARISIAN CHARM SCHOOL. She’ll read from the book at Titcombs Bookstore in Sandwich (8/7, 3-4 PM), Sturgis Library in Barnstable (8/7, 6:30-7:30 PM), and Museum on the Green in Falmouth (8/9, 7-8 PM). Find more upcoming events. Also a teacher, she’s the creator of The Writers’ Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for using the “Write” Side of your Brain.
Jo Ann Rothschild is a painter who was the first recipient of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston Maud Morgan Prize. She is currently exhibiting in Chain Reaction at The Painting Center in New York City (thru 8/9).
Jacob Strautmann is a poet who has published work in Salamander, The Boston Globe, AGNI Online, Solstice, and elsewhere. His poetry collection THE LAND OF THE DEAD IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
Ellen Wetmore is a visual artist who works in video, drawing, and sculpture. She’ll have a solo exhibition of work at Fitchburg Art Museum running Sep ’18-Jan ’19.
Related reading: What Is Your Advice for Emerging Artists?
Images: Jo Ann Rothschild, MOM’S BIRTHDAY 101 (2017), oil on canvas, 12×9 in; still image from LEAVING MY SKIN, a video by Ellen Wetmore (2014).