Periodically, we pose questions to artists about issues they face in their work and lives. This month, we asked, What’s a common piece of artist advice that you find useless?
Samantha Fields, multimedia artist
“Work smarter, not harder.”
OK, so this can be good advice when you are building a 300-pound mold for slip casting – you use a hoist; even better, you put in drainage in the bottom so there is no need to lift the mold.
But in my daily studio practice, which I have entitled “a marvel of modern inefficiency” (taken from a Domino’s pizza box, in reference to their handmade pan pizza), this advice feels rigid and stifling. I need to let things spill and fold over each other. There needs to be space for me to be taught by my hands through touching materials. I need to be inefficient enough to discover and learn from process, to do and undo and do again. Often my work requires the “harder”: the labor and time of stitching each bead with a French knot. Efficiency can be over-rated where there is much to be found in getting lost.
Grace Talusan, writer
“Write what you know.”
I don’t know who I heard this piece of advice from, but it’s been with me a long time. It may have been the first rule of writing that ever stuck with me. I was so embarrassed. I’d been doing this all wrong!
This being dreaming, imagining, conjuring.
It put me on a bad path. I was a fiction writer and suddenly my relationship to writing fiction shifted. Where before I felt free to make up a character, who first appeared in my imagination like a ghostly figure in a Polaroid picture who became more solid the longer I wrote, I started to limit the parameters of my imagination to only things that I knew. In some ways, this was important. I started writing characters who looked like me and the people I grew up with instead of the homogeneous cast of characters I usually encountered in books. But this also resulted in me writing thinly veiled autobiographical fiction. I gleefully stole characteristics and plot lines from bits and pieces of family stories. If anyone in my family recognized themselves in my stories – which was sometimes verbatim, I’d say, “It’s fiction.” As if that meant I could get away with writing about anything.
But something happened. My two-year old niece got sick, eye cancer. And while my family was going through those times, what I’ve come to think of as our cancer years, I wrote nonfiction for the first time since my college admission essays. I liked writing thinly veiled autobiographical fiction and it was a big leap for me admit, “Yes, this thing I wrote about really happened.”
While writing memoir and personal essay might seem like I took the advice of “write what you know” to its logical conclusion, what I found out was that writing nonfiction gave me the opportunity to explore all that I did not know. I wrote memoir to discover and find out. To grapple with questions that I had no answers to. That first essay, “Foreign Bodies,” was published in Creative Nonfiction (and a different version republished at Tufts magazine) and then little by little, I began to write more nonfiction. These essays are the foundation for my first book, The Body Papers, published by Restless Books in fall 2018.
I did not know what would become of our lives after my toddler niece was diagnosed with cancer. So I wrote from this fear and uncertainty and now this niece has started high school and I imagine many years ahead of writing what I don’t know.
Linda Bond, installation artist
The idea that there is a clear, step by step path to becoming a successful artist is a useless notion. Getting an MFA from a top-tier university, living in Brooklyn, attending openings and networking with the right people leads to having a prestigious gallery and vibrant career – for very few of us. As a student in the 1970’s I was taught that the most important thing for an artist to do was to be true to the art-making process. Success may come but only after years of persistent engagement with developing a personal body of work. Weathering the inevitable disappointments, rejections, or failed projects is key to maintaining one’s practice. The rewards come primarily from the making. For me, chipping away at a steady pace – even when studio space and studio time was limited – has allowed me to develop my art in a meaningful way. I have been fortunate that my work has been noticed and supported for both its content and aesthetic form. And during the highs and lows, I have always felt grateful for the privilege of having art at the center of my life.
Stephen Earp, potter
There is a comment, a command really, about how you should above all put yourself into what you do; “Make it yours.” This phrase is ingrained into the fabric of almost every artist I know. And yes, I agree that developing one’s unique skills and perspectives is an intimate and important part of the learning process in the arts.
In the past, or “traditionally” as some might say, art training intimately included a focus on understanding style as a defining trait of a time, group, or place. But definitions of style have become too diffuse for it to be easily applied as a teaching tool today. We have the world of images and materials at our fingertips. Our “communities” are what we define them as, not just where we happen to be. Of course, these comments are broad generalizations of both today and yesterday. But they also indicate a powerful attraction to the imperative of “making it your own.” Where the “make it your own” mantra falls apart, I believe, is when it is understood and applied to mean simply “change things,” ie; it too easily and too quickly becomes a glib, never ending quest to just “make something different that looks kinda neat.”
Many aspects of traditional arts training may be difficult to apply today, but I believe there is one constant from this method that will always be relevant. Make it yours by making it the best you can make it. Instead of simply trying to be different, try to be the best you can be because you believe in yourself and in what you are making. Any form you make will become yours if you put yourself wholeheartedly into it. Your individuality will emerge in a far more meaningful way than if you simply alter stuff here and there. Once you are able to make what you intend rather than be pleasantly surprised at how good an Instagram snapshot of what you just did looks, you might find that you have already made it your own.
Installation artist Linda Bond received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award and a Puffin Foundation Award. Her solo exhibition After Effects: Beyond the Shadow of War was at Human Rights Institute Gallery at Kean University.
Stephen Earp‘s renowned pottery has been featured in numerous books magazines, and articles. His work has exhibited at the American Craftsmen Show in Ridgefield, CT and in the York Folk and Fine Arts Show in York, PA.
Samantha Fields is a multimedia artist who recently returned from the Kohler Arts/Industry Residency. Meditations on the Tide, a film she co-created with Sue Murad, screened at the Krafta Doc film festival in Scotland in September/October.
Writer Grace Talusan won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for her first book The Body Papers.
Images: detail image of french knots from SHE SPEAKS FOLLY IN A THOUSAND HOLY WAYS by Samantha Fields; installation view of ONE TO ONE by Linda Bond, at Kean University 2017; Stephen Earp, Sgraffito decorated floral platter, Redware pottery (2009).
Veronica Barron says
Thank you! I especially appreciated hearing this today: “Success may come but only after years of persistent engagement with developing a personal body of work. Weathering the inevitable disappointments, rejections, or failed projects is key to maintaining one’s practice…chipping away at a steady pace – even when studio space and studio time was limited – has allowed me to develop my art in a meaningful way.”
My least favorite piece of advice: “If you *can* do anything else [besides be an artist], do that instead. I only became an artist because I had to / couldn’t do anything else.”
I’ve heard this advice often, but in my experience, the people who make good artists are often good at SO many other things that they/we could do LOTS of things, and do them really well! Some stage managers make great project managers, some actors make great union organizers, some scenic designers make great UX designers, and so on.
I find this advice unhelpfully romanticizes the idea of the “born artist” or the “true artist” when my actual experience is that artistically talented people might choose to be artists, or choose to be something else and use their gifts in other ways. I find it more empowering to note that artists are incredibly resourceful and talented, and we do what we do not because we have to, but because we choose to—and no matter how talented we are at the outset, it’s the choosing, over and over again, that builds our careers, our bodies of work, and our selves over the years.