Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we decided to return to a question we first asked in 2018: If you could deliver one message to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
Photographer and writer David Bookbinder, writer Carin Clevidence, poet Wendy Drexler, painter Liang Guo, paper cutting artist Zhonghe (Elena) Li, and Flamenco dance artist Laura Sánchez respond.
Liang Guo, painter
I would say to myself: If you want to be rich, don’t be an artist. If you want to get famous, don’t be an artist. If you have no place to show your works, don’t be upset. If you have piles of works stuck in your studio and cannot be sold, don’t be disappointed. You chose to be an artist and would rather live for art whether you are acknowledged or not, because art is your life and soul. Danish ballet master August Bournonville once said to his friend Hans Christian Andersen, “Poet won’t have anything to lose and he won’t die either, because his works are everlasting.” When you get old someday, you won’t regret your choice, since your artworks will be everlasting.
David Bookbinder, photographer and writer
There are several messages I wish I could transmit to my younger artist self, but if I must choose only one, it’s: “Trust! Trust! Trust!” Trust yourself, trust your work, and trust that if you persist, it will find its way into the world.
Had I received this message then, the arc of my artistic life may been quite different than it turned out to be. From 1975-1979, I roamed the streets and subways of New York with two cameras, a tape recorder, and a steno pad. By 1977 I’d put together enough material for a book proposal, which I circulated to many New York publishers. After three close brushes with publication and numerous rejections, discouraged, I set the book aside. Today, I would have thought, “Look how close you came! Keep going.” Then, absent this wisdom, I left New York and moved to Boston, where I eventually became a psychotherapist.
Though I abandoned these images and stories, they never abandoned me. This past year, I scanned thousands of images, completed unfinished stories, and published Street People: Invisible New York Made Visible. That young artist, grateful I finally had his back, messaged me, “Better late than never.”
Wendy Drexler, poet
I’d tell myself not to wait for inspiration, to push past my lassitude and lack of faith that I had anything worth saying. I’d say go ahead, journal, or just copy a line from a poem, a magazine, or a newspaper, set a timer for 3 or 4 minutes, and let one word lead to the next word, the next sound, the next image, and wow, there’s a metaphor that just showed up! At first you might not write a good poem, or even a mediocre one, but you’ll discover you do have a voice, something worth saying that no one has said before. As Flannery O’Connor was reputed to have said, “How can I know what I mean until I see what I’ve said?”
I didn’t really begin to write poetry until I was in my 40s. I’d become an editor who shaped other people’s words. I never thought I had that innate spark I thought it took to be a creative writer or poet, that a poem was born like Athena from the head of Zeus, not made. Poems are made. I’d tell myself to bait a line with a few words, toss it out, and see what happens.
Laura Sánchez, choreographer and flamenco artist
Letter to my younger self,
Being a flamenco artist is something you dreamed since you were a little girl. It might not seem possible yet but be patient and study every day. Take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and listen to your inner self because she will guide you.
There is no need to meet anybody’s expectations but yours. Create from your own experience allowing yourself to be vulnerable. If you can’t find a job that fits your needs, create one. If you can’t find movement that feeds your soul, create it. If you can’t dance, create other pathways to express yourself.
Always remember to share your art with others. Learn from other artists and allow yourself to be inspired by them.
Your culture, your skin color and language are part of who you are. Embrace your differences and empower yourself to honor them through your art.
You can’t do it all by yourself. Allow yourself to be held, loved and supported. Don’t be scared to ask for what you need and be always open to help others.
Some days it is hard to believe, but you will become an artist. A type of artist you never thought existed.
Zhonhge (Elena) Li, paper cutting artist
The time I grew up in China, we had no art education. It was believed that only the talented could be artists. As a young girl, I secretly drew the Chinese masters’ ink paintings with pencils, and made book marks collaging wild flowers with pen and pencil drawings. And that’s all.
It happened shortly after I arrived in the US, when I summoned up courage to get brushes and started watercolor. I was very shy when I walked to the art section of the university book store, because it meant I believed that I was talented. Indeed, the incident that gave me the courage was that one day I walked into the town’s library, and opened a photographic book of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. It was my first time seeing her work, I thought, “she thinks directly with colors and shapes without translations from words.” And that’s almost exactly what she said the first sentence on the first page.
So what I want to say to the younger me is that artist hides in you. Trust your own eyes and senses, and let the artist free. Don’t let others tell you what is correct or wrong. Explore as a child ventures everyday, till one day suddenly you realize you are not young any more.
But being an artist will keep you young forever!
Carin Clevidence, writer
Write more! Self-flagellate less! Perfectionism is anti-creative!
I grew up reading all the time in a household with no shortage of great books. I loved escaping into fictional worlds, and dreamed of becoming a writer.
But I was so afraid of failing it took me years to actually start writing fiction. When I did, I worked with agonizing slowness. Every effort disappointed me. My sentences glared with flaws. It took me twelve years to write my first novel. All the while a voice in my head insisted, “No one’s ever going to want to read this.”
Because I loved my material and my characters, I persisted. I don’t care, I told the inner voice finally, I’m writing it anyway.
I was astonished when my agent sold it.
I still write slowly, and no doubt always will. But I try to be less self-critical. First drafts are messy and imperfect, and I wish I’d embraced that messy imperfection earlier. The only way to get better is to write and edit and write and edit and then write and edit some more.
Carin Clevidence is the author of the novel The House on Salt Hay Road. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Story, The Indiana Review, Washington Post, and O Magazine, and the anthologies First Antarctic Reader and Wild Child: Girlhoods in the Counterculture.
Wendy Drexler‘s third poetry collection, Notes from the Column of Memory, will be published in September 2022 by Terrapin Books. She has been the Poet-in-Residence at New Mission High School in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, since 2018, and is programming co-chair for the New England Poetry Club.
Zhonghe (Elena) Li is a practitioner of traditional Chinese papercutting art who has served as Artist-in-Residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery and has received grants from Mass Cultural Council’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeships and Artist Fellowships program.
Laura Sánchez is an award-winning flamenco artist, creator, choreographer and educator originally from Cádiz, Spain. During the pandemic she created an award-winning short film called AFTER DARK to tell the resilience stories of a community affected by the Covid-19 global pandemic.