Monday, June 11, 2018

Chasing the Dream, until the Dream Caught Me

It was all such a whirlwind. One day I was a starry-eyed art student, working on my psychology degree with an art minor, all prepared to become an art therapist. I saved my art classes--like dessert--for the last of my college years, and was completely unprepared for how that first soaring line across the paper would change me. I began to squeeze fifteen minutes here and there to make art in a crowded over-achiever schedule where at times I was interning, working as a teaching assistant, and laboring on independent study projects--seemingly simultaneously.
working at a domestic violence shelter

my first solo art show, at a furniture store
To top it all off, my artistic attempts were getting attention even when I was still in school. I won first and second place in a collegiate poetry competition, and my paintings were garnering praise from my teachers and awards in student shows. I took careful notes on marketing and was researching artist buy-sell contracts while many of my fellow art students were playing hacky-sack in the quad. I did my first paid commission for another student in the midst of studying for finals and participated in a group show with super-talented artist friends that garnered front-page publicity. Within a few months of graduating with only an art minor, a local and prestigious gallery in my hometown offered representation. The work began to sell, prices began to go up, and I had the bizarre experience of having my work hanging publicly next to the work of admired mentors.

Two solo shows and the resulting publicity resulted in two more galleries in the state asking for my work. I quickly learned the art of packing and shipping. The phone rang with offers; I was being asked for interviews and asked to teach free-lance classes for adults and children. A significant grant from a funding organization in New York City came my way and paid for the burgeoning framing costs, because although my large paintings were commanding around $1,000, framing and sales commissions were keeping me poor, and constantly striving to stay afloat with new opportunities.  Paintings went to Switzerland, Australia, and Canada. There was even an all expense paid trip to Chicago for a one-woman show. One particularly vivid moment I remember was standing in my living room/studio gazing at a large powerful work that had just been finished, while on the phone with my gallery director, who was saying she had run out of my paintings and needed more as soon as possible. That was the moment that I thought I had truly 'made it'--whatever that is.

 I was barely out of my twenties.

I can imagine that I might sound like I'm bragging or gloating over my supposed success. I can also imagine that stories like this can provide inspiration--or provoke envy. But I tell you this only because in the end, this path is nothing to emulate. In fact, it almost killed off my creative ability--and yes, it almost killed me.

There is a reason why so many child stars wind up as freakishly troubled adults, doing designer drugs, crashing their cars and posing for mug-shots. No, I didn't go that far off the deep end. But within a year or so of all this success I hurled myself at top speed into a psychological wall that I had no idea was coming, and the impact on my psyche was as mangled as James Dean's wrecked Porche Spyder.

So many of us artists imagine the heady experience of the solo show, where all eyes are upon you and the champagne glasses are lifted in tribute to your work. Others imagine their visions mounted in gold frames on stately museum walls. Others imagine wearing ripped jeans and making sweeping billboard works in echoing enormous studios while others, like me, just imagine the warm thrill of steady, ongoing income. No one wants to admit it, but these kind of fantasies permeate the air in college art studios every bit as much as the smell of oil paint.

The problem with our quest to sell art is that so often it interferes with the very spirit that we are given to make it. That spirit is child-like, inventive, fragile, and brimming with an energy that is much like joy even when it hurts. For a little while, it can tolerate being told that it must make the same type of art that was such a sensation at last year's showings. For a little while, it can be told that the color palette has to be in earth tones rather than crimson in order to better match the furniture. For a little while, it can be told to sit politely in the niche others have placed it in, and not explore other avenues, other kinds of thought. For a little while, it can even tolerate the mind-splitting dichotomy of making something fresh--and yet the same. 

But this is only for a little while for some of us. Yes, there are some artists who manage to stay the course and somehow resolve this dilemma. But I was not one of them. 

 I had been pigeon-holed, ironically, as a rebellious, deeply vulnerable feminist artist. But I knew my art was being misinterpreted, and I also knew that I wanted to be truly shocking in today's art world and actually make some work that was, well, not shocking at all. I wanted to learn more technique, study more, and actually make some work that didn't demand a chunk of my heart and airing out my dirty laundry. I wanted to experiment and yet learn more of the fundamentals of drawing, of shadow and light. I wanted to get back to why I loved it sitting in front of an easel in the first place.

The art business/gallery world taught me many toxic lessons. The primary one was that art is only valuable if it is saleable. The lofty notion of art for art's sake is thrown out the window when there are electric bills and salaries to pay. The art biz loudly expounds on taking risks and being daring, but underneath it all you know you better make the stuff quick, and make it something 'popular.'

And conversely, if it doesn't have these qualities--the art business decrees it worthless. It is entirely possible to be hailed a genius one minute, and have your name forgotten the next. It's not a far step in this line of reasoning to think that 1.) if the work isn't saleable, 2.) and thus it is worthless, 3.)perhaps the artist is--as well. I don't have any proof of this, but I strongly believe this is the kind of thing that brings about the tragic image of the drugging, philandering, suicidal 'has-been' artist.

This art system is so impressed and compelled by big figures because, after all, it is a business.  Completely understandable. But to believe that a business should be the sole gatekeeper for our deepest human expressions has lead to a notoriously terrible record of blindness towards the truly meaningful and sublime. Remember that Vincent Van Gogh spent his entire life rejected by this system, with his nose pressed up to the glass, yearning to join a group of celebrities that we now know were just a blip in history.

No, I'm not saying that it is wrong to pursue gallery representation. It's quite okay to sell your work, but selling your worth is quite another matter. 

 What I am strongly saying that your art-making talent is something that comes from your heart; it is a precious, precious gift that I believe comes directly from the ultimate Creator. You didn't earn this; you were gifted it. It is as elusive, glorious, and tender as a butterfly's wing. 
Remember that. 




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