One of the less enjoyable things about being an artist and teacher is just how often I get to watch decent, clever people beating themselves up for failing before they’ve even reached a level where real failure is an option. At this point I offer an apology for the half dozen students who’ve been in my latest class: this isn’t about you. Honest.
I’ve been thinking about this more in the light of many classes this year where students have offered me the opinion that they were rubbish, hopeless, useless or, and this seemed a bit extreme, ‘totally without any talent’. What I think they were actually saying was ‘this printmaking thing is new, a bit confusing and I’m scared because I can’t see how I’ll make a print by the end of class’. I just wish that this absolutely reasonable concern over the unknown didn’t get turned inward and become so abusive. I wonder sometimes if students even know they are doing it. I have listened in the past to the occasional unconsciously murmured soliloquy of such self loathing that Hamlet sounds positively jaunty in comparison and this from the very student who, in the next breath, is kind, positive and enthusiastically supporting the work of her equally inexperienced neighbour. Trust me, the only person actually deserving of abuse would be me as the teacher if I failed to lead students through the process clearly and well.
I feel strongly about this because I used to do it myself big time. I never really thought about it until my first residency in Japan. There I was, before we all settled down, pretty much alone and stuck with my inner voice for company. It’s not much fun being half way up a mountain in a very strange place, so many things a total mystery, feeling awkwardly huge, too hot and profoundly worried by the outsize insect life. Add to that the constant nagging voice telling me I was the wrong person in the wrong place and would never, ever, ever get to grips with the process and it made for some very weepy emails home. After a week I couldn’t bear it any longer and made the conscious decision to stop. It wasn’t easy and having an inner Pollyanna along with the inner critic was a bore, but it broke the habit and I am much more conscious about self criticism these days. Nothing wrong with striving for better, but if I feel myself sinking I just imagine how it would feel to be caught muttering the same words to a fellow student. Unthinkable to be so unkind and thoughtless…
There will be a lot of people like me in Buckinghamshire today, all scrambling to open their doors tomorrow for Bucks Open Studios. Turning a working studio into a working studio, plus exhibition space, plus shop then making it all safe, clearly signed, priced and welcoming is no small feat and I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a studio which isn’t the spare room or the kitchen table. I have enough wall space to hang my work, my son is quite old enough to fend for himself and this is my day job. I am constantly astonished by the incredible metamorphosis conjured by fellow artists on their homes, studios, local village halls and also by their ability to disguise the effort so that the average visitor sees only the artwork and none of the angst.
It’s no small thing to invite strangers into your personal space. I love it, but that’s me: any chance to tell people about what I do and why. Others don’t find it so easy and I do admire the shy, the quiet and the solitary who are prepared to welcome the very thing they find unsettling. Visitors, on the whole, are delightful. Family show up and sit around with coffee and biscuits as a sort of informal welcome committee, annual visitors follow work and are eager to see progress, new people explore, print lovers discuss technicalities and always, always at least one man of a certain age wants to tell me how to install plumbing in my studio or urges me to cut my blocks with a router. There is the occasional hiccough, but I can usually dine out on adverse remarks: better to laugh than cry and better still to remember that I’m the one who has put my work up for public scrutiny.
I used to find the selling the worst part: fidgeting uncomfortably as people discussed my work and whether to buy it, all the time terrified that I would have to justify my costs face to face with an actual person. Over the years I have realised that what that client wants is not a cheap price: they want my confidence. So I never justify my prices, though I will happily explain them on request, nor do I ask for any reassurance. It’s my place to admire the good taste of my customers in buying, not my customer’s place to make me feel better about my prints. I’ve also learned to let a sale go if a visitor bullies for a cheap deal; no need to be confrontational, just sure in my price. These are tough lessons to learn, but I have worked on my role of artist and, even if I am wobbly, I can at least seem serene. Open Studios is theatre after all.