‘You’re so lucky to be an artist, free to do just what you want.’ It’s a common enough remark, one most artists probably encounter as did I this week. Thinking about it, I quite like how this one sentence is both a manifesto for artistic success and a misunderstanding of how hard that success is to achieve.
Doing just what you want is, by and large, exactly what an artist needs to do to succeed, but let’s not confuse that with an easy ride. The ‘doing just what you want’ in question is not the soft focus dream of late mornings sipping coffee barefoot in a pretty studio. It’s the hard graft of developing a personal viewpoint and using experience, practice, talent and time to turn that vision into a consistent flow of well-considered work.
In this week’s Ask an Artist podcast you’ll hear gallery owner Nick Bentley return to discuss artist/gallery relationships and what galleries look for in their artists. Turns out that education, background and age are cheeringly unimportant. It is the body of work that matters, and that work must show passion, consistency and individuality. It is only by the artist doing just what they want and going their own way that this kind of work is made. But this is the freedom of hard work and focus, not the freedom of a fantasy bohemian lifestyle.
I don’t say this to put anyone off wanting to be an artist. It is a brilliant job and sometimes it does indeed involve sipping coffee in a pretty studio (though bare feet are never a good idea in real studios). But it’s not a job for the fainthearted. Doing just what you want is a great freedom, but holding your nerve and using that freedom to pay the bills – that’s not an easy life.
I left my hairdresser recently; other women of a certain age will sympathise. Undeniably talented hairdresser that he was, Bob was somehow just not seeing me anymore. I’m not sure when I went from paying customer with individuality into the big box marked ‘nice ladies of a certain age’ but, just like in Toy Story, there I was. Left on the side of the style road waiting for the nursing home truck. The nail in the coffin came when I said that I didn’t wish to look like a lady who spent her days colour matching towels in John Lewis and he replied that I ‘had the face for it’. He was right of course; I have the pleasant face of the stranger who’ll mind your bags while you nip to the loo. Doesn’t mean I care to pay to be reminded of it. Now I go to Emily, covered in a riot of tattoos, who is far more interested in my trips to Japan and my prints and far less in pigeon-holing me into a one cut suits all.
The sad fact is that I am as guilty as Bob. I once taught a very elderly woman who was struggling a bit in class. I spent a bit more time than usual one to one with her and sorted out what she needed to understand. Then I stupidly said that being in class could be a bit overwhelming and not to worry. I didn’t actually say ‘for a woman of your age’, but I might as well have done.
She smiled kindly and said that she thought the problem was too much time in class, not too little. Handing in the final papers of her doctorate had clashed with my workshop, so she was feeling a little tired. I’m grateful for that humiliating lesson in teaching me that people are very seldom who you think they are. Can I put in a word here for a similar re-education programme for mobile phone sellers? I’m tired of having my ignorance interpreted as stupidity and I’m sure many feel the same. I’m ignorant about phones because I can’t be ars*d to be interested, not because I lack the intelligence to learn.
Appearances can be deceptive. We all know that and we all forget it. This week on the Ask and Artist podcast we’re discussing social media, the most misleading light ever provided to shine on our personal and professional lives. Surely social media is the greatest villain for misinterpretation the world has ever seen. Or is it?
For me as an artist it is the exact opposite and I hope that’s true for most creatives. It’s a platform for my reality. A world away from predictable ‘niceness’ of my age, face and clothes, where I share just who I am and what I can do. I’m good with social media and I believe this is mostly down to authenticity and honestly. That the audience like my output is fantastic, but that I have a place to put the output is even better. Look on social media and you’ll see the truth: in my world, towels are ripped into squares and dunked in ink and spirits, not politely matched to the colour of the downstairs loo.
This week’s blog will have to serve for two weeks of podcasts. I took Christmas week off writing to indulge in cooking. The cooking was huge fun, the post-visit laundry less so, but hey it was a good Christmas and I hope your Christmas was a good one too.
We covered criticism on Ask an Artist last week and I hope you listened. Dealing with critics is not just for art, but for Christmas too. A graceful fielding of family critics is always a good skill to possess. I used to get wildly angry with a Christmas relative who added ‘little’ when referring to anything I did. It was a clever ploy; even a NATO accord is belittled by ‘little’. I’d love to tell you how I managed to defuse the situation with witty words, but in reality I learned the wise lesson to let go and that some little things can be dismissed with a little smile.
This week the podcast is about finding your own style. It’s something we all need as artists, but I’m beginning to believe that it’s one of those elusive things that arrive the more you do and the less you think. Bit like my swimming lessons. Swimming I’ve always found easy, thanks to my brother who, in the name of ‘teach your small sister to swim’, tipped me into the deep end of the swimming pool and saw to it that I didn’t actually drown. The after-swim flake from the vending machine and the attention of a heroically older brother was more than enough reward for me to embrace the whole proceeding with gusto and to clamour for more.
Artistic identity is a little the same I think. More about jumping into the deep end and paddling hard, less about thinking things through. Individuality will out and, as skills develop, will become more pronounced. A case of loving what you do and following where your interests lie. My initial interest in swimming lay in impressing my brother and eating chocolate, but ended up resulting in a strong and confident swimmer with what I would certainly describe as an ‘individual’ style.
As mentioned, this week’s Ask An Artist is all about individual artistic identity; how to develop your unique style, how to keep it fresh and how to avoid the pitfalls of becoming a one trick pony. Don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite podcast provider!