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Are You Choosing Through Fear? Or From Truth?

An artist recently told me that for years there was a battle inside her head as both hemispheres of her brain struggled to control her fate.

The right side of her brain screamed to be an artist. It wanted to play, to make, to create.

But the left side of her brain had other ideas. Sensible ideas. Practical ideas.

She tried to embrace these ideas. She tried to have a so-called ‘normal’ career.

But it just didn’t fit.

Some artists continue to follow that path anyway. Though they’d prefer to not do the 9 to 5, they’ve had to.

And there’s nothing wrong with choosing to work for money and security. Or choosing to devote yourself to raising children. Or the myriad of other choices that artists have made given their personalities and life circumstances.

History is full of artists who've had day jobs. Successful artists!

There’s only a problem when you make your choices through fear, not truth. Or when you find yourself consistently sacrificing your need to create for your need to earn.

It’s not that easy.

For some people, having a sense of security is hugely important, and to embrace the entrepreneurial life of an artist or creative would be inconceivable. 

That’s an important question to ask yourself, how comfortable are you with risk?

But know that not all art has to be marketed and sold. And you can still be an artist if you have another job away from the easel.

You get to create what your journey looks like.

Because being an artist isn’t what you do, it’s who you are.

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Being Called To Be An Artist

What does it mean to have a ‘calling’ as an artist?

Who’s calling you? What exactly are you being called to do?

Artists aren’t the only ones who feel called. When a person dedicates their career to religion, to God, we say they have a ‘calling.’

And it expands beyond the spiritual. Doctors have callings. Teachers too.

Anyone who works with a sense of fulfilling a destiny or purpose can be said to have a calling.

In other words, a calling is something outside of ourselves that speaks to something within. It’s an impulse, an urge, an invisible sense of direction.

I’ve met artists who haven’t felt called, but who see the path of an artist as a way to feed their ego and bank account. And to them I say, “Good luck with that.”

Because the artist’s path is not easy.

As an artist you need to have that inner compulsion, that drive, to carry you past the many challenges and hurdles that this life brings.

Perhaps that’s why so many artists suffer years of confusion before finding the courage to answer the call?

One can’t blame us because our culture itself doesn’t value creativity. We place art in a tiny box and dismiss it as irrelevant compared to ‘real’ vocations.

Sure, it’s easy to answer the call to be a doctor. Think of how proud your mother will be! Think of the big paychecks!

How about the call to go into politics as a public servant? You’ll have influence, power and fame!

But the call to be an artist?

It’s usually responded to with a sigh and a shake of the head. 

You'd better find something to fall back on.

No wonder it often takes us so long to heed the call. The call to be an artist is so outside of the expected norms of our society that we often don’t even understand what’s being asked of us.

We spend years lost in confusion. We want to do something. Something big. Something important.

We don’t know exactly what it is, but we do know that we want to make.

But make what?

You’re being called to make art. You are an artist. This is your calling.

Answer it.

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What Is An Artist?

I went all the way to France to write my book. But that didn't make it any easier.

Chapter One. Page One.

The bright white of the paper glared accusingly. How do I begin?

At the café, the proprietor noticed the blank notebook and my heavy sighs. He asked what was I writing?

I told him that I’m writing a book about what it is to be an artist.

He nodded knowingly as he wiped the table, “It is a good thing to be an artist.”

He told me that being an artist is about being aware. He said that artists notice colors in the tree. Artists see the light in other people’s eyes. Artists stop to listen to birds sing their song. Artists, he declared, find beauty in everything.

”But,” he added with a Gallic shrug, “I am not an artist.”

“I’m going to steal your words anyway,” I told him, as I finally started writing, grateful for the inspiration.

In his brilliant Reith Lecture series, British artist Grayson Perry told the story a museum curator who asked a group of schoolchildren ‘What is an artist?’.

One little girl offered, “Artists are people who sit at Starbucks and eat organic food.”

After touring the museum, the curator posed the question again. This time the little girl responded, “Artists are people who notice things.”

It takes a special kind of person to notice things. It takes courage to create something from those observations.

I believe that the best artists are makers; they notice, they think, they work and they produce.

The real life of an artist is a far cry from popular culture depictions – slothful drunks, starving dreamers, and Starbucks-sipping hippies. 

Nor does the work of an artist entail thoughtlessly throwing a worthless pile of rocks in the corner, attaching a high price tag, and calling it art – laughing all the way to the bank. We are not charlatans.

The real life of an artist goes beyond labels into how we create meaning in the world, and the intentions behind the choices we make.

For being an artist isn’t just what artists do, it’s who we are.

Artists are people who notice things and find significance there, they draw connections. Artists are people who make art as a symbol, a keepsake, a mark of that experience of noticing.

By turning this impulse into a practice, an artist develops the skills to craft this work consistently and thoughtfully.

This is the work of an artist.

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Who Believes in You?

All artists have dreams, wishes and goals.

It doesn't matter whether we keep our light hidden and never share our aspirations with another soul, or we announce our plans loudly to the universe. 

Either way, as artists, we all want our work to be seen, to connect with others. We each desire respect for our talent and our ideas. 

And these are big dreams.

The key to making one's dreams come true is in believing in oneself.

Do you believe in yourself?

You see, too often artists don't. 

We work and work and work at developing our craft. We stretch and grow and mature our vision. We strive toward our goals.

But we play small, waiting for outside validation that it's safe to believe. 

Waiting for the world to tell us that it believes first. Waiting to be told when we can take pride in our efforts. When we'll be allowed to wear the ARTIST badge. 

But it's not the world's job to believe in you. It's your job.

Believing in yourself as an artist isn't about sold-out shows and your name in Art in America. 

It's about taking pride in the work -- not in the response to the work. 

Believing in yourself is about living with authenticity. It's about flying your Freak Flag high, letting yourself be as weird on the outside as you feel on the inside. It's about owning who you are and what you believe to be true. It's about giving others permission to do the same. 

It's about growing as a human being, a craftsperson and a thinker. It's about showing up and putting in the hours.

It's about basing your feelings of success on your efforts and your work.

When you can believe in yourself, all your dreams will come true.

Do you believe?

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Meet Working Artist Gopaal Sen

Prior to quitting his full-time job, artist Gopaal Sen worked the high flying corporate life – travelling 180 nights a year.

And yet he still managed to spend his weekends teaching up to 150 art students. Gopaal has now taught over 1000 artists and has never, ever missed a single class.

How?

“It’s passion that pushes you to the limits”, he explains. Gopaal enjoys teaching so much because he believes in the power of passing on that which is so meaningful. He loves sharing ideas with his students.

But as an artist, Gopaal needed his own mentor to grow.

Because he never believed that he could be an artist himself.

He was his own worst critic. He suffered, as most artists do, with low self-esteem. “Art is not an easy journey” Gopaal says, “it’s all about believing in yourself – because failure is not an option.”

It was The Working Artist that gave Gopaal the boost he needed to believe in himself. By giving him the tools to get started, The Working Artist helped Gopaal to get his work known. This success has helped him step into the light with confidence.

Gopaal says that The Working Artist taught him how to brand himself as an artist, but first and foremost, it helped him to understand what kind of artist he was.  

Today, Gopaal has a world-wide fan base. He’s exhibited his work in solo shows world-wide, including New York, Athens, Milan and London.

Recently, Gopaal attained his greatest achievement to date was he was invited to India to do a month-long show in Calcutta. The show was welcomed not only by fellow artists, critics and press, but more importantly, it was received warmly by his friends and family. Despite all the artworks sold, Gopaal remembers this feeling as “absolutely priceless.”

Gopaal has been able to leave the corporate world behind and embrace the life of a working artist. He’s remained committed to his Social Art workshops. His time is spent working with new ideas, and it’s now his vital mission to make a difference in people’s lives through art.

Gopaal reveals, “If you want to be a successful artist you have to be original. And true creativity comes from the heart.”

To see art that comes from Gopaal Sen’s heart, click here.

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The Best Art Critique Process

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a lot of art critiques in my day.

Even though artistic taste is subjective, even though everyone has their own aesthetics and set of experiences and education that they bring to the work; critiques are an important part of the artistic process.

Why?

I often ask that question because I’ve witnessed so many critiques go badly.

I’ve seen critiques end in tears. I’ve seen critiques end in fistfights. I’ve known an artist to quit after one particularly brutal critique.

I’ve seen critiques where art students were inexplicably forced to stand alone in a hole as their work was being torn apart. A hole!

I’ve seen critiques were students drank heavily as a survival method. I’ve seen critiques being led by drunk professors who should have known better.

Needless to say, I am not a huge fan of critiques.

But they’re necessary.

They’re necessary because as artists, we need feedback on our work. And we crave it because we know that it’s only through fair and honest feedback that we can grow.

But it’s that “fair and honest” part that’s challenging.

Enter Liz Lerman: a brilliant choreographer, performer, writer, educator and speaker.

For the past several years, Liz has been traveling internationally to share a method that she’s developed called "The Critical Response Process."

This is a formal critiquing process that fosters deeper conversations around feedback. It gives structure to critiques.

It was created for artists by an artist.

Finally! Help has arrived!

When I watched a critique take place using The Critical Response Process, I didn’t see a single tear shed.

Amazing! In fact, what I did see really blew me away.

So what is this magical process?

The Critical Response Process begins with an artist presenting their work.

It can be visual art, it can be a performance, it can even be an idea. And you don’t have to be an established artist to receive feedback, this is for artists at any stage of development.

So as I said, it begins with the artist presenting their work.

The responder(s) will then spend time telling the artist what they find interesting, beautiful, or meaningful about that work.

No negative comments are allowed!

In the next step, the artist gets to ask questions of the responder. It’s vital that here the artist stay focused and on topic.

It’s also important that the artist structure each question neutrally. Do you think this frame is pretty? is not a neutral question.

Does this frame contribute to the work? is a neutral question.

The responders will answer the questions BUT they can only express a personal opinion if they are directly asked for it.

They will also not use this time to suggest changes.

The focus remains purely on answering the artist’s questions.

Up next is the responder’s time to ask questions of the artist. Again, it’s imperative that the questions remain neutral.

By neutral I mean that the questions don’t already have an opinion already couched within. For example, Why did you choose such an ugly frame? is not a neutral question.

But Tell me your decision process behind choosing frames? is a neutral question.

Do you see the difference?

Now it’s time for the responders to state their opinions.

Drumroll... In a traditional crit, this is usually where the drama begins.

But The Critical Response Process maintains that each responder must ask permission before stating an opinion.

I have an opinion about your frames, would you like to hear it?

And the artist maintains the right to say No, I don’t want to hear this opinion.

Liz Lerman suggests that the process works best when there is a facilitator, an artist, and the responder(s).

I’ve seen the process used with just an artist and responder and, because they adhered to the structure, it worked just fine.

In fact it worked more than fine! Nobody cried!

Instead, I watched trust being built as mutual respect and understanding took place. I watched all parties involved transform.

Why not try the process with your own art group?

There’s a lot more to The Critical Response Process than I can include here. If you’re interested, I invite you to dive deeper by reading Liz’s book.

Because listen, we’ve all been there.

I too have been the victim of destructive art critiques – so I do understand just how paralyzing they can be.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about The Critical Response Process and share this important tool with you.

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Framer To The Stars

Though he called himself “Framer to the Stars,” I never saw any stars in Bill’s Custom Frames. But I did see plenty of artists.

Every artist has their favorite framers, and ever since I was in art school Bill has been one of mine. When I later worked as an art dealer, Bill helped me to frame hundreds of pieces.

Bill’s Custom Frames is a hub, a place where chance meetings occur, ideas and information exchange. 
 
In the middle of it all is Bill Fielder, a damn fine framer who’s been in business since 1972. Sure Bill's got talent but it's really his personality that keeps everyone coming back.
 
Bill’s one of those characters who always greets you with a huge smile and by the time you leave, you’re smiling too.
 
He’s crazy for old Volkswagens and black velvet paintings. People give them to him in homage and gratitude. The fact that Bill’s walls are covered with black velvet paintings is a testament to his community’s appreciation.

Community. It’s strange how much more that word comes to mean when there’s a tragedy, a loss.

Bill Fielder, “Framer to the Stars” passed away last week. He’s left a big hole in an arts community where his own star had shined so bright.
 
At a party held in his honor, artists filled the space to say farewell. Bill was loved.
 
The stories came out.
 
Deeply devoted to local artists, Bill always came through. He’d work nights and weekends to help someone make a deadline.
 
He’d make emergency house-calls to galleries if a frame needed fixing.
 
Many an artist has found themself desperate for frames but short on funds. Bill was always open to a trade if an artist was in a pinch.
 
He opened a small gallery in his shop too, proudly showcasing local talent.
 
Showing at Bill’s Custom Frames has been a tremendous opportunity for artists to get their work in front of other artists. There’s nothing better for feedback, networking, and community.

What about your own art community?

Can you identify the Bill Fielders in your life? Our world is full of those wonderful unsung heroes who make an artist’s work possible. Why not show your gratitude?

Have you hugged a framer today?

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The Artist's Dance

We all know artists who do incredible work, but fail to achieve their professional goals.

It’s tragic and feels unfair.

At the same time, I’ll bet you can also name several artists who enjoy great commercial success – but their work leaves you scratching your head and wondering why?

Why them?

It would be better for all of us, artists and the culture alike, if only the best work was rewarded.

But the world doesn’t always operate like that – especially the art world.

The truth is that artists who focus their energies toward marketing and promotion usually achieve their professional goals.

It isn’t always the quality of the art that opens doors, but the fact that those artists know what doors to knock on and how to do the knocking.

But without spending energy toward a connection with creativity, with ideas, with technical excellence, the quality of the work will simply not be there.

And it’s this quality of the work that really drives artists.

As much as we may crave success, I can’t think of one artist who doesn’t really strive for greatness. No one wants to be considered a hack for their creative work, no matter how much money they make.

There’s a fine balance that artists must achieve between the doing nuts and bolts of the work, and connecting with the spark of the muse.

It’s a dance between execution and vision.

And it’s really, really difficult to do both well.

We all wish we had more time to devote to the work. We all fear we don’t put in enough time to promote the work.

The result is that we’re often exhausted and guilt-ridden.

And it’s not just you, every artist struggles with this.

But I’ve learned to accept that it is a dance. Sometimes the creativity gets to lead. Other times the business stuff keeps the beat.

What’s important to succeeding as an artist is that you don’t sacrifice one for the other. There must be a balance between the business and the creative.

And you know when you’re out of balance.

Are you focusing too much on making the work? Is the inventory starting to stockpile? Have you allowed your marketing efforts to languish?

Or have you been so involved in pushing the work that you’ve lost touch with your own creative spark? Has your connection with The Muse suffered?

No matter where you find yourself right now in the dance, I invite you to take the lead.

If you’re waiting for permission to promote your work, this is it. I am giving you that permission. Your work deserves it.

If you need encouragement to engage with your creativity on a deeper level, I’m cheering you on. Take that time for yourself because it is so vital.

Can you hear the music playing? Take the lead and start to dance.

Because life is playing your song.

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Art Fair Report: NYC

I'm just back from Art Expo New York and it really hit home for me how important these events have become.

FACT: Did you know that more art is now being sold at art fairs than bricks and mortar galleries? Overall, artists are now reporting nearly half their income is derived from art fairs.

But you don't have to be an exhibitor to get the benefits of attending a fair. It's so important to see what other artists are doing, what galleries are showing, and finding work that inspires.

This was the second year that I’ve been invited to speak at Art Expo New York. It’s a tremendous fair, hosting over 1000 artists and galleries.

This year I decided to shake things up a bit.

I hired a film crew so that I could interview exhibiting artists about their art fair experiences. I am so grateful for the wisdom bombs they dropped.

Here’s just a sample of what they shared:

Kristina Kossi stressed the importance of putting in the research first. She herself did a tremendous amount of work in preparation. In fact, I ran into Kristina as I was leaving last year’s fair and she was arriving to check it out.

This year she invested in a booth and spent months planning every detail. It showed, her booth looked fabulous.

Michael Joseph agreed that research is an important component of doing art fairs. He advised getting organized and creating a system to make sure all the details are covered.

His booth was utter chaos when I showed up to interview him. The art had just arrived and crates were everywhere. But he confidently predicted that the whole space would be completely transformed within two hours. And it was, beautifully.

Socrates Marquez mentors a lot of younger artists in his Harlem neighborhood. He loves to share the lessons he's learned about showing and selling work.

Socrates explained the importance of branding at art fairs, it’s all about consistency and authenticity. 

Crystal Lockwood's been doing the art fair circuit for 36 years! She understands the importance of following up on all leads because the best sales often happen after the fair.

That’s why it’s so important to always stay positive even if things don't appear to be going your way.

Kris Gebhardt spoke about the other benefits of exhibiting at art fairs, because they can be about so much more than just sales. Art fairs are also helpful for building relationships – both with an audience and with other artists.

Art fairs breed stronger artist communities.

I met so many wonderful, creative artists who are doing really interesting work, and I left Art Expo New York feeling connected and inspired.

As you probably know by now, these interviews and my frequent trips to art fairs are all preparation for my new workshop Art Fair Essentials, which will be released this fall. 

But even if you don’t have any plans to exhibit in an art fair yourself, I urge you to visit art fairs whenever you get the opportunity.

You will always find something to learn, someone to meet, and something to see.

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The Artist's Mantra

There are several definitions of artists that I personally subscribe to, but my favorite is this: artists are alchemists.

During the Middle Ages, an alchemist was known as someone who could transform base metals into gold. 

I believe that as artists, we turn everything into gold.

Think about it.

Through an artist's touch, a blank canvas is transformed into a work of expression and beauty. A dilapidated neighborhood wall becomes a visual message of hope and community. A lump of clay becomes imbued with meaning.

Everything we touch turns to gold.

And our work doesn't end in the studio. 

For it requires faith to be an artist.

  • Faith in the whispers you hear in your heart. 
  • Faith in the visions that play in your head. 
  • Faith that your work is leading you on your soul's journey.
  • Faith in success -- and even faith in failure.

Faith in failure?

Yes, for an artist is an alchemist -- remember? 

And everything you touch turns to gold. Even failure.

This is a mantra worth repeating. Try it now:

Everything I touch turns to gold.

Here's an example:

A few weeks ago I attended the Scottsdale Arts Festival with a film crew in tow. I wanted to interview artists for a new workshop that I'm creating -- The Working Artist's Art Fair Essentials.

I had to hit the ground running because I'd only just landed the day before, after a grueling 14-hour flight from South America.

I scared away the jetlag with coffee. I memorized my questions. I was having a good hair day. I was ready to do this!

But when we arrived at the festival, I realized that I'd chosen the wrong day to shoot. The artists were setting up their tents, not their displays.

They wore work gear and were focused on the tasks at hand. No one wanted to be interviewed.

It was a disaster. I had to re-book my film crew to return again the next day.

I was terrified that my new workshop was failing before it ever began.

So I repeated The Artist's Mantra: "Everything I touch turns to gold." 

And in spite of the trouble, the time and the expense, shooting the next day actually did work out better.

We knew when the light would be best. The artists looked great and confident on camera.  I myself had gotten a proper night's sleep and was able to relax and have fun.

Gold.

Two weeks later, I hired the same film crew to shoot the "meat and potatoes" of Art Fair Essentials, the actual tutorial itself.

It took hours of set up, concentration, and patience as we shot take after take.

But when the director uploaded the video the next day, we found that there had been a small spot on the lens. It was barely discernable but once we saw it, we couldn't stop looking at it. 

We had to reshoot. The whole thing. Again.

EverythingItouchturnstogold 
EverythingItouchturnstogold 
EverythingItouchturnstogold

I desperately chanted The Artist's Mantra, trying to convince myself as time and resources spiraled out of control.

But do you know what?

By studying the footage, I was able to pinpoint other issues to improve -- the script could be tighter, my outfit wasn't working, the set looked lackluster.

We did shoot the whole workshop again, this time in a much better location - a letterpress studio.

The result was gold.

Today, I'm writing this message to you from New York City. I'm here to speak about The Artist's Journey at Art Expo, a huge international art fair with a 39-year history.

Once again, I've hired a film crew to follow me around the fair so I can interview artists about their experiences exhibiting in art fairs.

What could go wrong? 

Absolutely nothing. 

Because I know The Artist's Mantra. So even if it goes all wrong, it will be alright.

I'm just getting dressed now, and I leave for Art Expo in a few minutes.

Wish me luck in my quest for gold!  I have a feeling I'm going to find it.

Because I know The Artist's Mantra. And everything we touch turns to gold.

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