stories

10 Mistakes I Made as an Artist, Pt 1

Unbelievably, the holidays are already upon us and with the holidays usually comes the inevitable time of reflection. With this in mind, I thought it would be a good time to write this post.

I am a podcast junkie, I’m always listening and gathering information on way too many subjects, most of them about art. One of my favorite podcasts is AHA (Artists Helping Artists) in which two artists, Leslie Saeta and various artist co-hosts, discuss topics dealing with just what the title suggests. No matter the topic, I always find something helpful and they always make me laugh. One of my favorite episodes is 10 mistakes each of them have made during their art careers and as I listened, I found myself making up my own list. Surprisingly, my list came out to be quite a bit different from theirs and I had so many mistakes I had to edit out a few to get back to 10! No worries, I kept the good ones 🙂 and my list is in no particular order. The best thing to keep in mind when reflecting on your mistakes is obviously that no matter how many times you make them, you still learn from them. Less obvious and a mantra I have to repeat to myself daily, is that without making these mistakes you wouldn’t have taken the path you did and you wouldn’t be the artist you are today. I’m sure as you read you’ll come up with a few of your own mistakes, please feel free to share them in the comments.

  1. Relying too much on a day job. Now that I am a retired assistant professor and selling my paintings and teaching workshops for a living, I couldn’t be happier. I spent waaaayy too much time thinking about doing what I knew would make me happiest and I realized I have done this many, many times throughout my working life. Too many jobs I have lingered at way too long while knowing that I should just do it already because no matter what, I will always land on my feet. I let fear creep in too many times, let the comfort of security lull me into a false contentment until I realized I was not content at all, I was miserable. It took me to age 49 to realize I was feeling bitter and resentful and I didn’t want to continue in that direction. It’s so true that when one door closes a window opens and I can expand on that by saying that the freshest, cleanest spring mountain air flows through that window and it just keeps you awash in it’s light when you’re doing what you were meant to do. If you’re worrying and waiting and finding yourself staring out from your cubicle wishing you were painting, the time to leave that job is now. Make a definitive plan and get the heck out of there, life is too short.
  2. Not acting on good ideas for new work. Have you ever found yourself making art in your head and then telling yourself the reasons why you shouldn’t actually make the art in your head? I so wish I had made so many of my really good ideas, but I allowed the negative voices in my head to talk me out of it only to find that years later someone else had made my idea and was getting recognition because of it!! I read somewhere that ideas can jump from one brain to the next and you need to act on the good ones or else they will move on to someone else.
  3. Not hiring people. I have a problem asking for help. There I said it. I should also add that I have a problem asking for help until it’s way too late and I’m up at 4am wiring paintings because I have a 7am shipping deadline. I am of the DIY mindset and because I have held so many jobs and acquired skills, I feel if I CAN do it, I SHOULD do it. Not true. One valuable lesson I learned this year is that just because I can do it, does not mean it is the most valuable use of my time. I SHOULD be in the studio making work and that is always the focus of the day. Of course there are many tasks keeping me away from the studio that must be done, but there are many things I could use assistance in doing. There are also those tasks that that I procrastinate doing because I don’t want to do them, don’t know how, etc. So I made a list of tasks that need doing and went about searching for quality people who could help with those tasks. Now this is a work in progress, but this year I have hired a catalog designer, a virtual assistant, a housekeeper and an accountant.
  4.  Not asking for advice. Like I said above, I have a hard time asking for help and that becomes even more difficult when it’s an intangible thing like advice that you can’t find in the yellow pages. Many, many times during my artist career I wasted a lot time going down the wrong path, procrastinating or not doing anything at all because I didn’t know what to do or whom I should ask. It wasn’t until graduate school 15 years ago when I was so overwhelmed I was forced to ask for advice or fail. It was there I learned that having a wide range of artist friends and speaking with them regularly is the best thing you can have in your life. I have artist friends that range from groups on Facebook to close buddies to accountability partners and we are always asking questions, exchanging advice and sharing information. I have several scheduled monthly calls to artist friends and sometimes I don’t even know I need advice until it comes up in one of these calls. It’s also great to have people to talk to who have been there, shared the same fears, feelings of rejection, etc. Most of us work in isolation, so sometimes it’s just good to know that you aren’t alone in having these feelings. Although we are all artists, we all have a varied path to how we’ve gotten there and how we persevere to stay there. Your artist friends are your best resource and I wish I had met them 20 years ago, it would have saved me so much anguish!!
  5. Feeling intimidated and ‘not good enough’. We all feel this and it rotates round and round, although I have to admit it gets easier to deal with as one gets older and more accomplished. However, this wasn’t always so- low self esteem, comparing myself to others and not feeling worthy or good enough kept me from doing the things I should have done to begin my career throughout my twenties. It took me until age 34 to go to graduate school and even then it took me two years after graduation to call myself an artist. I even referred to my studio as ‘my room’ for many years because somehow calling it a studio made me sound like an artist and I didn’t believe that’s what I was. My favorite book, Art & Fear devotes a whole chapter to this subject and I recommend reading it whenever you’re feeling low, less than and/or not worthy and/or comparing yourself to others. Here’s a great quote from that book, The important point here is not what you have–or don’t have—what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work–it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period.

I’m sure you’re all curious about what that image is at the top of the post…its a painting I recently murdered. I talk a bit about it in this instagram post and I’ll also talk a bit more about it in my next post.

Wishing you the best of the upcoming holiday season. Stay tuned for Part Two of this post and a mini-post which includes a holiday gift from me to you.

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My Fairy Tale Love With Encaustic

I confess, I am in love with the medium of encaustic. Just like any great relationship, it faithfully welcomes me as I enter the studio with it’s warmth, smell and luminescent glow. It always yields to my wishes without too much resistance and surprises me by doing things I didn’t even know I wanted it to do. Although we’ve had many tiffs and I have strayed to other mediums, I always return and our partnership gets better and better. We have a symbiotic connection, encaustic and I…yes, I am blissfully in love. But this wasn’t always so….

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there I was, a mid-thirties Fibers & Materials Studies Graduate Student at Tyler School of Art in 2001. I was working with ideas related to creation and the cyclic nature of life-imprinting, staining and marking as it relates to birth through to death and decomposition. More specifically, I was interested in the physical mark and pattern of this cycle on the earth and body. I began making visual comparisons using these kinds of patterns with images I took myself or found on the internet. Some of these were uncanny in their similarities as you can see below.

At the same time I was doing this research I was also looking for materials and processes that could replicate these patterns. Simply copying them or painting them didn’t work and looked contrived, I had to make these patterns via mark-making and process. One of my professors had taught with Christopher Leitch at the Kansas City Art Institute and recommended I look at his work combining organic printing processes and textiles. Based on the one paragraph and few images of his work that I found on the Internet, I developed my own process of rust printing and staining on textiles using decomposing organic matter and the results were more amazing than I expected. Using natural processes to depict natural processes also supported my content, it was astoundingly brilliant. I have included images of some of these fabrics below.

I came into the graduate program as an art quilter, hand dyeing my own fabrics and sewing large beaded and painted creations that included everything but the kitchen sink. I loved quilting and wanted to expand on what a quilt could be based on the simple definition, ‘three layers of material stitched together from front to back’. I used the fabrics I had created combined with papers, image transfers, mark-making, burning and lots of machine and hand embroidery. I spent the next year sewing very large, intricate quilts (which I later stretched and called paintings) for my upcoming graduate thesis show. These pieces are pictured below along with smaller quilt studies.

Even though they were a huge labor of love, I felt these quilts were just not enough. I wanted to show another side to these ideas and sculptural books were another thing that intrigued me. I wanted to work with anything skin-like. My quilts spoke very much to landscape and alluded to the body, but I wanted something luscious and something that could be touched. I experimented with melting Tyvek, plastics, crayons, layers of glue and although I liked some of these things, I didn’t find anything I could pour myself into doing. During a critique, one of my professors suggested encaustic. I had never heard of this mysterious and scary sounding thing. At the time, there were no books available yet and the images I found on the Internet of other encaustic work was done with an iron on card stock and was just not my kind of thing. I decided to experiment on my own and purchased a sampler of cheap encaustic colors, a bunch of beeswax and a pancake griddle. I also employed my Clover piecing iron that I used for quilting and I still use this versatile iron today. My first attempts were horrible, I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t ventilating properly, I wasn’t using Damar resin in my medium, I wasn’t fusing properly, my cheap colors were flat and muddy-I hated this crap and what I had made with it! I threw all of my paints, griddle and everything else encaustic into a closet hoping to one day sell it all on Ebay…And in that closet it sat for almost a year…

For the better part of that year, I continued sewing, making books, experimenting with materials, teaching and learning, getting ready for my thesis show. It turned out that the gallery where I was to have my show had a little room off to the side about the size of a walk in closet. Neither me or my gallery partner could figure out what to do with the space, so we tossed it between us for a few weeks. Finally, it landed in my lap and I was totally overwhelmed with what to put in there and I only a few weeks to figure it out. I started rooting through all the samples I had made to come up with an idea and I stumbled across those awful encaustic paintings…which surprisingly didn’t look so awful anymore. I attribute this change to two major turning points throughout that year.  One, was an amazing graduate level drawing course I took at the beginning of my second year. I had never drawn very well and was nervous about this course, but I was encouraged by my professors and fellow students to take it. This was not a typical drawing course, it was focused on mark-making and process-two ideas that were relatively new at the time and very new to me. This course completely changed the way I thought about drawing and making work in general. It completely changed my life in the studio and the way I taught my classes and I continue to carry those ideas into both parts of my life to this day. Two, was the writing of my thesis paper, for which researching and writing had played an integral role in marrying my content with what I was doing in the studio. For the first time in my life, my ideas and the work I was making were becoming one thing. I had grown immensely and knew myself and my ideas, I had become an artist and could look at the work I had made through that lens. The featured image at the top of this post is made up of two of the first experimental paintings that I hated. After rediscovering these two along with the other paintings, I began pairing them together and they were complete. This piece called Damage was the most successful and is now in the collection of one of my grad school friends, traded for a few glass pieces that he made.

One of the experiments I had done was to dip my stained and rust printed fabrics into encaustic medium and really liked the way it added depth and enhanced the marks on the fabric. Since I had been stretching the sewn pieces into paintings, why not do the same here. I mounted the fabrics using wax, only using minimal color and letting the stains and marks speak for themselves. I made ten of these paintings and hung them in the small room adjacent to the main gallery, which housed my large sewn pieces. The opening was in the gallery district in Philadelphia on First Friday so we had a packed house and there were so many people in that tiny room ogling my encaustic paintings, one could barely move. People were interested in the sewn paintings but it was sparse interest and they sparked no real discussion, everyone wanted to know about the luscious paintings in the tiny room. The icing on the cake was that I also sold one of the encaustic pieces to someone I didn’t know, wasn’t related to and was a museum curator. This was the first thing I had ever made that had sold, so I saw it as some kind of sign that encaustic is what I should be doing. The piece that sold is called Fulfillment, pictured below with images of some of the other paintings in the show.

I followed all the signs and immediately abandoned the sewn paintings to continue exploring the fantastic medium of encaustic which I have loved and made my own at the same time the medium itself was becoming it’s own. Over the years, I added more color, collage, image, hair, mark-making and investigated various ideas, although my core ideas have remained rooted in the earth. The rest, as they say, is history and encaustic and I continue to live happily ever after.

To see what came after this early work, visit my web site portfolio and begin with the archives here.

This post is a lot longer than I had intended so stay tuned for the next post focusing on the lessons learned in this fairy tale and some ideas that may help you in your own studio practice.