Define Success

“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose; the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.” Oxford Dictionary. I can easily live with the first definition, but with the second… not so much.

When I moved to Calgary from Montreal 23 years ago, one of the things that struck me and made me rather uncomfortable was its culture of wealth. I was truly shocked by this obsession with money and possessions! As a child and young adult, I hadn’t seen people value others based on their financial status. In Calgary, it felt like that was mighty important and, for a while, I wondered if I should be concerned.

I eventually let it go, partly because, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve met enough wealthy people to know that many of them don’t feel any more fulfilled and at peace than the rest of their fellow human beings. And, more to the point, as an artist, could I really afford to base my own value on how much money I make and how many people recognize me on the street? I don’t think so. That would be a sure way to contaminate my work with concerns that have nothing to do with art.

On Saturday, I attended a panel discussing the legacy of Alex Janvier and his group of indigenous Canadian artists. The subject of success came up and Jackson 2Bears, one of the panellists, asked, “Now what is success?” He went on to say “Success is to create meaningful work.”  And that’s the definition I can live with.

In her blog titled How Do You Define Success as an Artist? Lorie McNee shares the results of a survey she conducted with a group of artists. She categorized their responses in this way:
“Faith:  Conviction that they can produce what they envision, sense or get through a higher source.

Followers:  People who like their work enough to buy it or tell others about it.

Fame:  Publicity that draws attention to their work and attracts gallery dealers, art critics, museum curators and writers.

Fortune:  Income from selling enough work to support themselves comfortably without having any other source of income.”

Faith strikes me as encompassing creating meaningful work which is the foremost responsibility of an artist. Followers and Fame are about sharing your work with others, which I also consider one of the artist’s responsibilities. Fortune is a direct result of doing a good job at the first three points and should not be the artist’s main focus. When an artist spends too much time worrying about creating works that generate income, he gets lost. He wanders away from his own true voice. Of course we all need money, but the artwork should not be created with that as its sole purpose. There are many ways to finance an art career while your work takes its own sweet time creating a reputation that will eventually pay off. But remember: we’re artists. We can be creative in that aspect as well. For me, teaching art and working on community art projects feeds my personal art practice on many levels. And experiencing life outside the studio provides plenty of inspiration for studio work.

I still live in a society that over values money and possessions. But as an artist, I’ve had to learn to shove those concerns aside so I can create meaningful art because meaningful artwork doesn’t take root in greed. It takes root in experiencing the human condition and in the emotions that stem from that experience.

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I make objects

Well, I make art of course. But that often takes the form of a physical object that I introduce into the world. I do it because I need to. I need to work with my hands and to relate to an object while it’s taking form. And for those of us who, as my friend Doug Newell says, ‘just love making things’, there’s nothing else in life that’s more satisfying.

Sculptures in progress, limited editions of 25

However, as a person who is trying to be mindful of how our society contributes to the constant assault on our fragile planet, I wonder sometimes whether it’s actually a good thing to add more objects to it?

I’m also just coming out of a massive de-cluttering of my own home. The house is big and we’ve been here for 20 years, and now the boys are grown and they’re leaving the nest. So, over the past six months, I’ve been dealing with all the accumulated stuff and wondering why I had it all in the first place. Should I keep all these objects? I gave a lot of them away to friends and family who expressed interest but, to be honest, now I actually can’t even recall what they were. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I mustn’t have taken much care in selecting all that stuff in the first place.

Sometimes I make computer images for project applications and it’s occurred to me that it might be a good way to create art without cluttering the world. But I’m afraid that way of working just doesn’t feel real to me – neither the process nor the result. For one thing, it doesn’t provide the joy of physically working with my hands. I love the way my back, my arms and my legs are engaged when I work. I love the way my breath responds to my body’s motion as it’s totally absorbed in the creative process. The idea of sitting in front of a screen for the day actually makes me feel sick to my stomach. I would have no relationship with the physical materials I love. Whether it’s paint or clay, paper, wood, plaster or glass, each one is unique and provides its own possibilities and limitations. So I know for sure that computer graphics will never be the answer for me as an artist. I think I need to remain in the physical world and to keep creating objects.

Finished sculptures and limited edition silk screen art.

But how do I maintain peace with the fact that creating objects is what I do? This morning I came across something about being mindful of the impact of the objects we buy or create have on others. And that simple statement provided me a sense of relief. I know that the artwork I create is invested with care and consciousness. I know that I’m present in the process of creating. I know that each curve, each colour and each subject is calling to me to be there, and that I listen. I listen to the work as it unfolds and I follow its lead. I’m a slow, thoughtful painter and sculptor who doesn’t mass produce, simply because each work needs its own time and deserves my attention for as long as it wants it. I usually have three or four pieces on the go at once. It permits me the freedom to pause for a while on one specific work while continuing on another, and affords enough time for whatever was puzzling me to reveal its own answers.

I realize that the trend now is to paint fast. It’s all over Pintrest: fast paintings that can be produced in just a couple of hours. And unfortunately it’s also encouraged by the commercial gallery system. They want their artists to mass produce, so they can rotate their stock and sell it at very reasonable prices. Although I have nothing against those fast paintings – some of them are excellent – I don’t want to work that way. In a fast moving world where an over abondance of carelessly made objects are created, I claim the right to be a slow artist. I claim the right to produce a limited number of art works every year and to put care and time into each of them. I claim the right to release into the world only objects that I feel will have a positive impact on those who will end up with them.

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This is my friend, she is an artist!

I’m always surprised when someone introduces me as: “This is my friend Patsy; she’s an artist”. No one introduces their friend as: “This is John; he’s an accountant”. It’s as though when one is an artist, the person and what he does for a living are inseparable.

Me at work

I understand why the artist herself would feel like her identity is profoundly linked to her work. After all, she’s on journey that forces her to figure out who she is so she can one day contribute original, personal work to the world. As authors David Bayles and Ted Orland attest in their wonderful book Art and Fear, “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” And of course, as an artist, one is always on the clock, because everything she looks at and experiences is material for creativity.

But here’s what puzzles me: why would other people feel that my work and my name must be linked and announced at the first introduction? Not that I really care, mind you. I love talking about my work. In fact I’m a little ashamed to admit that I often do it until I notice that people around me are looking for a way out of the artsy conversation. But it’s intriguing that others feel my identity revolves around my work. After all, artists are ordinary people with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives. Aren’t they?

Me at work

This may be a sign of our times, and related to a general cultural view of what it means to be an artist. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “… in the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies.” It used to be that the artist who created the work was irrelevant. Art existed long before human beings managed to over value their sense of self. I can’t imagine a cave dweller drawing an animal on a stone wall and exclaiming, “This is my work; it represents who I am and no one else.” Now, though, ‘artist’ has become a form of identity.

I’m convinced that our society has over inflated the importance of the ‘self’, the ‘me’, and the ‘I’. Social media reminds us of that fact daily. In reality, none of us really matters other than to the people who love us. And although I agree that the only way to create meaningful work as an artist is through finding your own self-expression, it’s never truly new or personal. And that’s simply because all of us are shaped by the world we live in. I doubt that any one of us can claim to be the only human being to have ever felt a certain emotion or experienced a certain thing. So, as an artist, whatever we create is always a result of a shared experience relevant to the time we live in, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe we manage to represent life in a way that is new enough to reach people at a deeper level, but that is as much as we can hope to achieve, and it’s good enough to be worth spending a lifetime working at it. Whatever recognition that may or may not come from the work we do is irrelevant and stands separate from the work itself. Personally though, I hope that time will prove that my work has been more important than I am.

Artists are flawed human beings aspiring to create pure work. Unfortunately, fear is often a major setback when one links one’s self to their work. “Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when you make no art, you are no person at all!” So from an artist’s perspective, it’s better to not feel that “I am my own work” even though we work all the time.

$1,175.00

L’éveil, Acrylic on canvas

My experience also tells me that the artist’s ego too often gets in the way of the creative process. The best way to create is to remove all preconceived ideas, controlling forces, and grand aspirations from the process and to put yourself at the service of the work. You need to be, as much as possible, an anonymous servant to the art so it will emerge and guide you where it wants to go. Your own natural inclinations and the effects of your experiences will emerge naturally without having to forcefully push them through.

Maybe some acquaintances feel that having an artist in their social group is cool and it improves their social status. In my case, though, I’m pretty sure that my friends don’t really care what I do. I’ve known them a very long time and they’re not that shallow. They just love me – no matter what I do. So they’re free to introduce me as they please – just as long as they’re willing to put up with me talking about my work.

 

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Is it Possible to Separate Art from the Artist? And Should We?

Can a misogynist, a racist, a rapist or a convicted criminal be a great artist? Can we value their work separately from our evaluation of the person behind the art? Should we support art done by people of low moral character?

When a friend challenged me to answer questions like these, I thought long and hard about the best way to answer. They’re appropriate questions, especially now. In the emergence of the Me Too movement, a number of public figures -who are also artists – have been revealed as having very questionable morals.

The White Horse by Paul Gauguin, 1898

I’ve stewed about this for a couple of days, and have realized that the question is just too big and broad for a short and simple answer. So, first let me start by saying that artists are no better or worse than others who live in the society they do. My guess is that that statistics would prove the proportion of good people and bad people in the art world in the same as in the rest of society. Second, it would be foolish to think that only people of good character can create good art. History is full great artists who had questionable morals. Charles McGrath, in his Globe and Mail article titled Good Art Bad People offers a long list of such artists including Picasso who was basically a bully, and Gauguin who had sexual relations with under-age girls. And yet I still love Gauguin’s’ work. Does that mean I support his behaviour? Absolutely not!

Maybe we’re confusing the meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when they refer to people and when they refer to art. People are judged according the moral standards of the society they live in. And, thankfully, societal standards evolve with time. As a woman, if I had been born 150 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make a living as an artist, although countless men certainly did. Today, we wouldn’t dream of this kind of discrimination against women, but for most of human history, women had no choice.

But art has no moral compass. A piece of art is either well done, or it is not. It either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. It either accomplishes its purpose – be it as entertainment, as social critic, or simply as a beautiful object. Or it does not. So the words good and bad are used to evaluate different things when you’re judging art or judging character.

And what about the link between the artwork and the artist who created it? I am an artist, and I have a personal perspective on that subject. To me, once the work is created and I have applied the final coat of varnish, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. The world will value it, judge it and allow it to live or it will not. I am perfectly aware that most of my work will exist well past my expiration date. In that sense, the work matters more than the artist who created it. Think about it! When we travel and see all the incredible artwork around the world, we’re frequently unaware of who created it. Some of those artists’ names have long been forgotten, and some of them may have had questionable characters. But their art lives on and continues to enrich our lives.

Does this mean I could handle having one of Hitler’s watercolours in my house? No, I don’t think I could. But I could look at it in a museum and appreciate the technique – if it’s any good.  

As a society, I don’t think we should discard artwork created by bad people. We should provide context when we show the work, but we shouldn’t destroy it, ignore it, diminish its importance or hide it indefinitely in closets solely based on the character of the creator. The art should be considered based entirely on its artistic merit.

Yes, I realize that this opinion is harder to defend when it comes to living artists. Gauguin has been dead for 100 years and he’s not personally profiting from his artwork today. He gains nothing. But his art lives on. But art institutions are entangled with the society in which they exist. If they promoted the work of today’s sex offenders and racists, they’d risk offending their public audience. Thus, living artists who are exposed as morally corrupt run a serious risk of seeing their careers destroyed. They are just as vulnerable to societal censure as all their morally corrupt contemporaries. If their work is strong and relevant, however, it will outlive them.

I, personally, want to decide for myself what I support. And what I don’t support.  No one is forced to enter a gallery, to read a book or to watch a movie. All of us can make decisions as to whom we give our money when we select artwork. I’m not inclined to create financial benefit for people with questionable values, but I am opposed to ignoring art that has the potential over time to contribute to society and to nourish people’s minds and spirits.  

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