My future sister-in-law is doing a grad degree at one of the top art schools in the USA. Talent and passion are embedded in her work. I feel like we are at similar stages of ‘living an Artist’s life,’ even though she’s studying and I’ve been working for a few years.
I only met my FSIL once in person (cross-continental issues) but she immediately became one of my favourite people. We became pen-pals during isolation, writing to each other several times a week. A true gift, I look up to her the more I know her, even though she’s nearly ten years younger. Many of her peers (and professors) have varying ideas of what it means to be a ‘success’ in the art world and she asked me what I thought…which inspired this entire post.
Art is a subjective field, so many of us seek common markers of success but everyone has different ideas about what that means. So for a couple of women trying to make sense of their identities as Artists in the world, how will we know if, or when, we’ve done well?
I studied at a University with a theoretical Art program. We learned about the conundrum of; “If you become a commercial success, you’re probably also a sell-out.” But, if you don’t sell out, you’ll be a ‘starving artist,’ and no one will see your work- but integrity!
I never agreed with that model and luckily it’s completely outdated now because of the internet. Art critics and galleries are no longer the gatekeepers. Any artist, at any stage of his or her career, can share their work with the masses.
So what does it mean to be a successful artist TODAY if the old ‘guidelines’ are irrelevant?
I used to think that if someone paid me for my art, that made me an artist. I sold my first piece to my friend, Hannah for $35.00. I probably spent most of that in shipping the small canvas from Australia to the USA (or maybe she paid the shipping, I can’t remember- thank you, lovely Hannah.) I painted this cute, little pear still-life with shitty brushes from the dollar shop and kids craft acrylic but I felt proud. Someone valued my work enough to exchange money for it.
Did that make me a real Artist? I wasn’t sure.
In my mind, I had never exhibited my work, so I wasn’t a real Artist.
Years later I got invited to exhibit at a one-night multi-disciplinary RAW event and I sold a bunch of small pieces. Imposter Syndrome running high, I told myself it didn’t count because it was more like a market than an art show.
One year later a gallery I had actually heard of, invited me to participate in a small show called, Abstract. What a confidence boost. I thought that they must have been having a difficult time finding abstract artists for the show.
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I was so nervous at the opening that my champagne glass was never empty for more than a few seconds. But I didn’t sell anything. So, how could I be a success? (I did sell all those pieces through Instagram shortly after, but do you think I let myself be proud of that for more than five minutes?)
Let’s see. At that point, I sold artwork, had a website, participated in exhibitions….but I didn’t have a style. Most experts tell you to master one technique before trying others. I’m interested in too many mediums, it’s like I have art ADD. I even made the leap into resin art last year and it’s my newest, most frustrating obsession (because I’m not good at it yet).
That model of scarcity and low confidence isn’t helpful to anyone, especially a vulnerable creative.
Know what I DO have? A community. I bloomed when accepted into the art group, Thou Art Mum. They are a local group of Women Artists who are also Mothers. My people. We prop each other up, hold one another accountable, share ideas, and move through our busy lives carving out space to be both real people and real artists. We are all different ages, have different specialities, different businesses, and we are ALL ARTISTS.
There is no one way to define art so how can there be one way to define its makers?
Know what else I have now? Inner knowing. At 39-turns-around-the-sun, I’m starting to figure myself out. Just as I am now, I have been an artist since I could hold a crayon. It’s part of my core.
Success goes deeper than monetary exchange, exhibitions, fame, genres and techniques.
Today I believe the act of expression is what makes you a successful artist.
What is more fulfilling than bringing something into the world, where there was nothing before it? It starts inside, with a feeling, or idea. It bubbles out of you and into the world through your hands, your lens, your brushes, your tools. If you write, you can call yourself a writer. If you make art you call yourself an artist- louder for the people at the back.
If you make art you are an Artist.
Is that not, success?
Don’t seek validation outside yourself. Look inward. That is your life’s most successful and most celebrated work.