March 2014

Danielle Sherrod


The "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life" Roundtable

They say art is hard, but the practice and pressures of art? Well that's a whole other tangle of thorns.

It's not uncommon to pick up an issue of Artforum or turn to the pages of Vogue to see that the state of art has turned into a sexy, chic business, one that tends to ignore the actuality of what an artist's life really looks like. This gets even stickier if you are an artist that isn't riding the wave of fame that makes larger splashes. But most artists? Tend to grind day in and day out, creating both a life and practice that must lead to sustainability. It's the only way to survive.

Which brings us to Living and Sustaining A Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, a collection of testimonies who continue to thrive in the age of hyped contemporary art status. The essays, collected by Sharon Louden, bring a sorely needed insight to what it means to be an artist, and what it looks like.

We sat down with Sharon Louden, as well as contributing artists Beth Lipman, Peter Drake, and Julie Heffernan for a roundtable discussion on what creating for a sustainable life really means.

Sharon, what drew you to taking on this book? It's a topic that seems overlooked, especially since it isn't often the most glamorous side.

Louden: I have loved reading the responses from Peter, Julie and Beth -- all generous artists who I admire tremendously. When I was approached to write a book, I cringed at the thought of my writing about anything that was about me or giving advice to anyone about anything that wasn't asked for. Instead, I thought I should get some artists together that I could trust, to reveal how they make a living and what their daily lives were like to sustain their creative practices. As artists don't talk about money enough, nor is there enough sharing or generosity between artists to make opportunities, I found that this was essential to bring forward. 

When I moved to New York after I graduated with my MFA, I wish I had known the information that these artists have shared. In the book, there are essays that are more opaque than others -- the opaque essays start a conversation, and the transparent writings, I find, complete a thought. There are many voices and personalities in this book. It's not only a read of how artists sustain their creative lives, but also shows the identities of what a contemporary artist is today. There is nothing romantic about being an artist. In fact, as shown through these essays, artists contribute to the economy as working individuals who are integral to society. 

Beth, Peter, Julie, what drew you to contributing to this book, and what about the idea Sharon was trying to get across spoke to you?

Heffernan: Well, what comes up for me in that question is how unpromising my upbringing was for my eventually becoming an artist -- no art in our home to speak of (except pictures of Jesus and holy cards hidden in the medicine chest), no allowance or trust fund coming my way, no trips to museums or art lessons at a formative age, nothing like that -- but it happened anyway: I became an artist. So if it can happen for me I guess I think it can happen for anyone, assuming you weren't brought up in dire poverty (but even then, growing up in dire poverty might be way more conducive to developing real, original content than growing up a privileged WASP -- what do I know?). I wanted to show the reader that all those missteps and blind alleys I took as a younger person -- along with the old adage of "working hard," plus being driven and self-critical, and hyper and dreamy and so much else -- all of those qualities taken together, with a gigantic love of painting mixed in, really can add up to something. 

As for Sharon's idea: Ms. Louden is a serious self-motivator herself (what an understatement!), so it seemed like the right project to get involved in. Plus, she was willing to be straight with all of us, telling us when our essays weren't making it, weren't direct or convincing enough. So with that kind of editor I knew it would be a worthwhile project. 

Drake: Well, Sharon is a force of nature and not to be denied. But I also feel that my generation of artists had very little in the way of preparation for the real world. The ivory tower was more the norm and when exiting school you were more or less told, "here's your hat, what's your hurry." So I just stumbled around for a while and I wanted other artists to learn something about putting yourself in the path of good fortune; the old adage that ninety percent of life is just showing up seemed like a good thing to learn.

Lipman: First, let me say it is an honor to be included in this dialog with all of you -- your work inspires me. Thank you! I have to agree with Peter's response on this particular question. I felt totally ill equipped to make the transition into the "real" world after art school. It took years to be able to understand why this happened and I am still learning. Essentially, when I was in the academy, there was a divide between the pursuit of art for self-revelation and the commercial world, commercial describing the gallery, museum, and nonprofit institutions. Ironically, the canon that we studied basically participated in the commercial world and that is why we know about them. I am not sure this divide is being perpetuated now in the same way it was when I was a student, but I know the attitudes linger. 

It doesn't give an artist much room to find our place, does it? Not ok to be a part of the commercial world, not many academic positions available, so... I find solace and illumination in learning about other artist's journeys. How are you wrestling with how to continue on in your practice with sincerity? This dialog is essential and long overdue in my opinion. As I have witnessed, Sharon does everything 250 percent. I knew this book would be excellent.

What's was so interesting about this book is that there is a collection of forty artists who are by all means successful, yet might not be the type of artist people consider "famous." There seems to be such a gulf in those two terms, yet both are conflated with one another. Do any of you see this as a continuing issue in the larger art world? How does success ring for each of you? And has the pressure for "fame" ever been something you have dealt with in your careers? 

Drake: Ever since I started the Professional Practices program at Parsons, there has been resistance to preparing students for the real world. The model for so long was to protect students from the real world and most academics didn't want to reexamine this.

As far as the fame and success dynamic is concerned, I think it may be getting worse. I believe that there are many more ways to survive and build a healthy and happy creative life now than there have ever been, but I think most people's notion of success is seen as fame. There is also so much money being spent inside of a collusive circle of investors at the highest end of the marketplace and very little of it trickles down to emerging or mid-career artists. Artists who are not a part of that system are barely seen as significant. Still if this book proves anything, it is that the life of an artist is varied, rich and very deeply experiential.

Heffernan: After grad school and my Fulbright to Berlin the next year, upon returning to the USA I experienced a mini-breakdown concurrent with the time when I first started showing my work in a New York gallery. I found myself, in the middle of the night, having panic attacks -- something I had never experienced before: anxiety, self-critical mind bends, all symptoms traceable to, I figured out later, fear of failure. My head was telling me, this was it; if I failed at this I failed at my life.

I had also, during that Fulbright year, gotten in touch with the "image streaming" tool that I had discovered in Berlin during that intense year of painting hard and long, so I had something to investigate that I really cared about and that seemed as if it just might save me from my painting going downhill, as I felt it would if I kept doing the old work. So, during that transitional period of time I both taught myself to deal with the panic attacks without resorting to drugs (the upshot being that I learned some breathing and relaxation tools), and I made a major decision to change my work radically, despite the fact that it was that earlier work that had gotten me a New York gallery, gotten me my first teaching gig, and gotten me into Skowhegan.

In order to do that, to move toward a kind of work that I thought of as less cool and less relevant to the art scene at the time I found myself repeating over and over, as a kind of reverse mantra as well as a memory jog, "I will never be cool, I will never get into a Whitney Biennial, but I will make work that I can love and delve deeply into." Saying that over and over allowed me to jump right over the question of fame and go for immersion, and that is what artists -- anyone really -- want more than anything. That is what we get from sex, from intense exercise, from religion -- and I was getting it from this new work. Good enough for me.

Absolutely. I think if anything, what these essays have contributed, and what I like to believe is so relieving to artists reading it, is that it shows a sincere portrait of what many artists' actual lives look like. Not the sexy spreads in Vogue or Artforum. Which, if you are fresh out of an MFA program, you might feel as if you have done or are doing something wrong. But in reality, it is so much about the grind that it takes to create a long life as an artist.

Was there are turning point for any of you when you might have realized that you were a successful working artist? Or when you came to the conclusion that what you were doing meant being successful? Or do any of you still struggle with it day to day?

Louden: I think what might be confusing to many artists is the distinction between "famous" or "fame" with "comfort" and "money." "Success" is a different matter: there are many interpretations of what that means for each artist. For me, and I believe a lot of the artists contributors to this book, it means more time and the freedom to continue to make work.

Heffernan: Since we work alone, it's always surprising when we discover we have a fan base, that we have collectors and maybe even museums supporting our work, that we have a chance, possibly, to influence the discourse, at least for today. I guess that is what I think success means in this line of work. As far as how I'm perceived by others in terms of success, I think my galleries can answer that question better than I can -- I really don't have a clue how I'm perceived until I do something like a public lecture and see how many people are in the audience; but that is always changeable too -- one day there are twenty people out there, and the next day 200. I just spoke at the Crocker in Sacramento and felt like a rock star, but when I get my latest Guggenheim rejection I'll feel like just another schlemiel again.

I think most of us would be loathe to think of ourselves ever as actually in the category of "successful artist," because we all know it's relative, and fleeting -- there's always a museum that is not buying your work or a Biennial that is not including you in it; the show that sells out today can mean a show that disappoints tomorrow, etc., and if you don't know that you're a fool and setting yourself up for major disappointment. You know the old adage -- you're only as good as your next book. Yet it does seem true that if you stay in the game long enough and if your work continues to grow and get stronger over time then, one by one, a few people start to care and to talk about what you're doing, you start to mean something to the community of artists as someone who is continuing to try. Because a lot of people do drop out. It's true that simply showing up, over and over again, does mean something.

Lipman: I have to say honestly that I have mixed emotions surrounding the idea of fame and success. On the one hand, achieving a certain amount of recognition has definitely given me courage and confidence: I am pursuing a series of work that resonates to the larger community; trust my mind and hand and everything else that goes into the work. It is bliss to go into the studio every day and work (not easy, just blissful).

On the other hand, I am embarrassed when people say to me "Oh, you're so famous" or "You're so successful." First, I don't usually agree with them; to Julie's point, people who look often and broadly at the field know exactly where they fall in the pecking order of things. And also, I think I am fundamentally uncomfortable with the notion of being exposed in "public." I don't participate in social networking and don't do all the promoting of my work and exhibitions that I should. Although I do lecture, take part in interviews, and visit universities. (I am sincerely happy to take part in this, by the way.) I always have a sneaking suspicion that I will later regret the amount of information I share. My research into deep geological time has put the notion of fame in perspective.

Heffernan: I just have to say, Beth, never regret the information you share! Be it personal, political or otherwise, the cult of secrecy in any kind of institution -- art, science, or otherwise -- always has a shackling effect. I grew up within the so-called mysteries of the Catholic Church, and it was only later that I realized that those mysteries are the stuff of the man behind the curtain, smoke screens covering up sordid realities like corruption, pedophilic priests, that kind of thing. In the spirit of Forster's "only connect," I say, "only share." Success" is so often itself a smokescreen.

I know this might be beating a dead horse, but Julie, the bit you said about never regretting the information you share? I feel like that is what has been done here in this book -- and that's what is so uplifting about it! It takes away a lot of the stereotype of what being an artist means, and if anything, it creates a healthier relationship toward that type of life and work that does exist, but isn't really talked about.

Here's a question that I think women artists get asked almost always: How do you maintain the personal-work life balance? Is it something that is more fluid, since art making is so personal, or are there times where you can shut down from the work mode? 

Louden: I'm so happy to know that you found the sharing of information by the artist contributors in this book valuable and that it changes the perception of what an artist is and does. One of the reasons why I asked these generous artists to share their stories is because I wanted artists to connect to artists, and that is what happens automatically here: a reader can pick this book up and connect with any of these artists. In fact, many of these artists are open to further conversation beyond their essays in the book on the book tour (for example) or even via email.

I only wish that I had that kind of generosity of exchange when I got out of graduate school. The relationships and exchanges I have with artists now are so much more fluid, confident, and full of exchange of information that helps us create opportunities, exercise our ideas in our studios, and grow as artists. However, I do have to say, it is still relatively just a few artists (versus many) who do this. I am looking for more artists to give to other artists much more than they do. It would be really nice if artists would offer opportunities to share with other artists. I love the idea of artists as "culture producers."

Heffernan: I have to say, I really almost never fully shut down from work mode, and that can get confusing when I'm trying to be fully present with my children and husband. But on the other hand, everyone in my family is inclined toward the arts one way or another, so we understand each other. We can always talk to each other about what's on our minds. I think in the end it has worked out for the best, because my children have been exposed their entire lives to two people fully devoted to their work; they have witnessed what I call the quiet ecstatic that comes out of full immersion in focused work, so it's more like a hive of activity rather than a climate of resentment or unmet needs. I am finding more and more that, when I ask for it, the insights my family give me about my work are extraordinarily helpful, sometimes almost in a scary way because they will see problematic areas that I didn't even notice were there! Even if eventually I would have seen the problem myself, their objective eye, always at the ready when I need it, helps me be more efficient in the long run. And there are lots of studies out now that reinforces how the most growth comes out of group engagement. So I feel like I have my own in-house art collaborative. (I've let my son paint on small areas, to see what another hand might feel like in my work.) All that said, give me a little bit of a wild river and some hot sun and I can shut down quick as lightning from work mode! Ultimately it's all about immersion, one way or another, right?

Lipman: First, let me clarify my hesitation in sharing: we are living in the age of the overshare, navel-gazing also. My concerns about talking too much, sharing too much, stems from a suspicion that it can cloud or mask the work. Our work can and will be interpreted by what we share, and I am still discovering aspects of my work I don't understand. Therefore, whatever I share is limited by that moment of my perception. Anyone else have thoughts surrounding this?

As far as the work-life balance, it is a struggle every day. I really compartmentalize. If I'm with my family I try to stay present in that moment with my family. If I'm in the studio I am fully involved in my practice. This does not always work; of course it is my goal! The primary problem I have now is that I don't feel I have enough time for the communication obligations -- email, calls, etc. I have an aversion to using my studio time for this part of my career because then the work doesn't get made! Often, I wake up in the middle of the night problem solving studio work in my mind. Everything is a compromise.

Another struggle is the amount of travel I do in any given year. I had no idea -- really no idea -- how much a "successful" practicing artist is expected or required to be away from home. I am miserable when I am away from my children, who are five, for more than a couple of days. My productivity on the trip diminishes the longer I am away, because I am disconnected from my family. If I were not a mother, it would be so much easier in this regard, but I have to say having children has completely expanded my understanding of my art and what drives me. They have inspired me conceptually in my work. I had no idea was going to happen.

Beth, Julie, Peter, as artists featured in this book, what are you hoping that your essays will communicate and that people can take away?

Heffernan: Simply that hard work, a relationship to the subconscious, and the kind of rigorous self-criticality that you must bring to intuitive experience to keep it from becoming cloying or fantastic (the stuff of fantasy, I mean) will -- must really -- add up to something worthwhile in the end. It may not be wild fame, but it will certainly be a rich life both internally and within your love circle, because you will be participating in life in a deeply satisfying way, and in a way that enriches your community too.

Finally, making things is simply good for you. It knits parts of the brain together that otherwise would stay unconnected. It is risky and immersive and humbling all at the same time.

Drake: When I left school, I really had no idea what an artist's life looked like. I didn't really have a mentor or guide in that respect, so I think I was viewing this book as a balanced and practical view into the lives of working artists. I felt that when I started out I just stumbled around making mistakes until something worked out. I know that I have been lucky, but I also put myself in the path of good fortune by showing up so often. Anyone opening this book should be able to find someone like himself or herself who has struggled, succeeded on his or her own terms and built a meaningful and rich life in the arts. The book makes it clear that there are many forms of success and that you shouldn't define your life by anyone else's standards.

Sharon, as the person who brought all of these essays together, what are you hoping that readers will take away? 

Louden: I am hoping that readers of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life will take away that artists can (and should) be generous, that they have many ways of sustaining a creative life to be "successful" (whatever that means for the reader). Also that an artist is a hard working, dedicated, and committed contributor to the economy, that an artist's life is not romantic, that there is a difference between what is perceived in the art market and the reality of an artist's life and in the art world, that having a "day job" doesn't mean that you're not an artist, that there is merit to consistently working, creating, being an artist, no matter what you do. I hope that readers come away with feeling comfort, inspiration, and can take the examples of how artists live through these essays to apply to their own lives.