Monday, January 26, 2009

No Shortcuts to the Artist's Life

George Clooney is coming to town. More than 4000 people filled the shopping-mall-turned-art community this weekend, hoping to be cast as one of the extras in his new movie, to be filmed in St. Louis. My studio is in the old mall, and I got to watch the spectacle.

Since the casting call would bring so many people to this new art space, we were asked to have our studios open. I complied. And spent the day bursting dreams.

Well, I probably didn't, but that's what it felt like.

First, let me say that I am a believer in sharing information and encouraging people. There are so many people who helped me -- are STILL helping me -- and I want to return the favor.

What I cannot do is give someone a short cut. Sometimes folks don't want to hear the truth.

There were no fewer than two dozen young people -- under 30 -- who walked into my studio on Saturday and wanted a job, wanted an intership, wanted to know the secret of success, wanted to know why they couldn't sell their art, wanted to know --- well, you get the idea.

Don't be mistaken -- I'm not a art guru and I certainly don't look like I know the secrets of life. I was just there -- and apparently approachable. I was certainly happy to stop what I was doing to talk to them.

I was shocked by a number of things:
  • Not one of these people was prepared with any information about themselves. A couple seemed put off when I suggested that they email me their resume and samples of their work.
  • There was a lot of negativity in their attitudes: it's hard to break in, I don't have any money, no one will give me a chance. Did they mistake me for their mother or their girlfriend?
  • They really didn't want to hear my answers.
  • They wanted quick fixes.
I know times are tough. I haven't forgotten that when you're young and starting out, times are always tough. And I might be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that most of these people were used to be given what they wanted... until now.

Here's what I told each one of them:
  • There is no quick way to life as an artist. You have to work at it. All the time.
  • Get the education you can afford. Learn from everyone. Learn from everything.
  • Teach what you know.
  • Be willing to take chances.
  • Show only your BEST work.
  • Enter your best work in juried exhibits. Find out if you're really as good as you think you are.
  • Don't be afraid of competition. There's always somebody who's better than you. Learn from them.
  • Achieve the excellence you admire.
  • You might not be able to have everything right now. There are decisions to make: cable or art supplies?
  • Don't copy somebody's else's work or style. Find your own vision. Find your own voice.
  • Come to grips with the fact that you might have to support yourself with other work while your art evolves.
  • Don't assume you the world owes you any recognition. There are LOTS of talented people out there.
  • Be responsible for your own success.
  • Be grateful to people who help you.
  • Be generous to people who need your help.
  • It's ok to complain and gripe about how hard this is. My friends hear it from me all the time. But stop it there-- with friends. That's what they're for! To the rest of the world, show your confidence, and your willingness to work hard and take risks.
  • Failure looks like failure. Success looks like success.
There are no short cuts to a successful artist's life. There are no short cuts to any successful life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Muse of Change

01.20.09 -- Let's Get to Work!, © 2009 Jeane Vogel Photography. Hand-altered Polaroid Photography

01/20/09 -- No More Excuses, © 2009 Jeane Vogel Photography. Infrared photograph

In classical Greek mythology, there are nine Muses -- the sisters of creation. 

Artists, especially women artists, are part of the larger sisterhood that is guided by these Muses.

There is no identified Muse of Change or Muse of Hope or Muse of Promise, but those women visited me in the studio. Not surprisingly, they came during the rebroadcast of Martin Luther King's speech at the March on Washington in 1963. I'm old enough to remember it. I'm old enough to believe in it.

I was working on a new series of "game" images. Games are important in our lives. Children learn from playing games. Adults work out frustrations or find new solutions to problems from games.  Like art, games might seem frivolous, but are vitally important to our mental health.

As I was working on setting up the first image I planned, the Muses took over. Just so I could have some control, I decided to shoot in Infrared --spectrum of light the eye cannot see -- and hand-altered Polaroid.

The set-ups are similar, but the messages are different.

The hand-altered Polaroid uses the new film, which has very different qualities from the old but is still wonderful. The color balance is skewed a bit, but I can make it work. The dark lines on the image represent the barriers to success -- we are not naive to the difficulty of what needs to be done. 

The second image is an Infrared photograph. In this image you can see the unplayed tiles. What will happen next? Those tiles are in darkness. We don't know what comes next, but we have hope and power. The edges of the tiles are lighted brightly. There are possibilities here.

We never know when the Muses will visit. All we can do is listen. And respond. And create.

No more excuses. Let's get to work.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Teach Me, Don't Sell Me

In the business world, this is classic marketing advice: get bodies in the workshop seats by promising to reveal the secret of quick bucks, mete out just enough information to entice your mark, er listener, then close the deal with the sale: "Everything you need to know -- and more! -- is in my book/DVD/day-long retreat. Only $199. But wait! There's more!"

It's come to the art world in the last few years in the form of tele-seminars and workshops. And it's giving all of us a bad name.

I know I don't know everything-- in fact I hardly know anything at all. When it comes to art, I know where to get my instruction. When it comes to the business of art, I'm struggling. 

Daily I get three or four reminders to sign up for workshops or webinars or teleconferences that will "jump start my art," "connect to the best galleries" or teach me the "secret of selling to the best collectors." This year the hook is "how to survive a recession." 

Yeah, yeah.

Every once in a while, I bite. I'm still annoyed by an hour I wasted this week on a "preview webinar." The idea, of course, is to give the listener a taste of the full session and hope I'll pay for the full thing scheduled for a few days later. Apparently a lot did. I cannot imagine why.

First, I cannot stand "perky." The marketer of this session interrupted every few minutes to make her pitch. And she was WAY too perky. I'm sure somebody coached her to sound that way. It sounded fake and disingenuous.

But the part the really repelled me was the way the hour-long webinar was handled. THERE WAS NO INFORMATION GIVEN! Nothing. Oh sure, there were little tidbits tossed out, but those nuggets were followed by: "I really don't have time to explain it all here, but I'll get into depth on Tuesday night." I looked at my watch. We have 45 minutes left! So what she was really saying was "You're not paying for this so I'm not telling you." 

Instead of enticing me, I came away doubting whether this person really did have something useful to share. Honestly, I expected her next sentence to be: "This little bottle of Dr. Brown's Elixir will ignite your muse, clear your desk clutter, wash your studio floor and finish your taxes. Why, I even knew one little lady who sold paintings to five major Chelsea galleries after one little sip!"

Yep, I felt like I had spent an hour with a snake oil salesman. 

I'm not saying that all of these mass seminars are bad, but if someone is selling something at the end, the build up better be useful and practical.

Lots of artists teach. I do. I love teaching -- not as much as creating art, but teachers learn so much from the act of sharing.  Every time I lead a workshop or class, even if it's to 5 year olds, I come away with a new understanding of my medium -- and more ideas for new work. 

Sharing our knowledge with each other doesn't diminish us -- it enriches us. We don't have to share it for free -- my workshops cost money too -- but we don't have to sell something at the end, do we?

Teach me. Stop selling me stuff.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Peace Corps for Artists?

There's been some buzz that President-Elect Obama wants to establish an Art Corps -- sort of a Peace Corps for the arts within the United States.

The idea is a great one -- but with a huge flaw that perpetuates the idea that artists don't need to make a living.

I get ahead of myself.

The Art Corps doesn't exist yet, but there's talk that visual and performing artists would be recruited to volunteer their time in schools and communities to fill the gaps left when arts are eliminated from budgets because of funding emergencies. Now certainly is the time for that. From what I've seen first-hand, arts education in our schools is just awful. It seems that too many teachers are uninspired, overwhelmed, or don't care anymore. And why should they care? There's no money, and art and music are considered "electives" -- fun courses. They don't really mean anything, do they?

Some arts teachers are bad artists themselves, or don't bother to continue to work on their craft. I'm still seething over a teacher my daughter had who "corrected" the students' sculptures if she didn't like some of the elements! That's appalling! The students went home defeated, not accomplished.

We need more art and music -- from working visual and performing artists -- in our schools and communities at all levels. In fact, I would be first in line to sign up.

So where's the flaw in this plan? Asking artists and musicians to volunteer -- again -- continues the myth that art is not a worthy profession, able to sustain a family. There was an opinion poll released recently that suggested that 90 percent of people polled supported art and wanted art in their lives, but only about 10 percent of those people valued artists -- they thought art was not a valued profession. In other words, they wanted the result but not the people that create it. 


Art isn't something artists do in their spare time -- or it shouldn't be. Art isn't frivolous. It's a driving passion. Art and music add to the quality of our lives. Art enriches, inspires, entertains, bemuses and makes us think. Art makes us grow. Art saves lives.

Then why delegate it to spare time, trust-funders or people who are supported by a spouse with a good job? Why do we assume that artists should be "starving?" Artists are asked to volunteer our time and energy and talent -- and the fruits of those efforts -- a lot! And we do -- a lot.

I've worked in schools, hospitals and community settings for little or no money. I've seen children and adults discover the joy of creation, and revel in accomplish they didn't know was possible. I watched students surprise their teachers with work that the teachers thought was impossible from these " bad kids." I've seen very sick kids smile with pride, forgetting their pain for a moment.

Art saves lives. It's not frivolous. In a school, it's as important as math. In a hospital, it's as vital as the right treatment. In our community, it's as useful as good streets.

I think the Art Corps is a great idea. But while we're at it, let's remember validate the work of the volunteers who will be going into the schools and communities. Let's add those artists' works to our public collections, commission visual and performing work from them that we pay for, and elevate their status in our communities.

Working visual and performing artists are vital contributors to our humanity. Let's treat them like we believe it.