Tuesday, October 26, 2010
The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)
Chapter 5: Surviving Graduation, Part 1
This chapter addresses college students in the fine arts, but I think it also applies to art students in week-long workshops or those who work with a mentor. The classroom experience is one of total immersion in a supportive environment where one fits in with everyone else. It’s nothing like the “real world” where artists are undervalued and often misunderstood. So, graduation or separation from the classroom environment can be scary. As Orland points out, sooner or later every artist needs to claim their artistic independence, and that means placing a healthy aesthetic distance between their own work and that of their most important teachers. Artists who fail to make that break may well stay in the game anyway, but usually as niche players, building entire careers out of beautifully crafted variants of their mentor’s art.
This is really about confidence and trust in our own abilities. A teacher or mentor gives us direction and immediate feedback, which gives us the confidence to make necessary corrections to our work. Teacher/mentors often think for us by identifying the weaknesses in our work that we’re too immature to see for ourselves and assigning new challenges that will lead us in what we trust is the best direction. For the student, severing this dependent relationship can be difficult and knowing when to make the transition is tricky.
In college, I learned how to paint in oils and acrylics. Watercolor wasn’t considered a worthy medium (for shame!) and still isn’t in some institutions. So, about twelve years ago I decided to challenge that prejudice and learn to paint in watercolors. I sought a mentor and worked with her off-and-on for three years. Between lessons I asked her to critique my work and completely failed to trust in my own ability. If she wanted me to change something, I changed it.
This dependence ended when I painted a work that I knew (deep down inside) was a good one. She told me to abandon that path, but I refused and kept going. The series of paintings that resulted from my rebellion won numerous awards in juried national and international exhibitions, and earned me two solo shows in notable venues.
But, how do we know when it’s time to graduate? For me, it was when I had enough technical skill to paint well. At that point, the only thing I needed to do was express my own ideas – to say what I wanted to say about my world – to speak in my own voice.
What’s your story?