“Being an artist is not just about what when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth, the size of the world you make for yourselves, your ability to influence the things you believe in, your obsessions, your failures–all of these components will also become the raw material for the art you make.”
In May 2013, Teresita Fernández– sculptor and MacArthur Fellow, delivered a commencement address to the graduating class at her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts.
My favorite part of the speech is in the closing. Fernández presents “ten practical tips on being an artist that have been helpful on her own creative journey.”
- Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studio practice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.
- Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.
- Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.
- Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.
- Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.
- When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.
- Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.
- You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.
- Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.
- And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.
In reality, there are plenty of lists, artist manifestos, how-to’s out there on being an artist. What I think stands out to me in Fernandez’s speech is that as artists we must remember that we too are human. And we are in the business of human beings. “Desire for success is a fear of failure…” says Fernandez. I desire to be an artist that isn’t fear based, but rather human based.
Follow the link below to listen to the full speech on Soundcloud:
Follow the link below to read Brain Picking’s article on the speech: