Defining Artistic Success

I can't recommend highly enough Christine Fleming's new Skillshare class called Art School Boot Camp:  Redefining Success as an Artist.

I really enjoy Christine's classes and appreciate her candor in sharing her experiences.  The project for her class was for students to write about how we defined success as an artist, and how that can change over time.

Her class project prompted me to share here some of the artistic journey I have traveled. (Thanks so much to the readers of this blog for traveling those paths with me over the years.)

Below, I have described artistic goals, expectations, and failures.  I hope that reading this will inspire you to allow yourself the time, room, and patience to embrace your own artistic journey.  Please let me know if you, too, have redefined your idea of success as an artist by participating in some mindful reflection.

I started out from college wanting to illustrate a children's picture book (fiction).  This means that my definition of success as an artist was exactly like Christine's:  

Original success meant to see my illustration work published in a children's book.

After a zillion rejections, a self-publisher got in touch with me and paid me to illustrate her book.  I did a few more after that, but found the process overall a little soul-crushing ("Make it look like Disney, but you know, not too much like Disney.")  I stood up for myself, added "kill fees" into contracts, and killed two projects in a row due to some pretty bad publisher behavior.  So that's when I realized I was going to be forced to change my definition of success, if I wanted to keep my sanity.

Similar to Christine's experience, I was a bit paralyzed at this stage.  I began painting portraits by commission and did this until the economy began to take a serious downturn in the late 2000s.  

During this time, my definition of success was for my art to be my single, chosen profession and source of revenue.

I honestly did not regret -- again -- walking away from commission work.  I got along with my clients, but I felt my portrait work stifled my own development.  There were certainly no hours in the day to explore something really different -- like abstract art.  Again, I went through a period of crippling self-doubt and general bewilderment about my own work. (What was my style?  Did I have one?  Why did my art attempts not work out?, etc.)
About three years ago, I began to create art for Art-o-mat.  Art-o-mat offers (for $5) a small piece of art to the public -- affordable, accessible, fun.  I did this solely because I wanted to find joy from the act of creating art.  I had no income requirements -- my only rules were the structure of the Art-o-mat process.  Through this community of artists, I began to find my way again.

My definition of success at this time was to force myself back into making art and to shake myself out of lethargy.

Did you notice that this is the first time I had not attached a financial measuring stick to my definition of success?  Ironically, this period spurred a firestorm of creativity in me, with tangible outcomes.  I had used my personal blog to discuss art and art-making previously, but now I wrote about art (mine and that of other makers and artists) in earnest.  I found artistic communities on the internet that provided creative fodder and inspiration.  I learned from my mistakes made in my Art-o-mat series and refined my style.  I think, at the heart of this period, I had the freedom to experiment and the dedication to see things through.

With financial pressures off (I have a rather demanding full-time job completely outside the art realm), I began to remember who I was as an artist and what about making art that I find fascinating.  I come from a long line of teachers, and I genuinely enjoy the interaction between teacher and students in a community of learning.  Teaching in person and on Skillshare has refilled my creative well with the energy and excitement that occurs from the exchange of ideas with others.

And so my definition of success has morphed again:  I want to teach art occasionally in person and online, maintain my Art-o-mat work, and be open to where these experiences take me.

Because of my former setbacks, I am much more guarded now about attaching internal financial requirements to my art goals. Instead, I'm seeking to keep the joy of the art-making experience close and precious.  And, I'm protecting my ability to maintain my freedom to experiment and grow as an artist.  I'll let you know how it turns out!


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