Questions from an Art Student

I sometimes have art students send me questions for class projects and recently had these from a young Zambian woman studying art in high school.  I liked her questions and share them and my responses here.

What inspires you to create?

 First is the sheer joy of expression – manipulating clay, moving my arm to draw, the physical act of creating.   Sometimes it starts with a vision in my head, sometimes an itch in my hands, sometimes it’s just a feeling of going to the studio, going to work, and seeing what wants to come into form. 

Secondly is the sense of wanting to say something that needs to be said, a feeling inside that is missing when you look outside you and needs an advocate, needs to be given birth.

I have tried living in and out of active Art-creating over the years and creating art just feels like coming home - what suits me best and leaves something I can feel good about in its wake. 

What, in your opinion, is the essential skills and education you need to
become a successful sculptor?

Sculpting is a strange blend, not commonly found:  I think one needs to have three qualities, maybe four.  First is being the poet/visual visionary type of person, with something new or subtle in there that wants to be said and needs saying.  Second is the hand – the modeling, the ability to tease material into expressive form:  Not every sculptor has this or would agree it is important I should say.  Next is the ‘bricoleur’ – the handyman, someone who is comfortable, even if not yet entirely skilled, at the trades/craft aspect of sculpture—making armatures, stands, welding, sawing, gluing, scraping, sanding, painting, hammering, mixing plaster:  skillsaw, grinder and electric screwdriver are your ready companions.  Finally you need like any artist to have some sort of marketing/networking/people and communication skills in the service of your work at a minimum, or even better because you love to get out and mix it up with other people in the art community.  You can see why this is a hard combination to achieve I think – some of these things feel like polar opposites!

What is your most prized artwork so far?

Ugh – can a parent say which is their favorite child?  Most artists seem to love their newest piece the best I guess.  I am in transition to some new works that are more abstract but they aren’t yet ready.   I am fond of some of my large heads – Fierce (cast aluminum) and Emma (bronze).  Working with these large heads is a beautiful feeling – they have such a strong physical presence when you are standing with them working on them, this mass of hundreds of kilos of clay, coming alive, becoming a presence.

What do you think makes or breaks an artist?

Talent and vision are wonderful if not pre-requisite, and of course one needs exposure to mentors, great art and artists, teachers to develop.  But the make-or-break I think most about for working artists is: Do they have Stamina?  Some of that is internal fortitude and grit/perseverance.  Some of it is external-- as a practical matter will you have enough money to live on while you create the work, market it, wait around for it to sell (maybe/hopefully).  How well can you handle rejection or more likely indifference? Can you find some internal satisfaction with the creating or the resultant work in the absence of much external praise?  This is probably true for anyone in the arts – dance, acting, music, but among the visual arts sculpting may be particularly difficult:  it is typically a big investment in time and materials to create works and the market feels thin.  Evidence from gallerists and painter friends suggest that collectors are more comfortable buying a painting to go on the wall than a sculpture which exists in space off the wall. 

Is sculpting a career worth following? Or do you see it as more of a hobby?

I treat it as a profession, a career- avocation: That thing I would choose to do even in the absence of much financial benefit.  Which means it might have to be engaged alongside other paid employment, or if you are lucky enough to be paid to teach sculpture, for instance, as something that is the flowering of your day job work or an essential second half of it.  Either way it is a path of continual change, learning, development, disappointment, breakthrough, possibility, frustration punctuated by moments of qualified or even on rare occasions deep satisfaction.

What is the secret to unlocking the inner creator inside you?

I have no idea how it might work for other people, really.  For me, I find strength in some deep internal connection to Art, as if Art were God.  There is something deep in there that says my life lived creating Art is worth it in some timeless way --  that nearly anything I have to sacrifice or put up with in order to keep creating Art is justified.  I first got a clue to this from musicians – I have this idea they get born again and again in order to pursue Music through time, and that they have no particular interest in wealth or status as defined by the broader bourgeois community as long as they are able to live in Music each time around.  I have no objective evidence for this, of course – it’s just a model I hold in my head that helps me look at the longer view of a life in Art. 

Interestingly whenever I need inspiration though I turn to Music which seems to open up vistas of visual experience that can find their way into my work.  Eating well, staying fit, drawing, sleeping in or disrupting my sleep patterns,  taking long hot baths, meditating, and viewing lots and lots of visual, performance or any other type of art all help me open creatively and might help others.  Hanging out and just living life seems to help, too :-)  Sometimes your art is helped by trying really hard, but often it’s the opposite.  Figuring out when to push and when to slide is part of the fun. 

Good luck to you in living your life as an artist!