Advice to a Young Artist

I'm preparing for a darkroom photography class I'm teaching and was looking at Dawoud Bey's work. I was reminded of when he came to visit Marwen Lab many years ago. His work and his words resonated so much with the students and teaching artists that were present. He wrote this piece on his blog in 2008 that I love:


I participated in an Artists at Work panel discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center three nights ago. The hall was packed with people (presumably artists) who had come to hear me, Joyce Owens, Tony Fitzpatrick, Juan Angel Chavez, and moderator Paul Klein hold forth on "Turning Your Art Into A Career." I am always a little hesitant about participating in these kinds of events, not being sure what will ensue, and if one and a half hours is indeed enough time to say everything that needs to be said to an audience that presumably has a a wide range of experiences, but perhaps still feels lacking in that one or two crucial pieces of information that will perhaps move them forward in their careers. I honestly wasn't looking forward to trying to explain my thirty year career as a series of "how tos" which are, at best, unique to my own set of experiences and circumstances, even as I realize that I have learned a thing or two along the way to the career I have had.  At any rate it did turn out to be a variably interesting evening, with a wide range of viewpoints and experiences being presented. I am posting here the comments I read for readers of my blog. They will also, at some point,  be posted on the Chicago Artists Resources Website, an invaluable source of professional information.

• Make good work! Be self-critical and informed enough to know if the work you are doing stacks up to the work you would like to be hanging next to. Through constant engagement with work that is being shown, know where and if your work fits into a particular area of current discourse. Nothing else matters more than this, and nothing else will make up for this if you are not doing it.
• Put in 10,000 hours (see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Gladwell posits that successful people—across a wide range of fields--have put in 10,000 hours of practice to reach their level of success.) Like any other profession, being an artist requires physically getting up and “going to work.” The sooner you begin your professional journey the more time you will have to put in the requisite number of hours.
• Hang around people who are better than you think you currently are. The longer you hang around them and have conversations with them, the better you are likely to become. Be sure to actually listen to their feedback and figure out how you can use it.
 • Assuming you are doing the above, show your work to as many people as possible. If you show the work to friends and associates, show it to those you think are doing work that is at least as interesting or more interesting than your own, who have even more experience than you do, so you can establish an ongoing critical dialogue with them. It is impossible to do good work, show it to a lot of  people, and nothing happens. You have to believe this. If you are showing your work to informed viewers and no on is responding or talking your work up to other people, you need to take a long, hard look at your work. Do not be foolish enough to think that everyone else is wrong and that you are right! People that I know who look at work—even with very different interests and tastes—tend to agree when something interesting comes along. And if any one of them sees something interesting, they will usually tell someone else. I always talk to curators I know about interesting new work that I have seen, encouraging them to take a look at it as well. Usually we agree, and even if they are not able to do anything right away, they keep the work and the artist on their radar.
• Be informed. Know what part of the marketplace your work fits; both the marketplace of ideas and the marketplace of certain kinds of objects. Making art is not only about being creative, but understanding the broader context in which you are making your work.
 • Cultivate a community of support, and keep in touch with people, even when it doesn’t look like they are going to do anything for you right away. Form a community, don’t just “network.” I have had numerous exhibitions that were the result of keeping in touch with people for up to ten years. People can often be interested in your work, but it takes time for the right situation to develop for them to be able to do something with it. They also want to know that you, too, are in it for the long haul. The last thing they want to do is make an early commitment to someone’s work who then decides to give it up and go work for Verizon!
• Join those professional organizations that can provide a community, network, and professional information, such as College Art Association, Society for Photographic Education, and others. Attend their events and conferences and expand your knowledge and community.
• Become an information junkie. Know about everything and everybody who might be interested in what you are doing. Allinformation is useful at some point.
• Be prepared to make work for the long haul. Be a long distance runner. The great novelist John Oliver Killens gave me this advise thirty years ago, and it's true. Your work should be something that you would be doing regardless of whether the larger market ever responds or not. Making art has to be your own particular obsession.
 • Develop good communication skills. The ability to speak and write articulately and concisely about your work is absolutely essential, unless you have someone who will constantly transcribe and edit your thoughts for you, and also act as your press secretary so you never have to actually confront anyone or talk or write about your work yourself. The ability to write and think well is directly related to how much you read and absorb information. I would suggest that you read a lot in order to understand what a well crafted statement (about anything) looks like. Good writing tends to follow entirely conventional patterns and forms.
• Get a good education, whether from a good art or photography program or from your own obsessive seeking out of knowledge. They weren’t joking (whoever they were) when they said that “Knowledge is Power.” You need to know how to DO something; how to skillfully and consistently make something. This requires a respect for craft, knowledge and the necessary training to execute. If you choose to do it through an art school or program, it DOES matter where you go. Some places are better at this than others. Others are good at teaching a narrow range of conceptual theory and jargon, but may leave you unsure about how to give coherent and interesting form to those ideas. Art is a serious endeavor, and much like any other field requires training. You wouldn’t let a doctor with no training operate on you  just because she was feeling ”inspired,” or because he or she had good intentions and some interesting theories about medical science. Unless you think art is a less serious pursuit, it should also require some serious skills and measurable competencies. 
• Don’t be afraid to create new paradigms for how you can exist and function as an artist. A lot of the old paradigms were never meant to serve artists well in the first place. I don’t know any other field in which you can bear the full expense of production, then give someone 50% to sell the object or product, then pay the IRS the requisite 33% tax rate, and say you are doing "good business." This is the “normal” paradigm of the commercial art world, and at a certain level it does work, particularly at the mid to upper levels. It doesn't mean its the only way, and in the early stages your work will not be priced high enough to cover your costs of production, let alone pay your rent every month, under this structure at any rate. Other paradigms and strategies are possible. Much the way that musicians are finding ways to profitably get their work into the hands of their audiences without label support, so should other artists be devising ways of getting their work out there and truly supporting themselves. There are artists doing this with real success. Find out what they are doing and how they are doing it.


teaching and learning






Have you heard of Dabble? It's a website where you can find all sorts of fun classes/workshops to take in the city. As a teacher, I love this sort of thing. Learning new things has always been my favorite part of teaching. The range of classes that are offered is huge- all types of visual art, cooking, music, writing, tech stuff, public speaking, design, dance, etc. You can also propose ideas for classes you want to take or propose to teach a class.
I'm looking forward to having free time to take advantage of this sort of thing!

25@25- Marwen


This year is Marwen's 25th annniversary  and as a way to celebrate, they chose 25 people from the Marwen community (students, alumni, teaching artists, staff, board members, etc.) to highlight in a series of short videos. Mine was released this week, as embarrassing as it is to see myself on screen, I'm happy that I was able to talk about an organization that's very important to me!


the power of a thank you

I'm a firm believer in the importance of gratitude and saying "Thank You" when someone does something nice for you. Writing thank you notes after Christmas and birthdays wasn't always my favorite thing when I was little but I'm happy my parents taught me what a good habit this is.

Last week, many of the seniors at Marwen had their last day and are officially off to college. I received a thank you note from a student who I met when she was in 7th grade and had started taking classes at Marwen. I had to scan it in and share it here because there are few things more gratifying as a teacher than a genuine thank you from a student. Granted, this student is exceptional, she's had this wonderful attitude since I first met her so many years ago. This really made my day!



Marwen Lab

It's hard to believe we finished our 4th year of Marwen Lab in May! I'm so happy I've been involved since the beginning with this program. To see it grow, take shape and become much more effective and refined over the years has been extremely gratifying. We had our first student, Emily,  who had taken 3 straight years of Marwen Lab graduate this year. It's always tough and this year we had 18 seniors out of 28 students! I am so proud of all of them and can't wait to see what they accomplish in the years to come. As I start a family this Fall, I'll be quitting my staff position at Marwen and continuing on as a freelance teaching artist. I am so excited to start this new chapter and am happy I can still continue to teach and be a part of the community.
Here are some photos from the exhibition, the top one is during our last class of students doing a post-it note critique. The next three are details of Emily's art work. I find them so beautiful and thought provoking. This is a small sampling of her project but you get the idea.







the best last class





At the organization where I teach, most of our courses are 8-weeks long and meet once a week for 2.5 hours. So you can imagine how quickly the time flies. I am lucky enough to be the program manager and a teaching artist for one of our most accelerated programs that lasts roughly the length of the school year (mid-September to late May). We still have breaks between our existing terms but we stay in touch with our students and have plenty of open studio time for them to work on their projects outside of class. Even with all that extra time, the year still feels like it flies by and is over in the blink of an eye and then it's time for me to start planning the next year's program.
This year was a little different in that we built in time to reflect and celebrate our students' work instead of rushing to finish everything during the last class. All of their work was already installed so we had a few different critiques and then some time for the students to reflect on the year. It was so gratifying to hear them talk about their experience in their own words! We took some video throughout the evening, check it out:



Taking advantage of the Winter darkness

I'm teaching an extra course at Marwen this term which starts today! I wanted to teach a photography course that wouldn't depend on daylight to shoot since it gets dark so early these days. The course is for middle school students so I thought it would be fun to play around with some light graffiti. I've been hording all sort of flashlights, LED lights, camping lamps and anything else that my students can use to make their photos. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with! Here are some examples I found to get them inspired.