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.

Inside Marwen Lab: The Voice and Vision of Young Artists

A lovely article just came out about Marwen Lab on Sixty Inches From Center. It features a description of the program written by one of our students, Lauren. We were so impressed with her essay, we are using an excerpt as the wall text for our exhibition!
Here it is:

Inside Lab by Lauren Auyeung
While many high schoolers will spend their Friday nights relaxing at home or with friends, a few will spend them hard at work in the art studios of Marwen Lab. To put it simply, Marwen Lab is a space of artistic creativity and freedom. For three 8-week terms, highly motivated young artists in Chicago, who have applied and have been accepted, come to the studios of Marwen to work on their own continuous project that exhibits their personal and artistic character. Whether it is in the field of drawing and painting, photography, or mixed media, Lab offers a variety of opportunities for artistic self development and discovery.
Laurel Crown by Lab student Nathaniel Knize ( Image Credit: Sophia Nahli)
Although Lab has three outstanding instructors, the project is very much independent. The students begin Lab with nothing more than an idea, a vision, or maybe even just something they feel strongly about. And no matter how ambitious, ingenious, or insane that vision may be, the purpose of the entire year is to turn that vision into a reality.
The process in itself, however, may not be as clean as it appears. The purpose of the three term schedule is to give the student plenty of time to mess up and start again. The majority of the students end up changing the idea they started with at the beginning of the year, or maybe even switching mediums. Despite the bumps in the road, Lab students can always find a way to get excited and push forward in their project not only from just the instructors, but from the entire artistic community that is Marwen itself.

Chandelier by Lab student Zoe Prekop (Image Credit: Sophia Nahli)
The year is filled with peer critiques, feedback sessions, and general advice in order to inspire the student. This also gives students the chance to view their project in a different way than they originally had. However, there is never a need for a formalized critique session for feedback. Lab is a very close-knit community, and the students are more than just peer-artists, they are friends.  Just by stopping by the person next to them, they can ask “Hey, what do you think about this,” and a new inspiration can come as easily as the conversation. Lab students are encouraged to get out of their studio and learn about the projects of other students, help each other out, and ultimately learn more about themselves as individuals.

Edson Oda Animation

This animation by Brazilian artist Edson Oda blew my mind. The way he combines a variety of media is fascinating and more interesting to me than the story itself. And of course I love getting to hear some Portuguese!

According to the Vimeo page:
"MALARIA tells the story of Fabiano, a young Mercenary who is hired to kill Death.
This short film combines Origami, Kirigami, Time lapse, napkin illustration, Comic Books and Western Cinema."

I'm excited to show this to my Lab students!

Malaria from Edson Oda on Vimeo.

Inspiring words from Coach Lyons

On the last day of one of Marwen's summer programs, called Art at Work, my colleague and the teaching artist for the program put these words from Joseph Campbell on the board to share with his students, many of whom were on their way to college. As a teacher, I come across words of wisdom fairly often but this resonated with me so I thought I'd share it here.
In case you can't read the photo, here's what it says:
  1. Have more questions than answers
  2. The most important questions are "What if?" and "Why not?"
  3. Learn not by speaking but by listening and trying
  4. Enjoy the process as much as the act of finishing
  5. You are more than what you make for a living/You are more than what you do for a living
  6. Use your talents for good
  7. Embrace challenge
Joseph Campbell- The Power of Myth

Light Painting by Rashad Alakbarov

Rashad Alakbarov via Anthology Magazine

I just saw this image and was struck by the process of taking something abstract and making something so mundane and concrete with the use of light. I find I'm more interested in the process than the actual images that are created but pretty cool nonetheless. This could be an interesting method to explore with students at Marwen. Here are two more examples from the same artist.