A Survival Guide for Young Artists

A few posts ago I mentioned talking to classes of elementary and junior high aspiring writers. I said I’d post the outline of what it was I said. Well, in looking for those comments I came upon a presentation I gave several years ago called “A Survival Guide for Young Artists: Lessons Learned from Thirty Years in the Arts.” Upon rereading it I had one of those “Hey, this is really good!” moments. It seemed a shame to leave it mouldering in some seldom-visited file on my computer, so I decided to send it along to all of you.

It is intended for college students or artists just starting out in their careers. I hope you find it valuable, or at least interesting. Feel free to pass it along to students or young creators with whom you come in contact.

Be warned — it’s a bit long, but I think it is worth the read.

A survival guide for young artists: Lessons learned from thirty years in the arts

I am now into my fiftieth decade, a fact that I find both surprising and somewhat liberating.Surprising, because it is almost impossible to conceive of myself as anything other than the young man knocking about in life, alternating between dreams and rage at the confusing, mystical, and magical world around me. Liberating, because it gives me a license and moral responsibility I have never really felt before. If you can’t tell the truth when you’re fifty, when are you going to start?

Having said this, let me make a few preliminary observations.

I have only a rough inkling of what it’s like to be young these days. I suspect it is even a bigger struggle than it was for me in the sixties. These are tough times, and the streets young people walk are meaner and less caring than those that I wandered in my youth. But in some ways, the years carve a common path for us all, and our footsteps fall on common ground.

Here’s how the passage of life has looked to me.

When I was twenty, I looked around at the world and thought, “I’ve studied so much, worked so hard, committed so much, have so much to offer. If someone would just give me a chance, I could do so much.”

At thirty, I looked around, smiled, and said, “I like this age. I am who I am, with all the gnarls and twists of my character. I don’t have to justify myself any more.”

At forty, I gulped and scratched my head and said, “Is this my life? Is this how it is? The train is flying by me, and I’ve barely even bought my ticket.”

Now, passing fifty, I think, “I’ve got to start speaking. I’ve got to tell the truth as I understand it, and share what I’ve learned from life.”

It seems like a moral imperative. I’ve got a lot of living under my belt, I’m pretty resolved in who I am (though I’m still definitely a work in progress), but I’m still within sight of my youthful idealism, and still vaguely recognizable to those just coming into adulthood. By sixty, the grey and the wrinkles will get in the way, and I’ll have to be shouting over even a greater distance. At seventy, people will start looking at me as a curio and gently urging me to get off the stage and let others play the main parts. By eighty they’ll be speaking to me in big round tones and glancing at their watches when I talk. By ninety they’ll be interviewing me as part of class projects.

So, now, here in my fifth decade, it seems a good time to try to share some of what I’ve learned from a life in the arts — to offer a survival kit, if you will. It’s kind of a “back of the napkin” collection of thoughts — not comprehensive, not systematic, but honest and from the heart; a hitting of intellectual fungoes — easy lobs to the outfield. I could have hit a lot of others, and could keep hitting them all night. But these seem to be enough for now. I hope you catch a few, and see fit to toss them on.

Here, then, are 13 lessons that popped into my head when I sat down and began scratching on the back of that napkin.

Make art, don’t try to be an artist.

A person who makes art should think of him or herself as a common laborer, not one of the privileged. Designating yourself as an artist may be good for your own self-assessment, but, ultimately, it’s a designation that separates you from others who perform tasks that are considered more mundane. A creator draws nourishment and inspiration from the everyday and the ordinary. The designation as an artist separates you from the everyday and the ordinary, and this is a separation that you don’t want.

Your real peer group should not only be artists, but all people who do their work with artistry.

There is artistry in every skill and occupation. Seek out and honor the artist in people, and try to learn from the way they practice their artistry. A woman who understands the art of cleaning houses, a doctor who practices the art of being present to patients and balancing intuition with science, the traffic cop who turns his directing of traffic into a kind of Tai Chi or dance — these are people who deserve your closest attention and respect. They are artists every bit as much, if not more, than people in the arts who do not practice their craft with humility and fine attention. Speak to such people. Listen to them. Seek out the artistry in every person’s life and work, and you will never find life boring, and you will continue to grow and learn until the last day of your life.

Learn your craft.

There are voices out there saying that craft is only one of the tools in an artist’s quiver, to be pulled out when needed. Don’t listen to them. Without craft, art is only idea. And there are times when you will be devoid of ideas. Somewhere there has to be satisfaction in a work well wrought, and craft will get you through arid times, and be a source of inspiration and succor when you are struggling.

Know the economic realities of your art form. Do the math.

Money is ultimately unimportant, but, unfortunately, it rules our lives. Get used to it.

When you are young, day to day living and hand to mouth existence are part of almost everyone’s reality. When mortgage, family, health insurance, children’s shoes, and a million financial requirements of contemporary life finally come swooping in on you — and they will — you’d better know how your art is going to work for you in the financial arena. And you’d better be prepared to make your peace with it.

I left the visual arts for writing because neither the gallery system with its 50% commission rate, nor the world of independent private commissions was able to work for me. I didn’t like to do small works; I preferred to create major monumental works that took me six months to a year to complete. The truth finally came out when I had one of the major economic successes of my life. I received a $120,00 commission, more lucrative than my greatest fantasies. “This is it,” I thought. “I’ve done it. I’m richer than my wildest dreams. I’m on my way.”

The sculpture took me a year to complete, and when all my expenses of materials, rent, and subcontractors were covered, I had only $23,000 left. That was a once-in-a-lifetime commission, or, at least, a once-in-a-blue-moon commission. Yet I had netted less than I would have as a first year teacher. I looked at my family, my bills, my mortgage, my car with its loose tie rods and my kids with their school activities fees and hopes for a new pair of tennis shoes, and it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to make it in that financial reality. It was time to get out of Dodge. So I did.

Now, as a writer, I have to look at such variables as to whether a company pays royalties on the cover price of a book, or on their net proceeds. It can be the difference between receiving a dollar on a book that sells for ten dollars, or twenty cents on the same book. If I sell twenty thousand books, that’s the difference between a check of $20,000 and a check of $2,000. That’s the difference between survival and digging in dumpsters, and I’m too old to dig in dumpsters. I’ve been there before.

Soon enough, you will be, too. So, practice your art, but do the math.

Be prepared to make a hard economic decision between practicing your art in a compromised fashion or keeping your creative energies pure and making a living doing something other than your art.

If your art won’t support your life, you’ve got to decide how your life will support your art. And that confronts you with a hard choice. Do you want to do something tangentially related to your art to keep your hand in your art form, even though the work you create is not the work in your dreams and imagination? Or do you want to do something completely unrelated to your art to make a living, so you can keep your artistic energies pure and collected for the work that lies in your heart?

Each way has its strength and its pitfalls. When I was sculpting, I tried both ways. I spent one stretch carving wine barrels for restaurants and squeezing my major sculpting in on the side. I spent another year being a night shift cab and trying to do my sculpture during the day. Each one affected my creative energies in a certain way. I am not sure, to this day, which one worked best for me.

Now, as a writer, I’m constantly forced to write books that are not what I really want to write. But, I find that I can be satisfied with the many points at which my creations touch the heart of my art, so I shut up and do the works for hire.

You’ll have to make this choice, too. Look hard at how the route you choose will affect you and your creative spirit. It’s a deeply individual matter, but one that you will have to address.

Support other artists, don’t be competitive.

So much of success in any creative field is the luck of the draw. You must always remind yourself that the world is not fair, that quality is not enough, that people less talented than you are going to be more successful, and people more talented than you are going to struggle much more than you do. Don’t take out your frustrations or build your own sense of self worth at the expense of others who have chosen to walk the same hard path of a life in the arts. They are your brothers and sisters. You are part of a common time on this earth. Share your table, share your time, share your good fortune, share your knowledge.

Get used to being hurt without becoming angry.

When you create something, you have placed something of yourself out before the world, and your heart yearns for approval. When you get rejected, it hurts. Accept that hurt, but don’t let it become a source of anger. Understand that rejection is nothing personal.

In the grant world, you may find yourself bartered off by one panelist who loves your work in order to placate another panelist who loves someone else’s work. You may be rejected for a commission because your design doesn’t match someone’s perceived color scheme or someone doesn’t like your politics. You may be refused admission to a school or program because the faculty person who is strong in your area is on sabbatical the next year, and they can’t accept any more people in your discipline. You may lose a job because someone had a fight with his wife that morning, or someone didn’t have enough coffee, or they’d simply lost their focus and their energy by the time your interview came around, so they weren’t really present to you. That’s the way it is. Nothing personal, just life. Take the hurt, go forward, and lean toward the light.

Learn to speak intelligently about what you do.

“I make it, I don’t talk about it,” doesn’t cut it. If you want others to care about your work, you’ve got to be able to let them inside what you do. And I’m not talking about “pinkie out, wine sipping” artspeak. I’m talking about articulating the hard aesthetic choices you made and why you made them. Once again, you are a maker — a laborer in the vineyard, not a beret-wearing bohemian, even if you happen to like to wear a beret and live in an attic.

If you expect your plumber to be able to explain his or her work, you should be able to explain yours. It has to do with being able to step back and understand your work in a larger context, then expressing that context to others.

I used to love to tell people how I chose to make slightly oversized hands on sculptures, because the hand was an active element and read larger in the imagination, how it contained the accretion of human action and thus was a signature part of the body, and how our internal haptic understanding gives the hand a primacy in our body image that a more inert area such as the forearm doesn’t provide.

People didn’t always agree with me, but at least they had been allowed to be engaged in the creative process with me, and, thus, were able to take ownership over the creation they were seeing.

The explication of your artwork may be different and more difficult. But you should strive to provide it. The ways of creation may be mysterious, but, to the best of your ability, you should learn how to shed light upon them. It will help people understand your art, and they will thank you for letting them into a world that they too seldom get to enter.

Honor the masters.

There is something to be said for the long slow unwinding of an idea in the manner of a person you respect. One of the greatest gifts of a life in the arts is that you get to make friends with people from other times. I call it “vertical friendships.” I spent a lot of time in the living rooms of Michelangelo and Donatello and Rodin when I was sculpting, and they were fine friends, indeed. I didn’t deserve to be there, but, oh, how much I learned. A friendship in the arts is like a friendship in life. Make them, cherish them, let them grow deep and rich.

One night stands don’t make it.

Don’t become seduced by novelty as a value.

\Novelty is not a value, except in marketing. There is enough novelty in who you are and in your distinct and individual self, that your work will be novel on its own. Don’t think that chasing novelty substitutes for finding the essential core of your own creative vision. Struggle to find the art form that best gives voice to your spirit, and which you can practice with skill and humility, then seek the center of that art form. Think like a singer whose job it is to find his or her voice, not to always do something new. Find your own voice, and novelty will come. But it will be your novelty, and it will be your authentic expression. In the long run, that will do more for your art than anything else.

Understand what music has to do with your art.

Music is the Mother Art. Learn from it. It contains everything you need to know about aesthetic creation — rhythm, tempo, line, shape, mass, coloration, texture, shading, emotion, intellect, and on and on. The music you love, and the music that resonates with you, should tell you a great deal about the art that lives inside of you.

If I want to learn about how to underpaint something with darkness, I’ll listen to Lightning Hopkins; if I want to learn how to underpaint it with light, I listen to Keb Mo.

If I want to learn about economy of stroke, I’ll listen to Jerry Garcia or Carlos Santana. I listen to Mahler to learn about bending emotions to the breaking point, Bach for exploring emotions inside a form, Beethoven for building an emotion incrementally.

If you really want to learn about quality of touch in art, listen to Karl Richter’s conducting of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, then listen to the same work conducted by Neville Marriner. Or listen to Yo Yo Ma and Pablo Casals interpret Bach’s cello suites. You’ll be listening to two geniuses genuflecting before a third genius. You can’t get much better than that.

It doesn’t matter what the music is, what the genre — if it has authenticity, it can teach you. So stretch yourself musically, and learn its lessons. If I could write a sentence like Miles Davis plays a line of music, I could die happy.

Strive to be good, not great.

Forget about being great. That’s something that is attributed to you, not something you can achieve. What you need to do is focus on being good at what you do, and creating good works. In being good at what you do lies humility and craftsmanship; in trying to be great lies ego and self-absorption. To be sure, we need to always keep our eyes on the greatness that has been created by others, and to measure ourselves against that greatness. But greatness grows out of the constant and humble effort to be good at we you do. If it happens, it happens. If you see what you believe to be the glimmer of greatness in something you do, follow that glimmer. But if you set out to be great, you might never get good. And that’s one nasty epitaph to place on your artistic career.

If you want art to be part of your community, give back to your community.

Art does not, cannot, live in a vacuum. It isn’t created in a vacuum, it doesn’t communicate in a vacuum. You are impacted by the sounds, the colors, the rhythms, the accents, the points of view, the quality of light, and everything else around you. You are part of a time and place, and your art, in some fashion, reflects that time and place. Your task as a creator is to re-image that time and place for those around you, to offer them a different way to see the world through which we are all passing.

You need to be part of that time and place in your life, as well. You represent a part of the spirit of your community, and even if the community doesn’t always understand or value your contribution, that contribution is always there, shaping your community and helping it deepen and grow.

Be part of that community. Teach the children. Offer your personality, your presence, your unique point of view to others. Get involved in politics –help add an aesthetic dimension to the physical shaping of the place in which you live.

Don’t be afraid to join together with others in pursuit of a community goal. It’s too easy to see your creative self as a private sanctuary. It isn’t; it’s your particular gift to give to the collectivity.

Only when the artist is as much a part of the community as the grocer or the mechanic or the shop owner or the kid serving burgers at MacDonald’s, will the community become whole.

This is our time and place. We’re passing through it together. If we don’t all link hands, we don’t build the best world we can.

So, there they are. 13 off-the-top thoughts, 13 fly balls to the outfield. They aren’t inclusive, but they are hard earned and heartfelt. If you keep them in mind, you’ll go a long way toward keeping both the spirit and the practice of art alive in your life. And that, after all, is what I fervently hope you are able to do.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with a favorite quote of mine, from the Lakota chief, Sitting Bull.

“Come,” he said, “Let us put our minds together to see what kind of life we can create for our children.”

In that simple statement lies the core of everything you need to know. The seventh generation, not the sanctified self — that should be where we put our vision. You, as a creator, have a very important role in serving that seventh generation. It’s a role no one else can fulfill that role.

Take the burden on your back. Bear it joyfully.

Keep creating.

Get to work.

11 thoughts on “A Survival Guide for Young Artists”

  1. hi kent-these words from your 50s haven’t lost even the slightest bit of the resonance you intended at the time-just just one more reason you’re my favorite writer,even the old stuff touches me-fondest regards-96arold

  2. OOOOOoooooo…I have to read this at least one or two more times, and really THINK about what you wrote! I am happy you took it out of that “seldom-visited file” – it is great material for anyone, at any stage or position in life, to read. Peace!

  3. As one who has entered that 5th decade while watching my father navigate the middle of his 9th decade, I thought your characterization of the different decades accurately reflected the flow of life. I yearn to tell the truth of what life has taught me and it is comforting to know that it is possible to look back in a few years at what I am saying now, and still agree with myself. (That hasn’t always been true for me.) I’m glad you pulled this out of the file for us and I am thankful to be “part of a common time on earth” with you. May the backs of many napkins come your way!

  4. Thanks for this great essay…I stumbled across your site, and I think that your advise works for everyone, young at art or not! I especially loved the part about understanding what music has to do with your art. There are so many moods and thoughts and emotions which come through when listening to either straight music, instrumental, or lyrics…you hit the nail on the head. Thanks for being able to put it down so clearly.

  5. This guide is profound in its timing, or resurfacing, and is beyond value personally, as I have been trying to come to terms with many of these observations since I began seriously painting just three years ago. Many of your suggestions resonate, re-affirm, and help to make sense and to verbalize, within myself and to others, my vision, which is still actually forming around apparently intuitive actions.I have been reading works regarding the role of art, belief systems and spiritual evolution, all in an effort to clarify my motivation and goals. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insight; this piece has helped prepare me to continue and to move forward on my path towards a positive, mindful and creative way of living.

  6. I’ve got some block right now, but I’m up all night even though the semester hasn’t started yet, and your thought were a great surprise. I guess I need to go rewrite my statement of purpose. thanks man, much appriciation.

  7. Dear Mr. Nerburn,

    This is a gem! I am an artist just starting out and this speaks to me beautifully. I happened to stumble upon your website today and have read several of your blog posts already. Your words are humble and powerfully evocative.
    Thank you for doing what you do and sharing so generously.

    Much love and warmth,

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