One of the best ways to learn how to be an artist is to talk with other artists.. people that are in the trenches and know how to survive. It’s fine to listen to a university lecturer talk about being an artist, but they’re at best an artist/teacher hybrid, which is also fine if you enjoy teaching. But if you want to paint during the day and relax at night (rather than teach during the day, paint at night and have no life), you should learn from those that are doing just that.
I read artist biographies, artist interviews, collect artist quotes, and pick the brains of any successful artist that comes within talking distance of me. Artists are generally an open bunch of people that aren’t good at keeping trade secrets, so you just have to ask if you want to know something.
The Australian artist Hazel Dooney has been making quite a name for herself nationally and now regularly has works appearing for sale at major auction houses around the country. She also has one of the most interesting artist blogs online and is very open with her experiences as a working artist.
Hazel has kindly allowed me to share some excerpts from her diary. It’s a small insight into some of the challenges that an artist faces when he or she becomes a full time working artist..
A Year Of Thinking Dangerously
Excerpts from a Journal – Hazel Dooney
I was getting impatient for the base coats to dry on a large enamel piece, so I started work on a new series of watercolours on paper. I am really bad at doing nothing.
Putting down the first marks of a new work is always hell. I suffer a flood of anxiety and self-doubt, and the initial effort is always terrible. I try too hard. My lines are tight. I am hesitant about how and where to use the paint. I waste a lot of time pacing around instead of working. I have to force myself to finish the damn thing. Then I lie it face down and try to forget about it.
When I’m not happy with my art, everything in my life is fucked. When it’s going well, everything is perfect. It’s irrational and unpredictable, and it’s downright unpleasant for everyone around me.
I spent at least half this day sick or sleeping off the effects of using enamel paint. My tolerance to it has declined in the year or so since I last used it. Tomorrow morning I’m going to my favourite industrial paint store to buy a protective suit and some fresh chemical filters for my mask. I’d take a photo of myself in all that gear here but it’d feels too ridiculous. Then again, the ramifications of not taking it seriously are anything but ridiculous.
I’ve been reading about the German-born American sculptor, Eva Hesse. She worked with lethal material and was diagnosed with a brain tumour, probably caused by the carcinogenic fumes wafting around her studio. She died in 1970, aged34. I love her work: she made impermanent, unbeautiful media incredibly tender.
I think I understand – maybe too well – why she didn’t change materials even when she understood their toxicity, even when she knew, in the end, they were killing her.
At the opening of my solo show, I overheard two young women, both artists, discussing my work. One of them was visibly upset by the graphic sexuality of some of the images, and the undercurrent of violence. She wondered aloud about my mental and emotional stability. “Well, I guess we all feel that way from time to time,” her friend replied. “We just don’t feel the need to paint it like she does!” Which got me wondering, if an artist wants to avoid the conflicts and contradictions of their interior life, what’s the point of making art at all?
The conceptualist American artist, Jeff Koons insists that art has been too subjective in the past, too concerned with the messy, emotive sprawl of self-expression, as opposed to what he calls objective art, art so sanitised of the germy interior life of the artist that his or her only role in its creation is an idea. The actual making of the finished work, the elements of craftsmanship, are, for him, best left up to others, preferably others who have no real interest or engagement with the artist other than interpreting his instructions with as much technical precision as possible
I am so not into this approach. The work I’m drawn to most often – in art, photography, music, literature or film – is intensely personal and inextricable from the artist’s every day life: if anything, the more diaristic it is, especially when it comes to words and images, the better.
Lately I’ve received a lot of emails from strangers. They begin by telling me they are “fellow artists”, then, on that tenuous basis, they ask me to help them market and sell their work. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve found these requests so offensive, especially as I am not exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to self-promotion.
Then it clicked. There’s nothing in their emails that is actually about art, theirs or mine, and they imply that my focus is more on marketing and sales than creativity and plain old hard work.
Well, f##k ‘em. I make art not only because of a passionate desire to communicate but also a jittery compulsion to make real what resides only in my imagination. And when I have a body of work that is ready to be viewed, finding an audience for it is sure as hell very different to launching a healthier breakfast cereal or a gentler washing-up liquid. There is no demographic research you can (or should) do to identify a consumer niche. Whatever some people think (including an increasing number of critics and curators) it is not about brand development and key selling propositions.
Yesterday, I accepted three commissions for large-scale paintings which, on top of several other private commissions and exhibition commitments, have closed out my schedule for the rest of the year. I will now have to tell clients and galleries that I’m unable to look at any new projects before 2009 – and maybe later, if I decide to spend Christmas, next year, in Brazil, where I want to join a samba school and dance in one of the Carnival parades.
I am still a little gob-smacked by how quickly all this has happened. Eighteen months ago, I was working part-time in a clothing shop to make ends meet. I was living with my father and trying to recover from a debilitating mental breakdown. I hadn’t touched a paint brush in almost six months and at least a couple of artists and gallerists I knew were already talking about my career in the past sense. Hell, I was, too. There was nothing in my life then that suggested any reason for optimism.
What got me off my self-pitying ass was the opportunity to paint… a skateboard. Thanks to the American artist, William Quigley, I was the only foreigner among 75 artists and celebrities – everyone from Julian Schnabel, William Wegman and Tony Alva, to Peter Beard, Robin Williams and 50 Cent – invited to submit a hand-painted skateboard to be auctioned for the benefit of the Boarding For Breast Cancer charity. The boards were exhibited in a show entitled Style Sessions at Milk Studios on Manhattan’s lower West side and mine attracted one of the highest bids.
A month after the auction, I quit my job. I decided to leave Melbourne, too. For better or worse, I was committed to the idea that I was an artist. As I packed up my few possessions, I couldn’t help thinking of this passage from Goethe:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one element of truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans – that moment one commits oneself, then providence moves all.
“All sorts of things occur ton help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed could have come his way.
“Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin in it now.”