Saturday, 28 November 2020

Measuring Success

Written Saturday, November 14, 2020

Art is kind of a strange business. In fact, simply associating the words "art" and "business" is a bit strange in itself. However, for those of us who make art from which we derive some sort of income, business is part of the picture.

The question I want to explore today is how do artists define their success? Coming from the perspective of a working artist, here are some of my observations:

The simple answer for many is that success is measured in terms of sales. While this is a system everyone fundamentally understands, there are some tricky nuances. For example, at art fairs I have observed sales-aggressive artists steamroller over neighbouring artists to attract the attention of potential buyers. In the online setting, some have been known to hijack social media threads to bring attention to themselves. They might choose to only participate in exhibitions or events that have the potential to generate sales. To keep their sales up, they may focus their art on subjects or colours that are in keeping with decorator trends, or they may poach styles, techniques, and/or imagery from other artists. These actions ensure they won't win any popularity contests among their artist colleagues. However, if one uses sales to measure success, they are clear winners.

Some artists are award oriented, measuring success by the display of certificates on their wall. Seems like a simple system but once again, it's not without pitfalls. I have observed artists exhibiting the same work over and over again in different shows - sometimes for years - repeatedly earning accolades. They may not be producing much new work and/or they may be so focussed on winning that they are inhibited from exploring daring new artistic possibilities. They may also inadvertently limit their scope by only participating in settings that hand out honours and thus miss out on other types of opportunities. However, judging by their accumulation of award certificates, they are clear winners.

Some define success by bestowing their wisdom on others either through formal teaching or by sharing information by some other means (such as a blog 😉). Others may define success through their own accumulation of education, the names of the illustrious artist-instructors with whom they've studied, or perhaps the credentials they have earned. Learning, whether approached as teacher or student is fundamentally important to us all, so why wouldn't it be a measure of success to be an applauded instructor or, for that matter, to be on the receiving end of wisdom from an esteemed art maker? While some can balance teaching and learning, the lines can become blurred to the point where the artist may ask themselves "Am I more teacher than artist?" or "Am I developing my own original artistic voice or am I a disciple of some other artist?" 

And then there are others who measure success by the satisfaction they get from making art, the fulfillment of that inner urge to create and set free the artistic voice within them. The simple (or highly complex) act of making art is their measure of success. 

I maintain there is no a clear way for artists to truly define success. I've been at it for a good, long while and I've produced some art that's been profoundly satisfying (not to mention some I've enjoyed shredding). Making art hasn't made me monetarily rich but I've earned a decent income. I've shown work all over in a wide range of settings with diverse bunches of art-makers. I've been fortunate to win some awards here and there along the way. I've known the joy of teaching and of reveling in those "ah-ha" moments when a student perfects a skill or grasps a tricky concept. I've had some formal art education, earned some credentials, and learned techniques and tips from inspiring individuals. Each of these experiences has offered some sense of achievement but none completely define me or my art, both of which will always be works in progress. Nor do these experiences offer a yardstick by which to measure the success of what I do. In my mind, success as an artist is not tangible. It has more to do with an inner sense of satisfaction.

Today, during the Mayne Island Fall 2020 Studio Tour, on a cold, damp November day in the midst of a global pandemic, I opened my little art studio. 

I donned my mask, sanitized my hands, bundled up, and from a spot just outside my studio (it's too small inside to allow proper social distancing) I welcomed a steady trickle of visitors. Some were aspiring artists interested in learning, some were shopping, some said they were impressed by my art, some simply chatted, some said very little, and others I'm quite certain had come just to look at my artfully built studio. I sold a few things and I had some excellent conversations with new acquaintances and familiar friends alike about art, island life, and other topics. In between, while warming up indoors, I attended to email and did a bit of bookkeeping. I also observed the goings-on of birds - pine siskins in the trees above the studio, juncos in the birdbath, hummingbirds at the feeder - as I took time out for a cup of tea. 

After closing the studio and before November's early darkness set in I entertained Lily with some ball-throwing. All in all was a very satisfying day.

And that's how this particular artist measures success.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Sometimes it takes a pandemic...

We've all heard the saying that "change is the only thing constant in life". Change has certainly been my seemingly permanent sidekick for quite some time now. It has ebbed and flowed around me like the sea, and in the past few months the tides of change rose high as I pulled up stakes and moved house...again. But unlike the last momentous upheaval just a few years ago, this time I have, for want of a better word, "consolidated". As of September 1st, 2020, I became a full-time Gulf Islander. My nifty live/work townhome on the mainland now belongs to someone else.

A glimpse into my mainland studio.

There's nothing like a global pandemic to help one come to terms with priorities. I have loved my little place on Mayne Island, with its dilapidated cottage and rustic amenities, its towering evergreens and sunny meadow, since first I laid eyes on the little piece of paradise six years ago. The intervening time has seen much change for me but the little cottage has remained a constant factor, as has my dog Lily and her cat friend Hugo. I made gradual improvements to the comfort level of the cottage, had a little studio built, got involved in the island's arts community, and over time I found myself spending more and more and more time tucked away in my place among the trees just a stone's throw from a pretty beach. Consequently I spent less and less time in the "real world" of the mainland. Many people I got to know on the island didn't even realize I wasn't a full-timer. Ties with the mainland slowly unraveled.

When the pandemic came along I was at my island cottage so I stayed put. I planted a garden - a sure sign of commitment! 


I also did a lot of existential thinking, asking myself questions about where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I realized the answer was right in front of me or, rather, below my feet. I felt the winds of change begin to blow - at first a gentle breeze before gradually gaining force.

And so, over the summer, when the pandemic abated slightly, I sold my townhouse. Then I hustled and I bustled, and I packed up its contents and consolidated my life into one location. 

Inside my mainland home before...

... and after, when only a ball remained.

My little cottage is now crammed full of a LOT of stuff but it feels good to have everything in one place. I don't much miss mainland life, nor the duality of maintaining two homes. Fortunately the things I do miss, my exceptionally wonderful friends, are only a call or an email or a ferry ride away. 

The moving truck unloads, bathed in sunshine!

The changes won't stop now. I have a spot picked out among the trees where I plan to build a snug little house that I will be able to call home for the foreseeable future, a place I will age into - hopefully with grace and contentment. And I'm confident the process of building a house on this little island will be another story worth telling! 

But for now the dilapidated cottage is home, the small-but-mighty Yellow Bird Art Studio is my workplace where, after a year of many distractions and not much artistic output, I look forward to spending lots of productive time while Lily reigns supreme over the outdoors keeping wayward squirrels and ravens at bay, and Hugo watches benignly from his catio. 


We are all happy here.