Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Strategies for Success as an Artist

I thought I'd blog some of my tips for surviving and thriving as a studio artist for 30 years. As an artist running a sole proprietor business, most of the advice I got from well meaning people that did not work for me was about how to run an efficient, profit-driven manufacturing plant. As I've said in Creativity, this led me into deadening boredom. Here are some pointers that I found invaluable:

1) "Your inner artist is a child", according to Julia Cameron. That means that an artist's job is to play. That doesn't mean to just make messes (although sometimes it does) and it does mean to abandon oneself to imagination, surrender to creative impulses. Dream. Go with 'what if?' just for the pleasure of it.

2) "No matter how beautifully a puppet is dancing on the end of its strings," said Werner Erhart, "I have a sense that there is no joy in it for the puppet." If you hit a winning formula, like the piece that wins a competition, or will sell over and over, there is a strong pull to lock yourself in to making just that or things derived from that until Sales is like a puppeteer and you are dancing on its strings. Don't do it.

3) "Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business." (Tom Robbins) Believe in magic. Period.

Now here are my own daffodils and polliwogs of wisdom:

4) Learn to be very comfortable in your own skin, and your own mind. Some form of exercise and some spiritual discipline are essential, or art will never be more than another attempt to escape yourself.

5) Make a solemn agreement that you will only tell the truth in your art. This was huge for me. I actually made an inventory of all the ways I lied in my pottery: by making shapes that I knew were off center or poorly finished, telling myself that with a pretty glaze they would sell anyway. Using bright colors when my soul at the time cried out for subtle and mellow colors, or vice versa. Making work that was fast and marketable cheap, and saying I would explore a little artistic growth when I had a fat IRA (someday...)

6) At least once a year, redesign your life. Design is the context, the box, the often overlooked structure of an organization or our individual life. If your dream is huge, the structure of your current life may be too small to hold it. Design your day, your home, your studio, your family to support and facilitate where you intend to go as an artist.

7) Tell everyone off on a regular basis, eat only desserts, and run up your credit cards to the max. Just kidding! But I was serious about everything else!


  1. Thank you for sharing your advice. As an aspiring designer, I love the idea of remaining true to myself and design what I feel and love, not what would sell.

    Lovely post!

  2. Great tips. I truly believe #1 and #3, being true to yourself and believing are powerful things :)

  3. Frustrated Writer:

    Thank you...and yes! Be true to yourself and trust in your own unique gifts by all means!

  4. capitolgirl,

    If you had to pare it down to one sentence- what you said! That is the most essential.

  5. Hi! And thanks for the words of wisdom! I agree with every one of them! I just started re-designing my home to reflect the artist I am, instead of the Tuscan style that I was doing to make it look "today". I feel like a new person! Free to create! I also find an inner voice trying to figure out what to create that would sell a lot and make money, I am fighting that one, also. Every one of your tips is so valid, and are things I believe in, also. Thanks, I will keep this up as reminders!

  6. Thanks for the inspiration, I will take this to heart when I tidy up the flat tonight. I need more colourful pillows and should really start sewing them. :)

  7. Hi Seasons,

    Redesigning your home is huge- congratulations! It is so supportive to live inside your own sense of style.

    I know that nasty inner voice, too- an amalgam of all the "practical advice" that works for many people but kills off artists!

    How about this- make something wonderful and astounding that thrills you, and then figure out how to reach the audience for that. I don't need everyone to love my work- I just need to connect with the ones who do.

  8. As a person that spends his time in the business world all the time I can see how we (myself and my team mates) would benefit from your maxims.

    If you dance to the puppeteer's strings and just selling more of the same, you might miss the innovation that takes your business to another level.

    If you don't play, (and I have worked in lots of places that don't), you get stale and irritable with each other or you take it home with you. The discord gets in the way of productivity and harmony in the workplace.

    Your once a year re-design sounds a lot like the business planning process. But I think in future I would lead one of these with more intention towards creativity and play. Without that I think we can miss real opportunities.

    Great insights for life and work.

  9. Believe in Magic has to be, on a personal level, the one and most important message for me. This is going to be my mantra for the foreseeable future!

    I so live in the world of Muggles that I tend to disbelief and negativity or living in the realm of what is practical and probable instead of the world of possibility.

  10. in2l-

    Thank you! Creativity in the workplace is probably a very underexplored topic. But I bet a LOT of office workers would LOVE it if their bosses decided it was important for them to play more! Maybe they'd even take more interest in their jobs.....hmmmm?

  11. Love this post - and I'm going to spend time with the suggestion to be honest with myself about my art - to look for where that isn't happening and why. I'm sure some of it is because of anxiety about selling - back to the puppet theory. But my roof isn't going to cave in if I don't sell - so I need to scrutinze myself more carefully.

  12. becky n,

    Go for it! The irony for me was that I only began making a halfway decent income once I began to tell the truth in my work. I was able to get into better galleries and it was so much easier to sell my own work at shows when I was genuinely happy with what I had made. The feeling of really having integrity, of knowing that everyone is getting the very best that I have to offer is very rewarding, too.

  13. Thank you for the wonderful advice. I just opened a shop on Etsy and all of your pointers are very helpful as I look down the road. Thanks!