Alone in the studio with Samuel Beckett
It’s not hard to be making art in a city like Seattle, where the arts are fairly hopping, artists throw open their doors, there’s no shortage of critics, and there are quite a few galleries (though not as many as there used to be).
But for a so called struggling newbie artist, it is hard to put yourself out there as they say: to hang your work and await the slings and arrows.
After art school I was a graphic designer for years. The best designers promote a strong critique discipline in their firms, and I benefitted from that. I cared what my fellow designers thought because I trusted them to make my work better. So you did your best work, shared it with the group, you heard it torn apart, then made it better.
A piece of paper on my workspace wall reads: “Ignore what other people think.” But that’s a complicated proposition. A) As a human, it’s hard not to care what others think. B) An artist has to nurture a personal vision, and not be distracted by the noise of the marketplace. But C) you also want to find the voices that you trust to make your work better.
As it is, I work alone in my studio (except for my husband in his garage studio at the other end of the basement). I have to go out of my way to find a community; I only get feedback from a very small group of friends who are often too kind to be critical.
Recently, I met a very amiable woman with an interesting little gallery, who wanted to come to my studio and see my work. Believe me, I was thrilled that she was interested and I wanted her feedback on my work. (Naturally, if I’m honest, what I really wanted was her positive feedback on my work!)
I confess to having a fleeting fantasy about showing in a real gallery. Maybe being invited to participate in a group show. Maybe even sometime soon. But mostly I‘m aware that my vision, my skill and craftsmanship are in their early stages. I feel my art isn't ready for prime time.
I work in concrete-based mixed media. People mostly have no idea what that would be like; they haven’t seen anything similar. And it’s taken some time for me to formulate materials and experiment with approaches that work for me. My enduring sense of concrete-as-chemistry-experiment is part of the fascination, and it contributes to the trial and error practice I've been pursuing. I work in short veins, then veer from them to try to improve in some way.
When the very cordial gallerist came to my house, I undoubtedly communicated some lack of assurance, talking about my experimentation with materials and forms, rambling about my inspiration. I violated the “don’t show anything you’re not proud of” rule—I had to, otherwise I’d have shown about two pieces. I’m fairly happy with a couple of works, but I felt it would be insulting to share so few. I didn’t have the confidence to get her all the way over here to show two pieces.
Hearing her comments was both validating and humbling. While I listened, I saw her casting about a bit for what to say. No doubt she’s often on the spot when judging someone’s work for the first time; perhaps she was struggling to categorize a practice that was hard to judge against her experience of what’s salable.
Her first impression seemed to be positive toward some earlier, flatter pieces—they’re less dimensional, a little more like 2D paintings. As she looked longer, and thoughtfully, she was upbeat about a torn-canvas piece that breaks out of the rectangular norm, and about a couple of irregularly-shaped pieces that ignore right-angles completely. And she responded to one boldly graphic piece.
Her reactions to the uneven quality of the work were honest; I appreciated that. Generally, I think she tried to not be overly critical, and as with critiques in the past, I probably took that more positively than was warranted. At least, I did right up until she told me that now I should take pictures, then throw everything out and move forward with what I’ve learned.
Reflecting on our conversation, I had no more fantasies that I’d be showing in a gallery any time soon. I began to wish I'd had the chutzpa to just show two good pieces. The bottom line for me was that, going forward, I'd trust her to be a critic who will help me make my work better. I will keep in touch with her.
Now, as before, I show up in my basement studio every day. And those words attributed (incorrectly) to my Irish compatriot Samuel Beckett, and beloved in Silicon Valley, come to mind: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
At the same time, for my own sanity and sense of inspiration, I try not to contemplate the void invoked in the dark words he actually wrote: “Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good.”
- Samuel Becket: Fotografía extraída de la revista Primera Plana. Año VIII numero 408, de noviembre de 1970, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Public domain.
- Su Cummings, Blood Does Not Fall As A Teardrop, 2017
© 2017 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.