9 Secrets to a Successful Art Career
Updated: Aug 12
In 2008, I was one of six emerging artists at Indianapolis, Indiana for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. It was the second time that I applied and it was my grad Professor, Dan Anderson, who wrote the letter of recommendation that called me with the news. I was thrilled and scared shitless. I had about three months to prepare and, man, was I gonna be academic and smart. After all, this was my big break and I wanted to impress.
I studied and thought about and read up on critical theory. I wrote really smart stuff that I was going to read to my audience of really smart people. As the conference got closer I became more nervous and doubled down on my academic chops. The emerging artist talks are the last day of the conference and it's one of the most attended events. It starts at 9 am and if you know anything about NCECA, 90% of the audience is hungover and half out of it. That fact didn't ease my stress for the four days at the conference leading up to my time at the lectern.
During the 4 days of the conference, I spent more time in the hotel room, reviewing my images and references and my printed talk, editing, and changing my presentation around the edges. Then on Friday evening, a few hours before my time in the lights, I realized that my talk was disingenuous and all wrong. For the next few hours, I jotted down some notes and ideas and when my moment came, I just ad-libbed. That is, I let the slides dictate what I said. And what I said were just a series of stories about naked ladies on horseback, my dad running over and killing my grandma's dog, Peppi, on the day of her funeral, a little voyeurism and some Pre-Colombian, Colima Dog references for the academics in the crowd. All these stories illuded to my work and to my growing up years on the outskirts of Palm Springs, California.
I nailed it. My nervous long pauses and studdering seemed intentional and the audience thought it was for comedic effect. What they didn't know is that I had no idea what I was going to say next, and the long pauses were because I was making it up as I went. Afterward, folks were congratulating me and telling me their own related stories and I felt like I was the hero of the day. I lived off that high for months and even got a call from a few collectors. I had arrived.
I didn't know what success looked like exactly, but the first hint came when I applied next year for the NCECA National Exhibition. How could they reject me? Turns out I didn't get accepted. Then at that year's NCECA, folks were complimenting me on my performance from the previous year and I'm responded with, "hell yes, I'm awesome", despite the one rejection. It wasn't until my conversation with Matt Long who "emerged" the year before me where he asked, "Man, your talk was so good, did your phone ring off the hook afterward?" I was like "um not really, was yours"? he said, "hell yes, I couldn't keep up". It was then that I realized that dammit, I didn't arrive and nobody gives a shit about me or my work.
To this day, nobody gives a shit, well maybe a few. And every bit of success that I've had is hard-won and deeply appreciated. It took some adjusting to the new reality, and back then the lack of notoriety was really bothersome. When I went to grad school, I figured that once I got out, the galleries would be banging down the door to get to me, and then after the Emerging Artist opportunity, the world would be mine. I entered shows, got into a few, and over time, more opportunities came my way. It wasn't an overnight success like I was hoping for, but I remained true to my work, stayed active and curious, networked, and overtime, opportunities came my way. My career has been fulfilling, but the trajectory was unexpectedly slow. Which is fine, I like where I am and I have the freedom to make what I want.
I had to ask the hard questions and determine what the purpose of my art-making is. I continue to make the art that I believe in and the day to day experience in the studio is was what I live for. The rest is extra.
Be comfortable with discomfort
Do new things to get new results
Prioritize your studio time, show up every day
Challenge your thinking and technical abilities
Be competitive and celebrate other artist's success
Be on time