In 1997, when I was 40 and had been busy teaching art, as well as creating and selling artwork for nearly 15 years, I happened to re-read an essay from my college days, “From Art Student to Fine Artist,” written by Jacob W. Getzels. In it he rightfully claims that every year thousands of young people enroll in art schools, colleges and universities, yet only a few become professional artists after graduating because art students are the most disregarded — there are no places that facilitate entry into an occupation like other professions. “A degree in fine art,” he says, “has little effect on the holder as a fine artist. The art school may increase artistic skills, but the certification it gives does not bestow artistic status in the sense that a school of law or medicine bestows legal or medical status. [The artist] hopes that society will recognize and reward what he is doing.”
Since I failed every year to have my artwork accepted in national shows entries, my closest reward for recognition was the art competition held every summer at the local park where city officials handed out ribbons to artwork voted Best of Show. Although I wasn’t nationally known, I found satisfaction showing and selling my art at the park, even when I won no awards.
Also, I felt proud of my accomplishments, and I felt quite successful as a productive and selling artist. Getzels’ essay concludes that an artist must first negotiate the difficulties of being independent and relatively unknown. He says, “An artist needs to be introverted, sensitive, and self-sufficient in order to do the work, as well as entrepreneurial and sociable, and a salesman and master of ceremonies in order to show and sell the work. Likewise, an artist’s persistence to produce the work, as well as to exhibit and sell it will determine the extent of his failure or success.” And, I realized, attitude plays an important part as well: how satisfied artists are with their status in society. I had met too many disgruntled artists angry at the world because they didn’t receive the recognition they felt they deserved.
That year, the summer of ’97, while I and fellow artists sold our art and demonstrated our how-to styles of painting at the City Park, several young people approached us and revealed their interests in becoming artists. Among their excitement of becoming artists as good as us, several voiced their anxieties about being “not very rosy-cheeked at all,” as one young lady worded it. High school art was “too craftsy,” she and others said; not enough emphasis was put on drawing and painting techniques, and so they feared they may not be accepted at prestigious art colleges. They believed that diplomas with big name universities were their tickets to getting the best art jobs. (So do some of my colleagues to this day.)
Some of these young artists were ex-students of mine, and several exclaimed that they had learned more from me than any other teacher. They wished that I taught at the senior high and college levels, too. (So did I, sometimes.) But I told them that no matter where they went to learn, always keep the joy of learning and making art burning inside them. A few would. The others would change their majors to ones our society considers more practical.
I thought about Getzels’ essay that day. Without support from seasoned artists, these kids faced enormous opportunities to fail. I got together with my fellow artists that day and co-created an artist’s club with them. Our intention was always to teach what we knew and to help and counsel anyone feeling lost, overwhelmed, not good enough — all those notions that play at our minds when we’re not feeling our best.
This summer, the Artists’ Guild will enter its seventeenth year. It has artists of a wide spectrum of age and talent, as well as many members willing to tackle problems and seek solutions. Overall, this you-can-do-it quality has made the group succeed, and it has been the care, understanding, and encouragement of its seasoned veterans that has kept the light shining for the newer and younger artists.
The group’s thriving membership and longevity proves that success isn’t measured by how many paintings we artists sell or the ribbons we win, but by what we give to our fellow artists and the world around us.