As the voice of experience in that hit 80s gangster movie, Sean Connery tells Charles Martin Smith that stamping his feet will keep him warm—something he learned in his 20 years of walking the beat. I haven’t been practising that long, but I guess you can’t help picking stuff up here and there that hopefully will help you ‘the next time you return to the woods’.
I’ve always said every show for me was a learning experience, and that every show always feels like the first. I may’ve worked on themes and exhibited in some places more than once but really, it’s never the same experience twice and there’s always something to learn.
I was asked recently if I could maybe share what I’ve learned and I thought, meow, I’m still learning, myself. But I’m thinking maybe, it might be a good exercise for me to reflect on this, so I can better remember all these things, and maybe it’ll help other people to avoid making the same mistakes I did.
So, here we go in no particular order and I’ll try to keep this short.
1. You’ll NEVER be ready, so just do it.
I think one of the main reasons I didn’t have my first show until I was 30 was because I felt my work wasn’t ‘good enough yet’. I still think it isn’t. In fact, I remember someone said I was ‘very brave’ (i.e. I had some nerve to be showing stuff like that in public) at the time.
But meow, if I kept waiting I probably never would’ve had a show, ever. So I reckon the ‘best’ thing to do would be to just jump right in and go for it. I guess, as long as you do your best, no matter what happens, no regrets, right?
2. Don't waste the opportunities that God has given you.
It’s true, I’ve had a few shows that were pretty much handed to me on a silver platter. It’s also true that in spite of everything, I’ve always felt weird about those shows because I felt like I’d *cheated*, somehow, because I didn’t apply for them and get them on my own.
But it’s because of all the shows that I really had to, you know, pound the pavement for that I did the shows that were given to me. It was precisely because I knew how hard it was for someone like me to get a show anywhere, and they were opportunities I knew would pretty much never come again so I meant to make the most of them.
I remember telling an uncle about my ‘weird feelings’ on this matter and he said something like, everybody knows somebody and that it was what it was—a chance to have a show. Looking back, I still would’ve much preferred to get those shows on my own, but I guess I still would’ve been an idiot to pass on them, especially since I had tried on my own and gotten nowhere.
3. Trust your gut.
Sometimes, some things just feel wrong from the get-go. And sometimes, I guess, it’s better to trust your instincts. Whether it’s because of something they said (or haven’t said), or whatever, sometimes you just know. Thing is, I was really just so eager (okay, desperate) to get a show somewhere, (almost) anywhere that I would’ve agreed to pretty much (almost) anything.
If you suspect there’s lightning sand and ROUS’ in a fire swamp, but you go right in anyway, I guess you really have no one but yourself to blame if you fall in or get gored in the shoulder. Even if you have perfectly good reasons for going into the fire swamp in the first place…the thing is, it was your choice to go in, so you must just take what comes afterwards.
4. People won't always understand what you're doing.
I’ve written before about how the people around you—the people you live with, work with or whoever, who aren’t artists, might find it difficult to understand why you can’t, for instance, hang out with them as much, or something. They may not get why you need to stick to a certain schedule or why you’re stressing out over something that’s ‘supposed to be fun’.
It might be particularly, I don’t know, disappointing, maybe, when the people you might expect to understand your need to get things done, don’t seem to. In which case, all you can really do is to be a little more understanding of them as you would have them cut you a little extra slack, at least while you’re working on your show.
5. You need to set priorities, and you need discipline.
I’ve also written before about how discipline (not ‘painting when you feel like it’) was what it took to complete any piece or body of work. There’s only so much time before your opening, and only so many hours in the day, and there will be times when you have to choose what to spend those hours on.
It all boils to down to being able to think long term versus short term gratification, and being able to say ‘no’, sometimes to yourself.
6. Planning and execution are key.
A show is a major undertaking, and nobody in their right mind does anything major without coming up with a plan of some kind. I’ve, again, written before about how artists might make great event planners or coordinators because of how they need to plan not just what they’re going to paint, but how they’re going to paint it, and everything that comes afterwards.
Of course, plans are pointless if they’re not executed, and the closer they’re carried out to the letter, the better. Of course again, that’s the ideal—the reality is that life happens and plans get derailed. All we can do, really, is to do our best to stay the course until all the works are finished and the show opens, runs, and closes as smoothly as possible.
7. Look for a contract.
Not all the shows I’ve done had a contract, if you can believe that. It wasn’t so much the money aspect of that that gnawed at the back of my mind. It was me killing myself night after night to finish these things without being 100% sure that I was even going to have the show in the first place.
I mean, for all I knew, I was busting my hump for months on end only to be told, ‘oh, we gave you a show?’ Deo gratias, that never happened. But it didn’t help to hear the horror stories of some of the other artists I knew that this happened to.
Like I talked to this lady once who had a show at this museum, who’d worked so hard to complete all her canvases, only to get bumped off for some guy who had some pull at the museum, or something. (You’d think a museum would have some paperwork, right?) Anyway, I seriously wouldn’t know what I would’ve done if I’d been in her shoes; probably hang myself, lol.
But you know me, Little Miss Plan B—those shows I didn’t have a contract for, I also kept telling myself in the back of my head to steel myself if what happened to that lady ever happened to me. I told myself I would take a nice, long break after all those months of *painting factorying*, and take my finished pieces and propose to another gallery, plain and simple.
Still, I am grateful that that never happened, and all the exhibits I set out to mount, for better or worse, did take place. But I gotta say, a little piece of paper that says ‘yes, you will have a show at our gallery’ does much in the peace of mind department. And most of all, it lessens the probability of unpleasant surprises during and even after the show itself.
8. Just keep asking.
Again, I’ve written before on the jillablog about how, if you’re me, you just need to keep asking galleries if the first gallery you ask says ‘You can have a show—just not here.’ (Yes, I was actually told that once, verbatim, to my face.) If you’re me, it stings like the dickens ^___^ but you just need to keep on asking.
Not all the shows I’ve ever had just fell into my lap. I do know what it’s like to go from gallery to gallery with my portfolio in my hand and my heart in my mouth…and then leave with my tail between my legs. But you just gotta keep asking (God) until you get what you want.
Now that I’m taking my Praxis classes I understand better now what I was doing wrong, and I honestly wish I knew then what I know now. Time will tell whether I’m going to get to apply what I’ve learnt, but if I do, I hope the asking will go that much easier.
9. Make it easy for people to work with you.
One thing I’ve learned while talking to so many art galleries is that what you want to do is to make it easy for them to work with you. Some of the people at the galleries have told me horror stories about artists who, you know, didn’t bring in their works on time, or, were divas, or—you know, that kind of thing.
I don’t know if they were telling me these things as hints, but I did think to myself during the telling that I didn’t want to be one of those artists who were a nightmare to work with.
Although to be honest, looking back, I semi sort of wish now that I wasn’t such a pushover, maybe. I don’t know. I guess I have trouble striking that ‘professional’ balance between being a pushover and just plain pushy. Hopefully, I’ll figure that out before much longer.
10. Be realistic.
If you’re me, you have all these grandiose schemes where you’ll make like a bazillion, Godzilla-sized omega detailed paintings in two weeks to fill a space 50 miles wide, and have a 60-piece orchestra play at your opening.
The reality of you being a team of one with only so many resources and so much time teaches you to be pragmatic, really quickly, and sometimes, you have to compromise with yourself to get things done. I reckon a realised, not so grandiose show is better than one with all the bells and whistles that’s only in your head.
11. Take care of your own publicity.
For my first few shows, I did that thing where I made a list of all the major dailies and found out who the lifestyle or art editors were, and I prepared press kits for each of them. Each of them had a press release which I wrote along with my postcard invite and photos of my work on a CD (I know, I know—so retro), and I dropped those kits off at their offices.
That way, I at least got a few lines (and if I was lucky, a photo) in at least one newspaper for every show. Then one year, I got into a gallery where I think I was told that they had connections with one of the major dailies. So I figured I didn’t have to do my press kit thing anymore, because it wasn’t exactly easy (or cheap) to do.
But that was the first show I had where I didn’t get any press, although Deo gratias, I did manage to get some press after that, albeit intermittently. Eventually, I finally got social media, so I figured I’d just post to plug my shows. But I guess I shouldn’t have let up doing the press kits thing.
12. You learn who your real friends are.
If there’s one thing I learned while working on my shows, it’s who was there for me before, during and after, and who wasn’t. And let me tell you, sometimes it’s the people you least expect to support you that do, and the people you were sure would have your back who might, unintentionally and in a manner of speaking, stab you in it.
One thing’s for sure, I’ll never, ever forget everyone who ever went to my shows, especially the ones that were in hard-to-get-to places. I’ll always be grateful to everyone who’s ever helped me in one way or another during any of my shows, especially in terms of moral support. Whatever else may have happened between us before or since, you have my heartfelt and eternal thanks.
13. You learn your physical limits.
I’m fairly sure I’ve written before about how art is actually really physically demanding. People don’t normally associate art with strenuous activity or consider the physicality of it; they probably have this vague idea that you just sit there and it’s a relaxing thing like filling in a colouring book or something.
But if you’re me, you do a lot of hefting and climbing (and when I was younger, sawing and hammering), that sort of thing. Not to mention all the long hours of concentration and sitting or standing in one position making repetitive, sometimes vigorous or strenuous movements.
I’m also fairly sure I’ve spoken about sleep being for the weak, food being something you do when you have nothing better to do, working through pain, and caffeine being man’s real best friend. I used to be able to go for a week without sleep, then live on just two hours a night, then four; I used to do 10-minute naps, then they had to be 15, then 20 minutes a pop.
Well, I’m old now and I can’t do any of that anymore (or at least I shouldn’t). And I’ve torn the tendons in one shoulder (maybe two) from all the hefting and sprained my painting wrist, developed back problems and wrecked my knees from all the sitting and such. It was tough making time for exercise during painting factorying. Buuut I guess we know better now.
14. It always takes longer than you think it will.
I remember in my earlier shows I used to say things like ‘I’ll (just) make short work of it’—but now I know there’s no such thing, regardless of the style, technique or medium I’m using. If you’re me, you’ll find that it’s the thinking part that takes just as long, if not longer than the actual painting, and you’ll end up agonising over every tiny detail and getting things juuust right.
And so the ‘10 days’ you allocated to a piece ends up becoming 20 or 24, and then you stress over how much time you have left for all the other pieces you had planned out. So I learned to allow myself the maximum amount of time possible for each piece, and to leave ‘extra’, ‘just in case’ days for when life happens. But I ended up cramming anyway.
15. It’s lovelier the second time around.
I’m pretty sure I’ve said art is like a video game (specifically an RPG). The second or third (or fourth or fifth and so on) time I’ll use watercolour, or acrylic, a brush or a knife for a show, I will have had experience points from the previous times.
Ironically, that should’ve made me go a little bit faster during the succeeding times, but I guess an increase in the number of pieces kind of took up the slack. But I hope the work at least turned out better. I haven’t had a second show in ink, yet, but I hope I will, someday.
Okay, so I guess there was no way listing 15 things was going to be (relatively) short, however much I tried to keep this from becoming ‘15 backstories’ of a jillamonster’s journey of self-discovery as an exhibiting artist.
But I hope this was of some benefit to you, even a bitty bit, and that you’ll bear in mind that everything is a learning experience, and that Art itself is one of life’s greatest teachers.
As I write this, I don’t even know if I’ll ever return to exhibiting the way I have over the past 14 years, but I do know the learning isn’t going to stop for me any time soon. But if there’s anything I might’ve learned so far that might be of some use to you, I’d be glad to share anything I can.