Mentoring Retreat for Artists
Last month I led a retreat for six artists on Cape Cod, using the cottage where I have been vacationing with my family for 18 years as our base for making art, meetings to discuss the artists bodies of work and career direction and, of course, exploring the tidal flats (see my first post, “Back on the Sandflats”). I also had private discussions with each artist, following up on their accomplishments and contacts with ideas for further progress in exhibiting and selling their work.
The retreat was modeled on the mentoring groups that I lead in the Catskills, often with a mix of artists in different stages of work and career development. There are many things that the artist likes to think about, and other things that the artist needs to think about. Below, a discussion of our week, and some of the issues that surfaced for the artists in this group, Polly Law, Loel Barr, Sylvia Weinberg, Sue Desanna, Helen Kohler, and Maureen Burr.
Maureen, who took my painting workshop in Provincetown last summer, is returning to making art from a long absence. A pressing question for her: is it all right to be exploring many different things, or should she be narrowing in on one or two?
Early on, the artist should be following her interests wherever they lead. Being “all over the place” is ideal, much as a young art student will typically try different styles and media for years before finding a mode of working that is of abiding interest. Nothing else matters but the process. Creating one’s own style is partly a function of limiting alternatives, so this should not be forced, but allowed to happen through exploration. As the inner voice and eye hone in on an individual expression, other options drop away naturally.
Loel has been sifting through permutations of this question for years. Multi-talented, she has found satisfaction in slices, each media or style scratching a different artistic itch.
After years of working with this variety, it would be more satisfying to find one or two directions that focus all of her talents and ways of seeing the world. At this stage, “all over the place” can feel overly scattered. Honing in on a focused direction still should not be forced—ever—but the mind, both conscious and unconscious, can be alert to paths that present themselves that will unify the work.
I also first met Helen in one of my painting workshops. It turns out that she is pursuing two bodies of work, one landscape painting and the other fiber art. In this case, the discussion of multiple directions takes a different turn.
If you are an artist working happily in two completely different veins, you are lucky indeed! The only challenge in the marketplace is that you will probably have different exhibition venues for the two bodies of work. Years ago, an art consultant told me that when I submit to galleries, I should pick one or the other of the bodies of work I was doing at a time, because galleries would get confused, and then think that I was.
A little tongue-in-cheek, but good advice. The artist in this position has to research venues with a dual intent, but there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, you may find a gallery that likes and establishes you with one body of work, and then takes an interest in what else you do later on.
“I am just processing all the information I got last week from all of you and it will keep me busy for weeks to come,” observed Helen in a follow-up email.
Artists in the mentoring groups learn from each other. I have observed repeatedly that when a group of artists is discussing a body of work, they might disagree on a particular passage in a painting, for example, but will invariably agree on what is working overall. While looking at Sylvia and Sue’s landscapes, the group unanimously preferred the looser, more open, interpretations. This meant not that the group all had minimalist taste, but that those were the pieces that stood out within their bodies of work.
Artists can also be the most important contacts of all for each other. Currently, with so many galleries closing and their artists searching for new ones, the best way to get the attention of a gallery is to have an intro to the owner or director, which one artist can provide for another. Artists can also support each other by sharing information on exhibition opportunities, consulting with each other on thorny questions of conduct, and critiquing each other’s work.
Sylvia, an accomplished watercolorist, has been focusing on finding a technique in oil that is equally satisfying. She is also returning her energies to finding new venues for showing her work after a period of years during which personal matters took up much of her attention.
Sue was also looking to refocus, and just bump up, in general. An experienced pastelist, she is always honing her voice, and is currently looking for new venues to show her work.
When looking for a new gallery, make sure that you are a good fit, both stylistically and in terms of resume and pricing. If you are an emerging artist and there is no mention of that in the “about” the gallery, look at the resumes of the other artists. If they are all international art stars, your time would be better spent looking for a more appropriate gallery. On the other end, if the gallery charges artists to show, check to see if they curate, or if it is just “pay to play”—a vanity gallery. Sometimes an artist needs to share expenses with a gallery early on in the resume-building process, but a straight vanity gallery has no collector base, and no prestige.
Stylistically, you don’t want to be too close to any artist already in the gallery, but too far away from anything that they show. Above all, you need to like their aesthetic.
Polly has been in a unique and mature voice phase of her work for a good number of years. This can raise the issue of staying fresh, stimulated, and challenged—the opposite problem of following too many paths. “I had closed myself into a box of what was allowable and what was not in the way of my work. Incorporating the bits & bobs of beach combings would not have been allowed before. As you can see I had really been closing down artistic opportunities- egad. Well, just walking out onto the tidal flats that first evening was like opening a window and taking a broom to the dusty, fusty, tired, stale attic my brain had become. I became fascinated by the wabi-sabi of the elements on the beach (wabi-sabi is a Japanese term to describe the reflection of the history of an object onto its self.) Ideas came to me when I picked up objects and held them in my hand- I could see how they could be used. It was very exciting.”
Some artists work in quite different series every several years. Others shift a bit from year to year. I tend to work in concurrent series, maintaining bodies of work with small tweaks and changes to interest me from piece to piece, and then every so often bring in a new series when I feel the need for a really new challenge. In any case, change is necessary to stay stimulated, and the mature artist (especially one with an identity and a following) has to find his/her own path to that—looking deeply inside your process can provide clues, as can looking way outside of your habitual references and patterns. Inside/outside—look in, look out. If you have been doing too much of one, try the other.
We also did a gallery crawl in both Wellfleet and Provincetown. The artists split up and made rounds, looking at art, assessing galleries with information that we had discussed beforehand, and chatting with gallery staff and owners. Maureen later observed, “I was really comfortable talking to the gallery owners and feel like I made a couple of good contacts for sometime in the future. For now, I will plan on popping in again the next few times I am down to continue our conversation”.
This is a good way to get to know a gallery and for them to get to know you—keep showing up. If it is the gallery of your dreams, you might want to do this for years—I know of someone who finally got into the NYC gallery that he coveted after a decade of showing up, and repeated submissions!
I had introduced Polly and another friend, Jenny Nelson, to Julie Heller, my Provincetown gallery, over the summer. During our visit to P’town, Polly met Julie and her staff and brought new work (which drew attention immediately from gallery-goers), and I was able to nail down details of a show I will be co-curating with Julie of my, Jenny’s, and Polly’s work next summer.
I am often asked by artists if they can use my name when approaching a gallery. I have no problem with this, but it will not provide any real connection. The only way to help another artist is to make a strong personal recommendation to your gallery, and that only works if you have a relationship of trust with them. Then, of course, they have to fall in love with the work.
Further, many galleriests have told me that when choosing from the big talent pool out there, they are looking for artists who are professional and easy to work with. I see this as a quality of life issue. So many stresses seem unavoidable, so why wouldn’t a gallery owner or director try to circumvent that of a difficult artist?
I know a great number of artists through my galleries, the community, mentoring, and teaching. The only time I intro them to one of my galleries is when I feel that it is as beneficial to the gallery as it is to the artist to do so. Otherwise, I would lose the ear of my dealers, and thus not be able to help anyone at all.
When I said goodbye to Julie after our day in Provincetown the last thing she said to me was, “thank-you for Polly and Jenny”.
Finally, from Maureen, I will include a lovely commentary on the week. “I think the next retreat should be called, “Things they don’t teach you in Art School”, because I left Brewster armed with so much knowledge. The experience of being able to speak to other women artists who have the same insecurities and similar perspectives was incredibly helpful. I left the retreat with much more confidence, and between the class I took with you at PAAM and the retreat, I have found that it I have lost that old paralyzing fear of “what if this piece isn’t perfect?”. I am better able to play with ideas and if they work out, then great. If they don’t, I can try something else. It’s not the end of the world. That in itself is worth everything to me.”