You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it's just complaining.
They were posting pictures they'd taken of the Chrysler building in the fog, and SoHo on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. Others were regularly visiting, “taking in” a show here, an exhibit there, while showing their own work in Chelsea. She just wanted to be a part of it. New York, New York.
Annie packed her bags at the ripe old age of 27, and made her move. She landed in New York City on a Sunday afternoon, with enough savings and a place to stay until she got a job and her own place. Within a few months, she'd managed to get a gig as an admin at a Wall Street firm.
Prior to moving up to the city, Annie had already figured it would be a good idea to make one small painting a week. With money coming in, she could exhale a little, and get back on track with making art.
She'd cleared a small studio space in her one-bedroom and set it up with art supplies. In those first months, she hustled. You should know that Annie made one painting a week. After months of paintings, she could look back with a sense of pride.
She also made friends, and found a boyfriend who wasn't clingy, but wasn't aloof either—he had his own ideas and dreams. Between them, they had a couple of friends who knew some people in the arts, and gallery owners who might take a look at her work.
I met Annie for the first time in 2013, she lived in my building. Her apartment was clean, everything was in its rightful place. Her painting studio area was immaculate. It was Sunday, late in the afternoon and she had a new piece drying on the wall. She had a system to these pieces. She'd make a few bold decisions about what direction she was going to go for the next few months, and then make the work. Her investment in time management—and the work she'd gotten working on Wall Street—had paid off.
She had changed galleries a couple of times, and by the time we met she had a total of three galleries showing her work—New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Occasionally there'd be an international show but that sort of opportunity was always an expense in shipping and insurance and her work didn't command enough to justify it. So it didn't happen too often.
But Annie had managed to get out of her one-horse town and move to New York. She was making art here and it was getting seen. In “proper” galleries. For Annie, this was exactly what she'd wanted, it's what she'd dreamed of ever doing—making art. She had made it possible. She had succeeded. Right?
Right. So let's play out this success.
By the time I met Annie for the first time, she was getting ready to move in with Paul, the man she was about to marry. They had been together for about three years, and it was time. They were going to move to Tennessee—he had just signed up for a good engineering gig there. But that reason for her departure from New York was a far second to what she felt about her own career.
Her career had gone “nowhere special”(her words) in almost ten years while other artist friends were sending their work off to museums and galleries in Europe and Dubai. They were showing up to talk about their work and they were guest lecturing regularly. They were being pulled in to discuss trends. They were active, and seemingly everywhere.
Annie had no similar traction, despite the fact that she'd been at it for a while too. She loved it here but looking into the future, she didn't like the idea of cranking out a painting a week, year after year, anymore. She could do that in Tennessee. Ten years into it there just wasn't enough reward to stay in New York.
Annie is one of the many Annies I've met, and Annie isn't necessarily a woman either. But she is a type, a mentality I come across from time to time among artists. Annie is the type of artist who is very clear about what to do, but confuses doing with an actual indicator of success.
Seeing a reward in showing up, or for making something is fine. Making it a game you can win is fine. But, contrary to conventional thinking, unless you're only making things to fill your apartment, the cold hard truth is that making something actually isn't an indicator of success.
When Annie mapped out what she would do in New York, she had all the right action items on the list. From developing the right habits and managing her time, to earning enough in rent money to make her art at a regular pace. And she had to learn how to do all these things on her own. Figure it all out by herself.
But at some point, especially after she'd established her day job and her routine, Annie really would have really done herself a favor by asking herself what she needed to do to move her life (and earnings) closer to her art career, and away from her Wall Street admin gig.
Because making art is a wonderful, meditative, life-changing, gratifying endeavor but it is not a self-sustaining endeavor. And because at the end of the day, it is the gig that sustains you that challenges and takes up more space than the other gigs in your life. Often when an artist gets that, a path to becoming self-sufficient with making (or not) becomes that much clearer.
Annie didn't develop that clarity. If she had, she'd have seen how making the art is a milestone to success, but it is not a measure for success.
Ten years into it, Annie was ten years older. But unlike the thousands of people who move to New York City believing the move is what will make the difference, Annie had none of these delusions. She was not lazy, nor was she distracted. She wasn't someone who had been so infatuated with the artist lifestyle that she had neglected the work. None of the above. She was actually the rare example of the artist that had persevered. She had done things just right.
But Annie felt another birthday coming, and figured she ran out of runway. After ten years in it, she reasoned to herself she had so little to show in comparison to her once-peers. More importantly, following that logic, maybe she was not as passionate as they were. So consequently maybe it was too late for her to make any bold stride in a different direction.
But we know is it actually never too late. Unless you're dead. In fact it's a pretty straightforward distinction:
A milestone to success is making 52 paintings a year.
A measure is getting clear on what you're bringing in exchange for what you're putting out.
In other words, you want clarity about how you will bring collectors, patrons, clients to actually pic up what you're putting down, to collect what you make in exchange for currency. Currency has to change hands. And the artist has to get into the practice of developing a market reality for herself. It has to be a scenario that plans for improvements year over year, either quantitatively or qualitatively.
And this decision, this impetus to improve, has to originate from the artist.
The good news is that right now, no matter when or where you are, you're at the beginning of your decade, not at the end. And there are all kinds of ways to address problem without feeling weird in the stomach about it. That's for you to figure out. Engaging with other artists who have done things differently is a great way to start. But it does really start by owning the problem, being ready to confront it with a sense of urgency.
Ten years is a stretch. A decade of habits and consequences, some more usable than others, as you will no doubt find on your own.
Every moment is a defining moment—either you define it, or it defines you.