Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Are You a First Generation Artist?

Are you a first-generation artist? What I mean is: have you had parents, grandparents, or a close relative who passed on to you the secrets to being a successful artist? If you were lucky, I hope you were able to answer “yes” to the above question. But for most of us, the truth is, we’re probably the first artists in our family/ community. That, in itself makes it difficult to pursue art. If “life was a race,” not only were you way behind the starting line, you also had a ball-and-chain on your leg.

When I told my high school counselor that I wanted to be an art director, she nearly laughed and said, “Well, we don’t really have a program for that kind of thing. . . Have you thought of a more sustainable occupation, like being a nurse? Or a mechanic? There are always jobs in that field.”

I grew up in small working town. My high school had electives for trade jobs, such as trainings for nurses and mechanics. The school offered one art class in 8th grade, where you can learn how to doodle your name in bubble letters and cut out images from old National Geographic magazines for collages. However, if I wanted a profession in government, law, or science, they had special AP/ Honors courses and teachers were quick to point you in the direction of known schools for such endeavors: Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, etc. They might even offer to transfer you to a more aspiring prep school. But if I asked them, “How do I become an artist?” “What kind of training should I get” “Where should I go” they didn’t know what to tell me. It is difficult, even now, to find our tribe as artists. To find an environment in which you belong that fosters your success as an artist.

Our society already has its ideas about what it means to be an artist: Goals are measured by numbers and statistics. Academic intelligence is favored instead of creative ingenuity. Also, we have very conflicting views about what it means to be a successful artist. It is often labeled synonymously with “mainstream sellouts.” It’s no wonder, that we find it very hard to even begin pursuing art.

Let me describe to you the necessary components that make for a successful person. The following list below is paraphrased from author and motivational speaker, Barbara Sher, who has compiled a thorough list). It is important to uncover our early associations with art and success. Do any of the following apply to you?

1) Since birth, were you always treated as if you had creative ingenuity, a special and unique creative contribution?

2) Were you told you could be anything? (If you told them you wanted to be a janitor cleaning underneath the sewers of New York or become a burlesque Las Vegas dancer, were you encouraged? Supported? Helped? Did you get the message “you can be anything” directly or indirectly?

3) Were you encouraged to explore all aspects of your dreams? ALL of them. And if your dreams changed were you still supported without caution, or dissuasion? (This also applies along gender roles: if you were a “girl” and wanted to do contact “extreme” sports/construction work/president of the United States were you encouraged? Or if you were a “boy” and wanted to be a dancer/baker/fashion designer were you encouraged?)

4) Did you receive help? If they did not know how to help you, did they “look it up” or offered to find your other means of resources? (“let’s go to the library” “I know a friend who’s an artist, let me introduce you” etc.)

5) If you failed, how did they respond? Were you helped without reproach? Were you allowed to complain? Listened to without judgment? (Many women are often offered “help” with a condescending “don’t you worry you’re pretty little head” “you can just quit and come home, darling.” Or “there’s always marriage . . .” as if these were good helpful alternatives to your dreams.) (And many men are encouraged to bulldoze their way to success without complaints “pick yourself by your bootstraps, lads!” “don’t be a sissy and get out there!”)

6) When you were successful, were you celebrated? Congratulated? Were you surrounded by other successful winners who were pleased with you? Or were you met with jealously and or guilt?

7) Are your dreams in line with or different than what you feel is expected of you? Do you feel that you have met your family/ cultural/ national expectations?

8) Finally, are you the first generation of artists in your immediate family? If you have an “artistic problem to solve,” do you have someone you can come to unreserved?

Having truthfully answer all the questions above will give you a better insight as to the road that was paved for you since early childhood and explain why it may be difficult now as an adult to follow the path of an artist. I certainly hope that you are able to say yes to all of the above. But if you didn’t, it doesn’t make you less of an artist. It is very sad and unfair to not have received early encouragements to be an artist. No one told you or guided you on “how to get there.” Even if they wanted to help you, they didn’t know how. You probably lacked the resources, generational experience, and support. (If you had family members who were an alumni of UC Berkeley, you were probably, though not always, equipped with the knowledge of how to fill out the application, the expectations of the admissions jury, and were constantly reminded of the potential that it’s VERY possible for you. Which is why it is hard to be a successful artist. You are the first of your generation; you are the first to try something new. It’s not impossible; you just don’t have the right map. Forgive yourself.

It simply means, we need to find the right resources and recover your artist now! In order to unlock the ball and chain and send you running down the hill, you’ll need a big push. x Remember, the environment components that make up successful winners are also full of winners. We need to get you everything on that list NOW! Friends, family, mentors who are genuinely supportive of you, can help you find the resources you need, and help to buffer the generation gap of being the first artist in the family. If you don’t have physical people to help you, Seal has also taken on artist heroes, literary heroes . . . when she is creating, Miyazaki, Van Gogh, and James Dean are cheering her on. When she experiences failure, they comfort her and remind her that the path of an artist is a difficult one, but very worthwhile. If not heroes, she finds a community of artists by joining animation forums, sketch clubs, a gathering of her tribe who believe in her competence and creative endeavors.

If you haven’t had the support to become the artist you are meant to be, it is all the more reason to pursue it NOW. You are creative and what you create has meaning.

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