artist advice

Three Times the Charm

Mia Weinberg’s studio shows her love of nature.

Mia Weinberg’s studio shows her love of nature.

You may have already seen the art of Mia Weinberg and not even known it. She creates public art. Her illuminated nature map was seen at the Richmond Skytrain Station. She designed another nature map for the floor of the Delbrook Community Centre in North Vancouver. Public art enlivens our everyday lives, but we seldom recognize the artist or the effort.

In this blog series, I'm interested in discovering what triggers people to turn to art after another career. In Mia's case, it was not a single turning point, but a series of leaps.

Mia came to art through a very circuitous route. She grew up in England and although she loved art as a child, she believed that real artists had an innate ability to draw. Although she excelled at pottery and screen printing, she couldn’t draw and thus believed that she wasn’t creative enough to be an artist. She went on to study materials technology and became a packaging designer in the plastics industry. 

But after nearly a decade of hard work and success, she made a bold decision. She was going to rent out her house, quit her steady job, and move to Vancouver to explore her artistic side. She explained to her puzzled friends and worried parents that this would be the gap year that she had never taken. 

Why did Mia make such a drastic change? It was a combination of things. Her job had shifted and she was looking for a change. Her milestone thirtieth birthday was approaching. Her sister had just gotten married—in Vancouver.

After arriving in Canada, Mia dove into the creative life and took art classes.  After her “gap year” was over, she decided to stay in Vancouver, applied for her visa, and found a job. Eventually she enrolled in the fine arts program at Emily Carr University.

But even though she had moved much closer to her childhood dream of being an artist, Mia's pragmatism still won out and she chose the industrial design stream. Her immigrant parents ingrained a strong work ethic in Mia, which meant she prioritized the responsibility to support herself. Night shift work at the post office financed her while she was at art school.

Her second turning point came at a summer retreat for personal development with new friends from art school. Mia realized what was really important to her was fine arts and freedom of personal expression. She switched from industrial design over to painting and photography, and began experimenting with photograms. Photograms allowed her to express her love of nature and natural forms. (You can see one of her photograms in the studio photo above.)

After graduating from Emily Carr, Mia continued with the photograms and her work at the post office. Then an opportunity arose for her to work with an art consultant. This job was more related to her art practice and its part-time hours allowed her to work on her art. At work, Mia created proposals and presenting to businesses—all new experiences for her.

The final turning point for Mia came when she was invited to apply for a public art project in Edmonton, which combined natural forms with granite. Public art was a perfect synthesis for Mia. The Edmonton project combined the nature themes of her photography, her work in industrial materials, and the business aspects of her art consulting. She loved the experience and began to apply for more public art projects.

A public art career is different from a studio practice. Mia applies to cross-Canada competitions for public art pieces. She develops a concept and then researches the materials involved---like the engraved granite she used in Edmonton. Her proposal includes: the artwork concept, a construction schedule, and a budget. The budget includes artist fees. After writing and submitting a proposal, she waits to hear if she has won the competition. Delays are common, and it can take months or even years before the artwork actually happens. Her schedule is tough to predict and years can be crazily busy or scarily empty.

Naturally, the more public art you create, the more well-known you become and the easier it is to win competitions. For Mia, her dream is to become so renowned that she will get to skip competition process. The day I interviewed her, she was finishing a proposal, and waiting to hear about two others. However precarious this life might be, Mia loves her public art practice. For the first time since she quit her job in England, she works full time in art alone.

Mia's art career has lessons for other creative people looking to pursue their dreams.

Don’t give up your day job.

Mia walked the tightrope between creative dreams and practicality. Although she was drawn to art from the beginning, she resisted the impracticality of an art career. She worked first in an art-adjacent field—packaging design—to make a living. In this way, she built up a nest egg that allowed her the financial freedom to take off for Canada and art school. Throughout her art career, she maintained part-time jobs alongside her art practice. Mia can proudly say that she has always supported herself.

But…your day job can inspire your art.

When Mia finally settled on public art, she was able to synthesize all her life experiences, something that a younger artist would not be able to do. Her work in industrial design, her interest in nature and photogram work, her art consultancy experience—all have come together in her current art. Most artists draw upon their lives and history to create art; the more experience you have to draw on, the more depth your art will have. 

To see more of Mia’s artwork, especially the public art you may have already admired, check out her website.

Do Anything

Tracey Emin's My Bed

If you’re currently lying in a pool of bodily fluids on your unmade bed, alongside the attractive model you sketched last night before gorging, drinking and other things you can’t recall, then you don’t have to read this post. However, if you’re like me, a person who tries hard to do what’s right and feels guilty way too much…read on.

I’m currently reading the book, Antifragile, Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And by read, I mean that I read a section, reread it, think about whether I get it or not, and then usually read it again. It’s not that the book is difficult to understand, but more that it’s stuffed with ideas which he builds upon, and I want to keep up.  At this rate, I figure I’ll be finished the book by the end of the year.

But it doesn’t matter when I’m done, because I have already read the section that set me free. As an author, Taleb discusses the effect of criticism on a book, “Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it’s not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book.” He adds that nothing could be better for a book than being banned, as people will then go out of their way to find it and read it. The greater the energy that is used to discredit the author, the great the resulting fame. He adds “it is not possible to stamp out criticism; if it harms you, get out. It is easier to change jobs than control your reputation or public perception.” Taleb, who has a rather violent streak for a university professor, fantasizes about punching out an economist with whom he disagrees. He uses this fantasy to demonstrate to his publisher what “antifragile” means: that certain professions cannot be harmed by disorder. If he punched out the economist, sales of his book would probably rise due to his new notoriety. Taleb concludes with these life-changing words: “Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer.”

Wait, what? Can this be true? Is there no horrible thing I could do that would cause sales of my paintings to fall? Let’s say I committed some heinous crime, like having an affair with a sheep. (Please note: I personally know no sheep, and no sheep were harmed in the making of this post. I don’t even know if female/ovine relations are possible.) When my crime was discovered, I would be infamous immediately. Sure, some people who already own my art might become outraged and burn the works on principle. But there would also be people who would want to buy my paintings, just to say that they were done by that woman who went baaaad. (Sorry.) Critics who looked into my work, could look for hints of mental illness and depravity. In any case, the number of people who knew my name and my artwork would vastly increase.

Think of the artwork that shocks or is banned. Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, caused great controversy for its use of elephant dung as a medium. When, years later, I read an article about how Ofili paints delicate watercolour portraits as a warm-up exercise each day, I knew his name immediately. He was not an artist who courted controversy, like Damian Hirst, but nevertheless, he was famous due to controversy. And I would expect that after the initial backlash, all the negativity had a positive effect on his career.

But luckily for sheep, there’s no need to go to extremes. The main takeaway for me to be braver and more daring in my art and my life. To quiet the little voices in my head that worry about whether a painting is consistent with my style, whether it will sell, whether a wider audience will “like” them. I say to my art, and to all the safe art I see, go for it! Why not do something daring? Be bold and different, try new methods and make rash decisions in the studio. Wreck things, spray-paint over them, waste expensive materials…just try to do something bigger than what’s been done before. Artists are superheroes, we’re antifragile, and we can do anything.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Artists

What limits artists from reaching their full potential? Here’s my list of the seven deadly sins of artists, because everyone likes lists, right?

1. Envy
This is the number one sin in the minds of many artists. They envy something about other artists: income, fame, representation or even talent. A little envy can be motivating if it kicks your butt into working harder or doing something new. But too much envy is paralyzing, it eats away at you like evil moths on your favourite cashmere sweater. Art is subjective in many ways, so while you create work that you love, it can stay undiscovered for a multitude of reasons. If you feel the envy, try to imitate rather than compete. I don’t mean imitate someone else’s art, but rather imitate the ways they get their art out there because exposure is the only way that people will find your work. When I find an artist whose work parallels mine, I look at the galleries or online sites they use as potential venues for me.

2. Greed
Most of the original sins have to with excess. It’s good to desire to have one easel, but wanting 12 is greedy. (Although can you apply that to paint? I always seem to need and want more paint.) I would twist greed around a little and say that you really need to develop a style of painting, and not hop onto every new trend you see. Painters can paint still lifes/landscapes/portraits/abstracts in watercolour/oil/acrylic/encaustics/pastels, the permutations are endless. But if you hop onto every new trend that catches your eye, are you really getting better? Are you developing your own style? Many beginning artists come into my studio and say immediately, “I want to do abstracts too! I want to use resin too!” My process came out of years of experimentation. At first I copied styles I liked, but eventually my interest in layering and transparency brought me to the place I’m at now. And while I still experiment, I do try to focus on the same ideas that brought me here.

3. Pride
After you’ve worked as an artist for a while, you begin to take pride in your practice. You’ve accomplished things, you’ve had career success, you have technical expertise, you may even start teaching others. Now what are you? An emerging artist? A mid-career artist? An established artist?
In Buddhism, there is a concept called Beginner’s Mind, where you have to empty your mind so you can learn more. I think it’s important to have Beginner’s Mind, to continue to take classes, to ask questions either of other artists or on artist forums. While it’s satisfying to give advice, once you become “an expert” you’re painted into a corner where you have to know everything. You want to keep evolving your art, not become one of those artists whose work looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago. Keep seeking your painting nirvana.
I do see the irony in the fact that I’m writing an advice post and saying I’m no expert, and later this week I’ll write more about Beginner’s Mind. Also, since I certainly don't know everything, I do welcome any comments and advice you have. Feel free to add your own advice to the comments section, the more minds the better.

4.  Wrath
Honestly, I don’t know if wrath can apply to artists. Most are so delighted to be able to pursue a profession of autonomy and creativity, that they don’t need to rage. But do know that if you’re filled with negativity it will come out in your paintings, paintings really are the mirror of our emotions as we create them. I’ve had so many people say that my art is happy, and some even suggest that I must be a happy person. Although I don’t consider myself particularly sunny, I guess I am pretty optimistic, and I’m always happiest when I’m painting.

5.  Lust
Thankfully for this list, lust does not apply only to sex, according to Wikipedia it can also be “the intense desire of money, fame or power,” So let’s examine that, let’s say you do want money, fame and power, gulp, all of it. The art world has a hierarchy and you have to learn it to climb it. So while working hard in the studio is important, you also have to get connected to the art world. This means going to openings, meeting other artists, collaborating with other artists, reading art publications and blogs, in general becoming a bigger part of the world around you. Also working on projects that are larger scale is good, like public art installations or international artist calls. Publicity is important too, as is winning awards. Of course all of this is easier said than done.
Of all the sins, this area is my biggest weakness. I love to go the studio and put the hours in, but then I want to go home and be with my family. And when I do go to openings, I'd rather look at the art than network. So how can I give advice? I recently read an interview with NYC artist, Will Cotton, who tells how he got connected and he makes it sound so easy! Plus his paintings look delicious.

6. Gluttony
I don’t know what to say about this except if you eat a big lunch then sometimes you fall asleep in the afternoon. And if your face lands on your paint palette or a painting, that would be bad. Not that I know personally of course.

7.  Sloth
When I went to art school, almost everyone was talented…duh, that’s how they got admitted to a competitive art school. However in every painting class there were one or two people who were transcendently gifted, they painted stuff that made me go “Wow!” or “Holy @$&#!” Sometimes it was work I didn’t even like, like fleshy portraits or muddy landscapes of skateparks, but anyone could tell it was good. What is interesting though, is that those really great painters had a good work ethic. They painted and painted, they had their assignments done, and they had time for exploration as well. I would have predicted that these students would be successful artists.
(As an aside, my predictions were only 50% right. Out of all the people in my painting classes, two are now fairly successful artists, one I would have predicted and the other never impressed me yet I saw his work at the VAG last week. The one guy I thought was the best painter, I’ve never heard of him again, he may be in the States somewhere but he’s never shown in Vancouver.) 
It’s a chicken and egg situation. Are they talented first and work hard because it comes naturally, or are they good painters because they’ve already worked so hard? The answer doesn’t really matter because either way, they’re a good bet for greatness in the art world. The corollary is also true: the lazy art students are never heard from again. If you can’t even finish your assignments, what are the chances you’ll be ready for a big show?

So that’s it, the seven deadly sins of artists. What’s your weakness? Attack it today.