Dare to Step Outside the Box


Are you sick and tired of working hard as an artist and still feeling invisible? Are all of your exhibitions predictable? Do you play it safe, follow protocol, and then wonder why you haven’t garnered the attention you deserve? Do you secretly fantasize about stepping out of your comfort zone, perhaps even doing something a bit outrageous and controversial?

As an artist career consultant for more than 28 years, I have heard many artists lament about success being a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time or having the right person “discover” you. It may often appear this way, but in my experience, luck is the result of knowing what you want and actively pursuing your dreams with determination and self-assurance. Like the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

It also means having the boldness and conviction to turn left when everyone else is going right, which is synonymous with the artist’s inimitable persona. Nineteenth century German writer John Wolfgang von Goethe might have been speaking to the creative spirit when he said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too … Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Current conditions require brave actions for change, so step outside the box, color outside the lines, and join the growing number of pioneering creative spirits.

Forge your own path.

The media loves artists who take risks. In the ’80s, artist Keith Haring created his own brand of graffiti in the subways and on the New York City streets. The anonymous Guerilla Girls continue to make headlines with their aggressive battles against discrimination in the art world. After five arrests, a long legal battle and tons of press, photographer Spencer Tunick finally got the right to photograph a mass of nude bodies evoking a hilly landscape on a New York City street. And I know of one artist who, in the ’80s, sent his slides to a curator at the Whitney Museum after packing them inside a sandwich. This tasty idea caught the curator’s interest because his clever submission stood out from the piles of very ordinary slide packages.

You don’t need to do something obscene or illegal to be creative, clever and innovative. Sometimes you just need to remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

For example, New York artist, educator and inventor John A. Hiigli (www.johnahiigli.com ) is a pioneer in education. He and his wife founded the French-American preschool Le Jardin à l’Ouest in 1971 and the gallery Jardin Galerie (www.jardingalerie.org ) in 2000. The school and the gallery rest on the principle that “Art is important in child development, communication and education.” Hiigli proclaims, “We recognize the fundamental role of art in a child’s curriculum and are dedicated to serve children from various backgrounds and cultures.” Four times a year, Hiigli holds exhibitions of art by children from local schools and arts organizations in a virtual gallery and in the physical gallery on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. He also encourages input from children all over the world regarding the show’s themes.

Allow necessity to be the mother of invention.

While many artists pursue the laborious task of applying for grants to fund their projects, Angela Manno (www.angelamanno.com) takes a more proactive path. She created her own “Community Supported Art Program,” in which she offers her avid collectors the opportunity to purchase a painting in advance of her painting travels around the world. This idea gets her buyers excited with anticipation about what she will produce. From their pre-painting purchases, she funds her travels to Greece, France, Italy and other locales. Manno believes the success behind this program is “a reflection of our need for community, especially in these times of economic uncertainty. People are drawn to each other for support, comfort and joy.”

Never accept “no” for a final answer.

Boldness comes from having the confidence and certainty to take chances even when others disagree or disapprove. In fact, “No, you can’t” may be the most powerful motivation to prove “Yes, I can!”

Nancy Reyner (www.nancyreyner.com) is an artist from New Mexico with a career spanning more than 30 years. She exhibits, lectures and teaches internationally, and is the author of the bestselling book Acrylic Revolution. Reyner loved teaching art while living in Phoenix, and had built up a substantial following of students. When she moved to Santa Fe, she was excited to start teaching again. Immediately, she was told by two well-known local teachers that it was impossible to get enough students, as there were too many teachers and no one wanted to pay for classes. Reyner recalls, “After a brief disappointment, I asked myself if I would take a class from those teachers. The answer was ‘no.’ So, I continued with my plan and attracted a ton of students.”

In another instance, Reyner was encouraged by Barbara Golden, owner of Golden Artist Colors, Inc., to join their team of artist teachers. When Reyner called the program director, Patti Brady, to apply, Brady told Reyner that, at the time, the company was only interested in training those artists who lived in big cities. After half an hour of enthusiastic discussion, Reyner convinced Brady to consider Santa Fe as a major artist hub, and Brady agreed to bring Rayner into the program.

Try something new.

Bren Sibilsky (www.brensculpture.com), a sculptor from Wisconsin, watched as the painters at the Linden Gallery were doing all the portrait demos and wanted to join in on the action. She started doing quick sculpting portrait demonstrations that lasted from 80 minutes to two hours. Sibilsky says, “I wanted to create interest in sculpture.” Others thought it would be impossible to do quick demonstrations in this medium, but that didn’t stop her. “People loved it,” she says. “Many had never seen a sculptor at work, and they were surprised at the speed and likeness. I have done this five times and sold three of the portraits to the model or their family members.”

Be an incurable optimist.

Joanne Turney (www.manhattanarts.com/Gallery/ JoanneTurney.htm) refuses to follow popular opinion. This 80-year-young artist, who lives in Washington, DC, and New York City, was determined to create a book titled The Art of Joyful Aging. She asked dozens of people to provide positive quotes about aging to accompany each of her paintings in the book. Many people flatly refused, exclaiming, “How could aging be joyful?” But Turney followed her vision, and the book will be published later this year, featuring her art and many positive quotes (including one from yours truly).

Speak up.

Liz Hager (www.lizhager.com) is an artist from San Francisco, California, who left corporate America in 2005 to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a full-time artist. Last summer, an independent curator told her that an artist had dropped out of the show the curator was organizing. The show was going to feature many well-known artists, and Hager recognized the opportunity. She says, “The theme was meaty, and I knew it would inspire a great piece and potentially introduce my work to a wider audience. So I asked her if I could step in. She was happy to oblige, although I’m not sure she expected much. This challenged me to produce a piece very different from my usual work — one that was rigorous and up to the standards of the other artists. The show got a fair amount of press, and my piece was featured in at least one article. I was lucky to know the curator, lucky that someone dropped out, lucky that she said ‘yes.’ But this is just a reminder to take the initiative and ask, because otherwise the answer is always ‘no.’”

Take charge, and be persistent.

Amy Marx (www.amymarx.com), a painter from Maryland, has literally taken hold of the steering wheel to achieve success. Several years ago, she decided to rent a truck, load it up with her paintings, and travel hundreds of miles in search of gallery representation. In one trip, she procured two galleries immediately. And, after much perseverance and years of courting the prestigious O.K. Harris Gallery in New York City, she finally landed an exhibition there in 2008. The gallery’s reason for exhibiting her work was that Marx chose an unlikely and even frightening subject to paint — storms and tornadoes — which also led to interviews on the weather channel and national TV news. Most recently, her work was featured in The Artist’s Magazine.

Do something unpredictable.

Exhibiting your art is an opportunity to be as innovative as the art itself, so make it memorable. In cold and dreary December 2008, Manhattan Arts International organized an Art and Healing event (www.manhattanarts.com/Gallery/Healing2008/index.htm ) in the studio of New York City artist Nadiya Jinnah, (www.njinnah.com). The artist totally transformed her studio into a garden oasis by installing natural grass carpet on the floor for her guests to sit and relax in front of her art. We invited several healing practitioners to offer guests free massages and other healing treatments as they were rejuvenated by Nadiya’s beautiful paintings and healing music.

Become a visionary.

As a young art writer in New York City in the ’80s, I was assigned to review a new gallery on Madison Avenue. I was immediately intrigued by the way the gallery director painted each wall a different color, and changed the colors with each exhibition. No other gallery I knew of was doing this at the time. Most galleries were boring, pristine white boxes. This gallery owner was unfairly ridiculed by many fellow members of the art press. Yet, Bernice Steinbaum (www.bernicesteinbaumgallery.com ) persevered and soon thereafter became one of the leading and respected art dealers of our time.

Stepping outside the proverbial box can be liberating, adventurous, and even catapult you to fame and fortune. You may not know exactly where to begin, but the solution is simple: Begin by creating great art. Then consider promoting it in an innovative manner, such as posting it on YouTube or hosting an art event. And, if your new path conjures any fears or trepidations, take comfort in the inspiring words of Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” AC