Tuesday 11 August 2015

An Artist at a Crossroads

photo collage C. Ascher

I recently had a conversation with an artist who finds he is at a difficult crossroads. As if being an artist weren’t demanding enough, he is a sculptor, and one who works to human, not environmental scale. What’s more he is an immigrant. He is European trained within a strict classical tradition in which technical skill acquisition is the focus. He was taught that art making is an end in itself, a profession, and an essential expression of the national identity. Technique is taught and personal expression is left for artists to develop once they graduate.
He is also a full-time teacher in the Quebec educational system. Teaching has been his main source of income since his immigration, though he has continued creating his own work throughout that time. As a secondary art teacher, he has followed and taught his European artistic philosophy for twenty years. This has apparently put him at odds with others in his department who view art not as a viable career choice, but as a vehicle for individual expression and socializing their students. The fact that many who teach are not also practicing artists is a source of intense frustration for him.
With cuts to his teaching schedule pending, he is faced with having to replace the lost income. In Europe, it was possible for him to make a living from his art. However, the Quebec art public is generally a complacent art public, used to having access to art without having to buy it. In fact, the ‘average person’ is convinced that being an artist can’t possibly be profitable, and therefore believes that artists who aren’t commissioned or who don’t get grants don’t really work unless they have ‘real jobs’: he must be a teacher who paints, not a painter who teaches; a construction worker who sculpts, not a sculptor who also works in construction.
That is the reality for those artists who choose not to leave Quebec for places with a more complex art history and a population that respects the artist as a professional, who choose to participate in their society directly, ever hopeful that the quality of their art will result in the same success other professions enjoy.  This has been known to happen to others in time; by all rights, it should happen to him, in time, with some re-programming.

First: he will need to use the newly free-up time to minimize his ‘teacher’ thinking and give priority to his ‘artist’ thinking. This is difficult. Teacher thinking is out-side-in thinking. His priority when he teaches is the student, and he modifies his relationship to his own work in terms of demonstrating how he does ‘it’. He uses his own imagery, technique, style and ideas to draw the students’ out. The students’ achievement in terms of finished projects and marks are what determine their engagement with art, and his constant struggle to get them to think as artists distracts him from his own evolution as an artist.
Even though he maintained a personal practice as he taught, and even though it was already solidly established before he came to Quebec, it is reduced. The divided attention and the focus on finished product within a constrained time frame, if not the exhaustion that comes with teaching compromise his process in the studio. For an artist, less or limited teaching is better than more: part-time is better than full-time so a reduction in his teaching schedule should mean good things for his art production.
Second: he will have to at first avoid expecting his art to provide him his living. This is also difficult, especially if he keeps reminding himself that it would have been doable ‘back home’. As well, his responsibilities as a provider will be more difficult for him to meet. If he must replace the lost income a reduction in teaching time represents, he has many choices of compatible jobs, jobs that depend on superior skills with dimensional media and its equipment as well as a strong visual thinking ability. With his skills and flexibility there is no reason why he can’t find work in art-related or art-dependant fields despite ‘his age’. These, however, are still out-side-in activities, and replacing teaching with other jobs gains him no time for his sculpture.
Other second, or third: he will have to secure his family’s support. His children are at an age when they can begin contributing to their own needs, and his wife, a fellow artist, is established in her imagery and can be professionally independent. As well, perhaps a family council can find ways that members of can act as assistants or help handle on-line promotional activities and exhibition demands to market the art he produces internationally. Perhaps the family can pool its considerable creative talent and find ways to manage with a reduced collective income for a while.
However, by far the most important work he must do is in his studio. He is not the person he was during his artistic training. He has been changed by his life in Canada, and in Quebec. He must ask himself if his work reflects this change. Perhaps the requirements of teaching on his attention and the rushed nature of his practice have acted like a time capsule on his imagery, freezing it in the past. Familiarity with it may be what has allowed him to continue working part-time on his sculpture, but it may also be the thing that constrains it. If that is the case, he has catch-up work to do. He has to reconcile the disconnection between his European technique-based approach and the North American idea (or concept) based approach.
This artist must find a way to reconcile and merge these supposedly conflicting approaches without compromising his style or fundamental beliefs about his own sculpture. That takes time. And that time has to be dedicated, better now that it’s less part-time than it was. That will be his huge challenge.

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