From the very moment you made the brave, overconfident, reckless, socially inconvenient decision to apply at an art academy, I have seen you as a young colleague. I, too, decided I was going to be an artist when I was 17. A little hesitant at first, I spent my time around art, but more so on the applied side of things, which seemed to offer a little more financial stability. But after graduating, I took the plunge. I turned 60 last year and haven’t regretted my choice for even a single day. I couldn’t have wished for a more fulfilling life.
Now this is the part where I’d talk about the downsides – they do exist, but I’ll put it off for a while as you’re already getting hit over the head with downsides in this day and age.
I was probably quite headstrong and curious about studying everything I didn’t know yet, very much at ease with contemplating, reading and observing. Realise that we didn’t have smartphones or computers, and unless you wrote letters or used a landline to make phonecalls, you could be out of touch with everyone but the people in your direct surroundings for months. I recall the oceans of spare time, the boredom, but also the freedom to pick up whatever captured my fascination. I had no learning goals or a master plan whatsoever, but I was aware that I knew very little indeed. Newspapers, literature, poetry, history, philosophy, the bible, biographies, even encyclopaedias – I read everything I could get my hands on, often several books at once. Sometimes I wouldn’t be sure why I even picked up a book after having finished it, at my wits’ end that I didn’t have the intellectual capacity to comprehend the writing, let alone to contextualise it.
Having been trained as an illustrator, I suffered from an abundance of effect-oriented mannerisms; my drawings were focused on visual niceties, and were disconnected from the function that drawing should serve. The means to understand a shape, tracing its outlines, observing the play of light on it. It wasn’t until a lot of time and practice later that I managed to learn to do boring, investigative drawing with the purpose of getting a feel for the shape before starting on a painting. These are drawings that you can’t sell, they’re found in a sketchbook or on a sheet of paper that you cut templates from.
I often say I’ve had to learn everything by myself, I tell people I’m a self-taught painter, forgetting the semiweekly model drawing classes, the practical training in the graphics room, with a teacher and unsupervised on Fridays (hurray!), typography, typeface drawing and calligraphy, graphic design and working in the in-house printshop serving the applied departments, photography, analogue, both black-and-white and colour. And all this for three years.
My understanding of art history was limited at the time, I thought I was a real hot shot doing my graduation thesis on “abstract book illustration”. Limitations notwithstanding, it introduced me to notions like visual poetry, Paul van Ostaijen and Guillaume Apollinaire, illustrations by Jean Arp, poetry by Francis Ponge (“listen carefully and you’ll find almost everything can’t talk”) and the concept of an artist’s book.
That may sound pretty clever, but in my studio in a squatted building, above a Turkish club, I was mostly studying Matisse, Dufy, while also doing material etchings I printed on a wooden mangle. My paintings generally featured my new girlfriend and me, naked on a bed (Luxe, Calme et Volupté). This new girlfriend and I have stayed together ever since, and she was the one who pushed me to apply at Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht.
My advice to you, young artist, whether you’re a lad or a girl, is that it’s best to enter a relationship while the both of you are still developing. That way, you can grow together, both in your own way, since you do have to give the other person space. And if you’re lucky, you’ll grow older together, and as long as you keep living your own life and have friends of your own, you’ll still be exciting to one another. It’s always handy to be with someone who needs as much freedom as you, as it’s nothing but trouble when people demand your attention when you’ve just sat down to read something beautiful, or when you’re delving deeper into your visual research. Taking on too many responsibilities is also something to be wary of, especially in the early days of a relationship; decorating your rented flat with trinkets from a thrift shop is a lot wiser for an artist than settling down. You may also want to avoid having children at an early age: spending a lot of time together, travelling, looking around, exhibiting, creating, and then, if the relationship lasts, having kids is great too.
Like so many things in (an artist’s) life, it takes luck. There are limits to the amount of control you have. When it comes to having kids, being with another artist is ideal. You can set your own times, allowing you to take studio and parenting days at will, plus time for yourself (even if that just involves sleeping or dreaming in your studio) and the intimacy of your newborn love.
Try to stay close to yourself in your studio and make sure you can empty yourself. That’s not always an easy task, especially after an exhibition where you didn’t get any sales, after unkind remarks by gallery people and family members, not having a gallery at all is no walk in the park either. Broken promises, radio silence when you’d expected contact, after a rejected grant request or exhibition proposal. Feeling jealous is counterproductive – it’s just the reality of working in a field where many (good) colleagues are active, and limited budgets mean choices have to be made between the good ones. Life is most pleasant for those who show good sportsmanship, exchange advice and offer help.
At the risk of sounding too soft, jealousy is best replaced by competition. I have interpreted artistic letdowns as a call to action to improve my work even further, phrase my thoughts even more clearly, communicate even more carefully and astound my audience with undeniably great work. “Something ‘they’ can’t ignore.”
It’s also wise to avoid sticking around in bad collaborative situations for too long; if there are any business partners you’re constantly having angry internal dialogues with, you should at least tell them what’s on your mind. And if you can’t have a proper conversation, there’s no saving that working relationship. Ending it is preferable to staying in a bad one. Sure, you need to be pragmatic, but your inner stability is what counts. Aside from the lovely people working in galleries, there are also some who don’t have those people skills. And your identity and productivity as an artist is of daily essence to you, you have your own best interests at heart, while a gallery can only divide its attention among the artists it represents. It’s not an equal relationship, that’s just the way it is.
It’s important to keep an eye out for small successes, things in your direct surroundings. Being an artist means you’re in it for the long haul, and you can expect to discover new aspects of yourself throughout your whole life. You find yourself making things you could only have dreamt of years before. What has aided me the most is studying; improving and broadening my technical and artisanal skills. Being eager to learn about new materials, their properties and the way they can be used. Taking the time for this allows your brain to breathe, your thoughts about, say, a new motif can enter a more relaxed train of thought, and hey presto!, the thing you were trying to force through just happens of its own accord. For me, this also happens when I copy “the masters”. Spending more time looking at your predecessors’ works transports you into their thoughts and the decisions they took as creators, which is very educational.
Another recommendation: try to view as much contemporary art as you can. Schedule a day a month to visit all the galleries you can find in a city, write down your observations, the things you’ve read, and what stood out. This is the world you belong to. Don’t stick to the comfort zone of art you like the feel or medium of, but try to understand the concept behind work that’s less approachable to you. Choose a different city every once in a while, but be sure to make the rounds regularly, so you get to know the exhibition policy and artists at various galleries and other art spaces. When a gallery owner sees you drop by more often, he or she will understand that you’re interested in what they do. This can lead to them asking you what you think of a given exhibition. That’s the beginning of a conversation right there – networking in practice. Even if you’ll never show any work there yourself, it’s a joy to walk around a major art fair where you have plenty of contacts; a chat here, a compliment there, maybe even a retrospective on the days of yore and the exhibiting artist’s new work, and you’ll have carved out your own place in the art world.
Do not under any circumstances blithely walk into places showing off your portfolio, nobody’s got time for that sort of thing. The only outcome will be an awkward situation and hurt feelings.
Be sure to contribute to (group) exhibitions whenever you can, you’ll also meet artists on your monthly gallery tour, discuss each other’s work and arrange plans for new possibilities. If you have it in you, you can write a blog, analyse or observe the work of your colleagues that stands out to you, and publishing magazines or pamphlets can help foster recognition. My magazine Ezel, which is currently Dutch-only, will soon be offered at art fairs in Shanghai and New York with an English translation, and my expectations are high. After all, despite the fact that I’m past 60 and have seen plenty of successes, I’m still incredibly eager to find out what I can achieve in my work.
There’s much more I want to say, but I think you’ve probably heard enough out of me at this point, we can always carry on our conversation when we run into each other in this beautiful field of ours. We’ll travel together for a while, and then continue on our separate, great adventures.(this letter was written for Witte rook, Breda and published on their website)