We know we’re creative. We’ve been making our mark since we were old enough to play with our food. Many of us, however, feel the need to have that little bit of recognition for the superlative way we mix our mashed potatoes with our peas. I think that’s perfectly natural. We’ve been getting praise all our lives for things we simply did right, like tying our shoelaces, never mind tying them better than anyone else. Heck, we’ve gotten praise for just participating! “That was a great orchestra concert!” said Dad in response to my junior high efforts at playing the cello. He probably had his fingers in his ears during the concert, but that’s love. (Or, maybe it was that good?)
I recently entered a juried photo exhibition at the Philadelphia Sketch Club and had a piece accepted. That takes praise to another level—praise from people who don’t even know you and are judging your work and not just trying to tell you they love you. It affirms what you are capable of, and not just that you exist or participate. Getting in the show is a bit of a rush, and the little “likes” I got from Facebook friends when I announced it felt like applause. No wonder Sally Field gushed so that time she won an Oscar—“You like me!”
Outside praise makes you feel that your work has hit a level of skill associated with accepted norms for “greatness”. We always seem to be looking “up” to someone we deem more professional to tell us we’re “getting there”. “I thought of Aaron Siskind when I saw your photo”, the head juror told me. I was thrilled to hear that, because I thought the same thing when I picked it from my raft of thumbnails.
Would it have meant less coming from my next door neighbor? Will someone use my name in a similar comparison some day? I think that the names of great artists enter the vocabulary as a frame of reference—it is easier to say “Aaron Siskind” than it is to spend more words describing how much you like this close-up of a weather-beaten object where the paint is peeling away in interesting layers and patterns. Comparison to a famous name can sometimes more efficiently imply the level of feeling evoked by this piece of art than can a simple description of it. Until you “get there”, your work is happily derivative.
There are plenty of artists and writers and musicians who are happy to work in seclusion and create with no thought in mind of sharing their creative efforts. I visited a friend recently who paints for the sheer joy of painting and putting her thoughts on canvas in color and form. This is not what she does for a living. I was honored to be shown this very personal side of her life. I looked at her amazingly beautiful and fascinating images and thought “you should have a show!”, but she doesn’t need that.
I am a bit shy about showing my work, but I love to see the smile that comes over someone’s face when they see something they like in what I’ve drawn or photographed (or written). In some cases, that item feels a bit like a baby whom I would like the viewer to fawn over. “Isn’t she cute? She looks just like you!” Sharing my sketchbook with someone is like letting a stranger into my home. Once they see it, they will be a stranger no longer. They might even have to do the dishes.
Sometimes we are wary of letting these strangers in. What if they trash the place? What if they turn their nose up at my beautiful, creative work? What if they think my little scratchings on paper or my snapshots are silly and of no consequence and make fun of me? I believe these childish thoughts, whether we are aware of them or not, are at the base of any argument we have about entering any kind of artistic exhibition. Horrors, what if we lose?
All I can say is, if you don’t enter a contest, you have no chance of getting in or winning that contest. No outside affirmation awaits if you don’t show your work. I found out about this exhibition a week before entries were due, and perhaps the short time frame goaded me into a “why not” attitude. I banished the inner child to its room and prepared entries. In a few days, I had prints made, found some frames, put everything together and submitted three framed prints (in the pouring rain, no less) to the club.
I was thrilled when I checked their website the following week to discover that one of my photographs was accepted (click on photo for larger version). I didn’t win a prize, but I did get into this juried show in which half of the entries were not accepted. I saw some of these rejected entries when I picked my own rejects up and I thought many of them were amazing. There was a lot of competition. I felt lucky.
This last weekend, I attended the opening reception for the exhibit on the sweltering second floor studio of the oldest sketch club in the country (circa 1860). I happily schmoozed with other artists and photographers while we sipped wine and fanned ourselves with leftover exhibition postcards. We applauded the winners as they had their photos taken with head juror Tony Ward, world-renowned professional photographer. Attending the event itself felt like an award.
Do we need affirmation as artists? Should creative expression simply be a Zen-like activity to boost emotional and mental health? I don’t think there are “yes” or “no” answers to either of these questions. We are all individuals with different needs. As for me, it felt really good to have a place on the wall with my fellow artists, and to have someone say that I could join the game.
On the flip side, my rejects are still wonderful to me and are already gracing the walls of my home. I still get great therapeutic benefit by making drawings of dubious quality in my sketchbook, even if nobody ever sees them. I like to look at them from time to time, and they each carry a memory of the time I drew them and show me a piece of my journey in life and my path as an artist.
I see there is another show to gear up for—this time an all-media abstract juried exhibition. It’s time to spend a few happy hours looking through my photos and art to see if I have anything I think worthy. It sure would be easier to have the jurors go through all my files and say with a shout, “this one is the best!” But it doesn’t work that way. We must be our own jurors and find the few WE think are best.
Choosing what to enter was an interesting exercise in taking an objective eye to my own work. I brought my husband in to help me choose after I had narrowed my selection down to fifty photos, then ten. In the end, his input was very valuable. We separately thought the best photo I could enter was later the one that did get in the show! Maybe that is what entering contests is all about—looking at our own work and thinking about what we think works and what doesn’t and what stands out as memorable—mentally and emotionally owning what we have created and acknowledging that it is all worthy of praise.
By the way, if anyone can guess where this photo was taken and what it is, I will send you a nice 8×10 signed print suitable for framing (family members excepted, you’ll probably get one for Christmas).
To see the rest of the show, go to the Philadelphia Sketch Club website and link to their Facebook page.