Unlike the students who were willing to test the waters with some brand of a biology major and organic chemistry, I learned really early on that pre-med wasn’t for me. Maybe it’s my lack of willpower for work of disinterest (i.e., anything my parents expected of me). Or, perhaps, my willingness to better exert myself into topics of my interest. I can’t truly put my finger on it. All I know was that there wasn’t enough space for me in physics, so I took an art class my sophomore year of high school and my life changed forever. While my grade in the class soared and I scored a place in the city-wide art show, my math exams were about as dismal as they had ever been in my entire life. My mother scorned me, but in retrospect, it strikes me a lot more as a tradeoff than as a failure; I’ve gone through a lot of charcoal over the years, but not very many math books.
And though I still do believe I embody this artistic spirit, I can’t help but think of my earlier perceptions of what it meant to be a disillusioned artist. At 16, I saw artists on a different plane from people who had more “pragmatic” goals for the future in mind. Who really needed to know anything beyond their purest craft when guided by passion? I thought that simply because I enjoyed portraiture (and, not gonna lie, I was pretty damn good at it), I would make it as an artist simply by merit of this fact and the idea that other people who were guided by fear of financial stability were sell-outs. For people like a 16-year-old me, I have one thing to ask you: Are you miserable yet?
As heavy consumers of art, whether it be on Soundcloud or at the Detroit Institute of Arts, we’re quick to blame artists when it’s obvious their piece was produced for mass appeal. We challenge them to revert back to truer versions of themselves, to adopt a style that strikes us more genuine. But can you truly do this when you base your entire career off of art? Is it really that easy to brave your most personal work to the world without fear of rejection?
I say all of this because I wanted a career based off of art. I wanted all my life’s accomplishments latched onto a project that spoke to my personal experiences and those of others. And perhaps that might’ve come to fruition if I stuck at it. But when I graduated high school, it struck me that passion and talent alone wouldn’t get you anywhere; you had to be able to sell yourself and if there’s anything I can’t do, it’s that.
I opened myself up for commissioning and Instagramming my artwork a few months prior to starting college. My art teacher recommended me to some people in the city interested in portraits and then people on the internet would message me. I remember thinking, “This is my big break.” I just had to get my name recognized. I tried everything from submitting my work to art galleries to buying fancy frames to make my work look more professional. It was a lot of paper filling, a lot of time inside and alone in the summer. But it was worth it for what I loved, right?
I quickly learned that the thing with trying to get people to buy your art is that your vision doesn’t mean much to them. This isn’t to say your signature and work doesn’t matter — it does, and people will appreciate it regardless. The thing is, you lose a bit of what makes your art yours when your production is dependent on the approval of others. I remember looking back at my art at the end of that summer and despising everything I made; it struck me how different it all looked from pieces I had made in the past. It lacked the pops of color I liked integrating into my black and white pieces, the 3-D textures I carved in for a signature style. There was no development as far as I could see; there’s just not much leeway when people request very specifically that you draw a photoreal portrait of their dog in black and white.
I don’t think these feelings apply for everyone. Some people master the art of business and the business of art. So go on, make your YouTube channel, post your photography on Instagram. I think the problem for me was that I couldn’t find balance between the two. I was always either way too fixated on promoting my art or not doing enough of it. Perhaps I could’ve done things differently as an artist — found projects I liked or stuck to a more authentic representation of my art before promoting it to others. All things considered, I don’t think I wasted my time with this experience. I learned that even though I love producing art, it requires a lot of alone time, something I’ll already apt at providing myself with as an introvert. And now, as I study to become a teacher, I find my artwork a lot less prolific, a lot more deliberate. I’m genuinely content with my portfolio slowly expanding in the top right corner of my dorm room, even if no one ever gets to see any of it.