Pressured to Submit?

Are we pushing people towards versions of success they don’t want? 

That’s what occurred to me when rereading the Jackie Battenfield book The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love.

We spend a lot of our Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition (OVAC) energy promoting opportunities for artists—things artists can apply for like call to artists for exhibitions, grants, training and the like. We constantly encourage artists to “submit.”

Meanwhile, Battenfield emphasizes that artists should consider readiness, stating “understand where you are in your development rather than define your practice by where you think you should be” (emphasis mine).
Notes from Artist INC program about planning artists’ careers

By sharing and encouraging people to take advantage of opportunities, we aren’t suggesting that they are required or right for everyone, but it might seem that way (especially since we can be relentless about promoting upcoming deadlines).
However, I am tempted to add more caveats to our calls to artists to encourage artists to consider, reconsider and weigh the opportunity more. 
Oklahoma Artist INC facilitators & administrators at Kansas City training

Over the past few days, a strong crew of Oklahoma artists, Kelsey Karper (from OVAC), and I have been trained to facilitate the innovative Artist INC in Oklahoma Citythis fall (check it out!).

The program underscores deliberate planning to reach artistic success. To really find sustainable careers, artists have to set their goals and be aware of dreams.
So we will keep encouraging people to apply, hoping that artists have the capability to apply and hear about the opportunity, but at the same time know that they can choose not to apply for good reason sometimes…

Watch for all our call for entries here or sign up for our email list to get direct notifications about artist deadlines. 

Resources: An Overview for Artists

Inspired by the Career Paths workshops we hosted for artists last spring, we have worked hard to update the Resources page for artists on our website. Please check it out:

We have outlined some major stages for artists in their practice/career/journey and provide guideposts with links to articles and opportunities that are relevant to those stages. We tried to point the reader in the direction of Oklahoma specific information as well as helpful national services. 

I would love your feedback. I want it to be succinct, knowing the volume of information on the web is enough to make anyone want to hibernate in their studio sometimes. Some day, I hope we can commission an artist to illustrate the guide as a lovely flow chart or some such, but meanwhile, we give you an outline. Please comment and or email to let us know other questions you have, things that aren’t clear, etc.  

Artist Survival Kit Recap: Career Paths

The Artist Survival Kit Career Paths workshop on May 22 was attended by 24 artists who spent the day deep in self assessment and exploring career aspirations. This is a hard workshop to boil down because the participants openly discussed their artwork and professional lives, adding much depth to the topic. That network of other dedicated artists seems a pretty important part of career assessment (so be sure you have trusted colleagues for this conversation!). 
A few notes, though, that may give you a sense of the workshop content.
  1. Where am I?
Relieve yourself of preconceived notions and judgments of success as an artist and spend time assessing.  Consider your aspirations and values.  Success may mean different things based on your financial, psychological, and artistic expectations. Are your decisions about your artwork (creation and public exhibiting) aligning with your real hopes and ideals?  Consider your skills, challenges, and preferences. What are challenges you face that you should be more patient about or that you should tackle head on? 
  1. Commitment level
Participant Eric Wright said, “Being an artist is not for the faint of heart.”  If you desire an art career that includes high-quality venues, critical acclaim, and/or clarity about your work, it’s not a casual endeavor.  It’s not just about time.  Consider the amount of emotional and intellectual commitment you are willing to dedicate to your artistic life.  Be patient with yourself based on the commitment you are willing to make.  For instance, don’t expect improvements in drawing skill, if you do not want to practice drawing regularly.
  1. Peers, colleagues, and cultural climate
Presenter Sunni Mercer repeated several times, “Artists do not make work in a vacuum.” Even if you spend a lot of time alone in your studio, your work and success is influenced by your community and peers.  Workshop participants outlined contemporary issues like technology and media saturation, changes in social norms, and recession economics.  What are the opportunities and challenges of our contemporary cultural climate? As far as community, who are you looking to as artistic peers and how do you seek feedback for your work?
Thanks to Sunni Mercer for presenting with me and to all the participants for digging in! 
The next Artist Survival Kit workshop is “Verbal Communications,” offered in partnership with Creative Capital.  Apply by June 30 to participate.   

Career Paths: Mary Ann Strandell

Mary Ann Strandell layers history and kitsch, texture and simulated surfaces, symbols and enigmas in her paintings and prints, which are on exhibition at JRB Art at the Elms in Oklahoma City beginning today.  Themes of her career path include mindfully maintained networks with curators, collectors, and other artists and a determined pursuit for experiences with wide-ranging original artwork.  Strandell’s drive and her peripatetic way of life interconnect with her work.
This is the third in a series of profiles of accomplished artists in preparation for OVAC’s “Career Paths” workshop on May 22.  Especially, I am focusing on turning points in their careers and some practical steps they have taken along the path.  

Growing up in the small town of Watertown, South Dakota, Strandell always had a desire to see original art and travel, although her area did not have an established fine art culture.\

Queried about how her horizon was so broad despite the relative isolation of her community, she emphasized travel and knowledge of the outside.  Her recent family history of internationality includes her father’s service for World War II and ancestors’ recent immigration from Europe. She also cites her three aunts who became professionals on the coasts and other family who were international diplomats as key in opening her aspirations beyond her immediate locale.  She said she began to see art as a “vehicle” or “portal.”

Strandell finds reading about and seeing outside work as pivotal to her own artwork and career.  She participated in several artist residencies that helped establish her relationships to international artists and new communities.

Now based in New York, Strandell was selected for the highly-competitive Art Omi International Residency in 2008. The program is held in the Hudson River Valley in New York and invites 30 artists from around the world to participate, only 8 of which were from the US when Strandell took part.  Participants receive lodging, working space and meals. 

Even more importantly, many curators and critics visit throughout the three-week period.  Strandell had 32 studio visits, including professionals like Brian Sholis from Artforum and Shamim Momin the 2008 Whitney Biennial Curator.  She now keeps up with her fellow residency artist and new contacts on Facebook.

Strandell also connects with other artists through active involvement in national conferences where she builds her technical skills and networks. 

She emphasized intentionally reaching out to find support for her work when she lived in the middle of the country, teaching in South Dakota, Kansas City, and St. Louis.  She actively sought regional connections. For instance when working in South Dakota, she showed and built a strong collector base in Minneapolis

Not coincidently, Strandell’s current exhibition is guest curated by Shannon Fitzgerald, who she met while teaching at Washington University St. Louis when Fitzgerald was Chief Curator at The Contemporary Museum in St. Louis.  The exhibition, Indexes of Mediated Space, at JRB Art at the Elms  in Oklahoma City opens May 7 and is on exhibit through May 31.  

OVAC invites you to the Artist Survival Kit workshop, “Career Paths”on May 22, led by Mercer and me, Julia Kirt. The day will focus on artistic career stages, personal assessment, and practical job options.

Pink Camp, 3D Lenticular Print, 18″x18″
Two Hearts, Painting, 20″x20″
The Regis, Painting, 48″x48″

Career Paths: Sunni Mercer (2 of 2)

This is the second post profiling Sunni Mercer, a Bethany, Oklahoma-based assemblage artist, exhibition designer, and consultant.  Questions include my own and some from OVAC Facebook fans.  Feel free to add more for future profiles.

When asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re on the wrong path?” Mercer laughed in confirmation.  Many people even said she was in the wrong field.   Beginning her MFA, she struggled because her work fell between traditional and conceptual, making it hard to feel she fit.  Mercer said these outside questions served as motivation.  She said as you develop a better sense of who you are and what matters, these challenges are easier to answer and handle. 

Discussing mentors, Mercer mentioned professors and an instructor, Christopher Brown, who she met at the Oklahoma Arts Institute and Vermont Studio Center.  She said recent influential colleagues are more tangential—working in architecture or exhibition designers.  Through her museum consulting work, she said she’s been exposed and affected profoundly by the museum exhibition fabricators, who have made her reconsider her techniques, materials, and manufacturing. 

Mercer seems to find inspiration and learn from every colleague and project, which is a great strength.  Her upcoming project, “Lizinga Lemandla Ami: The Measure of My Strength,” will debut at IAO Gallery in October. Addressing the lives of women and children of Swaziland, Mercer’s sculptural and interpretive elements will be accompanied by photography, publication, and a tour.  The project will build awareness for a partnership to reduce the incidents of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland
An in-depth interview with Mercer about her career and apprenticeship program she created is available on
OVAC invites you to the Artist Survival Kit workshop, “Career Paths” on May 22, led by Mercer and me. The day will focus on artistic career stages, personal assessment, and practical job options.

Career Paths: Sunni Mercer (1 of 2)

Sunni Mercer’s thoughtful and sustainable approach to her career is well worth examination.   Besides exhibiting her own work nationwide and supporting her artistic practice for 20 years, the Bethany, Oklahoma-based artist also consults with museums for exhibitions, strategic planning and more. 

This is the second in a series of profiles of accomplished artist in preparation for OVAC’s “Career Paths” workshop on May 22 (see the first post about Jason Hackenwerth).  Especially, I am interviewing them about turning points in their career and some practical steps they have taken along the path.   Along with questions I developed, OVAC Facebook Fans threw in a few questions that will appear.  Feel free to add more.
Mercer reacted with strong affirmation when asked “Was your MFA worth it and why?”  She said, “I feel like the most important part is that you are given this incredible opportunity for self-discovery.  You are absolutely isolated for a long period of time and I don’t think artists have the privilege or benefit of doing that unless they are in an institution.” 

Her work transformed during that time, as she started the program as a painter and ended as an assemblage artist.  She also emphasized taking advantage of the exposure to national artists and visiting scholars through the university.  

Interestingly, she cites quick success as one of the most challenging stages in her career. Shortly after completing her MFA, Mercer’s work was picked up by a commercial gallery in New York City.  She said looking back she knows she was not ready for this.  First she struggled with the sudden jump in her prices, which were raised for NYC gallery environment.  She was unable to show in other, regional venues because of her prices and how hard it was to find appropriate complementary spaces.  

When she reexamined herself and her work, she realized that was neither the work she wanted to make nor the public persona she desired.  She shifted from gallery, salable work, to conceptual installations and public collaborations with a new financing structure.  She said the shift exposed her to some rejection, but was more sustainable and satisfying over the long term. 
OVAC invites you to the Artist Survival Kit workshop, “Career Paths” on May 22, led by Mercer and me. The day will focus on artistic career stages, personal assessment, and practical job options.

Career Paths: Jason Hackenwerth

New York-based artist Jason Hackenwerth’s striking exhibition at the City Arts Center opened last week .  Fortunately, he was in town for over a week creating the work and was willing to discuss the business side of his artistic practice. 

This is the first in a series of accomplished artist profiles in preparation for OVAC’s “Career Paths” workshop on May 22.  Especially, I am interviewing them about turning points in their career and some practical steps they have taken. 

Hackenwerth’s career is atypical in that he travels the country, even globe, creating site specific installations primarily out of colorful balloons.  His career demonstrates one example of the great distinctiveness in artists’ careers. 

When asked for key turning points in his career, Hackenwerth cited a New York City residency offered by his MFA program, the Savannah College of Art and Design.   Through his school’s New York City Workspace Opportunity, he was awarded a semester with a studio space near Times Square.

He said the other artists nearby were professionals, showing him the work ethic that committed artists must have.  At the same time he interned at area galleries.   He learned about how exhibitions work, met gallerists, and was exposed to international artists’ work.  He began attending and helping with art fairs, broadening his experience. 

These gallery relationships led to a job and apartment for him after he graduated.  He said the residency allowed him an easier entrance into the tight arts community. 

An OVAC Facebook fan added this question: “Everyone talks about the all important artist statement. Did you find that it was really important in getting your foot in the door?”
Hackenwerth replied that the artist statement is more for yourself, to clarify your work and intentions.  He argued that the statement is not nearly as important as making interesting work.   For his own work, Hackenwerth said he has a public statement that makes the work accessible, while keeping certain aspects of his work more private or unexplained.   For instance, he used this statement for the work at City Arts Center.

“I remember the summer I was seven years old. My family was having a reunion during the 4th of July weekend.  Usually my bedtime was 8 o’clock but I stayed outside playing with my cousins in the big field behind the house.  Surrounding the field was dense forest and I will never forget the excitement I felt as the sky got dark and the sounds of the cicadas in the trees were all around.  It was the first time I played ghost in the graveyard and ventured out into the dark and spooky places on my own.”

Thanks to Hackenwerth for sharing insight with Oklahoma artists.  His exhibition at the City Arts Center continues through May 22.   You also can follow Hackenwerth’s career and studio notes on his blog.  

OVAC invites you to the Artist Survival Kit workshop, “Career Paths,” on May 22. The day will focus on artistic career stages, personal assessment, and practical job options.