Archives for posts with tag: being an artist

Things handmade and handwritten have a special appeal to me — perhaps it’s something about the humanness of their imperfection and scale. Who doesn’t like to find a real letter in the mailbox amidst the stack of bills and solicitations? Postmarked from France, I turned the envelope over in my hands and opened it with curiosity.

Written on stationery imprinted with two pretty leaves in the upper left and a return address from Suzanne Lopez in France, it was dated June 28, 2010, and read as follows:

Dear Ms. Sky Pape,

I am 16 years old and Art is my passion. I’m writing to you to express my admiration and my enthusiasm for your artistic way and for your works, your creations – I find them wonderful.

I would be very happy to have your autograph on the small card I’m sending you, for my ‘imaginary Museum’…

Thank you very much.

Sincerely,
Suzanne

Suzanne Lopez letter

Sweet, right? For about a second, I was flattered.  It was just that part about putting my “autograph” on the small card, a blank, white index card, that had all my alarms going off in a deafening cacophonous din.  I am not saying I don’t have fans — it is a source of  great pleasure that I happen to know personally or virtually almost every kind soul who has collected or ever admired my work.  Clearly, this was a case for some detective work (i.e., Google), if there ever was one.

In a matter of seconds, I found my answer in an article by Sarah Hall from the Salisbury Post, dated June 27, 2008.  Ms. Hall, a composer, had received the same letter, essentially verbatim, from Suzanne Lopez – with the notable exception that back in 2008, Suzy was claiming to be 17, and “music is my passion.”  According to Ms. Hall, she heard from people from across the US and Europe who had received the same letter.

Having been a victim of identity theft in the past (a nightmare to be sure!), I had no intention of sending my easily scannable signature to anyone.  Still, though this reeked of being a scam, it seemed like a very expensive one, having someone write letters by hand and pay for postage? For what ends? What does a signature even mean anymore? Maybe this “imaginary museum” was just the pet project of some oddball who thought they needed to pass themselves off as a teenage girl in order to get the desired response.

It’s hard for me to imagine what this person would want with my signature.  It’s not as if my work is anything that could be easily forged and then have my signature appended to it for authenticity. (Though BEWARE, some work is indeed much easier to rip off — case in point: Lori McNee and the copycat artist.)

I’m no a stranger to fan mail, having been on the sending end more than once.  As a kid, I sent George Harrison  a flawlessly rendered pencil portrait of him, capturing the soulful gaze of the ‘spiritual’ Beatle.  I requested no reply and even though I never heard back from him, surely he treasured it — as sensitive as he was.  As a tween, already interested in pursuing art and busy working on honing the skills required for realistic representation of the world, I wrote to one of Canada’s eminent artists at the time, Ken Danby, asking for any advice he might share.  He wrote back, offering some encouragement and aphorisms about being an artist.  In recent years, I’ve even written to a favorite teacher from junior high school, telling him how his teaching  made a lasting impression on my life, only to hear back that when he received my note, he happened to have been carrying a photo of me and a fellow student in his briefcase for weeks, intending to show his current students how kids dressed “back in the day” when he started teaching.  There have been other letters sent from time to time.  It feels good to let people know that they have meant something to me — that they and their work, ideas, and experience have value and meaning.

In their efforts to shepherd their work into the world, artists tend to be particularly vulnerable to people trying to take financial and personal advantage of them. Many people know I like to do my bit to keep the USPS alive, but like everyone else, my bullshit-detector must always be on.  If Suzanne Lopez is a real person, I don’t mean to poke fun at you or be cruel.  However, I think I’ll save the postage, and just post my reply online:

Dear Suzanne Lopez,

I’m writing to you to express my appreciation for your ‘admiration and enthusiasm of my artistic way.’  A sincere letter of thanks or admiration can be a wonderful thing, and it’s always meaningful to know when someone has felt a connection with the work.  I am sorry, but in this age of crime and identity theft, it seems unwise and against my better judgment to provide you with a copy of my signature.

If you really exist and don’t want people to think you are a con artist or criminal, I’d suggest writing something individualized and sincere to every artist and composer to whom you reach out, refraining from lying about your age or falsifying any other information about yourself, and not asking for anything in return.  I hope you develop a passion for truth that exceeds your passion for art and music.

Sincerely,

Sky

If anyone else has received similar “fan” letters, please feel free to comment below!

p.s. There is a follow-up to this post you may wish to read here: https://skypape.wordpress.com/2010/10/09/not-so-fan-tastic-part-ii/

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That’s what my father said to me.  His interest in my work and praise were rare, so I wasn’t quite sure how to take his comment, “That’s the best piece you’ll ever make.”  He referred to a portrait I had painted of my mother, having come up with a technique that was very innovative back when I was in high school, which was when this took place.  I do believe he truly meant it as a compliment, yet after a while, the words started to sound dismissive. You’ll never do anything as good, so why waste your time?

I continued to paint and draw, pushing myself and my materials to the farthest reaches of my imagination.  Time and again I would hear, “Remember that portrait of your mother?  Well, I still say that’s the best piece you’ll ever make.”  Okay, so my Dad really loved my mother, and I’m sure that had something to do with it too.  Yet this comment touches upon something  important.

[Plato and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens. Plato is holding his Timaeus, a speculative scientific work and pointing upward, while Aristotle is holding one of his books on ethics. Click here to view images of the entire fresco and find out who’s who.]

The results of creative experimentation are rarely easily or immediately digestible, mainly because the true explorer is seeking to discover something, rather than just render what is already known.  That new thing demands of both artist and viewer an open mind, a fearless attitude, courage, patience, tolerance.  If it’s new, maybe you don’t know how to look at it yet.

Over the many years of my career, I’ve frequently encountered the phenomenon of having people scratch their heads over my current work, while exclaiming they love the body of work I had finished previously.  Yet that same work they now love had them mystified when it was brand new.  Why didn’t you just keep doing what you were doing before?  We loved those pieces!  Remember when you used to do x?  Why did you stop?  There tends to be a predictable time lag before people are ready to embrace the new work, and it’s usually about the length of time it takes for the new work to become old, supplanted by even newer work.

For some people, their practice is about doing what they did before: making a formula, and repeating earlier successes. That’s enough.

Not long ago, someone struck up a conversation with me about art, and asked me what I was up to.  “Experimenting away with a new body of work,” I explained.  “It’s the most exciting part, when an idea starts to take shape, and suddenly you can make the leap over the big crevasse, and you’re on the other side — a new landscape with new possibilities!”  The person’s eyes opened wide at my mention of such risk and experimentation.  “I knew an artist,” he recalled, and went on to tell me how he used to travel and repeatedly purchased prints from a particular artist.  But one time, he visited the artist’s studio, and saw instead sculptures and paintings.  They were totally different!  And terrible!  Being outside of what he had narrowly come to expect from this artist, he couldn’t accept the artist’s need to explore.  As far as he was concerned, the prints were the best work the artist would ever make.  Dumbfounded as to why the artist would change, the collector never returned.  If the artist’s work was good enough to attract the collector in the first place, it seemed unfortunate to me that the collector would not have enough faith in that artist’s talent to give the new work more than a cursory glance.

Therein lies a great challenge for the artist.  There’s a temptation to repeat what works, to please the audience, to make it easy for them, get work on their walls and put food on your table. Not every artist embraces risk and experimentation.  You risk making mistakes. You risk looking foolish. You risk your security.  You risk harsh criticism.  But then, to quote Aristotle, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.”  I’ll take my chances.

My father worked hard and had many things to occupy his mind.  I understand if my personal pursuits were not his priority, and sadly, he’s not alive to defend or explain his remarks.  Still, it would have been nice if he had said instead, “That’s the best piece you’ve made yet.” Naturally, some works will shine more than others, but on the creative journey, the goal is discovery and improvement, and the best always lies somewhere in the future.

“…Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.

Rainer Maria Rilke painted by Paula Modersohn-BeckerThere is here no measuring with time, no year matters and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

[Rediscovered journal entry from March 1984, quoting from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Letter 3, dated April 23, 1903, Viareggio (near Pisa), Italy.  Drat. I wish I had noted who did the translation.]

[Portrait of Rilke by Paul Modersohn-Becker, painted in 1900. More on the relationship between Rilke & Modersohn-Becker.]