Being an artist is a highly idiosyncratic business. Each artist has to figure out their path for themselves; there are no rule books. So how does an artist know they’re on the right track? Well, some might say, they win awards; they’re invited to show work in important exhibitions; their work is included in notable private and public collections. In other words, the world tells them they’re making progress.
Yet, as some artists know, that sort of external feedback can be misleading. An artist focused on cues from the outside might not hear the most crucial voice – the subtle one within.
In our feature on the latest crop of Emerging Voices Award winners, Jennifer Ling Datchuk describes the downside of an external focus. Early on, she recalls, “I worried so much about the right ways to navigate the art world that I didn’t take enough risks.” Today, she’s more often guided by her own mysterious impulses and rhythms. “I know now not to beat myself up over dry periods where I don’t have much to work on, but to let myself enjoy these quiet times to research and allow ideas to ferment,” she says.
When she learned to take her focus off the art world, its byzantine ways and calculating eye, Datchuk felt freer to take risks, screw up, learn, and try again – to make progress on her own, more meaningful, terms. “It wasn’t until I gave myself enough time, and the opportunity to fail, that I was able to create my present body of work,” she says. Paradoxically, it’s that body of work, internally shaped, that led to her latest external validation – the Emerging Voices honor.
At 74, Paul J. Stankard, the unparalleled master of the botanical paperweight, knows that progress is an internal process. He writes about the emotional turmoil he went through recently while learning a new material and trying a new form. When the world has already told you many times over that you’re a star, risk can feel riskier than ever; there’s a reputation to uphold. Ultimately, Stankard pushed past self-doubt, anxiety, and concerns about his legacy; like Datchuk, he made learning his priority.
Perhaps the key to his career success is that he’s always looking to improve in ways that matter to him. I saw this as we worked together on his essay. He’s the author of three books, but he was more than enthusiastic about refining his writing. “Thanks, Coach,” he responded to my edit. “I’m excited by your suggestions. . . . I’ll hit a home run for the team.”
Trusting the voice within, negotiating with fear, being open to revision and failure – these are the building blocks of true artistic progress. “My artwork is an act of faith – like a prayer,” Stankard says. A master in his eighth decade, he’s still vulnerable, experimenting, and growing.
Stankard and Datchuk provide clues to anyone who wants to thrive as an artist – or a human being.