Artistic Failure and the Dangers of Branding

Ikebana, Suzanne Edminster, gold metal leaf and acrylic on canvas, 15″ x 30″. This painting was part of a failed attempt to get into a local gallery.

I was going to write a completely different blog today.  But so many of my friends in the artistic community failed to get juried into our 2018 juried open studio tour, Sonoma County Art Trails,  that I wanted to bring up the topic of failure and the dangers of branding.

All four that I know are fine artists, with established reputations, patrons, and studios.  Also, coincidentally,  all are abstract artists or work outside traditional genre lines, and all are women.

In America, we have a fetish for success.  Our success-lust — there should be a word in German for this and there is, “Erfolgswunsch,”– leads us down many dark and sterile ways.  Our movies worship the thought that if one works hard enough, makes enough sacrifices, you too can SUCCEED!   There are genres of treacly, inspirational songs devoted to this notion.  We Americans are suckers for this one.  It has invaded our churches as prosperity theology, the notion that even God wants us to succeed at everything. God wants us to market ourselves.

In this spin,  the accusation is that if you have failed, you have simply not tried enough.  You need to try again. And again.  Apply to Art Trails again.  Get in those ten thousand hours, loser.  (Though those four women painters I mentioned already have put in their time to their art.)  We need to re-examine our blind adherence to the try, try again philosophy.  Tenacity is good. But what does it serve?

The American dream of success promotes guilt, and it promotes throwing a lot of time and money out to enter the palace of fame and fortune.   It promotes buying advice and spending more money to find out how you can get into the Academy, the gallery, the open studios tour– spend year after year applying and paying the fees to apply.  Take marketing classes. Give money to get online courses and gurus. Brand yourself, baby.

Goose game, Akua soy ink on paper, a failed monoprint.

Part of the current propaganda of Succeeding  is “branding.”  My own connotations with the world are of pain, burning, slavery,  hot iron and screaming calves, and ownership of cattle and humans.  Branding involves creating a consistent image and not deviating from it.  This means failure to conform to your own brand— say, an abstract painter deviates and paints vineyard landscapes– means that you have failed your brand.  It is a failure within a failure, a double failure, failure squared.  Loser!

The problem is that in avoiding losing, in identifying with our own brand, we lose the chance for personal growth.  Milton Glaser, in the video below, voices what artists have always known.  It is a seven-minute video and worth your time.   It’s also worthwhile using the link to his website, above, and taking a look at the series of his own quotes in the header.  It’s no coincidence that in discussing failure, he brings up branding as an issue.

Success, or personal growth?  Milton Glaser managed both, an enviable trick.  But difficult.   I think everyone really needs to discover their own way through, and that takes reflection,  and failure, not wholesale adoption of the images of celebrity and success our society promotes.   The internet provides ways of crafting an individualized success that did not exist when I was a kid back in the the 1960’s.   We only had print materials and TV.

I had a childhood memory of the show Branded,  the 1965-66 show starring Chuck Connors.  The theme song seems, well, branded into my brain.  It is a very scary theme song and image, showing a man stripped of all his honors, his good name, his sword,  and his regimental family, cast out due to apparent desertion of his comrades.  In fact, he is literally “drummed out” of the Cavalry, to the sound of military drums in the background.

The very last line of the song in the video below expresses my feelings about branding.  Remember listening to those TV theme songs and trying to understand every word?  In the last seconds of the final credits of Branded, we hear:

Branded! That’s not a way to die… what do you do when you’re branded, when you live with a lie?

Enjoy the video below.  I chose a black and white version,  the way I originally saw it.   Suzanne

Thanks to Austin Kleon for his incisive thoughts and for providing the Milton Glaser video.

And check out my summer painting classes at LocalsCreate, a new art venue in Geyserville.  Metaphoracards is really fun and coming right up on May 29. I need two more people… if you are the first two to  sign up online and email me about it,  I’ll give you a free copy of Salt Licks and Bad Birds, my book. Just remind me about the book as I’m only offering it here in my blog.  I’m teaching a 3 week series  Wednesdays in June and July on abstract painting and a wild little class called Dream Figure Intuitive Painting  on June 16. Email me at saltworkstudio@gmail.com with any questions.

 

My Private Paleolith

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“The Old Ways,” mixed media collage painting, detail, Suzanne Edminster.

What about our private, individual Stone Ages?  What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened?  What’s in your art cave?  Is it brilliant?  Submerged? Rough?  Hard to find?  From ancient eras?  In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art.  Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.

As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art.  Art is transient.  Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art.  Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped,  overpainted, destroyed.  Some fragments remain.

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Detail of Doctor Doctor, mixed media collage painting. Suzanne Edminster

I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free.  It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps.  And a little hippo is sort of irresistible.  Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside.  It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall.  It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.

And a few more details of old paintings.  I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.

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Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages,  still have power.   What do you do with your own ancient art?

Illustrated Journaling Doodle

Illustrated journaling lets you make connections… salt, the etchings on the cafe wall, appetite. Somehow these disparate things come together in a good way, sort of like doing collage with pieces of your consciousness.

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Suzanne’s Virtual Manifesto for Artists

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Why do social media at all? As an artist, you have to do it artfully, or it won’t work. It has to be authentic, interesting, generous,and beautiful.

Ironically, you can’t take it too seriously. It’s like throwing pebbles into a great sea. You produce a ripple or two. Keep them going and something interesting will come in on the tide, but you can’t predict what or when.

Here’s a hint for Facebook. Continue reading → Suzanne’s Virtual Manifesto for Artists

Painting Journal 1: Lost Continent

I’m using this space to intermittently post a few paintings and tell some stories in detail as “Painting Journals.” They are a journey into the space of the work and my own thoughts and process, and an authentic record.

Lost Continent
Lost Continent

This painting, Lost Continent, speaks to me of a pre-verbal time. I always remember in the Mary Poppins books that the babies could speak with animals and spirits before they themselves could speak, but lost the ability when they got older. This painting is about that wordlessness. Continue reading → Painting Journal 1: Lost Continent

Metaphoracard Collage Play at Camp Winnarainbow for so-called Adults

One of my cards.

What the heck is a Metaphoracard?  Laura Foster Corben and I invented these small (5″ x 7″)collage paintings on matboard to provide art play for Wavy Gravy’s Adult Camp Winnarainbow.  I’m the Metaphoracard Girl and Amuse Grove Reader.

In the tradition of side amusements for The Players– the musicians, clowns, dancers, arialists, stiltwalkers, magicians, storytellers and poets of the cosmic, comic Circus– the cards provide diverse diversions, a little taste of trickster mind at play.

As in my Saltworkstudio classes, we work  in series, doing three at one time, and follow one of the Almost Unbreakable Cardinal Rules–Paint First.  Getting the mark of the hand, paint, brush or ink down before applying images is vital.  I’m not sure why, but it seems to transform the cards from stiff constructions to flowing, “wavy,” spontaneous combustions of dreamy image.

They are meant to be entertainments, in the way that some novels are called “An Entertainment.” There is no number to the deck.  The deck is temporal and temporary, created in time by a group, played with, and dismantled after.  Because they call forth a certain bubbly synchronicity, their accuracy can be astonishing, but unrepeatable.  Like an appearance of a Loch Ness Monster, they leave splashy traces, but can’t really be nailed down or captured in a net of a single meaning.  And they dissolve after the week at camp, each player claiming their own trading cards of vision, dream, and just plain weird stuff.

A little handful of art magic to play with.

Since Camp Winnarainbow emphasizes fun, play, and performance, we wanted to create a recreational visual art form  that would give satisfaction in the both in the making and in active use after.  The cards were read by a raggle-taggle Amuse group in the temporary Amuse Grove you see below.  There’s a Cosmic Phone for when we get stuck.  We just dial up the Demigods to get an anwer. The chairs are decorated with old wedding gowns from the Costume Tent.

Instead of the Muse Grove, the Amuse Grove.

Metaphoracards require a community.  You need a group to get a deck, and you need someone else to read your card. It’s the rule of the Cosmic Trickster that you can’t know what your image might say.  I puzzled over my image of Faulkner, doggies, and a flower, until my husband Scott said, “That’s easy.  It’s Power: dog power for the body, Faulkner power for the intellent, and the flower is pure vegetative power, an idea bursting out.”  Huh, and wow.  Flower power?

But… are they serious ART?  I absolutely hope not.

My thanks to Wavy Gravy, Jahanara Romney, and Laura Foster Corben for sponsoring me  as a Guest Artist at Camp Winnarainbow. Take a look at the cards the talented Susan Cornelis made. Towards the fun!

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Art Collage Box Cleanout

Spidermen Original Holga Photo, Suzanne Edminster. Pre-Instagram!

As I was going through my overcrowded art storage area, I came upon my nemesis– the art collage box.  It was full of things I collected at one time.  I was sure I would use them some day.

 I won’t tell you everything I found, but there was Monopoly money from a broken antique set,  German fortune-telling cards, a work on rice paper by an artist from Bangalore, India,  and Mexican loteria cards.  Out fell ancient notes and antique photos, a Virgin of Guadalupe print and a Holga photo of Spidermen, and a paranormal magazine I got in Prague in the 90’s.

Collage Box

I thought I might tell you what I kept and what  I discarded, but I found I was reluctant to list things I threw away.  Hey, it felt like a taboo.  Why?

I’ve always said that collage itself had some connection with destruction and death, the dark side.  Things are dismembered and removed from their original space, time and context, often by cutting  or tearing, actions that have an air of violence.  There’s an air of secrecy about them. That box felt like a  coffin for dead ideas combined with  a treaure box, a graveyard for things that had once compelled me.

Someone would be sure to ask, “Why did you throw that out?” Even worse, they might say, “You could have given that to me.  I would have liked that.”  I would be responsible for disappointing someone.  Another person would become implicated and entangled in my decision.  I’ve encountered this a lot.  People really do not like it when one simply disposes of things. A taboo has been broken.  Improper burial?  Disrespect for objects?  Then the discarded object comes back to haunt you through the remonstrations of others.  And now, with the advent of eBay, all junk has been acquired a false patina of consumer value.

I bought this in Bangalore when I was rich. Now I’ve lost the artist’s name. Perhaps Rashika Thakur?

Each item is really the representation of a certain dream, experience, or longing.  An object then has become a literalized metaphor, carrying meaning far beyond itself.  If I discard the object, do I discard the idea?  Or does the object become a substitute for fresh experience?  Each item becomes a love letter from a past idea-affair.

Nowadays I use only two kinds of collage: text and black and white non-copyright photocopies of drawings or my own photos.  Often the collage vanishes completely, or is torn to become an area of texture that may have figurative associations for me, but not for the viewer. I’ve never liked using “old” or “failed” paintings as collage parts.  It seems disrespectful to the original impulse, a Frankenstein construction that I am forcing to life.

I think I’m just as happy putting this flotsam on the floor and photographing them, and then letting them drift back to the strange ether of discarded objects, or the garbage.  But then, again…

There, I’ve revealed my collage underbelly. What’s in your boxes?

Six Phases of Creativity

Worktable with 3 “Drafts” for Larger Paintings, Saltworkstudio

Where am I now?  What’s next?

I’ve been incubating this Dionysian series for a while. I have three 2 foot by 4 foot canvases waiting for paint to develop these themes, colors, and forms.  The starts shown above are meant to act as “thumbnails’ for the next phase of larger paintings on canvas.

I have the best luck with my finished pieces when I am purposely experimental, uncontrolled, and unfinished in my draft paintings. I’m groping in my own darkness when I paint.  I don’t want the whole process to happen even before I hit the canvas.  I don’t want  to pre-paint it in my head, my notebook, or anywhere else.

I found a useful new metaphor for thinking about any creative project, whether it’s painting or cleaning out the junk room. These ideas are from The Path of the Everyday Hero,  a book about mythic themes played out in life.  The six phases of creativity are preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination, and verification (or manifestation).

Dignified, precise language allows us to reframe creative pauses or lapses. It’s interesting that frustration comes immediately after preparation, right at the start.  Frustration is the failure stage, the belly of the whale, the so-called “block”. What now?

My friend Karina Nishi Marcus is very clear on the idea that “block” should be eliminated from the artist’s vocabulary.  She says creativity is more related to nature metaphors, like “low tide” for the ocean, or “fallow” for the land.  It is a necessary part of the creative process.

“Noble Bull”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

Frustration stops us from action, and makes us incubate our ideas, like an egg.  It’s on the back burner, in the nest, warming, passive on the surface but active underneath, mysterious, the seed under the ground.  To incubate properly we also need to strategize, to try things that might nourish or warm the invisible idea.   Some might work, some not.  But the passive time is needed, yin to the yang of action. Paintings can stay successfully in this stage for a long time, even years.

“The Great Ones”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

The painter or artist may have to go back and forth in the frustration–incubation–strategy realm for a while, then illumination, the “aha moment” strikes, and elevates the venture to a different level, perhaps to completion.  The creative round, like the phases of the moon, will start again with a new idea.

“We Have Purposely Kept It”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

These paintings are not done, but after some months of incubating, I am strategizing.  The notebook helps keep me on track.  When you find your way through an art dilemna, the solution often seems absurdly simple.  Still, it took time to get there.  The cycle may play out in one painting, or in series spanning decades.

The Dionysian metaphor is one of unbounded spring growth and ceremonial theatre, among other things.  Perhaps I should drink a glass of wine to Dionysios, and return to the paintings.    A flash of lightning,  a sprouting vine, or a Greek chorus might illumine the way to the next act of painting.

Mythic notes:  The Dionysian mystery cults tried to loosen the bonds between the worlds through sacred intoxication, theatre, dance and ritual.  The Pompeii Murals, with their glowing Pompeii red, were thought to have depicted aspects of this.

Pompeii Murals, probably showing Dionysian cult ritual

Art vs. Marketing: Five Ideas to Consider


What’s the difference between selling out and simply selling?

I found myself arguing with myself over this post when I put it up last week or the week before, feeling oddly insecure and conflicted. I ended up making it a draft again, unposting it and pulling it offline.  Yes, there were typos, but I think it was more that I had some problems with feeling authentic addressing the issue.   My success in the arts is modest and my own skills at using the internet to market are certainly not advanced.   Who am I to tell you what to do?  Some of my advice goes against common consensus on internet marketing.

That said, I found that I had the most conflicts  with the section called  post and publicize carefully, so I’ve included the original draft and some revised thoughts below.

Sometimes I feel sickened by using the internet  to publicize my paintings.  It gnaws my brain into small pieces and inflates a sort of Virtual Persona Girl who has a crabby,  fragmented, and narcisstic ego. That is certainly one form of selling out, and a dangerous one.   That said, I’ll  begin again…

What’s the difference between selling your soul and simply selling your art?

Many of us can envision– or have experienced–  life  before or without a television, but few younger people  today can reconstruct the era of a world without  internet.   The Web now reaches its tentacles into every moment of our lives and every part of our bodies. ( I have a theory that cellphones are the new cigarettes, but that’s for another day.) Artists are engulfed  in a tsunami of information and marketing possibilities. It has become harder and harder to decided what to do, or decide if what you’re doing is worth it.  Here are a few ideas for those who feel adrift in the flood.

The route to success is not soley through the internet, or through sales.  Many masters were obscure in their own time. I’m not suggesting that this is the way to go, or that you shouldn’t bother to try to publicize on your own behalf.  But I will say that the  artwork has to be strongly felt, beautifully crafted, and cohesive to make a mark.   Artwork that is well-made will find an audience and buyers of some kind, with or without Twitter.  You do need to clarify what success is for you.  There’s a wide range on the spectrum.  Are you Vincent Van Gogh, Matisse, Thomas Kincaid, Bouguereau?  Are you looking for a small circle of people who love your work, or do you want to make big money?  Somewhere in between?

Don’t chase genre.   “Landscapes sell.”  I’ve heard this too often to count.  The other thing I’ve heard is “I’d love to do more abstract work, but it won’t sell.”  The flood of images now available online and print has sensitized us to cliché and to inauthentic artmaking.  Now more than ever, it has to be your own, even if your own work is very odd.

Find your own relationship with internet marketing.  Marketing online will periodically change, and you’ll have to master new skills.  It will repeatedly and radically shift its form, and  you will have to find your own way through the maze.  No one solution will fit without alteration over time.  It’s useful to ask  “Who is my real audience?”  Why are you doing social networking, for example?  If it is to socialize, you’ll be successful.  If it is to sell, it may not work for you.  Use networking to build authentic, friendly support systems.  They may bring far more than you can anticipate.  There’s no magic equation for marketing.  And if you do things which feel false to you, simply to market, they won’t work anyway.  Choose to focus on a few venues that feel fun and manageable to you.  Be polite.  Publicize others.  Spend time online doing unto others what you wish they would do unto you– viewing, commenting on, and appreciating artwork.

Pipe smoking in Lascaux! Those were the days.

Post and publicize carefully. Don’t rush to show too many works-in-progress,  unless that is part of a plan or goal.  “Works in progress” are intriguing, but save your energy for the finished work. Sometimes work can appear more impressive online than in reality, but it needs to be the other way around.  If you find yourself “tweaking” your images too much, you may be over-identifying with an online image, not your original impulse.

Here’s where I started arguing with myself.  I do think we can use blogs as a journal; they can clarify direction and act as a reflection.  If we can use notebooks to move our artistic process along, then we can also use the internet as a to0l to amplify our creative process.  Regarding the “works in progress” riddle– what to show, what to hide, what to contain– I’ve decided to show selected works-in-progress online, but limit their  frequency. In my last post, Six Phases of Creativity, I decided to put the raw or “draft” works in context by showing them sitting on my worktable.  I have a strong feeling that marketing really can overtake and subsume the production of quality art.  Look at Thomas Kincaid.  I think we must always delicately adjust our courses, and to consider containment or withdrawing from marketing as an option.

Though painting-a-day posts have their place, posting prematurely– or too often– can be mildly deceptive to the viewer, and  can rob the work of energy needed to explore the work.  After all, you’ve already gotten a charge from having it seen online.  On the other hand…

The quest for the perfect art shot.

Get your work out to everybody possible.  Make links available and write simple email show notices.  Don’t get caught in the false reality of virtual approval.  The statistics and numbers give us a feeling similar to gambling.  They are fun, but not real, and have addictive qualities.   Shows, sales, and real-life appreciation by actual, not virtual humans is what feeds us.  The internet can be a net that falsely traps us in distant admiration, or it can be an open, inspiring road to reaching out to more people in an authentic way. Success may choose an indirect route, and require time, that rarest of all elements in the shifting cloud of Internet.

Cow Carrying the Neolith on Her Back, acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″, by Suzanne Edminster

Acknowledgements: Thanks to photographer Marco Zecchin, whose wonderful premise “Art is Sacred” is the cornerstone of his marketing philosophy and workshops.  I enjoyed using the magnificent, rare and unpublished photos of Lascaux in 1947  from Life Magazine.  My thanks to author Matt Ellis, whose article on David Gaughran’s blog provided the inspiration and framework for this post.