A design school graduate who recently visited asked, “Would you like an assistant? I want to get back to painting after working in product design during the week. Can I come over Saturdays?”
The value of a studio assistant is measured in a special kind of commitment to art. While all of mine have been artists, none have worked on my paintings. Instead, what’s created is a shared vision executed by way of vital, less brushy responsibilities. Still, there’s a tiny curiosity about what I might learn by taking on my recent visitor.
For easel time, I’m with the Impressionists in favouring the purity of producing work alone. Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt had help, though, and the current production realm of contemporary art — designed to meet high demands and maximize profits — has once again elevated some studio elves to the height of factory efficiency, with out-sourcing trumping the private toil of a single-hearted imagining. With the allure of mentoring, experience-building and connectivity, assisting promises to reap its own professional tangents, too.
So if painting’s what you really want to do, you can work for an artist who doesn’t do his own. Lauren Child, now a children’s writer and illustrator, once churned out Damien Hirsts alone in a room in South London. Jeff Koons admits to never picking up a brush, leaving the projecting, tracing, cutting, pasting, drawing and filling-in to a revolving team of skilled MFAs. If you live in India, you can work for New York-based Alexander Gorlizki. Did I mention, he’s in New York while his paintings are being produced in Jaipur?
Factories aside, an assistant’s job requires less brushwork and more work-work. Stretching, priming, packing and shipping, editing, arranging, computing, delivering, bookkeeping, photographing, archiving, sorting, emailing, scheduling, filing, banking, posting, phoning, filling the bird feeder, vacuuming the staples, cuddling the dog — the assistant provides an enormous benefit by pulling on a second set of oars. If done for too long, assisting may interfere with or even snuff out your own personal, creative action. In measured doses it can propel, align, inform, inspire and unfurl a blossoming artist into his next incarnation.
PS: “Pretty much all I did was paint spots. I have no idea how many spot paintings I did, we kept no record, but we were pretty quick. There’s not that much to think about apart from how quickly you can do it, and the colours, which were meant to be random so we could choose them.” (Lauren Child, former assistant to Damien Hirst)
Esoterica: Writer Graham T. Beck estimates that 30,000 people graduated with MFAs in 2005, and he says this creates a new kind of workforce. “Artists’ assistants are the junior members of the creative class, the chorus at openings, and the raw material of future stars. Their role is part of a long tradition, but it also reflects a professionalizing of the art world that’s anathema to what many look back on as the good old days. It’s a sensible step towards becoming a self-supporting artist, but it pivots on a nepotism that makes “sensible next steps” seem absurd. The job revolves around an artist’s singular personality all the while proving that singularity is a myth. It is a paradoxical position that bespeaks much about the current art world, its rules, and the pitched field of competition these days.” (Graham T. Beck)
In this, the week of my birthday, I want to say thank you to the artist-assistants I inherited from my father one year ago, who continue to work with love and a commitment to their art, and ours: Painter’s Keys Editor-in-Chief Shawn Jackson, Social Media Co-ordinator and all-things-graphic-and-technical Sam Kaczur, Editor Judith Birnberg, Studio and Archive Assistant Sarah Garland and Bookkeeper Marilyn McFadyen Hurd, thank you. To the greatest studio assistants of all: Emily and Dorothy, the Airedales, and Sarah’s Yorkie, Sophie — the wags are priceless.
“No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were.As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were: Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” (John Donne)
Chinese ink and watercolour on Ma paper, dry mounted