Fortress artist


Dear Artist,

On a recent clickback response page, we included a note from Eijo Toyonaga: “I’m a serious figurative painter and I like very much to paint in the Old Masters’ style. Last spring I took part in a local fine arts festival and my two paintings were rejected. I thought ‘all right, no big deal’ but since that time, exactly four months, I have a hard time to paint. Actually I cannot paint at all. Any advice?”

I think I answered his question fairly well, if briefly. Then I began to wonder if I had done justice to this common and unpleasant situation.

Jurors, themselves victims of fashion and the times, often pass shaky judgments. To make matters worse, jurors are generally not called upon to say why they rejected one and accepted another. At the same time, many artists put a lot of faith in juried shows, only to be hammered down. A sensitive person can only take so much. In the days when I used to get regularly rejected from shows I took satisfaction in knowing that Manet, Monet, Gauguin and van Gogh were at one time also among the “refusees.” I rationalized that I too was a member of a noble club.

“Who am I painting for, anyway?” I asked myself one sunny day. I realized that if I simply put my work into commercial galleries my work could be silently and inoffensively rejected by thousands. But there was no rejection letter, no pink slip, no shutting down of my muse. Now and again a discriminating connoisseur would pay my modest price. Sometime later a gallery check of no particular attachment would wander in to make it possible to keep on working for the same guy — me. I also realized that I could put my work into any blooming place I wanted — real places where critics would not agonize, where joy or energy or life-enhancement could be freely given to anyone who cared to take a look. I put them in hospitals, offices, old-folks homes, even on the walls of needy relatives and amused companions.

When you are a fortress you paint faster and better. The more you give, the more you receive. Your best deals are given deals. Being your own man or woman becomes your game. Maintaining self-esteem ought to be your private passion. Protect that fuzzy thing that keeps an artist flying by day and sleeping at night.

Best regards,


PS: “Early on, get rid of the idea of rejection, so that you can receive rejection over and over again.” (George Green) “Popular in our time, unpopular in his. So runs the stereotype of rejected genius.” (Robert Hughes on Caravaggio) “Illigitimus non carborundum.” (Anonymous)

Esoterica: The advice I gave to Eijo: “Live in your own world, paint for yourself, take courses from someone you admire if you must, study books with more examples of the Old Masters. They will be around longer than the jurors who rejected you.”

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Losing your muse
by Jane Champagne, Ontario, Canada


painting by Jane Champagne

I was so taken with your words condemning juried shows that I spilled coffee all over my keyboard. Nowthat it has recovered, I agree that the effects of rejection can either kill your muse or change your life. After years of being juried and being a juror, I stopped entering juried shows years ago when a particularly inane, unqualified individual judged me not good enough and my self-esteem disappeared. Now, I see friends still agonizing, running around lugging huge paintings — drop-off, opening night, pick-up — exhausting themselves physically and creatively, losing their muse, even giving up painting altogether. Why? Acceptance by peers? Why are painters, particularly women so self-critical? Gallery craft shops are sometimes the only galleries around. It can be just as disastrous as a juried show to find your paintings nothing more than backdrop decoration to show off the pottery.


Slides for juried shows
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, Texas, USA


artwork by Theresa Bayer

It’s not just the jury that is a factor in being rejected from a show. It’s also your slides. They have to be of professional quality, and all of them should be consistent with each other in style, maybe even subject matter. If you send in slides that show a wide variety in your style, you risk rejection. If they are out of focus, under or over exposed, your slides will be rejected. It’s helpful to go visit a show you’ve been rejected from to see what kind of art did get accepted. Sometimes you’ll find that the work there is no better than yours, or it may not even be as good. And while that hurts, at least you know that you’re not deficient as an artist. It’s hard not to get emotional about rejection from shows, especially when it’s a show that you know you could have sold your work at. I got rejected recently from a show I’d been accepted into for twenty years. The show changed management and I got rejected. I took a really good look at the slides I’d sent and noticed they were not consistent in style. I also visited the show and my work was just as good as plenty of the artists in that show.


Painting for myself
by Judith Maxwell, Nova Scotia, Canada


painting by Judith Maxwell

The same thing happened to me after my best work was rejected for a show. I felt that it was useless to try to paint, because I could not imagine painting anything better than what was rejected, so what was the point? After some compassionate friends and mentors assured me that their work had been rejected by the same society, I felt I was in pretty good company. Now I am experimenting with new ideas and methods, which I probably wouldn’t have tried if I were still painting for ‘them.’ I’m excited by painting again, painting for me.


by Mary Jean Mailloux, Ontario, Canada


painting by Mary Jean Mailloux

I found this letter heartening. I am currently in a gallery show. I have 5 figure pieces in the show. I knew going in that they wouldn’t sell. They are very good. I wanted them in the show at considerable expense (framing) to me. They are what I do. They are what I love and I wanted viewers to see that. Buyers bought safe paintings of houses and boats and flowers. Good paintings but not ones where your heart is on the line, so to speak, or which cost viewers anything in self-reflection.


Constructive feedback
by Nicoletta Baumeister, London, Ontario, Canada

Having been both juried and juror on many occasions, I find the process could benefit from a bit of fine-tuning. The competitions could be more clearly specified: Most juries find it difficult to judge the aesthetics of one medium against another as in sculpture versus painting. Each has inherently different qualities and objectives. Different stylistic approaches are difficult to compare; consider abstract expressionism versus botanical illustration? From the entrant’s perspective, which style is being sought/ preferred? From the juror’s perspective, which objective is more successful/ difficult/ familiar? There are also inherent biases in the judging process. In the one, two or three hours that the juror has to view up to 150 works, small scale works often go under appreciated. Subtle colourings get lost beside vibrant oils. Works on canvas tend to project more umph than works on paper tucked in behind glass. To address the misunderstanding, hurt and rejection, the jury can make itself available for critique or a panel discussion. This would catalyze the lonely negative rejection into a constructive feedback loop. Many of the juried shows are put on by local groups, art councils and art organizations that exist to serve the artist. As an artist you have the right to suggest and ask for changes to the format of the shows you enter.


Journey to self
by Vivian Kuhn, Kelowna, B.C., Canada


painting by Vivian Kuhn

You touched a raw nerve in my art world. You will have noticed that I have a distinctive style… which pleases me very much to have discovered my own means of communication. After several rejections, I calmed myself by saying, “It’s just one person’s perception… I’ll ignore that person with limited imagination”! I often sell directly to the public. They are my judges. If they like my work they adore it… the whimsy, the chuckle and ‘Valentino,’ my irreverent seagull. The responses that I have received keep my heart singing. If I can bring smiles and chuckles to my collectors’ faces every day that they look at my work, then I feel I’ve made great steps in my journey to remain true to myself.


by oliver

A while back I was talking with a very, very well known curator at a major museum. She said something like, “Real artists will do what they want — the market be dammed.” I told her that I was constantly amazed by artists who didn’t understand why it was difficult to sell a large picture of a nude crucified pregnant woman being eviscerated — or some other difficult thing to live with.” I told her something like, “An artist should be self-aware of their work and their potential places in peoples lives and make their decisions accordingly.” I said that I understood when an artist has the muse in two different directions. An artist who chooses the difficult muse — or only has a difficult muse should not be surprised with the results. As a fortress, an artist should be self-aware and understand the implications of their decisions.


Recognition from afar
by Constance Cavan, California, USA

Constance Cavan

painting by Constance Cavan

I have always depended on what others thought of my work — it starts out in childhood, or in my case it did, and started with my parents not thinking what I did was special. I stopped making art at the age of 14. Finally in my thirties I went into therapy, went back to school, got my BFA and MFA, have been in many shows, and the problem was still there. I have painted very little. Some of my instructors were really cruel in their criticism of my work and it nipped my newfound creativity in the bud again. When I moved to California I found my work “didn’t fit in” and I could not get commercial representation. I have started making more pictures in a different vein. The self-esteem thing is hard to beat if it has been with you all your life. I am older now and it’s hard to feel that ecstasy of really getting into it. Maybe it will come, but right now I feel great satisfaction in my work being recognized “from afar” and don’t feel as concerned with rejection.


Art is a demanding master
by Ron Stacy, British Columbia, Canada


painting by Ron Stacy

When I first decided to enter a juried art show, I was rejected. I had brooded about the possibility, and hadn’t resolved how I should respond, but while I was picking up my rejected work, there was a commercially successful but, I thought, a not very talented painter who was sputtering about being well received by the public, but unable to participate in this little show! It was probably that sputtering that gave me pause. “If you can’t accept rejection,” I thought. “You aren’t being very professional.” Sometime later, I spoke with a juror and asked what the criteria was in these shows. I was told that the jurors had to wade their way through maybe hundreds of works and they eventually got kind of numbed by the process. Then some little thing, different from everything else, will pop up and they focus on it and give it awards as if it was wonderful, when likely it was just goofy. When they get home, they ask themselves, “What the heck was I thinking? Oh well, no big deal.” Of course it is a big deal to the individuals who are accepted or not, but life goes on. I have since learned that being juried is a crapshoot. Sometimes they love you and sometimes they think you stink up the joint. When you get rejected, it’s not the end of the world. And when you win an award, you might have created that goofy little thing. You shouldn’t let your ego get in the way. That was brought home to me when one year my work was rejected from a show where I thought I was a shoo-in. The very next year, one of the jurors who was on the panel that rejected my work, was rejected from the same show. If you get stopped in your tracks by a single rejection, you might just take Robert’s advice and paint for yourself, at least until you achieve some degree of self-confidence. Some people are so sensitive to criticism that they shouldn’t subject themselves to it. Those people should perhaps commit themselves to some occupation that has more predictable results. Art is a demanding master.


Painting for others
by Paul Kane

I paint for myself, but I also paint for others. I can’t paint without a sense that I am doing it for someone else as well, in some way. All the same, no one else seems very interested. So it is a bit like love. I don’t know how love is for most people, but I can’t seem to live without feeling love for others, which mostly appears to be un-mutual. I guess the feeling of love keeps me going and I guess that’s worth something. So it is in painting. The feeling that it is and/or could be for someone else keeps me painting. That seems to be worth a lot to me, though I’m not sure why!


Legless man teaching running
by Edward Berkeley, Portland, Oregon, USA

This letter brought to mind the following: “A critic is a legless man who teaches running.” (Channing Pollock) “Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship.” (Zeuxis) “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what he feels about dogs.” (John James Osborne) “Tact: Ability to tell a man he’s open-minded when he has a hole in his head.” (Jean Cocteau)


Fear of praise
by Jennifer Jones

Your advice to create for yourself is sound. I have experienced a similar cessation of my ability to create — after receiving not rejection, but praise. Somehow, it scared me. The fragile ego DOES need to be sheltered, doesn’t it?


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Jan who wrote, “What does illigitimus non carborundum translate as exactly?”

And Doc at who writes, “Under the quotation section of the 6 September letter, the phrase ‘Illigitimus non carborundum’ is incorrect as it is of nominative singular case lacking any verb. One way to write such is ‘Illegitimi non carborundum est.’ “ (RG note) The Latin quote, which happens to be on the masthead of the Whitehorse Star (a newspaper in the Yukon, Canada) is, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

And also Murilo Pereira, of Brazil, who writes, “It is already a refusement not to be called to submit in the first place.”


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