How to be social

25

Dear Artist,

An artist friend wrote, “Are you very reclusive like your Dad in the art scene? Or do you network more?”

Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824, 1827 Oil on canvas 173 x 256 cm by François Joseph Heim (1787 - 1865)

Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824, 1827
Oil on canvas
173 x 256 cm
by François Joseph Heim (1787 – 1865)

In 2003, just as I was about to move to New York, I read an essay in The New York Times Magazine about schmoozing, which struck me as so useful that I clipped it out and tucked it into my diary. According to the writer, the smartest thing you could do as an artist in New York was to casually drop into conversation, “I never go out. I am always in my studio.”

Networking is a kind of, at times, self-promotional activity where you meet and mingle with people for professional benefit, ideally mutual, and has ascended as a vital tool of commerce and advancement. It is not enough to be good. It’s who you know. Or people need to know you. Or know your work. Like other skills or traits of personality, networking comes naturally to some but is a struggle for others. It’s my guess that most of us enjoy or tolerate a bit of it and accept it as a part of professional life. In fact, whole industries are devoted to learning how to do it effectively, or to look like you’re not doing it when you’re doing it. For example, if you are out, you are not in your studio. Still, you might casually drop into conversation, “I never go out. I am always in my studio.”

Louis-Philippe Opening the Galerie des Batailles, 10 June 1837, 1837 Oil on canvas 34 x 47 cm by François Joseph Heim

Louis-Philippe Opening the Galerie des Batailles, 10 June 1837, 1837
Oil on canvas
34 x 47 cm
by François Joseph Heim

On a scale of 1 to 10, if 10 were the throne of the Professional Scenester, I am, perhaps, a 2. What is the scene these days, anyway? An art world denizen recently asked me – I was drinking with some denizens – if I ever hung out at a Cedar Tavern-like bar with other artists, and did we get drunk and discuss how to break painting, and did we go to the bigger art cities to see the shows? I may have replied, “I never go out. I am always in my studio.” Honestly, it was some kind of knee-jerk – because I was, obviously, out. The idea of being in my studio was just so etched into my psyche that it had not occurred to me to do such a thing as to go out, even though I was, in fact, doing just that. I felt touched by the line he had drawn from 1950s Greenwich Village to here, a mini-mall in Riverside County. I paused for a moment, to imagine leaving my studio to be an artist.

Francois Andrieux (1759-1833) Reading his Tragedy 'Junius Brutus' in the Foyer of the Comedie Francaise, 26th May 1828, 1847 Oil on canvas by François Joseph Heim

Francois Andrieux (1759-1833) Reading his Tragedy ‘Junius Brutus’ in the Foyer of the Comedie Francaise, 26th May 1828, 1847
Oil on canvas
by François Joseph Heim

What else could the scene be? If you read the trades, it’s the Big Fairs – but you have to be invited to those, lest you attend as a nobody. More democratically, the scene could be one’s local community arts council chapter, or First Thursdays in your town, or your family museum membership, or the comments sections of other artists’ instagrams. Or here. This is totally a scene, isn’t it? If you’re wondering if you should be doing more, or that you’re doing too much, consider that it is an entirely worthless exercise to wonder about this. What’s worth wondering about instead, is what, in your individual universe, is worth protecting? What is worth learning? And what of yourself do you wish to share? There will always be someone who is outstandingly more gifted with charm and amiability, and who may or may not be building what you yourself would like to build, not only with their talent and hard work, but through the effortlessness of their sociability. And while it is life-enhancing to extend yourself, you can’t eat prestige. There are plenty of wallflowers, misanthropic curmudgeons, sociopaths and run-of-the mill introverts quietly cashing cheques on their purely excellent ideas. When it comes to going out, you do you. First though, go to your studio.

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “You’ve never heard of me because I make it a point for you to have never heard of me.” (The Lincoln Lawyer)

“The guy may be totally motivated, connected and inspired, but if he doesn’t know how to do it, he’s not the guy to take out your appendix.” (Robert Genn)

Joseph's bloody robe brought to Jacob, 1817 by François-Joseph Heim

Joseph’s bloody robe brought to Jacob, 1817
by François-Joseph Heim

Esoterica: It has occurred to me that I never felt much need for a scene because, growing up, there was already a very interesting one going on in my house. I have always understood this to be a great privilege. It may have even bred in me some poor habits like not searching out a more diverse range of mentors or a wider community of other creative people. These days, I stride and flail in my stubborn independence, I am trying to cultivate a creative life without too many meaningless words or algorithm-bot servitude, I am missing the daily, supernova-sized influence of my hero, I am drawing from the wealth of what he left me, and I am coaxing into existence an artist that perhaps neither he, nor I could have imagined. And while my Dad thrived as a recluse, and mostly eschewed the company of critics and curators, he welcomed artists of all stripes into his sanctuary, served on community, art school, and museum boards and juries, and donated countless hours of his time to educational, charitable arts and other life-enriching programs. He spoke, he wrote, and shared himself in demos and workshops as part of his creative practice. He even wore a headset while painting, so he could answer your calls, because while engrossed in his own process, he also relished in learning about the creative concerns of others. “Know that to begin,” he wrote, “is often better than to think.”

“I put my talent in my work, I save my Genius for my life.” (Oscar Wilde)


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25 Comments

  1. Been trying to figure out how to fit into the local museum scene, but the events that they always publicize seem to involve tuxedos. Barf. There’s probably a better place to socialize than a black tie formal, but this is the self sabotage i tend to get myself into when looking into getting out of the studio. So i just make my comments from the comfort of my instagram feed. Sigh.

  2. Patricia Tatlow on

    Thanks for this one, Sara. I was one of those callers to your Dad, looking for a copy of his book. His kindness and apparent interest in this “nobody” surprised and touched me. Your privilege of growing up with such a mentor has only made you a more generous artist. Thank you for continuing the tradition of sharing through these letters.

  3. Susan Singer on

    You do you. The best advice ever. Thanks for the reminder that that is better than flailing and trying to be someone I’m not in homage to the gods of commerce and expectation.

  4. I recently started an Art Meetup group to get out of my studio more and meet different creative people. It is a really fun way to meet all types of creative people and also people who love looking at art. I definitely am a painter artist hermit and I decided to reach out more. The group is a month old and is a delight.

    • Great idea! I live in the countryside and have my little studio space in my basement studio so alone with my art (when I have the chance – retired husband underfoot). How did you start up your group? Do you meet via Zoom or in peson and how often? I really feel the need to do something like this on a once/month basis – not too often.

      • Hi, Heather,
        Thank you. It is really working out great for me and everyone in the group.
        I started it on Meetup. Here is the link if that is permitted here: https://www.meetup.com/art-on-location-san-diego/
        No Zooms. We meet in person outside to paint and draw and go inside to Museums and galleries.
        If you start your own, get the six-month discount. I think I paid $60? You set how many times a month and where the events are. I will tell you that sometimes more people RSVP YES than actually show up but the people who do are super friendly and nice and want to connect with others.

        You can set your group to a once-a-month event. IT can be however you want to do it and can change it up.

  5. “Know that to begin is often better than to think,” your father says. Reminds me of Goethe, “Make a gesture.” It’s that first stroke that raises such fear, and then once it’s there, away we go.

    Thank you so much for this letter, Sara!

  6. Perfect letter for me today, thank you. I have spent too much energy focused on being social at a time when creating and learning would serve me better.
    As a sidebar, I thought “you do you” was a cute interpretation for “just be yourself” until I heard a young mother yell it at her child as a replacement for “leave your brother alone!” Hmm. Leave your Instagram alone?

  7. Sara, this is a gem of a letter! “I never go out. I am always in my studio.” is being filed for future art social conversations. Oh I laughed! I am one of those people who appear to be social in my online conversations (7 out of 10) but seldom leave my studio for other in-person social engagements (a true 3 out of 10). I love writing my “A Brush With Life” newsletter which is published every 2nd Friday and I use my personal Facebook profile as a way to get down the first drafts of key ideas and work I want to include in each issue. Besides, it is extremely easy to edit these posts and then copy and paste the polished writing elsewhere… and I have community to visit with while I work. My small 189 curated newsletter audience subscribes because my focus is specifically for my art collectors and serious fans. Few artists subscribe for very long but some do and they also send private replies to expand on an idea or approach or just to say hello. When I go out into my physical community, I have had enough painting and art… because I am always in my studio. I just want to visit, find out what others are doing, catch up on any more personal news from family, friends and acquaintances. I love going to galleries and community shows but I only usually politely say “hello” because then I am there for the art. I have little room for conversation then. Hence, I don’t bother with openings or crowded times in either situation. Too distracting! Sometimes I arrange to visit another artist’s studio and totally take in what they are working on and their process. It is a special opportunity to be vulnerable together. I love these times! Sometimes, I will go plein air painting with a small group of artists that I know well. We say hello and chat for 5-10 minutes and then go paint. And sometimes, I take an excellent art course that allows for a deep dive and to do my own work while exploring other ideas. These art teachers are hard to find but I have had a few and treasure each one. These letters Sara by you and your father, and this community who comments, is my kind of networking with fellow artists and art enthusiasts. I have come to deeply treasure this rich and engaging space … because I am always in my studio. ;)

  8. Joan Lippman on

    And, then there are those lucky, meant to be encounters…like being seated randomly for meals together at Lake O’Hara! I can still see you and your dad there as if it were yesterday! We talked the meals away…Xoxo

  9. This letter made me ponder and smile and ponder and smile some more. The quotes you chose are delectable. Thanks for this engaging way to start the weekend off right…in my studio.

  10. I am always out – lol! Out of my comfort zone that is. Thank you for encouraging us introverts (Yes, I am one too with extroverted tendencies). I too prefer to be alone with my work and to refuel in solitude. I do appreciate the social gatherings of artists shows to celebrate their work, En Plein Air (where there is lots of natural space) and online communities like “The Painters Keys” where I often smile and enjoy the creative insights shared. Keep it going!

  11. Yes, Sara, this has become my social circle of today. After giving up and quitting the local-art-social-networking scene I played a part in for a few decades or more, I just stay home. Lots of other circumstances have thrust this new life as an artist. Pandemic, husband’s health issues, post mid-life reality checking, perspectives change as we age. I look back and recall me embroiled in being on every committee I was involved in. I came into the art scene as being a spoke in the giant wheel of making art with fellow artists. I formed friendships. I learned. I over extended myself beyond a time comfort zone, perhaps we all do that in younger days. I was never one who could say ” I can’t attend, I have to paint.” No, not me, do it all and try to squeeze in painting time later. I had a moment the other day, when feeling a slight bit depressed about some things in life, a moment of thinking FINALLY, finally I am my own boss and can paint when I want to. I have an easel in the dining room with a small painting on it, canvasses all over the place in the studio with good starts on them. I don’t have to leave anything until later because of having to do the mandatory getting out thing with others, I can pick up the palette whenever I want. With access to the internet, I can fulfill a need to look beyond my own vision of art outside of myself. When I look back to that treadmill I was once on, competing and “networking”, I find such calm and joy in this wonderful isolation. Great letter, Sara, THANK YOU!!

  12. Jim & Nan Nieto on

    Dear Sara,

    As you and Robert are an indivisible unit. just so my beloved Jim and I are one. Your wonderful article illuminates the truths I have been supporting for him for his 55+ year profession. Thank you; I am so grateful that you gave us the words to our soul’s work.

  13. I just love this letter! I have been out of my studio for a year, due to relocation and the design of a new space. Its been a breath of fresh air from the daily pain of self-promotion which I am so bad at , and which I have tirelessly worked at for far too long. The idea of being in the studio, and somehow the world just drops by… this is a wonderful magical thought. I love to be interrupted and regard these random events as God-given chances to pause and wonder why. Often its the perfect moment to stop, wash a brush and take a breath. Many times it has stopped me making a good painting bad or painting over completely something that turns out to be a creative breakthrough. However I’ve always considered that I must strive to put my eager skills to the test by attempting to ‘sell ‘them. What a mistake! Thank you Sara for describing the craziness that art promotion can become when all that is needed is ‘I seldom go out, I’m always in my studio’.

  14. Holly Kirkpatrick Ulrich on

    ❤️
    Great letter, funny too . I just was reading your about section , and I notice we are around the same age Sarah . Would love to meet you someday – that’s what I like about ‘the scene ‘ finding people and reasons and purposes to meet them .

  15. Steve Eborall on

    Thanks Sarah, I enjoyed your letter very much. It reminded me of my daughter when she entered an art competition at our local library. Books and making art are her favourite things. Unfortunately (her words) she won, and she had to attend an award ceremony and have her picture in the local paper. For a quiet young lady, this was rather too much for her, being out in the local art ‘scene.’
    Thanks again, and I do enjoy the e-mails, and I agree with you, that Painters Keys is an art scene and a very nice one.
    Best wishes,
    Steve

  16. I’ve always liked the line, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.” But what kind of light have I got? What kind of bushel? Been trying to figure that out for 45 years: painting, teaching, writing a couple books. And when I’m in the midst of one, I wonder if I should be doing more in another area. The line, “I never go out, I’m always in my studio.” is the best. I go swimming, go on a hike, to the grocery store and run a few errands, but seldom just browse, not online, not in galleries. Museums with the really good stuff, yes. But all of this is about sharing who you are and what you know. For each of us it will be different.

  17. John Francis on

    The most encouraging thing anybody ever said to me about my own creative activities was more than forty years ago.
    He said: “Everybody who knows you is waiting to see you bloom.” While we are both now retired and live thousands of miles apart, we are still in contact. We write to each other. Online. We both became very good at what we do. I have always maintained that it’s not a matter of ‘what you know’ or is it a matter of ‘who you know’. What matters most is ‘who knows what you know’. Sadly, we now appear to be living in a time when there are a great many people who simply don’t know much about anything.

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