If you had asked me a year ago what it takes to be a successful artist, my answer would have been simple: the ability to produce good art. I imagined that my post-graduation life would consist solely of me working in my studio. Buyers would magically appear, buy art, and leave. This would somehow translate to group art shows and, eventually, a gallery. I would rarely have to leave my studio, and I would never have to schmooze. I distinctly remember thinking during graduation, “I will never again have to go to a social gathering I don’t want to.” This belief was clearly absurd, but I bring it up to illustrate how idealized my image of being an artist was.
Now, almost a year out of college, I realize the question of what it takes to be a successful artist is much more complicated. It’s not just about producing art. It’s also about putting myself out there again and again, knocking on ten doors before one opens, and accepting rejection as part of the process.
Had I known all this a year ago, my fear would have most likely gotten the better of me.
There is nothing else, besides the people in my life, I love more than making art. Art is what keeps me centered, makes my life meaningful, and helps me jump out of bed in the morning no matter what else is going on. But if I had known how much being an artist required me to stretch myself, I might have chosen a different career path—one that would have let me stay comfortably in the shallow end.
My mom used to tell me that even our dream jobs will have parts we don’t like but which we accept so we can do the parts we love. And I now know that if I want to be an artist, I have to accept the discomfort of being perpetually vulnerable, which is what showing my work to strangers entails.
But how am I to overcome such fear?
For starters, I realized I don’t have to jump into the deep end before I can swim. Instead, I can start in the shallow end and work my way to the deeper side at a pace I am comfortable with, knowing I can always return to my comfort zone.
Some of us are natural swimmers, and others are afraid of the water. No one would expect a person who’s afraid of water to move at the same pace as someone who loves to swim. If she just put her feet in, we would applaud her. And yet, in our own lives, we expect ourselves to dive right in. We don’t celebrate achievements we think seem trivial compared to what others are doing.
This kind of black and white thinking kept me in my comfort zone. If I don’t go to every art-related event, what’s the point of going to any? If I don’t meet every person I’m connected with, what’s the point of meeting up with anyone?
But it’s not about doing everything. It’s about finding a balance: doing enough that I feel like I’m stretching, but not so much that I feel drained. And if I do too much, it’s about allowing the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction until it centers itself.
It was important for me to start small. I started meeting people one on one, showing my work to those who had already seen it online and liked it. When I went to larger social gatherings, I brought a friend with me. From there, I was able to start meeting new people in groups, showing my art to people who had never seen it and might not like it, and going to events and gatherings alone.
It was about asking myself, “Am I afraid of doing this, or am I just not interested?” And if the answer was that I was afraid, it didn’t necessarily mean I had to do it. But it was important for me to be honest with myself.
I also learned that rejection isn’t crippling. It’s the shame we attach to it that is. I’ve been rejected more times in the past eight months than I have been in the last 22 years—not because I peaked at 22, but because I’m finally putting myself out there. The first time, it felt as if I was punched in the gut. But when I woke up the next morning, I was still me, and my life moved on. It’s not that rejection necessarily gets easier, but the recovery time gets quicker.
And so I’m learning to tolerate, and even enjoy, being in the water. But I’m never going to be an extrovert. My struggle to overcome my fears of putting myself out there can be best summarized by Anaïs Nin: “And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom.”
My fear of being vulnerable never went away; it just now pales in comparison to my fear of never trying. Some days I wake up, and I can be very vulnerable. And some days, I can’t be vulnerable at all. It’s about stretching myself on the days I can take it and making baby steps on the days I can’t. And allowing both states to be okay.
I have also found that what is true for me as a human being is even more true for me as an artist. My art provides an additional incentive for me to expand beyond my comfort zone and explore parts of myself that have been dormant for a long time.