Artists often need to inhabit a dual personality in order to succeed. They need to be comfortable spending time in an inner, introspective space, but they also need to be willing to go out in the world and promote their art. I was really curious about how artists manage these often antithetical roles and the different skills that come with them. How can the introvert—to put it crassly—become more comfortable being the salesman without feeling inauthentic? I talked to artist Michael De Feo to get his perspective and advice.
I first met Michael at the end of January 2015. It was one of those winter days that was neither cold enough for snow nor warm enough for rain. The sky was a dishwater grey. I was wet and cold and over it. And then I walked into Michael’s studio, and the day instantly changed. It was like spring had arrived early, and there was real beauty in the world even if I couldn’t see it outside.
For those who aren’t familiar with Michael’s work, he’s best known for his iconic flower image and his bright, blooming colors. The flower is such a versatile symbol. We use it in our culture to express almost every emotion at almost every occasion. Some of Michael’s work is inherently cheerful, but other pieces have a more poignant, contemplative quality. For Michael as an artist, it’s important to have an image or an idea to focus on. “I find when you have something you can focus on and repeat, it helps you grow because you keep making variations on the same theme.”
One thing that is clear when looking at Michael’s work is that he’s making art for himself first. “Some artists, they think about their audience and even what might sell, which is such a bad thing to do. You might as well go into advertising…I honestly believe that if I focus on making what I love to make, other people will see that too.” He believes that one of the most destructive things an artist can do is worry about people’s reactions to their work when they’re making it. “Being true to yourself and being true to your heart and not letting any of the other bullshit get in the way. We live in a time where we have so many distractions and so many things begging for our attention, which can unfortunately steer your work one way or another.” In his work, Michael will give himself a problem to solve and then see where it goes. “I sometimes start by creating a problem that has to be solved. I make myself uncomfortable and have to find my way out via my own path in paint.”
Over 20 years ago, Michael started his career as a street artist. One of the uniquely wonderful things about street art is that the work evolves as the city changes. There’s a cycle of life with street art: it’s created and gradually, over time, destroyed, which so beautifully mirrors the lifespan of the flower. “In fact,” he tells me, “the most important part for me [is] that the work disappears.”
For Michael, there’s a difference between making art for the street and making art for a gallery. Many street artists enjoy a degree of anonymity that artists can’t get in a gallery space. Street artists can create and share their work with the public without necessarily having their name attached to it. “What’s hard is that I’m pretty private. When I do art in the street, I get to put up my work and run away. When you have a show, the feeling is exhilarating, but it’s also nerve-racking.”
But the more exposure Michael got, the more comfortable he became with the art scene. “Years ago, at the very beginning of my career, I became more comfortable showing and selling my work by doing it as often as possible. The more frequently I exposed and discussed my art with others, the more confident I became. I’ve always been proud of my work, and that made it easier.”
Michael has always wanted to share his work with a wide audience. “I’ve found that I’m constantly forced to learn new skills and get into experiences that take me out of my comfort zone.” He believes that in order for artists to feel comfortable sharing their work with others, they first need to learn to trust themselves and have faith in their own work.
If this is true—and I really do think it is—it means that the strength to share your work has to come from an inner source rather than something external. Which means that anyone can have the courage to put their work out there once they have faith in themselves and in their work. And once one’s trust is built and fortified, it means that rejection, though painful, shouldn’t cause that trust to crumble.
That doesn’t mean making art gets easier. “I’ll always be struggling—it will always be a challenge,” says Michael. “It’s not an easy thing to make art, especially art that I’m happy with. More times than not, I’m totally dissatisfied with what I make, which I think is a good thing because if I was always pleased, that would be a terrible position to be in. I wouldn’t grow as an artist.”