“Ask the Artists” Part 4: What is the Most Valuable Career Advice You’ve Ever Received?
Hear from Elizabeth Streb, Chico MacMurtrie, Johanna Goodman, Kalup Linzy, Baseera Khan, and more.
In our “Ask the Artists” series, we asked NYFA-affiliated literary, performing, and visual artists a series of questions about the creative life. In this post, we are sharing the best career advice that these artists ever received. Read the below, then check out our previous post for more artist perspectives on this topic!
What is the most valuable piece of career-related advice you’ve received? How did it change you or your work for the better?
As I look back, I don’t remember anybody giving me any advice, specifically, except for to “stop doing that.” But they would also say, “follow your dream.” And that’s a hackneyed expression, but I tried to ascertain what sparks my imagination or interest and follow that no matter how impractical it is.
Streb was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Choreography in 1986, 1990, and 1994.
Image Detail: Elizabeth Streb, Photo Credit: ioulex
Chris Burden was one of my mentors in grad school at UCLA. I had to find work and found it in the movie industry. He heard I was working in animatronics and he was like: “So, Chico, you’re going to be making Gremlins the rest of your life?” It hit me, and I recognized that it had happened to some of his friends where they went into special effects or fields where somebody else is the boss and you’re getting paid for your creativity. That was an important piece of advice that kept me independent.
MacMurtrie was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Computer Arts in 2003, Digital/Electronic Arts in 2009, and Craft/Sculpture in 2020.
Image Detail: Chico MacMurtrie after the “Border Crosser” border performance at the Naco, Arizona / Naco, Sonora U.S.- Mexico border, 2021, © Chico MacMurtrie/Amorphic Robot Works Photo Credit: Bobby N. Adams
The most valuable piece of career-related advice was given to me by an Art Director when I got a job to do the cover of what was then the preeminent news magazine of the country. It was a high-pressure, quick-turnaround assignment. He told me simply to “do my best work.” Not to tighten-up and try to please, not to try to make the work I might think I was “supposed to” make or try and be someone else or try to satisfy what I thought he wanted. He wanted what I thought was my best work. I took a deep breath and remembered to trust my instincts. You definitely can’t please all of the people all of the time so you might as well just please yourself. I find that when I make work that I love it gets the best external response as well.
Goodman was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts in 2017.
Image Detail: Johanna Goodman, Courtesy of the Artist
“Do you.” I remember Thelma Golden saying that to me multiple times early on in my career. I am not totally sure if she was picking up on my anxiety or not. I have to fight through my shyness. It has taken me years to understand that ‘me doing me’ is not selfish. As things progress, I realize I have to do what makes me feel good and happy. Whenever I don’t, it leads to feelings of disappointment and grief. I work toward my goals and when I feel out of alignment, I do what I need to do to realign.
Linzy was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Video/Film in 2015.
Image Detail: Kalup Linzy, Courtesy of Melissa Lukenbaugh and the Tulsa Artist Fellowship
This answer is a two part response. First, I was told I can swerve on the highway, meaning I can do whatever I want to do in my practice as long as it comes with the right intentions on my part. However, not everything you make needs to be shared with curators and other artists. Remember, while you swerve in and out of different media of your choice, you can withhold some stuff that you do, just for you. Maybe one day you can share it, but this mentality of withholding gives you power. Don’t share all your goodies right away.
Second part to this question doesn’t really have to do with making work, but it has to do with being able to make sound decisions as you become more successful. Open a Roth account or an S&P account for your future self, and dump whatever money you can save into the account. One day far into the future you can use that money to invest in your stability. The artwork will never provide you with the keys to a stable life, that is up to your own sense of planning.
Khan was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work in 2018.
Image Detail: Baseera Khan, Courtesy of the Artist
Huge success at a really young age is not necessarily a blessing at all. I didn’t have explosive, early success at a young age, I am happy it was that way. It helped me understand, much better and at a much slower pace, how to speak to my own concerns and ideas. Once, when I was younger and feeling like “nothing was happening,” a much older (and by then very established) artist mentor said something like “Gosh, I didn’t have my first solo show until I was 40.” Between the lines, it meant, just be patient. I would add to that: keep your head down, do the work, try to understand what you are doing and how to speak to that. All of that will serve you well.
Katchadourian was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Video in 2004.
Image Detail: Nina Katchadourian, Photo Courtesy of the Artist
A mentor of mine once said: an artist must have great capacity to live with uncertainty. This small bit of advice has resonated. It has allowed me to take risks in my work and take a long view.
Oppenheimer was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Architecture/Environmental Structures/Design in 2006, 2010, and 2016.
Image Detail: Sarah Oppenheimer; “SM-N4;” 2021; aluminum, steel, and existing architecture; dimensions and duration: variable; installation view: Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, USA; Photo Credit: John Bentham
I once asked Kerry James Marshall for advice on how to find a good gallery. He responded quite simply, “There are people whose job it is, to wake up and find the next great artist. Your job is to make great art and they will find you.” It seemed so simple, but also it felt truthful. Turns out, he was quite right.
Fordjour was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Painting in 2018.
Image Detail: Derek Fordjour, Photo Credit: Jason Schmidt
The best advice I received was to not talk too much! Art is VISUAL! Don’t try to explain everything.
WalkingStick was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in 1992, a Murray Reich Distinguished Artist Award recipient in 2018, and a NYFA Hall of Fame Inductee in 2022.
Image Detail: Kay WalkingStick, Photo Courtesy: Kay WalkingStick and Hales, London and New York
For us, the most valuable piece of advice for career or life is, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,” by Mahatma Gandhi.
Lily Honglei’s “The Stereotype” project is Fiscally Sponsored by NYFA, and Honglei was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work in 2015.
Image Detail: Lily and Honglei headshot, Photo Credit: Lily Honglei Art Studio
I’d say there were two important pieces of advice I’ve gotten that I still refer to. One was from an art professor who was also an art critic in NYC named Robert Morgan. We had coffee during our break from class and I’d ask him what the hell I was supposed to be doing. He said “as an artist, you should focus on your own concerns. If you can do that, you’re already ahead of the game.” It was a simple answer, but it hit like a hammer. I took what he said to mean, stay true to your craft, practice, concepts, and of course concerns and not get caught up in what I was supposed to be doing or what direction anyone else was going. Everyone has their own path.
The second piece of advice that was really life changing and set this ship in the direction it’s sailing would be from Richard Mock. Richard was the first real deal artist I had met when I moved to NYC in 2001, and he was very generous with his time and experiences. I told him that I was having a hard time with my peers in school who felt the narrative illustrative work I was creating wasn’t what it should be and directed me into abstract or conceptual work that I had no interest in pursuing.
Richard said “stop listening to people that don’t have your best interest at heart and start surrounding yourself with people who support what you’re doing. Find your people and your tribe.” I remember leaving there feeling like he had dispelled some heavy weight looming over me. I also felt like Richard Mock had my back. I took his suggestions and gained the support and confidence I needed not only from him but my new found tribe of weirdo artist friends.
McNett was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Sculpture in 2009.
Image Detail: Dennis McNett, Photo Courtesy of the Artist
Work with things you are familiar or have personal connections with, and let the work/opportunity come to you organically. This advice really settles many doubts one would have along the way to pursue any artistic opportunities. Focus on the process, and the result will follow.
Hsiao was a mentee (2016) and a mentor (2022) in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.
Image Detail: Chemin Hsiao, Courtesy of the Artist
Make sure that YOU are happy with the outcome. Everyone won’t like it, but you have to value your work first before you let others do it. Do you like it? Does your team like it? Does your community get it? Then proceed.
[This advice] affirmed the importance of being true to myself, making it about the work, and staying focused.
Brown was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Choreography in 2004.
Image Detail: Camille A. Brown, Photo Credit: The New York Times, ©Josefina Santos
A great piece of advice I was given is that not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok! Your work should not be motivated by what you think others might like. You can never appeal to everyone. It may be better to have a smaller community who truly, deeply resonate with your work, than a broad audience that just lukewarm likes your work.
Liu was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Digital/Electronic Arts in 2020.
Image Detail: Ani Liu, Image Courtesy of the Artist/VOGUE India.
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