Art Works Blog

Wisdom of the Ages: Advice from Artist Elders

Let's face it--one of the hallmarks of youth is the unassailable, absolute certainty that one knows absolutely everything. But, in truth, while age may bring wrinkles and gray hair and the absolutely certainty that we don't actually know everything, age also brings wisdom. In that spirit, we offer you some very wise thoughts from some of the older artists we've interviewed over the years. (Click on the artist's name to read the full interview with each artist.)

"Stumbles loom rather large, the more I write. You know this is the wrong route but sometimes you choose it anyway, and then when you go over it, you just carry it out and scratch it out and do something else. But they’re very important. It’s like hitting the wrong note. You have to do something else. In a musical score, if you’re singing or you’re playing an instrument onstage in public, and you hit a wrong note, you can’t say 'Oops' and leave the stage. You have to make something out of that error, do a really powerfully creative thing. You may go down a different road. If it’s public, you have to have that ability, that gift to make a mistake look creative. With writing, you can always scratch out the knowledge. You write and erase and do it over." -- Toni Morrison 

"It never occurred to me that comics were anything other than worthy. They were in fact among the most worthy endeavors I could imagine. They were how culture got introduced to me, more than through other media…. I always assumed they were a container big enough to hold whatever I could hold." -- Art Spiegelman

"When you can look at something and it has the power to touch you and inform, then you’ve done your job as an artist. And I often tell the quilt makers sometimes you can make a quilt that’s so powerful in story and it touches so many people. Then you have lost that quilt, because the quilt does not spiritually belong to you anymore. It belongs to the public. It belongs to the people that see it because it becomes a part of their spirit, and it’s touched them in such a way that is so profound it becomes unforgettable." -- NEA National Heritage Fellow Carolyn Mazloomi  

"I'd actually say that your ideas come from the art collective, those artists that you've always been interested in and figuring out what they would do in those situations. That's what an artist is anyway. He's just a single member of a collective, the whole generation that went before." -- Sam Gilliam

"[Writers] are like anybody else. We're like the teacher, the preacher. We're like the restaurant owner. We're citizens and sometimes people let writers think that they should be more…. 'If you're a good writer, why don't you change the world?' Well, writers don't change the world. The world changes and we write about it." -- Nikki Giovanni

"Creativity is a formal exercise of the will, but it also has to be supported somehow. It has to be financed. And so if you can’t get the resources to do some things, then your imagination doesn’t even go in the direction that those things might lead you. And so there are limits imposed on your ability to be creative. At the same time, that creativity is itself a device for breaking through limitations. It’s a way of going beyond. It’s the idea of going beyond. But the truth is that when you don’t have the resources to do certain things, then you don’t even begin sometimes. So the thing that rarely gets talked about is that it costs a lot to be forever seeking and pushing the boundaries." -- Kerry James Marshall   

"Imagination, risk, daring, personality, participation, inquisitiveness, rigor. Those are the things I say need to be more respected." --Mark Morris

"My inspiration usually derives from questions for which I have searched for answers for a long time, whether the questions relate to the past, to the Khmer Rouge, to the everyday life, or the way we behave today." -- NEA National Heritage Fellow Sophiline Cheam Shapiro

If you're an older artist, what are your words of wisdom? If you're a younger artist, what's some of the best advice you've received from older artists? Let us know in the comments.


Work.  Stop worrying about whether you're good enough; work will solve that. Your skills will improve, your output increase, and your preciousness about each piece will diminish. You will be able to make distinctions between that which is good and that which is better.Read.  Read about ways to find purpose in art. Read about ways to finance your working life. Read about the lives of other artists. Here are four good books: Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just; Andrew Simonet, Making Your Life as an Artist; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own; David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear.Cook.  Learning to cook for yourself is an essential survuval skill; you will save money and avoid health problems if you learn how to cook nutritious meals for yourself and your artists friends.Be still.  Fallow time is as important as work time. You need to take time away from working to be able to work effectively. Enjoy.

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