The Perils of Being a Solo Artist: 11 Ways to Find the Support You Need

 

A Boston street sign hacked by MIT students. (Photo by Alessondra Springmann)

A Boston street sign that has been hacked by MIT students. (Photo by Alessondra Springmann)

 

I have a confession to make…Asking for help is tough for me. Ditto for collaborating.

Yes. I love people. I love being a connector and introducing creative folks to one another. I love great conversation about art and ideas. But when it comes to asking for help or committing to a full-fledged collaboration, I get nervous.

Many of us become artists or go into a creative solo business because we enjoy solitude. We love the quiet, the lack of office politics, and having some degree of control over our schedule and projects. We enjoy getting into our flow and creative zone without being constantly interrupted by a co-worker’s cat video or ringing telephones.

But there is a downside to working alone. While having complete control of our work and schedule is a huge benefit, being isolated can also limit our ambition, waste time, and stifle growth and innovation.

There is a difference between enjoying solitude and being a control freak, and as Tara Gentile points out, between preferring not to manage others and being afraid to lead.

Relying only on ourselves allows us to take all the credit when a creative project succeeds, but it also means we only have ourselves to blame when it fails. It isolates us from possibility. Our inability to reach out and consider other perspectives limits us.

 

Swinton first performed the piece at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1995. Her early collaborator was acclaimed sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker. In 1996, the British star performed it in the Museo Barracco in Rome, this time without Parker's involvement.

Actor Tilda Swinton first performed the piece, The Maybe, at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1995. Her early collaborator was acclaimed sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker. In 1996, the British star performed it in the Museo Barracco in Rome, this time without Parker’s involvement. She reprised the performance at the MoMA in New York City in 2013. (Photo source unknown)

 

Why is it is so difficult to get out of our creative shells?

Fear. Fear of appearing weak. Fear of not having all the answers. Fear of a failure that affects someone else (not only yourself). Fear of criticism. Fear of someone saying “no.” Fear of being indebted. Fear that the balance of power in a personal or professional relationship will shift. Fear of not meeting an important deadline. Fear of letting go and not having complete control. Fear of feeling vulnerable.

So what if we did take a risk by asking for help or diving into a collaborative venture? In the end, even the worst-case scenario is not so bad. (Our imagination is almost always worse than the reality.) We would certainly survive.

And what about the best-case scenario? The best-case scenario is that we find the help we need. A creative project that was stuck, moves forward. Someone shows us a faster or better way. A creative idea is vastly improved by another person’s feedback. We find a collaborator with a skill-set that dovetails with our own, making our project not only better, but also more enjoyable and efficient. We find an ally who is happy to share the successes and the failures with us. We grow beyond the limitations of our own ideas and talents.

Collaborative artists Christo and Jeanne Claude

Collaborative artists Christo and Jeanne Claude (Photo source unknown)

Help” and “collaboration” take many forms. Last week an artist friend needed a videographer at the last minute for a performance in New York City. He asked his friends on Facebook for help, and a few of us pulled out our virtual rolodexes. The performance was that night in Manhattan, and it was snowing. (In other words, the odds were low.) But thanks to a supportive network of friends and artists helping each other, my friend ended up with his videographer, John Hanle, who did great work and was a nice guy to boot. (Thank you Kim Uchiyama and Ray Foley for the referral!)

A recent Gwarlingo newsletter post asking for reader feedback led artist and entrepreneur Amy Grossman to reach out to me and offer some much-needed advice.

Helping to install a group art show at the Kirkland Arts Center in Seattle made me realize I missed the dynamic of working with others on a larger goal and has led to some new creative projects with artist friend Corwin Levi. (The show was the direct result of a residency with eight  talented artists at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in Wyoming, an experience that never would have happened if we hadn’t applied for that residency.)

Currently, a professional collaboration with a friend and an arts patron in Philadelphia is stretching my collaborative muscles and pushing me to grow Gwarlingo in a way I never imagined. I’m also happy to be collaborating with a talented group of women at Allies in Recovery in Northampton, Massachusetts, who are rolling out an exciting new web-based program to help the families of addicts around the world. And then there are the unexpected rewards that have come from connecting with so many wonderful Gwarlingo readers and asking for your support.

I won’t pretend that this new territory is always comfortable for me, but it’s hard and exciting in equal measure, and the growing pains are part of the experience.

 

Haystack Mountain School in Deer Isle, Maine,  is just one of the many programs that offers workshops, classes, and residencies for artists seeking instruction and a community of creative peers. (Photo courtesy Haystack Mountain)

Haystack Mountain School in Deer Isle, Maine, is just one of the many programs that offers workshops, classes, and residencies for artists seeking instruction and a community of creative peers. (Photo courtesy Haystack Mountain)

 

Overcoming creative isolation can be hard, so here are 11 tips to help you emerge from your creative shell and find the support you need…

+ Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Are you a visual artist who finds writing artist statements, grants, and applications a painful process? Then find a writer you can hire or barter with. At the very least find a friend who doesn’t mind giving your work a good proofread before it’s sent out. Spend your time on the work you excel at, and farm out the rest whenever possible. And if you’re just starting out in your creative field and keep hitting a wall because of inexperience, consider taking a class or finding a mentor.

+ Be clear about the help you need. The more specific you can be the better. Don’t invite a friend or professional contact to coffee to “pick their brain.” Instead, tell the friend this: “I’m trying to establish a social media presence as an artist and would like your opinion on which social media platforms are the best fit for me. You have so much experience…are there certain platforms you think are right for me and my work?” Before a meeting or phone call, ask yourself, “What specifically do I want to walk away with when this conversation is over?” Your contact may happily respond to your question by email, but be leery of a coffee date with a vague purpose. Clarity increases your odds of getting meaningful help.

+ Being “clear” also means being straightforward. Don’t manipulate, guilt people, ask for pity, coerce, or play games. “You have published so many articles in magazines I admire. Do you think XYZ magazine might be interested in a new piece I’m writing on XYZ?” is much better than “Well you’ve certainly been successful as a freelancer. You must know a lot of people. You’re lucky. My work just goes into the slush pile or gets form rejections. You must know how to milk your connections. I wish someone would make some introductions for me.” (I once heard this actual conversation between two writers at an artist colony. Later, the “rejected” writer complained bitterly that my friend, who I “claimed” was “a nice guy,” wasn’t bending over backwards to help him. “Writers like that have an obligation to help someone like me,” he said. Lesson: manipulative arm-twisting will get you nowhere).

+ Don’t be so self-centered that you miss social cues. Does the person stammer and look at the floor every time you bring up the subject of collaborating or getting advice? Do they constantly ignore your phone calls or emails? Do you hear reluctance in their voice when you propose getting together? This is a signal to back off. It may not be personal. We never know what others are going through in their lives. They don’t owe you an explanation. When the cues are there, simply say, “Or maybe another time. I’m sure you’re busy and have a lot on your plate” and move on.

+ The burden to follow-up rests with you. If you’ve asked for advice, a meeting, or raised the idea of a potential collaboration and received an enthusiastic response, follow-up. If the collaboration is your brainstorm, or you’re the one needing help, it’s up to you to follow through. Don’t expect others to chase you down.

Marina Abramovic. Rest Energy with Ulay, 1980. (Photo courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery via artobserved.com)

Marina Abramovic. Rest Energy with Ulay, 1980. (Photo courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery via artobserved.com)

+ Know the difference between healthy dependence and co-dependence. While many of us have difficulty asking for help, there are certain personalities who excel at it. Their identities are strongly attached to being helpless, and they will rely on the same friends and family again and again without ever reciprocating. On the other side of the coin, are people who give without ever expecting anything in return; they give to the point that they become martyrs. They sacrifice their own health or financial well being because they feel they must in order to be liked or accepted. Beware of such inequalities and draw boundaries when necessary.

+ Whenever possible, help others. But don’t be afraid to say no. I make frequent visits to cities like New York, Boston, and New Orleans where pan-handling is commonplace. For many years I struggled with how to act when faced with someone asking for money. Often, I felt moved to put a dollar into a homeless person’s coffee cup, but my urban-dwelling friends often scoffed at this response (after all, they face this situation on a daily basis). Then I read about Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who also grappled with the same dilemma. Her solution: to simply keep change and dollar bills at hand and to give them whenever asked. This relieved her of the burden of deciding about a person’s “worthiness” and whether she should give this time or the next, or the time after? I’ve adopted the solution and found it liberating. (And it’s also led to some lovely and surprising exchanges with individuals through the years.)

I also try to adopt Chodron’s philosophy in other matters, as well. If I can help without it being harmful to myself or committed deadlines, I do. But it’s also okay to say “no.” We only have so much time and energy and simply can’t say “yes” to everything and everyone. Even on the streets of New York, I opt to say “no” by not giving money to a homeless person who seems threatening, aggressive, or drunk. Listen to your gut and respond accordingly.

+ Find the creative community that is right for you. There are artists I know who thrive on the energy of others. They create public art and community projects that demand  constant social contact and compromise with everyone from government bureaucrats to museum administrators to interns, etc. Other artists much prefer a quiet writing desk or studio and can happily while away hours without seeing a soul. Everyone’s needs are different. If you find yourself working alone most of the time without much input, perhaps you should consider the kind of community that comes with going to an artist residency, a local writer’s group, a workshop, or a regular meeting with a friend where you give feedback on each other’s work. And if you are burned out from working with others, maybe you need the solitude an artist residency or retreat provides along with optional community interaction.

+ Choose your collaborators wisely. A good collaborator listens, motivates you, spurs your creative energy, isn’t afraid to share credit, and is respectful of others. They work for the good of a larger project, and not for themselves. If a potential collaborator is a control freak, rude, weighed down by their own ego, offensive to others, not responsible with time or resources, or elicits negative energy around others, think twice. No one is perfect, but some imperfections are easier to live with than others. (It’s no different than finding a romantic partner—look for a collaborator whose imperfections you can live with.)

+ A good collaborator will bring out your best. They will push you, motivate you, stretch you, hold you accountable, and be honest. Work with people you respect, not people you feel comfortable bossing around or dominating. (If that is your goal, you should think twice about collaborating with someone else in the first place.)

+ Don’t forget the “thank you.” A simple, verbal “thanks,” a gracious email, or handwritten card means a lot. It shows appreciation and genuine gratitude. And if the person really went the extra mile, how about a “shout out” on social media, a gift certificate, or a bottle of wine to say “thanks.” Don’t forget that your closest collaborators need to hear this too. Even if you work well together, never take the other person for granted. Acknowledging their talents, ideas, or helpful advice goes a long way.

 

Lei Mingwei, Mending Project, 2010 at the Liverpool Biennial. "During gallery hours," says Lei, "I was seated at that table, to which visitors could bring various damaged textile articles, choose the color of thread they wished, and watch as I mended the article.  The mended article, with thread ends still attached, was then placed on the table along with previously mended items. Owners returned to the gallery to collect their mended articles on the last day of the exhibition." (Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

Lei Mingwei’s The Mending Project (2010, The Liverpool Biennial) is a piece that explores the connections between people. “During gallery hours,” says Lei, “I was seated at that table, to which visitors could bring various damaged textile articles, choose the color of thread they wished, and watch as I mended the article. The mended article, with thread ends still attached, was then placed on the table along with previously mended items. Owners returned to the gallery to collect their mended articles on the last day of the exhibition.” By the end of the exhibit, threads criss-crossed throughout the gallery. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)

 

The bottom line: don’t be afraid to tackle projects that depend on others. It’s one of the greatest opportunities we have for growth.

To be vulnerable is not the same as weakness. As Brené Brown‘s research has shown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” 

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued,” says Brown, “when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

To ask for help or to commit to a creative collaboration may feel scary, but it’s these authentic connections and risks that expand life’s possibilities.

What risks are you taking?

 

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By | 2016-11-11T21:49:13+00:00 02.05.14|Process, The Complete Creative|7 Comments

About the Author:

I'm a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a crowd-funded arts & culture journal that covers contemporary art, music, books, film, and the creative process. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an arts enabler, helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I’ve also done time at an arts magazine, a library, and an art museum in Atlanta. For two years I cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, consulting, and creative projects full-time. (You can check out my recent projects here.) I’ve appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, served as the judge for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Literary Prize, and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. My writing and photography have appeared in RISD XYZ magazine, 2Paragraphs, Psychology Today, Born Journal, and other publications. I offer one-on-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and speak to businesses, arts groups, and students about overcoming the psychological and practical barriers to producing your best work. (Read more here .) If you'd like to work with me one-on-one or hire me to speak at your school, business, or organization, please contact me at michelle (at) gwarlingo (dot) com. -

7 Comments

  1. Bill Schofield February 6, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Michelle, great article. As Brene says it is hard to make oneself vulnerable. I think this to be particularly true when it comes to exposing ones needs. Art,in and of itself, is so personal that to “put it out there” for others to pick away at is the ultimate challenge. To bare oneself and to trust yourself enough to reach out is the companion challenge to the work itself. Thanks Michelle and take care of yourself on this journey of yours….Bill

    • Michelle Aldredge February 6, 2014 at 8:27 am

      Well said, Bill. Life is one big exercise in bravery, isn’t it?

      A friend recently told me that for him making art is as natural as breathing. I so admire that kind of ease. We all come from different places, have different training and levels of experience. Vulnerability, fear, and self-consciousness are commonplace for many artists, whether we’re a student in art school or an older adult tackling a new medium late in life. From experience I know that it’s possible to find this kind of ease with the work that matters most to us. But it does involve discomfort and taking risks again and again.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Best of luck with your own work!

  2. Marilyn McCabe February 6, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Last year I put myself in the middle of the perfect storm to threaten my solitary practice – I came up with the idea for a project that required I hire some expertise I didn’t have, for which I was awarded a grant that demanded an outcome, that also required that I incorporate the public somehow in the creation of that outcome. I was terrified. The project was to make a videopoem (I’m a poet; know nothing of video) The videographer I hired was wonderfully supportive, the members of the public I interviewed turned out to be an incredible gift, and I blended their wise and vivid words with my poem in what was to me a fascinating process. I was humbled by the experience. (That being said, I’ve now shrunk back into my shell until some other brilliant idea will force me to crawl out again.)

    • Michelle Aldredge February 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      Marilyn, your description is very, very familiar to me. Congrats on making it through! This is an idea I should have added to the list…make deadlines! Accountability is one of the best ways to force ourselves out of the nest. When others are expecting a result from us, it lights a fire. It is the one thing that has really forced me to plow ahead, even when a project is overwhelming. It sounds like you navigated this new territory brilliantly. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with going back into your shell until the next bright idea prods you to leave again. I think this is particularly helpful for introverts, who need to recharge before their next extroverted enterprise. As the performance artist Tricia Rose Burt once said to me, “All this personal growth is exhausting!”

  3. Diane Lockward February 6, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Terrific article, Michelle! We work in isolation. It’s what we’ve chosen, what we want, what our work requires. But we need to remind ourselves that isolation leads to loneliness and that is stultifying. Being part of a group, even if only occasionally, is a great stimulus to creativity.

    I’d like to include the link to this article in my next Poetry Newsletter, if okay with you.

    • Michelle Aldredge February 6, 2014 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks, Diane! Of course. Please do share this piece in your Poetry Newsletter. And feel free to share the link on the Gwarlingo Facebook page, etc.

  4. Amy Grossman February 6, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    Michelle, Many thanks for mentioning me. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you and to learn from your creative insights. You make excellent points about vulnerability. I’ve noticed that people who reveal some vulnerability often have greater success in attracting an audience than people who feel a need to appear perfect and as if they’ve never had setbacks. I appreciate your thoughts about preferences for togetherness or solitude, too. You offer good options for meeting our varying needs for connection and for working alone. Best wishes…Amy

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