I thought about how it would be if I were to visit my old art school, and in the spirit of opening my heart and giving freely of my experience, I could talk to the students, and maybe offer some constructive advice. I thought about how I would look to them, an older guy who grew up a generation ago. They would scrutinize the signs of age wearing down upon me, see my shiny bald head, and wonder how they could ever grow up to be someone like me. I even imagined how I might have seen who I am now, as who I was then. Wild-eyed and long-haired, living with all the flash and excitement of a young guy in art school, with my entire future ahead of me. It reminded me of the womb-like bliss of being an art student, when the future after art school was just a hazy horizon, with the sun shining just beyond the clouds.
How could I begin to convey that who and how I am might actually be an option for them. That the sun might not be shining beyond the clouds, that life will be just like life, and the reality of bills and loans will still be there. Nobody will discover anyone, nobody gets a windfall reward for suffering, nobody will cash in on a lottery winning for being a good student. So many of those students will wind up finding jobs, starting families, taking on mortgages, and seeing each new advance in pay and position as a valuable commodity. Suddenly a fork in the road away from pursuing what they studied becomes another fork and another, until the foundation of art school is seen more as a liability, when a background in business might have been more relevant. No amount of insight or wit and humor might impress anyone. To all these wild-eyed art students, the notion of being a street artist is the equivalent of being an odd smelling vagrant craftsperson, whittling away at some witty craft and plying their wares for anyone gullible enough to humor them with a small purchase. After loading up their unsold stock on the back of a tired donkey they would slowly walk back to their ramshackle hovel on a dark back street.
In one of my last years of art school, a major art fair was started in Baltimore, the vendors sprawling across the streets of the campus. I was on the school's security staff, so I was part of the team to oversee and coordinate issues of security between the ruckus of the street vendors and the delicate constitution of the art students. I couldn't even see what the so-called crafters were doing, as the mayhem of so many tents smeared together like some big country fair. It was like a circus had come to town, full of fly-by-night carnies and hucksters. 25 years later, the show still goes on every year. In the most recent school newsletter, a full page is dedicated to describing the event of dance, opera, theater, fashion, film and classical music. The second to last line describes the artist's market, where artists, craftspeople and various other bottom-feeders (ok, I made up that last one) will peddle their worthless trinkets.
When I first decided to begin exhibiting in these outdoor art festivals, I was relatively young compared to most of the exhibitors. I looked up to everyone as a pillar of wisdom and insight, and I was welcomed into their confidence for information on every aspect of the business. The second year of doing these shows was when I started meeting kindred spirits, artists that are on a similar odyssey of study and scrutiny, coupled with some sense of business and marketing. I met more and more artists that were doing spectacular work, some of it witty, but all of it having the integrity of study and artistic growth. I watched artists evolve and change from one year to the next, and all of us traded information on survival outside of the normal job world. All of us have managed to keep a passionate flame burning inside, each one of us finding our own balance of spirituality in who we are in the world, with how we'll keep our worlds afloat. We've become a unique mobile subculture, at any given time most of us are either on the road to or from some distant event. In the silence of winter we all explore who we are and what we're doing. When business is slow we're tested to be stronger than we've ever been. We become so sensitive to how everything affects our work, a change in the weather can be as powerful of an influence as plotting a new show schedule. Seeing our newest and most exciting work being bought and taken away will fill us with mixed emotions. Our first cautious exploration is vindicated and celebrated, and our self doubt quickly becomes a reaffirmation of our efforts.
Of course it's hard to believe that any of this would make any sense to a young art student. One of my teachers would always say we have no idea what we'll be learning from painting. Nothing less than years and years of painting will even give us the slightest hint.
I started doing my first outdoor exhibitions when I was almost 40 years old, and that made me one of the youngest artists in the group. I question the purpose of the "emerging artist" sections of some of these festivals. What are they emerging from? What are they emerging into? The birth canal? Adulthood? I'd say neither. I think these old and grey artists actually like seeing young people flounder and wallow in grief. When the first disappointments knock the wind out of their colorful little sails, they bail out and scamper away, and the next year another committee will fervently organize another art student outreach program to push these wobbly-legged fawns into the headlights of the critical public.
There are no child prodigies in visual arts. Some whiz bang art student might be able to render something until it squeals, but that says nothing about stamina and perseverance in the face of adversity. And then there is passion, and respect for life within and around us. There is no childhood that will create the kind of integrity I see in the eyes of my contemporaries in the show circuit. No amount of idealism will take the place of time and experience, and while this fringe element subculture may look like a ragtag bunch of fly-by-night carnies, we're all tapping into the fabric of life experience, and translating it into our work. Our office winds up being the open streets of the city center, or the shade of a canopy of trees in a park. We're more comfortable with how it feels to spend days and days outside than to be standing in line, or sitting at a desk.
The shows often wind up being our first chance to see our entire body of work on display for the first time. The smell of wet paint and linseed oil means that the artist is having their first impartial look at their newest works. The outdoor exhibit is more like part of the process of creation than seeing the work through a crowd of people wolfing down crackers and cheese at an opening. And of course the nuts and bolts of business make a certain sense of it all as well.
So...maybe my interest in speaking to a group at my art school is more for myself than what I might pass along. Maybe I feel a need to be the old man in front of a congregation of lively young sprites whose attention is phasing in and out of whatever drugs and self abuse they most recently discovered. Maybe all this is just to remind myself of where I've been, and to reiterate some basic compass heading on where I'm going. I don't know, I was just thinking of how it would be.