Jan Estep, “Speaking with Friends,” Ten Chances No Hustle 2012, edited by Patricia Healy McMeans (Minneapolis, MN: Ten Chances No Hustle, 2013).
among contemporary artists, much of the work of being an artist remains individualistic. Those with a studio-based practice know directly how isolated artmaking can be, preferring the time alone. For a more public artist, engaged with directing, managing, organizing, motivating, wrangling: the skills needed to work with a group require the same independence and personal vision as working solo. However shared the process, the artist is responsible for the combined efforts. Whether our artistic practice is collaborative and communal or individual and private, artists need a strong sense of self. For sustenance and so we don’t get too complacent with our limited perspective, connection with peers is vital.
Simply put, we need artist friends. I’m not saying that our loved ones have to be artists, or even that most of our close associates need be; people are attracted to all sorts. But in order to feel fully supported in our art, having friendships with other artists is important. Artist friends unconditionally accept what we do; they understand the false starts, frustrations, and curious obsessions. They forgive us when we get lost in a project for weeks at a time without contacting them. Yet artist friends also give critical feedback when we run into difficulties, pointing out our blind spots and narrow assumptions without blaming us. In their company we can be serious or ridiculous, confident or uncertain. We don’t have to hide who we are to impress them or make them feel good; we can genuinely be ourselves.
Having close relationships with artists is not the same thing as socializing with artists. The extroverts among us may enjoy gallery openings and schmoozing, and have a natural talent for it, while introverts stay clear of large gatherings, feeling overstimulated by the excessive energy. Socializing aside, it is the more intimate encounters with other artists that really make us feel seen and heard, encounters that allow us to freely divulge our thoughts and feelings about what we make, what we aspire to. Artists may be driven to make art, but expressing ourselves materially can feel incredibly risky and a bit strange. Connecting over a shared passion for artmaking helps us to embrace that process, normalizing our creative behavior.
Intimate art encounters are hard to come by. As an educator I’ve seen that art school can be a place where people connect deeply with other artists. Residencies like Ten Chances No Hustle also offer such a place. Intimacy doesn’t just happen, it depends heavily on the willing openness of each person. But the right environment helps us create relationships in which there’s enough trust and respect among members to be vulnerable with one another and courageously explore the edges of what we believe and know. The best environments also help us weather the ensuing tensions that arise whenever humans interact in close quarters: the disagreements, hurt feelings, and inevitable misunderstandings, the jealousy, insecurities, and competitive comparisons. It’s a fine line between being constructive and judgmental, and intimacy needs the former to flourish.
Too often people can feel separated from one another. Coming together over art reminds us that we are interconnected and that no matter how modest or ambitious, solitary or collaborative, every bit counts.
Such friendships enhance our practice.
Copyright Jan Estep 2013