We had the good fortune of connecting with Max Lehman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Max, any advice for those thinking about whether to keep going or to give up?
The decision to follow a career path in the arts can be a difficult one to make. There are many factors that can impact whether one has a successful career or not. I think first and foremost you must have a clear idea in your head of who you are and what are you trying to achieve.
Is it fame or fortune? These as a goal are elusive and ephemeral. Success comes in many shapes and sometimes quite unexpectedly.
Is it to satisfy your ego? How do you rate satisfaction? Is it in achieving the vision you set out to create or to reach a career goal? Approval or appreciation can be hard to come by and especially, when you are young, you tend to be overlooked. I have had several students ask me “what is the secret to having a successful art career?” or more basically “how do I get into a gallery?” I believe persistence is important, but you have to have realistic goals and expectations. Fine Art as a market has undergone several revolutions in recent years. The way prospective clients discover and interact with an artist has changed. The once reliable artist/gallery relationship is no longer the only option to placing your work in front of an audience.
Artists today must be able to manage their output, brand, social media presence, PR, and on and on. It is essential to have an understanding of this, and it all comes under the heading of marketing. Everything is designed and packaged and sold to us to fulfill the needs of “the market”.
Whatever one’s goals may be, if you can clearly define them to yourself you can achieve success even if you are only seeking personal success.
Of course the purpose of this article is knowing when to give up.
Years ago, I was going through a rather difficult period in my life, I had divorced my partner of several years, my sales where dropping if not completely gone, and I needed to focus on my physical and emotional health.
With each misstep or failure, I became more unsure of what path to take. I began experimenting with imagery and attempted to work new ideas into my pieces, but it just didn’t work. My expectations were based on previous success and that aspect of my career had evaporated.
Because of these mounting issues I decided to put my art career to one side and made the decision to stop being an artist. Now how do you stop being an artist? Well for me I simply stopped making art.
To some of my friends and acquaintances when I announced I was “giving up” they reacted as if I had announced I was committing suicide. Some were well meaning and supportive, some were not, it can be a strange experience to realize that other’s perceptions of yourself can be based on something completely external. For me it was as if they could not see me as an individual anymore and that my identity as a person was completely interwoven with my work and what gallery I was showing at. The difficulties I was experiencing in my personal life carried no weight as opposed to the struggles I was having as an artist.
My solution was to remove myself, as much as possible, from the negative influences in my life and to focus on the things I had control over. Now this is a very hard journey to make and not everyone is equipped with the ability to see oneself in a truthful light. I began by looking around myself and tried to discern what was supportive for me and move away from the destructive or self-negating aspects that had taken hold of my life.
I went back to the beginning. When I was at college, I followed a course of study that at the time was known as Intermedia, today we call it Media Arts. Notice, for some reason almost unconsciously I still decided to pursue a creative path. So maybe I wasn’t so willing to absolutely give up on being a creative. However, the new path I chose was wholly different from what I had been following for my entire life. I was a ceramic sculptor and now I was going into information technology. My thinking was I could become an animator and because that was computerized, I needed to learn how that worked. I still looked at the world through an overly simplified lens.
Much to my own surprise I discovered that I had an aptitude for coding and therefore I followed a course of study into web development. At this time the internet was still a very new thing and it had not become so completely encompassing as it is today. After receiving a degree, I found myself teaching at the same college that I had been attending.
But I never really lost the desire to make art either as an image creator or an object maker. After several years hiatus from being an artist, with the encouragement of friends I began making art again. But my approach had completely changed I stopped looking for external approval and began making art for myself. Yes, I understand that sounds really cliché but there is a truth contained within that cliché.
I began entering my art into competitive exhibitions and to my surprise not only was I getting into the exhibits, but I was receiving awards for the work, something that had never happened before.
What I had undergone was a complete process of self-reinvention. The person I had been while not completely gone had a new relationship with how to approach creativity. It was less about trying to make a living off of art and more about making something really fantastic. By giving up the old precepts of how I defined success I had found success without seeking it.
None of this is easy, I was fortunate enough that a part of my support structure remained intact. I had friends that encouraged me and the internal fortitude to not give up. I had discovered a new way of being that was more dependent upon my belief in myself and not in how I perceived others saw me.
But the work is not finished, I continue to look for new ways to express myself, my new life motto is, “anything can happen” and I am not afraid to see where that path takes me next.