Defining Success But Not Myself

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My personal definition of creative success for the last three years has been devotion. It’s both objective and subjective, rigid enough for accountability but expandable enough to accommodate the seasons of life. The level of devotion I can accomplish while my children are young is different than in retirement when I will forsake my husband except for dinner and spend my days creating in an uninterrupted chain of timeless, silent hours (do not challenge me on this). Devotion depends only on me, which is nice. But this year I’ve expanded my definition to include two circles around my practice: intimate impact and friendship.

Intimate Impact

A traditional definition of success includes acclaim, fame, recognition, competition, prestige, etc. which all connote a large number of people. Eyes on the work is great, but simpatico eyes on the work feels better. “Attract and repel” is a good phrase. As I prepare my exhibition for next year, I realize that being pleased with the work depends on the relationships I make within and around it, and having a small, intimate impact on those who view it.

Someone asked recently if I would sell prints at the reception. I plan to give prints out for free. To me, putting my work in the hands of people who want it feels like one best things I could do with my time and money. I plan to start doing giveaways on my IG toward the same end. It’s not automatic that we must move as artists within the current channels for giving and receiving, which were often created to make a living. I strive to make what I do behind a camera as autonomous as possible.

From time to time I have a fantasy that I’m giving an artist talk at the local museum because my work is being featured there (and lauded duh). In the fantasy I end up talking with the interviewer about their childhood instead of the work. I ask questions of the audience instead of them of me; our relatedness becomes what is memorable. The work begins as a personal and private but when shared becomes a meeting of experiences common to all.

I recently brought some prints to my therapist for her to view. Like showing her pictures of my children, I wanted to share what I love. She reviewed them one by one, pausing at one that moved her. She had a subtle gasp of joy and said, “Oh. This one.” It was not my favorite in the pile. And I thought — nothing can replace this moment. No accolade can confirm me like that small, transported smile. The image brought her somewhere only she knows. It is enough.

Creative Friendship

This year I developed a new creative friendship with fellow writer/photographer, home educator, creative-writing-degree-holder, East Coast dweller and hater of Christmas Rachel Weaver. In our ongoing Instagram DM she recently said she felt I was a good candidate to journey alongside her work because I seem “unashamedly honest and also not at all jealous of success — the kind of friend who would celebrate with you.” Put that on my grave. I would say I tend to take a more Fiona-Apple-90’s-VMA’s-acceptance-speech-approach to success: “remember, this world is bullshit.”

Doing Teethkiss the class this fall I saw vividly the fulfillment creative friendship brings. Not only do we validate the compulsion to create for each other, but in calling attention to an aspect of being through our art we enter a conversation. Artist communes have been common throughout history for a reason. It’s possible to imagine our artwork having a profound, sustained impact on viewers, but visual art seems to temporarily inject a lifted sense of connection to being before the viewer moves on. But the artist-viewer hears your message in it’s original tongue and is able to interpret and respond to it in their own medium. As time moves on this conversation fills more of my mindspace than the idea of work for an anonymous public.

Immersion

In Mark Nepo’s interview with Oprah, he discusses how he sought the label of poet as an ultimate goal until he realized it was too narrow to contain his calling and work. He says, “When young, I worked earnestly with the hope of creating a great poem or two. Then, during my cancer journey, I needed to discover true poems that would help me live. Now, blessed to still be here, I want to be the poem.”

I’ve found this to be true of definitions of success as well — too narrow. Helpful as a form of self-presentation and marketing but of little aid in the actual creative process except to stunt and dam. When I name myself I tend right away to squirm out from the boundaries I’ve set. When I throw off conventional notions of success and strive instead toward immersion I’m free to dance like a child.