Originally the saying “to pull yourself up by your bootstraps” referred to a seemingly impossible task. But the saying eventually evolved to mean “to begin an enterprise or recover from a setback without any outside help”. My mom recently told me that it was a favorite saying of my grandfather and I started to think about it in terms of art-making.
It’s no revelation that artists have to be self-reliant. In America specifically, without the European tradition of patronage, artists have always been expected to fund their own careers, host their own exhibitions, trade materials, and support their contemporaries. I’m in the middle of reading the book Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel. It’s both a solid reminder that survival is a group effort in the art world – and an encouraging message for men and women about the resilience of creative souls.
As the new year begins, I’m summoning the strength of both my trailblazing ancestors who set out for California in the 1850s and the likes of those “Ninth Street Women” who saw the obstacles before them but uncovered deep inner resources to achieve their goals.
This month, I’m working with an artist who has always understood the entrepreneurial aspect of an art career. No stranger to “the hustle”, Nancy Willis is a painter, printmaker, professor, curator, coordinator and activist. Working in Napa county, she’s found numerous ways to collaborate with contacts throughout the country and abroad. Her latest project is an excellent example of driving one’s own opportunities not just to benefit her artistic career, but to positively change the lives of others.
CONFLICT ZONE: Sinjar to St. Helena is Nancy’s artistic response to the ISIS led genocide of Yazidis in 2014. Willis followed their story, pained by the brutality and violence against women, overwhelmed by the distance and scope of the conflict until she found a way to take action through art. Over the past two years she has aligned with a Yazidi advocacy group, raised funds to lead them in a printmaking workshop, created work in response to their stories and is now launching an exhibition to raise awareness. You can learn more about this inspiring project HERE.
When I asked Nancy about the dual responsibility of making art and making opportunities, she stated, “It’s a labor-intensive and often tedious process of administrative duties, correspondence, and research. But seeing the germ of an idea in my painting studio turn into something BIG and communal has its own reward. I have the good fortune of knowing that I can turn an idea into action and make things happen.”
She continues, “it takes tenacity, gratitude and good communication skills along with the ability to envision what opportunities you want.” This is a valuable approach to work within your practice and beyond the studio. I hope you’re as inspired as I am to push yourself past obstacles by your own bootstraps.