In May of 2013, two years after her appointment to President Barack Obama’s Commission of Fine Arts, Teresita Fernández delivered a keynote address to the graduating class at her alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, titled “On Amnesia, Broken Pottery, and the Inside of a Form”.
At the end of her speech, Fernandez offered these ten tips:
On Being an Artist
- Art requires time — there’s a reason it’s called a studio practice. Contrary to popular belief, moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.
- Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.
- Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.
- Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.
- Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.
- When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them, “Why”? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.
- Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist. I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.
- You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.
- Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.
- And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.
On Being Human
Maria Popova says that “Fernández’s parting point is also her most poignant — a reminder that being human is the wider circle within which being an artist resides, and that our art is always the combinatorial product of the fragments of who we are, of our combinatorial character.”
Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth, the size of the world you make for yourselves, your ability to influence the things you believe in, your obsessions, your failures — all of these components will also become the raw material for the art you make.
Relish its Profound Mystery
Fernández leaves us with this encouragement:
… Try to relish its profound mystery. Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside.
Thus the Psalmist sings,
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
Since we are God’s work of art, and since we are imbued with the Creator’s creative impulse, what is the art you create with your life?