Scholastic Awards Ceremony Alumnus Remarks

This past Sunday, I was honored to be the guest speaker at the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards of Southwestern PA. As a 2007 & 2008 Gold Key honoree for both art and writing, I was invited to share how the awards had an impact on me as well as my perspective on art and writing. I chose to focus on the importance of making and my own experiences as a working artist and educator. I gave the following remarks at California University of Pennsylvania on February 9, 2014.

Congratulations artists and writers. I know just from looking at the show this morning, that a lot of time and effort went into the work. Which is why you’re here today. You have talent, and you should celebrate and be proud of what you have created. I’m going to start by asking a question. Artists and writers: “What are you working on now?”

This is a question that should always have an answer. And that answer should never be “nothing.” Even if you aren’t working on anything, make up an answer on the spot. There. You’ve just created something. And that’s always better than nothing.

What I’m getting at is, talent itself is not enough. You must also have determination. What are you going to do with that talent? Today you should take a moment to sit back, relax, you've earned it. But you don’t want to lose momentum. You have to keep working.

What does it mean to "work" as an artist or writer? Well, it's tough, but here's what I've found.

I don't create well when I'm stressed or when I think too much, which happens quite often. If I’m laying in bed unable to fall asleep because I’m thinking about an idea for an upcoming performance, I’m not going to accomplish anything. The only solution is to get out of bed and go to my studio. I have to try things, I have to be surrounded by materials, I have to make something, I have to write things down, I have to call friends to get their opinion, I have to fail. I have to act on an idea. Only once I have something created can I then consider it, think about what I should do differently, and how it would work or sound better.

I recently started teaching workshops for young kids around age 6-12. We, the coaches, provide the materials and teach a concept or technique, say creating a basic circuit. We are there to help them use tools and to make sure they understand instruction. The rest is up to the kids, to experiment, tinker, and build. Sometimes what they’ve made by the end of the 1 hour long class looks just like a piece of gray upholstery foam with LEDs and pipe cleaners sticking out of it, but ask them what they’ve made and they’ll excitedly point out all the attributes of an alien elephant. They’ve created something they can talk or write about. They’ve made something that inspires them to continue making.

Starting a new project is difficult, beginning usually is, but once you get in the habit it becomes natural. Start simple, keep a sketchbook or journal if you don’t already, sketch out and write down your ideas, even if they’re fragments. Do you have something to say about the way the light falls across the room? Or that song on the radio? Does the article you just read leave you dissatisfied? Take it all in, think about what you see, read, & hear. Then do something about it. You have to work to be inspired. Inspiration doesn’t just come to you when you want it to or when you’re ready for it. This is a huge part of your work as an artist or writer. And if you ask me, it’s pretty fantastic work.

You’re going to make and write a lot of things, and not all of them will be worth putting in your portfolio or on your website. This is something I had to face when I started doing more installation and performance art than painting. My traditional portraits didn’t belong anymore. But by removing them from my website, and storing them away, I made room for new work. You want to show your best work, not everything you’ve ever made, because everything you’ve ever made, written, or done is not going to be good. If you’re a writer, go to open mics, but don’t just read final drafts you feel good about. Read something you just wrote and haven’t revised, read a piece that you’ve been stuck on for days. Just because it’s not your best work does not mean it isn’t valuable. Just because it might not be what you consider “done yet” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share it. I often put pieces aside and come back to them years later. I do the same performance more than once and each time it’s different sometimes better, sometimes not. Don’t wait for your “next big idea” to float in the room fully formed.

I’d like to share a quote by fellow Scholastic Award Winner Andy Warhol, that has often helped me focus:

"Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
Well, your being here today means someone decided your work was good. Which is an honor, but inevitably, if you continue to create, someone will decide that it’s bad (it could even be the same piece). The point is, you have to make the work you believe in. Accept compliments and praise, but don’t block out criticism or you will never grow. Don’t get offended, but defend your work. The best way to do that is to just keep creating.

For me, the Scholastic Awards were an affirmation that I was good at art. My parents were and still are unbelievably supportive. I know if it wasn't for their encouragement I would have never entered work into Scholastic. The first year my work was accepted I was in middleschool but my drawing didn't win an award. But having it hung alongside kids who were in high school, even just seeing the other work alongside mine, made me confident. I wanted to keep creating and that was key. When I was a junior in high school, I received a scholastic award at the national level and went to New York for the awards ceremony. On that trip, I saw work that inspired me, work that I liked and work that I didn't like (sometimes that's the best kind to see because it makes you even more determined) The whole time I had my journal, which was nothing new, but I was in a new place, I was thinking about all of it and writing it all down. The following year, after much editing, I submitted a memoir piece which won a Scholastic award at regional, and then national. It was another affirmation. I wasn’t bad at writing. All I had done was spend time editing and composing what I had already written… It was because the work was there. It just needed attention.

Another thing it’s hard to do as an artist or writer is know when to take breaks. It’s important to keep fueled and stay active. I get away from my studio, I go for a run, I get a sandwich. But I’ve also found that if you’re determined you can’t always take a break even if you feel it’s earned. The day I graduated from MICA I came back to Pittsburgh to meet with the curator of a gallery just to talk about how I would install my artwork. I couldn’t finish the work until I physically saw the space and spoke with the guy in charge. I had to act. And while it was pain to travel all that way, I felt so much better after our conversation and after I had taken photos of the gallery space. I had clarity and could make my next move, whereas just hours earlier, I was stressing about how I would pull of this installation and performance. I travelled back to Baltimore for a different performance that same week and it crossed my mind that I just graduated from college. That I put in my time and deserved a break. But if I had turned down these opportunities in favor of some time off, I would have missed out on the exposure and connections that have since proved extremely valuable to my career as an artist. I would not have been able to wing such a hectic week (and it hasn’t been the only one) had it not been for the support of my family and friends. 

Maybe you already know this, but you need to be willing to ask for help and allow yourself to be helped. This is different than being critiqued. A critique is offering opinion, suggestion, criticism. I mean literal help. I’ve taken so many (bad) photos and videos of my work because I thought I could do it myself or I thought it’s just too hard to find someone who is reliable. When most of the time, people want to help, especially friends. Just ask and most likely they will be more than happy to wear elongated paper mache arms for your performance. Of course it’s mutual, you have to be willing to help pack dirt into a giant steel mold until 4 in the morning, or hang ceramics in a stairwell with no heat in the middle of January for your friends, but that’s the beauty of support. You will also find support in unlikely places. Over the summer I played touch football and met a group of exceptional people. I don’t play anymore (it wasn’t my thing) but I do stay in touch. I invite the team to openings and they’ve introduced me to others who have offered support.

So today I leave you with this advice:
  • Make connections and stay in touch 
  • Ask for help 
  • Work for inspiration 
  • Keep the momentum going so you will always have an answer to the question, 

“What are you working on now?”


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