People often wonder how an artist--or anyone in the arts, for that matter--starts out. We're talking the painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, musicians, composers, writers, poets, and so forth. For most it's something they love and do from an early age. Some come to it later in life. The idea of money and success and acclaim does not usually enter the equation at that point. These people just love to and/or have to do it. You might be fortunate and get plaudits from your family, friends and school. You might not get any attention at all, yet you do it anyway. You do it for yourself.
So, if you stick to it, there will come a time when you want to take your abilities further. You were a hero in high school, amazed your friends and family with your talent--you were the best!--yet now you want to do more. You know: make some money with your skills, or at least enter the wider world of your calling. You want to succeed. If you go for it, throw your hat in the ring, you will encounter REJECTION. Whether you send in a manuscript, go out for an audition, try out for a band, approach a gallery or enter a competition, you very likely will face the monster that is REJECTION. You will feel terrible and be discouraged and think you are no good and a waste of time.
Get used to it.
So, I was one of those kids. My talent was drawing and making things. My dad was an advertising man who also had loads of artistic talent. He taught me the fundamentals of drawing; composition, layout, a lot more. I was totally self-directed. I didn't need coddling or cajoling. I just did it. It was my thing. I always was drawing, always making things. Mostly drawing. Later I turned to painting. Early on in high school I wanted to be the next great Surrealist painter--half Salvador Dali, half M.C. Escher. I had ambition in abundance. I had self-confindence. I was even a tad arrogant.
As is the case in a relating a story, I'm going to leave out an awful lot so I can get to the topic at hand: rejection.
In my very early 20s I was intent on going further with my art. To me that meant exhibiting, having work published, selling work, etc. I wanted to somehow be a represented artist. But how? I didn't really know. I never went to ART SCHOOL™. No one I knew was in the art world to lend advice. I was desultorily taking a few courses in junior college, mostly so that I could have some kind of social life outside of work. I had no idea exactly how to approach a gallery, didn't know what to say, didn't know how to behave. I didn't know shit. One day, in my life-drawing class, I overheard the instructor telling a student, "Yeah, he might be interested in your work for his gallery." My eyes widened and my ears pricked up like a rabbit's. Did he say gallery? "Howard M__. He's looking for new work." Or, words to that effect.
I took note. A GALLERY was looking for artists! Maybe I could approach this Howard M__ myself!
I had had a few pieces of mine in the back of a gallery once, so, technically, my art had been displayed, kind of, if you call a few paintings leaning against a wall in a back room "displayed." Not exactly anything you would put on a résumé.
I looked up the name in the phone book and found an address on Wilshire Boulevard, not far from downtown Los Angeles. This was in the very early 80s. I think I must have phoned to ask their business hours. I was a working kid, living on my own in a little apartment in Anaheim, near Disneyland. I worked all week but figured I could drop by on Saturday. I was kind of excited. Okay, I was stupid excited. This could be my break! My entry into being a represented artist!
On Saturday morning I got together some of my odd little paintings, threw them in the back of my sad-ass beater Chrysler K wagon with its imitation wood siding, and headed up to LA. I parked off Wilshire in the little lot behind the gallery. I walked around to the front of the business and looked in the display windows. Behind the glass were paintings of female nudes and still lifes, shiny fabric draped behind them.
Had I made a mistake? I didn't do anything like this horrible crap. Maybe, I thought, I'd fucked up.
I ignored the thought.
I buzzed the front door, but no one answered. I went to the rear entrance, buzzed, and someone appeared from the shadows behind the glass and opened the door. My heart was beating loud in my ears. A largish blonde and pleasant looking man answered. "I'm here to show Mr. M_ some of my work," I must have said. "Oh," the man said with a friendly tone. "Come on in. I'm Howard's partner. Howard's upstairs talking to the Coast." I assumed "the Coast" was New York.
I was ushered to a little area with a sofa, leather chairs and a coffee table to wait. I think I was given some water. I imagined this was where Howard met with his clients and collectors to make deals. "So, what do you do?" the pleasant man asked. I showed him some of my paintings. "Interesting," he might have said. Upstairs, I heard Howard talking on the phone, his tone grating and harsh. I felt nervous.
A thin man with a scowl descended the stairs. We might have shook hands. "Who are you?" he inquired, not smiling. I told him. "What have you got?" I showed him. He looked through the handful of paintings. None of them were nudes or still lifes. The scowl never left his face. He made noises: "Hmm. Oh..." He turned to me and asked again:
"Who are you?"
I squirmed and plastered a smile on my face. Said something, I don't remember what. At some point I might have said words like "I'm hanging in a gallery," before he jested, "You're hanging in a gallery?" implying I was literally hanging on a hook on some wall somewhere. Funny. I get it. Then came the drubbing. The insults and rejection. Wave after wave of it.
"I don't know who the hell you are. You don't make an appointment. You drop in from outer space. And you bring me this." He waved a dismissive hand at my strange paintings.
For 45 minutes he berated and humiliated me as I sat there on the sofa with a stupid grin on my face I couldn't seem to lose. I checked my wrist watch: 45 minutes.
He said: "I actually know people who might like this kind of work. But I'm not going to tell you, cause I think you'd be wasting their time." He said: "Here's some advice. See these paintings?" He gestured to some mundane paintings of lighthouses and crashing waves. "This man loves the sea. He lives in Maine. He's a retired sea captain. He paints what he knows."
I nodded and grinned.
"Here's what you need to do. You should paint what you know, make a bunch of paintings all the same size, strap them together with a belt or some rope, and show those."
"Thanks," I might have said.
I stood and left in disgrace, having had the flesh peeled from my bones by a real gallery owner for 45 excruciating minutes on a bright Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, California. I walked numbly to my pathetic car, put my ridiculous paintings in the back, closed the hatch.
I had met REJECTION, severe, demeaning, soul-bruising rejection.
But, here's the thing: even as I was walking to my car, I was telling myself, That was horrible, that was brutal, that sucked ass, but that is not going to defeat me.
I thought, as I was driving back to my little one bedroom apartment in Anaheim, that I would not do that again; just show up at a strange gallery without having cased it first to see if it even remotely fit what I do. Sure, he was a mean asshole, but I kind of wandered into it, so I blamed myself. I was kind of cocky before Howard __, doubtless overly confident of my talent. I was a lot less cocky after. But it didn't defeat me. That's the take-away. I just kept going on and on, one little step and minor success at a time. Oh, and a whole lot more rejection. Boy, let me tell you. That's how it goes in this racket. Part of the territory.
Still stings like fuck though. Oh, yeah.