Twenty five years ago last month (March, 1981), a deranged man tried to kill President Ronald Reagan. In doing so, he inspired me to become a sculptor and I have never since ceased to marvel at the peculiar way the world works.
In March 1981, I owned 2 failing businesses, a small hobby shop and a mail order rare book business. Driving to the post office, I heard on the radio President Reagan had been shot--there was no word on his condition. My first reaction was, "This will be awful for business." My second reaction was "Business has been awful for you, to think that way when people get shot--even politicans." It followed naturally in the next instant I said to myself, "Why don't you become a sculptor? That's what you always wanted to be."
Returning from the post office, I went in the house to tell my first wife, Jeanie, I had decided to sell the businesses and become a free lance sculptor. Working the evening/early morning shift as a news photographer for WRAL, a local TV station, she was home during the day. It was the first really warm day of Spring and she was sunbathing on the concrete patio in back.
"I have to talk to you, " I said.
"Okay," she answered without opening her eyes. "I have to talk to you, too."
Clueless male that I am/was, I figured she wanted new curtains in the kitchen or had some complaint about clean up for my 30th birthday party.
"You first," I generously offered, --after all, I thought I had momentous news.
"Well," she opened her blue eyes and looked straight at me, "I have never really loved you and I want out of this marriage."
So. There you have it.
I turned 30. Reagan got shot. I decided to become a sculptor. My first wife announced she was leaving.
It was not yet 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Alexander Haig had not yet even come on the TV to say "he was in charge."
It is said the three greatest stresses in life result from a change in either personal relations, or a career change, or a financial status change. I encountered all three at once. It was like trying to learn to ride a unicycle while learning to ride it on a tight rope, while learning to juggle oranges all at the same time.
"WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU KNEW YOU COULD NOT FAIL?" My sister in law, Ann, gave me that sign for my office a few years ago. I consciously read it daily as both inspiration and reproach.
In 1981, Raleigh had one commercial art gallery. I have no college degree, nor had I ever had an art lesson. I had no money. I did not even know any other sculptors. I did not know how to carve or weld. I could not draw well. I owned no tools of any sort beyond a hammer, pliers, and screw driver.
It seemed insanely improbable.
So what have I learned from being insanely improbable over the past 25 years?
I have learned that if you talk about doing a thing, well meaning people will tell you all the sound reasons why you're wrong and probably should not do it.
I have learned if you just go ahead and do it anyway, people will come from all sorts of surprising places to help in the ways they can and in ways you never dreamed you needed.
You will succeed in ways you never dreamed of and that makes failure in some things you thought you were good at not nearly so painful or even important.
Master a craft or medium completely as possible and you will be able to say anything you want with that medium. When I was starting out, I feared I would choose the "wrong" medium for me--Should I specialize in stone? wood? bronze? etc. I learned it did not matter. The paradox is that a narrow specialty and command can liberate one's voice entirely because you no longer wonder how to do something technically, but rather what to say.
I have learned to insist upon myself. As everybody who has dealt with me in the past 25 years has learned--including my wonderful second wife, Joy--I am not "going to suddenly come to my senses and get a real job." Being an artist is a real job. As corporate and government scandals today show, often being an executive or government official is not a real job, no matter how much it pays.
I have learned it is an awkward fact that God does not care whether I have paid my library fines and water bill when I die. He only cares if have I done what I was supposed to. It is amazing the number of people who will abdicate their life and their gifts because of the fear they'll be thought a deadbeat or a weirdo.
I have learned academics love intellectual art, art critics love cynical irony and sarcasm, but the other 99.9% percent of humanity responds to art that is positive, funny, or optimistic. If you are a positive, funny, and optimistic person, do not try to do sarcastic or intellectual or negative art. If you aren't any of those things, well, I suppose you could try to get in with Saatchi Gallery or a good position in academia. Failing that, there are good drugs.
Master basic drawing and basic bookkeeping.
Draw or write for 30 minutes a day--you have no idea how many good ideas you will forget otherwise.
Quit smoking. You'll save an extra hour a day of work in the studio.