Sunday, April 23, 2006

25 Years as a Sculptor! How I Started

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.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring Joel. I was all of 8 i think when Reagan was shot. And I am now 33. I am currently in a career i cannot stand. I hope that I can "just do it" and do what I love to do. Write and sculpt.

Thanks again for your story.

-Derek

khines said...

I read an article in the Star News this morning and you have the same name as an old high school classmate of mine. I have spent the day reading your stories. I now know you're not who I thought you were but your work is very interesting and I enjoyed getting to know you

Raj said...

Wow!!
I was searching google:'how do I become a sculptor' and your page popped up in the results. I thank you for taking the time to write this article.
I feel encouraged and inspired to keep going.
Thank you
Khera

Buddylittle said...

This is funny, i echo the previous 2 posts. I came upon your page by accident, when i also googled "how to become a sculptor" and your page was the first.

I'm very glad I was directed this way. Your post is very insightful and encouraging and it came at a time when I was thinking about my 25th birthday and whether to take the dive into the wonderful world of art. Thanks for the clarity.

Kristan said...

I'm like 2.5 years late, but I love this post. :)

Congrats on achieving your dream! I'm working on mine...

Anonymous said...

Great. I also googled "how to become a sculptor" and it lead to here! You've just inspired me to dive in at age 35 and no art class since I was 12.

Anonymous said...

Me too! I googled 'how to become a sculptor' and I am now starting down a new road I have been considering for some time. I will have to decide when to tell everyone else, but for now it feels really good to have my decision made. Good on all you other wanna be sculptors, and thanks, Joel, for getting us started. I'm afraid my when-I-started story is no where near as dramatic as yours, but I've had some drama in my life and it is a good sign that my critical decision involves less of it.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you just need to either hear or read about someone having the courage to do what makes them happy!. I have needed that for so long and wanted to thank you for your "anonymous" words of encouragement! Am not sure if I'll down the sculpting road but I do feel like this is the moment in my life to make that kind of decision! Best to you!!!

notbydesign said...

Thanks for writing this. The next time I write to you I will have begun my personal path to becoming a sculptor. Thank you for sharing your story. CW.

notbydesign said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. What kind of commisions do you now get? How do you make a living...by which I mean make money to live and eat? That is the only thing that holds me back - maybe I'm stuck in the "system" but that is a practical worry for me.

Kaydee said...

That was very inspiration to read about as I am in transition myself trying to figure out what I want to do next with my life! Thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing and all the very best!

Derrick said...

Wow, I realise this is an old post but It really helped me. I'm at that point you were when you started. I randomly typed in "becoming a sculptor" looking for how to do it professionally and your blog popped up. I've always failed at every "real job" i've ever had... I just don't have the temperament for it but I love art and I am a great sculptor. Thanks for the inspiration. If you can do it, so can I!

Derrick

Anonymous said...

Just like these other comments I randomly thought to Google how to become a sculptor and found this blog. Found it really interesting and encouraging so I just had to comment on it.

Anonymous said...

CAUTION: The one thing that isn't said is you need a partner who is willing to pay the bills and see to the details of life. Being a sculptor, unless you are extremely lucky or willing to really work at it by applying for grants doing public art, is difficult and time consuming. It isn't fair to be a drag on the family income. You MUST find a way to contribute and not expect your partner or spouse to always make the sacrifice you aren't willing to make. Hold up your end of the relationship - emotionally and financially.

Anonymous said...

I want to be a sculptor too! Great story!

CarenKH said...

Thanks for this! Similarly to others before me, I googled "I want to be a sculptor". There is lots of good stuff here, not necessarily about being a sculptor.