Success, Crippling Self-doubt, and the Trouble with Ego

Things are going pretty darn great! I’m far from ever being able to make the plunge to being a full time artist, but the past year has been pretty good to me. I’ve seen a brisk uptick in my art sales. I paid all my art expenses for the year and actually turned a tiny (seriously…tiny) profit! Last year I was one of two artists selected for the Bob Marshall Wilderness artist in residency and have been creating a lot of new work based on my experience there. The upcoming Minnesota Trout Unlimited newsletter has a really nice two page spread featuring my art. I’m applying for some grants. I have some work in a small gallery. Things are really looking up!

Too bad I deserve none of it, my work is trivial at best, I’m a complete fraud, and, most likely, completely unlikable.

At least that is what my brain tells me…

I can only hope that the quote by Robert Hughes has some merit:

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Of course, by putting that quote after admitting my great doubt, I come across as an arrogant prick. (see previous remark “completely unlikable”.)

So, why write any of this? I think because I am not alone. In talking to other artists, this is the ugly side of the creative process and is incredibly common. I think this might even be exasperated by an increasing public profile. The more people know my work, the more I worry I’ll be found out to not have any talent or original ideas. Imposter syndrome is real and crippling.

It is frustrating to realize, with some degree of finality, that absolutely nothing I do - no amount of “success” - will ever be enough. And that is ok. It is ok to be frustrated. It is ok because I realize that the joy of success, as well as the despair of feeling like a fraud, are both the product of ego. The ego is such a clumsy thing. When I can see it I can find it amusing and work around it. When I don’t see it, I either get too full of myself or spiral into despair. Or, more often than not, both at the same time. I’m not yet skilled enough to work without ego, so I just have to keep it in check.

Sometimes when I work, I feel like I’m able to set ego aside. It usually feels like a flow state of some sort. I don’t feel attached to the end result and it feels a lot like play. I guess it is more of a working from the gut, but that oversimplifies it. The skills I’ve developed certainly help attain the flow state. This is perhaps why some of my recent work is deliberately set up to be uncontrollable. I’ve been exploring letting ink bleed on paper. It is controlled only to a point. If I’m too attached to what I think it SHOULD be doing, I miss out on the interesting things that it actually IS doing.

And I guess that is as good a metaphor as any.

An untitled ink “bleed” artwork.

An untitled ink “bleed” artwork.

Beginning a new body of work...

Last summer, I had the opportunity to be one of two artists selected for an artist in residency in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana.  I’m now working on the art inspired by the time I spent in the Great Bear Wilderness in Montana.  I’ll be creating a body of work that will be on exhibition in Montana some time next year. I’m also writing a curriculum that I will focus on teaching visual nature journaling as well as using art to communicate the need for environmental conservation.   

The residency took place last summer for two weeks in late July to mid August. My wife and I were in the Great Bear Wilderness which is part of the broader Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex that stretches from Glacier National Park to just north of Helena. The residency is called “Artist Wilderness Connection” and is made possible by a collaboration between the Flathead National Forrest Service, The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and the Hockaday Art Museum in Kalispell, MT, and Swan Valley Connections.

Spruce Park Cabin. Our home in the wilderness

Spruce Park Cabin. Our home in the wilderness

For the residency, my wife and I were brought in by a mule team to one of the ranger cabins that is situated on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.  This river one of the reasons that the Wild and Scenic Rivers act exists. John and Frank Craighead were key conservationist whose tireless work prevented a dam from being build at Spruce Park (where I stayed) on the Middle Fork. 

We stayed in a ranger cabin for the two weeks.  I trapped about 15 mice and one pack rat that were residing in the cabin before I gave up.  We saw deer, black bear, grizzlies, osprey, bald eagles, squirrels, chipmunks, and a lot of ground squirrels.  

During the residency, I hiked, fished, and created art for two weeks.  Usually, when I spend time in Montana I’m either hunting or doing really long distance hikes.  My wife and I hiked over 300 miles over the course of 30 days for our fist long distance hike around Beaverhead County in southwest Montana along the Continental Divide Trail. The following summer, we actually through hiked the Bob Marshall complex from south to north (212 miles) over 12 days. I’m still creating work inspired from that trip!  For this residency, many of the trails in the area had not been cleared for a few years, so hiking them was literally impossible (alder and deadfall).  Because of this, our focus really was on the river itself. The rocks have a distinct multi colored palette to them. There is a lot of red to the rock which juxtaposes the blue/green water.  The water is clear, but with a tint of that glacial blue green.  We also focused on fishing.  Lots and lots of fishing!  For me, the big take away for fishing was my fascination with the mountain whitefish. The clear water allowed me to watch them use their narrow snouts to pluck bugs from between the rocks.  In the late evening they would stack up towards the back end of long pools and feed aggressively on hatching insects (tiny white flies that I used a pale blue wing olive to sort of match. Size 18). It was a feeding frenzy!


 When painting landscapes, the grand…the sublime, is much easier when it comes to subject. If I can get my technique dialed in, I know that a spectacular mountain scene or a cascading river will work. For the residency, I literally could not see all of the peaks that surrounded me.  Glacier was only 6 miles away, but I couldn’t’ see any of the grandiose peaks from the cabin.  The river was incredibly beautiful and I did create some works inspired by the cascades just upstream of the cabin.  Being in one place for two weeks, however, I kept being drawn to the more subtle subjects – the flash of a whitefish as it feeds in the last light of the day – the way the light descends down the ridge in the morning and ascends in the evening – the contour of a single tree on a skyline.  I’m just now starting to piece together some of these ideas into an art form, and it is lending itself to a more introspective, experiemental approach. 

I know that I can paint a fish. I have plenty of work to do to develop my skills in this area, but I know that I can do this well if I work at it. Painting a single tree using only black ink…that I’m not sure I can pull off. And that is why I need to do this for a while.  I keep doing what is safe.  I do what I know and keep doing that.  It is a good way to get really good at something…but it can also be a way to create technically advanced, but ultimately boring art.  That is why I’m pushing myself to try new mediums, techniques, and even philosophical approaches to my artmaking.

 The more traditional fish paintings and landscapes will always be there. I will always be drawn to this type of art.  But I feel that I am still seeking out my unique voice with these subjects.  

 I feel like I’m entering the next phase of my artistic career, in part due to this residency.

Tree study I did in the wilderness.

Tree study I did in the wilderness.

Mark your Calendars - March 2nd - Trout on Tap

I'm very excited to be involved with the next Trout on Tap event here in Minneapolis.  I reached out to some local artists whose work I really like, and it just sort of took off from there.  The artists are:

Josh Desmit

Bob White

Jake Keeler

These guys are some of the best artists in the region and, like me, a large portion of their work focuses on trout.  I thought it would be cool to get all of us together to show our work, and they all agreed!  

The event is going to be March 2nd, 2017 at Indeed Brewing in NE Minneapolis.  We'll be going from about 6 - 10 in the Ox taproom.  It is also First Thursday, so there will be a lot of people (hopefully) out and about looking at art.

After this event, I'll be at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo painting with Bob.  Then I'll take a few breaths, paint like mad and try to be ready for Art-A-Whirl!

I feel like my art is really starting pick up steam and I'm excited for the coming year!

Art-A-Whirl and Commissioned Paintings

"Fish On!, Tarpon"  20" x 16", Acrylic on Canvas

"Fish On!, Tarpon"  20" x 16", Acrylic on Canvas

Springtime is always a crazy time.  In addition to finishing up the school year, I have the biggest art event of the year, Art-a-Whirl. Art-a-Whirl features over 600 artists living and working in NE Minneapolis.  I usually don't plan on selling very much during Art-a-Whirl as it has moved away from a chance for collectors to visit studios and become more of a music and beer festival.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing (I like beer and live music as much as anyone else).  My studio is above Indeed Brewing and they have a great line up of bands each year.  Our studio is always hoppin' with people and we usually sell a few little things here and there.  I sold several stickers and a few small works.  I think I'm learning that I need to have a lot of little artworks that are under $50 for this event.  Or not.  Part of me wants to not worry about sales and just create what I want to create.  It is always a bit of a struggle.

I haven't had a lot of time to prepare smaller works as I'm busy working on several commissions.  As of now, I have five that I'm working on, and many of them are due in June.  This means that once school is done, I'll need to be in my studio most every day.  For now, I just finished up this Tarpon painting (see above) for a client who already owns one of my major works.  It was a lot of fun to paint and certainly much more dynamic than my other fish paintings. I'll probably continue to create more action paintings in the future.

Lots of fish!

I have been in the studio quite a bit this winter and spring.  Most of my time has been painting fish for the Greatwaters Flyfishing Expo that took place in March.  This year I took the plunge and payed for a booth.  This event was put on by Trout Unlimited this year and it was a great opportunity to get my work out there and have it be seen by people who really appreciate trout.  In order to get ready for the event, however, I had to pretty much redo my entire inventory of fish art.  Last summer and fall I had the exhibition in Dillon, MT,  and sold most of my fish related art.  In the last six months, I've completed over 20 new works. 

As I continue to paint more and more fish, my technique is getting more advanced and I'm able to complete higher quality work in a shorter amount of time.  I think the challenge as an artist is to keep pushing myself.  Sometimes this means working on technique.  I want my next growth to be about pushing myself to better capture the soul of my visual experiences.  I think there is a playfulness...or perhaps a wandering...that might be lost when I get too focused on making it look "right".  Don't be surprised to see some looser, more meandering work in the coming months.

Building a body of work.

One of the advantages of showing my work is that I have the opportunity to sell it. Last summer, I had and exhibition at Beaverhead Brewing in Dillon, MT and was fortunate enough to sell 18 of the 36 works I had on display.  Many of the other works are now hanging at Frontier Anglers and Anderson Platt fly shops.  A few pieces came home with me and are going to be added to the collection at my house.  This means that my studio has a very limited collection of work and of that work it is sort of a spattering of works from different collections.

I am now in the process of building a few new bodies of work.  One is the fish portraits using iridescent paints.  I'm also working on a series of fish pattern paintings as I have sold all but a couple of these.  I feel that I'm making some breakthroughs with landscapes so I'm building a new collection on Montana inspired works.  Finally, I have some more contemporary themes that I'm beginning to sketch and plan for.

In other words, even if you don't see much online, I'm hard at work.

New Website

Hey, guess what?!  My website sucks right now!

I'm starting over with a new website.  All of my stuff from my old website has been backed up (hopefully) and I decided to go with squarespace. We'll see how this goes...

I left my last website because it felt clunky and really slow.  My domain host (Justhost) was a joke and had terrible speeds.  Here's hoping that google and squarespace are better hosts!

Ok...this is seriously the most boring blog post ever.  Can I tell you about my allergies?  Or names of childhood pets?  Those topics are the only things that could possibly be more boring.