David Stevens Artist
Treewind Studio


Years ago I was asked by a student if I could teach him to draw a tree. “Of course,” I replied “What kind of tree do you want to draw? What do you want to draw on? What do you want to draw with? What do you want to say about the tree? Do you want to capture an exact likeness or is the tree a metaphor for something?”. “I just want to draw a tree!” he replied.

This interaction reinforced for me that art has room for many different responses. It can be to capture nature in its beauty and intricacy or the imagination and message of the artist can be the priority. Realism, abstraction, contemporary art, conceptual art, modern art, post-modern art, cultural art, art that challenges society…. There is no one way to create art, nor should there be. If there were we would be going backwards in time.

However, there should be truth. Art should be true to the artist and what he/she has to say.

“Flowing Together” is the title for this exhibition. My work reflects this in the flow of ideas and styles. I have been following a path that starts with chaos and ends with form and order. The backgrounds have become more distressed and random but out of that chaos I have sought to bring something that speaks to my experiences.

The flying figure is myself diving as a teenager. The pigeon refers to one that I raised and who gave me companionship at a time when I was alone. The arbutus trees are resident to the West Coast and are continually seeking light. Even the acrylic on paper images started quite randomly and the order came from a response to the shapes, colours, spaces etc. that the works provided.

Bob Steele, a former art prof at UBC, talked about “Authentic Personal Imagery” from which I have extrapolated my desire for truth in the work. Truth challenges artists to be more than copiers or representatives for commercial success. It calls them to be creators, to be original, to be risk takers and to produce something that costs them something. Earlier in my career one of the worst times was when I visited someone else’s show. I found myself trying to fit my work into their style because they had obviously succeeded in the art world. I lost sight of my own truth. Truth found me when I got out of the way.

Even posing this question relates more to European and North American cultures because there are cultures that do not have the same issues and views of artists and art as we do. For them it is much more natural in their daily lives and the distinction between artists and others is not relevant.

If we create for ourselves then questions of authenticity and creativity have only one standard of measure for success. The artist.

I like to believe that setting our own goals and standards is the ideal, but we can deceive ourselves and settle into personal comfort zones. It is also difficult to generate new ideas and visions without external input. None of us work in a vacuum and we need to be aware of the influences on our work and ideas. Reality is that people can speak encouragement or challenge into our lives and our work.

An artist might be convinced that what they are doing is worthwhile for them to commit their time and energy to it, but it takes a dedicated person to ignore public opinion and press on against the flow. Art history has many of those that it recognizes, but what of the ones who pressed on and never were recognized? Is their work still “successful”?

If we create for an audience then we open ourselves to a wider range of measurements for success in terms of our authenticity and creativity. The audience may vary according to what the artist values. It might be a group of individuals who critique and encourage. It might be the “gatekeepers” of the commercial side of the art world, such as gallery owners, curators etc. It might be the public who recognizes success by purchasing something by an artist.

The main problem with an external measure is that we lose ourselves in trying to please someone else. We join a popular swell that will crest and then be replaced by another swell. As there is always change happening and people who determine the next “great” thing, an artist will eventually get left behind. (I know there are some established artists who seem to rise above the trends and remain relevant throughout their lives, but there are others who appear and disappear after their moment in history.)

Another issue is the “gatekeepers of art” (People who work for museums, galleries, Biennials, art magazines, as art critics etc.) Their influence can elevate an artist’s career or dismiss it. Historically there has been much said about why our art museums are full of the work of dead, white males. Currently museums and galleries have different pressures on them that force them to make decisions about who is recognized and who isn’t. Some alive, white males now feel ignored, because the criterion has changed.

Financial success is another determinant of who to recognize and who not to in their gallery. Quality of work, originality, authenticity etc. may all be present but if the “gatekeeper” believes the work won’t sell they won’t commit the space and time to that artists work.

Some artists have steered much more into the business side of art finding a market and buyers through commercial galleries and other methods of selling. For them supporting themselves and their family through their sales is success, but they may not receive recognition as influential artists in their time. Occasionally, too, they want to move on but hear “Your beach paintings sell really well. Do more of them!”

As someone who has walked around the edges of these different avenues of artistic creation for a number of years I believe that we tend to fluctuate between creating for ourselves and for an audience. Recognition in the art world can come from either an intrinsic or extrinsic base, but longevity in the art world is based not just on what we create but how we are “marketed”. Marketing may be very businesslike with art presented as a commodity or the “gatekeepers” may keep someone in the public eye by recognizing their art or themselves in different ways.

To be fully intrinsically motivated requires financial freedom, financial support or the willingness live without.

To be fully extrinsically motivated means our own individuality and creativity are at risk of being lost and of a loss of relevance as a creative person.

The middle ground sees an artist creating their work for their reasons but with feedback and interaction with their audience or the gatekeepers.

Can we, from the outside looking in, determine what motivates a creative person? Perhaps not, but here are three examples from the last century and a bit who can be recognized for “success” at some level.

Vincent Van Gogh is probably one of the most interesting in that he took hold of a new emphasis in painting (his earlier paintings reflect the older influences and his later ones showed the new focus). He was convinced that colour and expression were the priorities in creating and he forged ahead producing work that was rejected by almost everyone. He had no success in a monetary sense and relied on his brother to live. He was intrinsically motivated and despite his own inner battles he produced a body of work that now captivates people. The “gatekeepers” label him as an important individual to collect and to study, which has lead to his works selling for huge sums of money. By all measures he is a success, but only after the fact. In his life he knew pain and was forced to live on the generosity of others, and he lived in turmoil and doubt about his own worth and value as an artist and a human being.

Jackson Pollock was an artist whose works opened doors to another approach to art. His emphasis on the flatness of the surface and the evidence of the act of painting challenged many people, but he was working at an exciting time and place in art history. There were certain “gatekeepers” who took on the roles of sponsors and social critics and who applied their support to his work. Public recognition came to Jackson through exposure and labeling that placed him as an influential artist for his time. His work sold and his audience grew. The average person did not understand why but the experts extolled his value to the art world. By many standards Jackson Pollock was a success but even the “gatekeepers” who had elevated him saw the demise of his message and were ready to move on. His untimely death ended the speculation as to whether he would have remained relevant and successful for years afterwards.

Thomas Kinkade was a painter of light in the later half of the 20th century. He was America’s most collected artist and he was franchised through galleries all over the US. It is estimated that he was worth $89.7 million and earned $7.7 million per year at the time of his death. His style was easily recognizable and tugged at the heartstrings for many who saw it. He painted in a somewhat Impressionistic style and his subjects had an appeal based on idealization of home and the world. His work will probably never be shown in a major museum nor be considered important to the development of art, but it appealed to people who bought his prints to provide a visual for what they hoped life could be.

Vincent Van Gogh was driven by an intrinsic motivation. He passionately clung to it despite a lack of extrinsic encouragement.

Jackson Pollock was motivated intrinsically but who also enjoyed extrinsic recognition. Would it have continued for him? We don’t know, but he valued the status and recognition while it came.

Thomas Kinkade had extrinsic motivation in the form of monetary recognition and an audience that was happy to support him, but his appeal was limited. Was his intrinsic motivation subject to the extrinsic?

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