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Mentors (the importance of)

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Many artists I've met proudly proclaim that they are "self-taught" and for many years, I often said that myself because I didn't learn pastel from a specific person. However, I've had many mentors, without whom, I would not be where I am today.

When you are "self-taught" you miss out on the opportunity to enter into a mentorship with another artist. This mentorship, could save you years of trial and error. It's like having an interpreter, you may understand the gist of what someone speaking another language is saying, but you miss the nuances without interpretation.

Centuries ago, all artists learned from other artists in a master/apprentice relationship. Usually the master artist was paid for classes until the person became an apprentice and helped out in the studio as an assistant.

I had the "pleasure" of being a studio assistant for many years to a diverse group of artists (none of whom you probably recognize), when I lived in the East Village of NYC. What was helpful about it is that each artist taught me something different about art, and making a living as an artist. None were especially helpful (one woman's advice to me was; "doesn't matter who you marry, it matters who you divorce!") but all contributed something to my career.

I was in my twenties then, and hungered for someone to take me under their wing and really mentor me. I didn't find what I was looking for, so I decided to create it. I reached out to artists I especially admired like Yoko Ono, Sherry Levine, and others, and asked them if they could use a studio assistant in exchange for mentorship. I found Nancy Spero and Leon Golub.

Nancy was a feminist artist in the 70's and 80's that was known for her prints and text, Leon was a social realist best known for his graphic depictions of torture and war-like Picasso's "Guernica." When I met with them, we had long conversations on using art as a tool for social change. Nancy had me be a keynote speaker for her at Smith College. Leon would encourage me to mix politics into my paint. Both made an indelible stamp on me.

Later, at Wallkill River School, I tried to set up mentorship programs, to institutionalize them. We had more experienced artists who were given an incentive to mentor "emerging artists" which worked well for a while. But the emerging artists didn't know what questions to ask the established artists often didn't want to reach out and bring this person into their fold.

Undaunted, we tried with younger artists, offering teens a place to hang out and be with professional artists in exchange for assisting in children's programs. During summer months our kitchen at Wallkill River School would fill with young artists creating community and friendships. It was awe-inspiring for me. Many of them are successful today and sometimes contact me with updates. I'm grateful for these young people as they make life worthwhile.

I'm pretty sure that I have done everything in my life and career the hard way. I would love it if somehow my experience helped another avoid some of the pitfalls that I have found. The biggest one being my own thoughts that block me from success. Something I often stress to artists in my classes who are too hard on themselves. (You know who you are!)

Now that I am a more established artist (not yet at my full potential) I have broadened the pool of mentors. I reach out to other artists and ask them for advice and opinions. I am always open to learning and listen deeply to what they say. I literally will go to their websites and email them for advice (less intrusive than a phone call).

I am also in the position of being a mentor. There are many people who take classes with me and ask me for advice on their paintings, or careers. When this happens, I feel so deeply honored that they reached out to me. I know that it takes courage to ask for help. You have to be vulnerable, and your work is very precious to you. I respect that.

It is a great compliment to me when someone sends me a jpg and asks for feedback on a painting. As I go through my career and become better established and known, I hope to be able to help and be of service as much as possible to other artists.

It's a sacred honor to be trusted with another's creative efforts, and a duty to pass it on as it was freely given to me. I thank the people who have helped me shape my philosophy and work over the years, by passing on what they gave me to anyone else who is interested.

If you consider yourself self-taught, I respect that. Consider also that making yourself teachable, and reaching out for help to an artist who has done what you are hoping to do, or accomplished a level of artistry that you aspire to, may save you years of trial and error. If this is the only bit of wisdom you can take away from my experience, consider it a precious pearl. This one pearl cost me 10 years of my career to earn the hard way - I'm Irish and therefore very stubborn!

A pearl that my current mentor gave to me today is "Don't judge yourself, be yourself!"

Go be you.

Watercolor of our plein air class by artist Sherry Hart

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Thanks for this thoughtfully written blog. I have also had many mentors in my life. They all helped shape who Iam today. Sometimes, just through observing others we pick up helpful tips along the way. I also have experienced being a mentor to others, and as they grow, I also have experienced growth. I believe teaching someone is the highest form of learning for one’s self.


I do believe in destiny Shawn and if it weren’t for all those difficult periods in your life and learning the hard way, you wouldn’t be who you are today, so genuine and unique! Rest assure that these years were not in vain…there is always a reason in the universe’s master plan! Although we live far apart, I’ll always be grateful to have crossed your path and am so honoured to get to know you, through little tidbits at a time! You are certainly the ideal mentor for me because of your kindness, informative critiques and you have more faith in me than I do in myself! Thank you for being YOU! Ali 💜

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