“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This quote by Samuel Beckett captures something very true about failure and how important it is to artists as they develop their unique creative voice.
Before I go on, let me introduce myself. I’m Andrea Bird, co-owner of ‘the hive‘ encaustic school/gallery, with my husband Daniel Beirne. Daniel and I met in the 1980’s at The Ontario College of Art & Design and fell in love with the creative process (and each other). Since then, we’ve been exploring what it means to be artists, rarely full-time, as we also teach and run our small businesses.
The thing that fascinates us is the creative process… it’s an endlessly amazing topic to dive into and we are never bored talking and thinking about it. I’ve learned so much from watching Daniel as he paints, and particularly when the two of us collaborate on a project and work on the same pieces at the same time. Just over two years ago we started a new event in ‘the hive’, called ‘Connect + Create’ (C+C). It is an intentional, invitational monthly open studio for advanced students to gather, talk about their art and process, do their art in community and lean towards their growing edges. Each month we have a new theme. In March, we are talking about ‘failure’. I’ve decided recently to share these, so that the conversation can extend to a larger audience. Please join us here, we want to hear your voice!
Below you’ll find my observations, some questions to ponder and quotes related to the theme. Feel free to take part in whatever way feels right for you. Keep in touch.
Warmly, Andrea + Dan
MARCH 2017 C+C: FAILURE
Now, there’s a fun theme! Even as I thought of it, and knowing that it is crucial to talk about, I could feel a hesitation. Who wants to look at failure too closely? Well, it seems that we do. Because, to talk about the creative process and not acknowledge failure is to ignore the elephant in the room. All of us who embark on a creative journey will, usually right off the bat, come face to face with failure. Failure is inherent in the act of creativity… it is at its very core.
After traversing this territory for over 30 years, I understand that failure is part of every ‘successful’ painting that I’ve ever done. It shows up in the process at least once…and my choice in that moment is to turn away, give up, start over, or continue on. Believe me, I’ve done all of the above! However, as the years go by, I’m more inclined to continue on, seeing that failure is part of – and not separate from – my artistic practice. In fact, at the risk of being glib, I find myself learning more and more from the failures, and sometimes embracing them, by letting the raw, jagged line show through, or accentuating the drip that was unintentional.
The failed paintings, pieces I’d never hang in a gallery, tell a story about dead-end paths, ideas not fully formed, and have gifted me with what I needed to learn before moving on. Often, if I’m becoming too complacent or formulaic in my art, pieces will begin to feel flat, uninspired and tired. There is little excitement or energy during the process when this happens. Failure teaches us what we need to learn (our growing edge). I borrowed this term from a wise friend, and like this definition by Mary Anne Flanagan: “Growing edges are the places in our life we really want to be and live our life from, but are too scared to go there. We can stay away from our growing edge because we fear failure (or even fear success). Going to our growing edge means breaking through our fears of what holds us back.” Sometimes I will hang these failures up in my studio, to flush out the learning and carry it forward into the next piece. This learning will inspire me to take more risks, try something new, shake up my practice, and look at my process with fresh eyes. Sometimes these become grounds for pieces that soar, this is my process. I do not refer to failure as ‘my’ failure, but rather as ‘the’ failure, this has been a helpful shift of perspective.
Failure can also show up when we put our work our into the world, which is why it’s so important to be ready for this step. Is a show a failure if it’s not financially successful? To answer that, let’s look at how we define success. Is it someone being moved to tears by a piece, or is it about sales and connections? All of the above? There is so much here to talk about… but at the end of the day, our relationship with failure will affect how we make art, how vulnerable we are willing to be, and how much we will welcome the learning that failure offers.
To paraphrase Mary Anne (above), failure can help us to break through our fears, and it is up to us how far we push into our ‘growing edge’. Our art is always a few steps ahead of us, beckoning us forward, into new territory. This is a juicy, lively and exciting place to be. We can be companions on this journey, walking beside each other and sharing our fears, failures and successes. Join the conversation!
Some questions to ponder:
- how do you define failure?
- how do you define success?
- what do you notice (going on inside of you) when a painting fails?
- have you ever turned failure around, either in your art or your life?
- what advice would you give to a young artist (about failure)?
- would this same advice be helpful for you now… wherever you are on your artistic journey?
- how do we continue in the face of failure?
“Success consits of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” J.K. Rowling
“You must expect failure after failure after failure before you succeed.” Edwin Land
“It is not failure itself that holds you back; it is the fear of failure that paralyzes you.” Brian Tracy
“Failure is built into creativity… the creative act involves this element of ‘newness’ and ‘experimentalism’, then one must expect and accept the possibility of failure.” Saul Bass
“An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” Edwin Land
“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” Brene Brown
“There are no mistakes, save one: the failure to learn from a mistake.” Robert Fripp
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.” Anon.