Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Thick Skin Is a Gift From God

Exposed and Scrutinized
Everybody has to kowtow sometime to somebody else’s opinion, schedule, expectation, or structure. As much as we’d like to, we don’t operate in the vacuum of noninfluence and nonjudgment. Parents have to prepare meals that are nutritious and that taste good to their kids. Students have to turn in work that meets with instructor preference. Employees have to perform their jobs on employer schedules. Businesses have to offer products and services that customers want. Our choices and decisions are exposed and scrutinized.

Back in my days as a corporate executive, I remember listening to my colleagues complain about this boss or that committee questioning the decisions they made or how they did their work. “If only so-and-so would get out of my way and let me do my job. That’s what they’re paying me for!” I also remember thinking, “What I’d give to only have two or three people scrutinizing my work.” When you’re an accountant or a loan officer, you’ve got your boss and maybe a small committee reviewing your work. When you’re responsible for the organization’s marketing and communications, everything you do is dissected by thousands. Certainly your boss has an opinion, but then so do the company’s (in my case) 850 employees, 200,000 customers, and the community at large.

I remember one woman calling me to complain about a campaign we were running. Three of our branch managers—Tom Neve, Dick Ragain, and Harry Polland—were being featured in an advertisement that touted the bank as having products for “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” The woman told me the ad was sexist and that I should have included a woman. I gave her my standard speech about appreciating feedback and that our best customers are the ones who let us know when our service isn’t up to par. How else can we improve? Of course, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking we don’t have any women branch managers named Tom, Dick, or Harry, but apparently that was beside the point. Then I asked her what branch she banked with to which she replied, “Oh, I’m not a customer. I just thought you’d like to know.”

Artists Are Courageous
You have to have skin to keep your insides in…and the thicker the better when you’re the marketing and communications director. If you’re easily offended or continually affected by the opinions of other people, you’ll never be able to develop advertising that meets the strategic needs of the organization. Identifying an audience and creating a message that not only speaks to that audience but results in action (buying product, changing perception) is the basis for successful marketing. Not winning awards, not pleasing the CEO’s spouse, and not having all your friends tell you how much they like your work.

Imagine then how much courage an artist must have to continually put his or her work out there for public critique. Artists may create art “for art’s sake” or to express political issues, work out mental shortcomings, or discover the meaning of life. But whatever the purpose, all art is soul-baringly personal to the artist. We create in gouache and blood. To adapt a quote from sportswriter Red Smith: There’s nothing to art. All you do is sit down to a blank canvas and open a vein.

I suspect that having your art disparaged is a little like someone telling you that your children are stupid and untalented—maybe even worse because you can always blame substandard children on the other parent. A thin-skinned artist who can’t handle exposure, scrutiny, and bad reviews won’t be an artist for very long.

Cuesta College Student Art Exhibition
Every year, Cuesta holds a juried student art exhibition. The school invites a juror, usually an artist or gallery curator, to review submitted artwork, determine what gets in and what doesn’t, and select winners. Students may submit as many pieces as they’d like for a nominal fee ($5 each), which is used for cash prizes. Artist and Cal Poly instructor Michael Barton Miller ( served as the exhibition’s 2010 juror.

All my instructors encouraged students to submit entries, but cautioned that jurors accept work according to their own objectives and taste. Qualified pieces are often rejected because they don’t fit into some larger theme.

We had an excellent response from students this year with hundreds of pieces submitted and approximately 50 accepted. I submitted two charcoals and four paintings; one of my charcoals was accepted and none of my paintings. I am disappointed that Window of Opportunity didn’t make the cut, but my painting instructor assures me that there’s nothing wrong with my paintings and that I shouldn’t be discouraged. I attended on Friday Michael Miller’s lecture about his own work. The presentation was thoroughly enjoyable and did, in fact, reinforce that artists, too, have their own points of view and taste.

The exhibition runs from April 29 through May 17, so make sure you stop by and check it out if you can. The Cuesta College Art Gallery is located on the San Luis Obispo campus in Building 7100. Here’s my piece that made it into the show:

The Visit, 2-Piece Charcoal on Paper, 30" x 44" (2010)


  1. Have to look up the word "gouache"...that one isn't in my internal dictionary!
    That said - I do think that in some ways art is similar to modeling - where the "person" is the canvas...and just think how terrible were one's body to be demeaned by mean-spirited people! Good and thought-provolking blog...

  2. I looked up Art Critique on the internet. Wow, it's a study all in itself. The history, origins, technique....... Opinion is always good when it gives you deeper perspective or points something out that may be staring one in the face. It's always helpful to know "what's in it for them" when they are giving the "you-oughta's". For me, I like "The Visit" because it struck a personal memory and gave me pause to ponder. I'm pleased it qualified the "larger theme".
    I certainly have learned you can't please every Tom, Dick and Harry......or Harriett for that matter!

  3. When looking at "The Visit", it brought back memories of times, long past, when depressed and feeling lost.

  4. What I find so interesting about blogs, beside the blogs themselves, are often the diverse commments and what specific portions of the blog speak to each reader. I don't know if I actually read anymore, but am on auto-scan which has it's advantages, but often the disadvantage of missing detail.
    Leslie, I read the new blog post, read the comments and then had to go back and reread the blog as I had obviously missed a addition to the entire point of the blog.
    It is so true that we view the world as what is appealing, interesting or of significance to each of us as individuals - thus one's art is probably always unfairly critiqued because how many other people view things as you do? I suppose in the end, you can hope to make someone else see something a little "more" or "different" from their usual realm with your art. Obviously, I need lots of art exposure - read on:
    I got stuck on skin - and away my brain went to: "skin is the largest organ of the body, it is good to have tough skin mentally but also physically as cellular break down from free radicals and sun damage is so common any more and skin is much more complex than people often think and very difficult if not impossible to truly replace, once cells are damaged they typically replicate to make more damaged cells and it truly isn't age that makes our skins look bad but the fact that the cells are no longer reproducing as they once were and blah, blah biology stuff..." Oh yeah, ART - we are talking about ART!
    I have given up on writing my own blog. I will do comment blogs on your blog - until you block me so I don't drive your followers nuts.
    Can these two people really be sisters?

  5. I also wonder if when selecting art for an exhibition if it comes down to "we have enough acrylic works or landscapes and need more charcoal...". That's how a scientist-type (as well as many other "types" I'm sure) would make selections and categorize everything. I hope that doesn't carry over to artists selecting artwork as each piece should be viewed as a stand-alone and not to "round out" the exhibit. I do like the charcoal and it makes one think about how I interpret the scene by placing myself where you are. But I just love looking at "Window of Opportunity" and "Javier the Tree Frog". Both just make me happy and I often like that more than thinking. That's my B side talking!

  6. Lots to comment on! Related to Suzanne's first comments, I am also amazed at which blog posts elicit the most comments--this must have been a good one...

    Carol, gouache (pronounced GWASH, or as my friend Tom who is from Bakersfield would say, GWARSH) is a type of paint--but doesn't it sound more interesting than just "paint"?

    As you point out, Mike, art critique is a real thing and not just opinion or taste. When we critique each other's work in class, we follow a standard formula: FORM + CONTEXT = CONTENT. We first describe the FORM (how an artist treats the subject matter with composition, elements of design) and then the CONTEXT (when the piece was made, its title, any significant historical influences or references, how and why the artist created it) to come up with the CONTENT (the emotional or intellectual message of the piece, the aesthetic value, and the sensory, subjective, psychological, and emotional properties we feel in the art work). Some of these things can be subjective, of course, but they are at least treated in a standard way.

    John, I'm so glad you added how the "The Visit" made you feel. Good art (which is not the same as "art I would like to hang in my living room") should always elicit some kind of intellectual or emotional response. And when different people see or feel different things from the same work, I am reminded of this quote: We do not see the world as it is, but as we are.

    Suzanne, of course people can tell we're sisters! You'd be surprised how much I think like you and you like me. I wasn't really considering dermal and epidermal layers when I mentioned thick skin (you tend to be more literal and hands on; I more metaphorical and theoretical), but I do believe I was taking a somewhat analytical and pragmatic approach to the topic--qualities we both share. And interestingly, art shows are juried in categories. So, you are correct in presuming that having a certain number of paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc. is a sound method of evaluation.

  7. Good art is not NECESSARILY the same as "art I would like to hang in my living room"...

  8. Thank you all for the rich commentary and discussion. If this experience turns out to be interesting enough to produce a book, these side conversations will prove invaluable in fleshing out what's really pivotal and engaging. And yes, of course, you will all end up in the author's acknowledgements!

  9. Before I read the title; I wondered if he was leaving or arriving, but she is dressed for travel-
    Sitting in the abandoned farmhouse, waiting for him, she fell asleep on the old table. He arrived late, but he did arrive. Now they will leave, head south for a while, into the next state. Lose the car, buy another for cash with their new identities and head east and north. With any luck, they will obscure their trail and lose their pursuers.
    Then I read the title.
    Still really like it.

  10. Thanks, GW--I like your narrative! What would be a good title to go with it? The original project was to draw ourselves sleeping and then in a second panel draw something we're araid of. Students drew snakes, werewolves, or the grim reaper; another drew himself very, very old. I found this a difficult assignment because I'm not a particularly fearful person. I ended up drawing someone closing a door as symbolism for "no hope." The instructor thought it looked like a stranger invading the privacy and peacefulness of sleep and suggested "The Visit." Eh.

  11. Oh, it wasn’t your title. That’s different.
    A title’s a tough one, I didn’t think that far ahead. ‘Escape’ doesn’t jibe with the drawing, nor would ‘Rescue’, since they are rescuing each other. It has to be dark with light, foreboding. Sorry, sometimes the Muse is silent.
    ‘And another door opens.’