Today I woke up with a craving to see some artwork. After searching around for possible spots to visit on the internet, a family friend send me a suggestion about this small gallery in Sugar Hill, Harlem called Essie Green. Even though it was a bit of a trek from my neighborhood in Queens, I was eager for adventure and a change of scenery and hopped the train into uptown Manhattan.
The gallery is nestled inside a beautiful brownstown on Convent Avenue and I happened to get there when the gallery administrator was arriving with an armful of paintings. The space was intimate and friendly and I found myself in face to face with originals by the likes of Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden and Henry Ossawa Tanner.
In addition to the incredible collection of artwork by the Black Masters, I think one of the greatest assets of the gallery is the owner and the staff. Just as I was getting ready to head out, I got a chance to meet the owner Sherman Edmiston, who's late wife bears the name of the space. At first I was just expected a brief exchange but he insisted I sit down and talk with him to ask me about my background and my art practice. In that quiet and patient conversation with him, I got my an unexpected art education.
After looking at my work on Instagram, Mr. Edmiston asked me what it is that I wanted to do and asked if I considered going to art school. To be honest, I hadn't given it much thought (assuming he was talking about a degree program) and told him how the thought of returning to school and paying for another degree just didn't make me want to consider it. That's when he pointed out that I shouldn't think about it as having to go back to school but rather what I could gain from going to a program. I think my cynicism about higher education programs kept me from seeing it as an opportunity to gain guidance and as a chance of developing one's voice. I had taken a few art classes at the Art Students league (before that, it had been through some community college classes in Michigan) and witnessed teachers delivering blistering and withering critiques of students works, some of them seeming more personal than constructive. A lot of it reminded me of law school, which wasn't one of my happier personal experiences and wouldn't be eager to repeat. But just like law school, apparently having that degree will determine how well you will do in the art world. According to Mr. Edmiston, having that Yale MFA (or from another prestigious program) is a big factor as to whether you'll get the big art sales and shows at the museums. I've heard this before but it was still disappointing because I can't help but think of this as a form of elitism. While he agreed with me that these programs allow you to buy your way into a "special club", it's also an opportunity to get exposure to a good art program and guidance from a mentor that can draw out the uniqueness one brings to their work.
He also went on to say that being "self taught" is a real art-career killer.
But at the end of the day, it's about how you define success. As he also said, it's about what success looks for you and what you want out of your life as an artist.
What stayed with me from our talk was how he described his time with Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, both of whom he knew personally. He described how they had these intense hunger, obsession with their work. When it came down to pursuing this obsession, nothing else mattered. He told me how both of them it wasn't until they got to the end of their lives that they felt like they were "getting it".He couldn't describe what it was but it just seem like everything was just coming together at this stage of their lives. There was never a fear of getting bored or burnt out.
So what started out as being a simple excursion to a small gallery ended up being an unexpected education.Talking with Mr. Edmiston left me a lot to think about, especially when it comes to my motivations behind why I make this work. I don't see my lack of a formal art degree as a disadvantage or a setback. I've had more opportunities that I could have expected that have included solo shows at galleries and universities or showing my work at the Schomburg Center. I may never sell work for six figures but I don't let that define me.
I do this work because it sustains me and has done so since I first picked up a pencil and crayons as a little girl. I do this work because I'm curious about the world and people and I have something to say. The mediums in which I work may shift but the desire to create is always there. I define my success by my continuing passion to create and how what I do is enough to move people. I may never sell my work for six figures or mingle with art-elite and that's okay.
I'm grateful to Mr. Edmiston for his kindness and patience and for the lesson.