ROLAND REISS is, first and foremost, a distinguised artist whose work has been widely exhibited and critically since the 1960s. He has also been an important presence in the world of contemporary art for many years as one of its key teachers, a long time faculty member and department chair of the art school at the Claremont Graduate University, which has launched the careers of many of today's significant artists. He was also the moving spirit behind the celebrated summer program, "The Painting's Edge."
Here at "Persist: The Blog" we're truly grateful to Roland for joining us in our continuing pursuit of persistence in the spirit of creativity, for the depth of his knowledge, and for sharing his thoughts on "persistence" with us. I hope he won't mind that I describe him as one of the art world's greatest elder statesmen. He looks back, from retirement, on a long career in art, with the wisdom of one who has persisted despite all obstacles. His responses are worth careful reading and attention. Together, they make up one of the most complete and thoughtful statements on human creativity that I have read.
PERSIST: THE BLOG We are all about persistence, as our title suggests, and we’re asking all kinds of people what it takes to keep persisting, as a creative person, in a culture that is not always welcoming or encouraging. You yourself have been “persisting” as an artist for a good number of years. In your experience, what does it take?
ROLAND REISS: My first thought is that there may be a genetic component to persistence: that one must continue no matter what. My second thought is that some of us have been given the gift of work. The idea, in my case, from my father, that one defines oneself in the process of working and that work itself provides meaning to existence.
Each of us is faced with discouragement. I have known my share of disappointment. During such moments I have found relief and even joy by pouring myself into my work. Belief in oneself is essential. It requires a sense of personal integrity usually based on self-knowledge, self respect and the fragments of support one receives from others in the field. It is important to remember that many extraordinary artists received little or no support in their lifetime and sometimes devastating criticism. Ultimately one must enjoy the process of making art, secure in the knowledge that one is really good at it whether others perceive that or not.
It is important to completely embrace the idea that you are an artist. That it is your way of being in the world. That you are a living medium for society’s expression of what it means to be alive. In order to persist and to avoid a creative block it is important to practice creative openness and flow. Openness means the ability to continually produce and entertain new options, new possibilities. Practicing divergent thinking and pursuing the answer to “what if” by going beyond known limits. Flow means continuous working, staying sensitive to the nuances of your medium and ideas, allowing things to have a life of their own, unfolding before your eyes; and then focus, zeroing in at points and bringing all of your resources to bear on what you are making. Next, bringing it to a very high level, one which takes your breath away and makes you want to return again and again to the moments of excitement and of satisfaction that your effort has brought to you.
When you know once and for all that you are a maker, a maker of things, a maker of form, then you will have no choice. You will realize that it is only in the process of making that you find true fulfillment. The resulting product makes that process manifest and the enjoyment of it available to others. Persistence wanes under fear of failure or mediocrity. Wanting to succeed outside your self, in the eyes of others, at a very high level can become a terrible burden. It is a burden which can crush the creative spirit, replacing joy and confidence with fear, a sense of inadequacy. Fortuity, geography, contacts, publicity and aggressiveness probably have more to do with success today than the actual quality of the work. The desire for professional success can produce a sense of defeatism in the face of career disappointments. Unfortunately, most artists blame their work for not being able to overcome their problems in the social-professional sphere.
Probably the greatest drag against persistence is the constant fear of what others, especially critics, will think about what you have made. The belief is that professional opportunity and success flow from what others think. It is the feeling that one cannot control what others think; they may not like what you have made or what you have to say for a huge variety of reasons. Worse yet, is the relative indifference about what you have done. Those who persist manage to keep “they” out of their heads most of the time. “They” are not the most important people in your art. You are the important one. “They” should not be invited into your studio. If “they” are there, you can ask them to leave. Just keep working, if you finally get tired of what “they” will think, it will be time to trust yourself, to enjoy who you are: an art maker.
Years ago, I came across a definition of art that has served me well: Art is anything that intensifies, clarifies, and extends the nature of human experience. The capacity to produce all three of these elements in the work not only makes it art, it makes for really good or great art. When I was a graduate student, instructors would come up behind us as we were working and intone the question, “What is your statement?” like the voice of God. It took years to learn that this was the wrong question. It should have been, “Who are you and what do you find really interesting in life?”
PTB: As a teacher, you have made a lasting contribution to the lives and work of literally hundreds of studio artists. Aside from the technical skills they need as artists, what have you most wanted them to take away from their experience of working with you?
RR: I have wanted my students to see that the connection between whom they are and the art they make is a natural one. They must understand that art is a special and idiomatic way of producing meaning. Making art and sharing it are two sides of the same coin. I have wanted then to understand that aspiring to great things can only come from the capacity to appreciate great things. If they find in themselves something creative to bring to the table they will have achieved some measure of greatness. I want them to be players in the world of contemporary experience, to appreciate their contemporaries as the best that our society has to offer and for them to create the art that is appropriate to our time. I have wanted them to know that though we have one voice we may want to sing many songs. Art is a lifetime adventure and it may take you many places.
PTB: Looking back at former students who have moved on into lives of recognition and acclaim and others who have had to struggle with less favorable circumstances, do you have any insight as to what qualities contribute to a studio artist’s success?
RR: It is difficult to predict which students will succeed while they are in school. Some are great at being student artists but not as professionals after graduation. Fate can play a hand in success so predictions are not to be trusted. In retrospect and given my interaction with some younger, highly successful artists, I would make the following observations: Likelihood of success is greater if the art is really good. It is possible for an artist to tell if there is a strongly favorable reaction to their work even if it is not good. If it is not so good it absolutely must play into the current critical dialogue of curators and art writers, if it is to succeed. There must be a strong professional commitment on the part of an aspiring artist. The artist must be constantly productive.
Given good work and productiveness, it is essential that artists pursue their career outside of the studio. There is a certain type of artist whose lifestyle and career moves bring them considerable attention. These artists network at the highest professional level. They seek out people who can help provide them with opportunities: art writers and critics, museum directors and curators, important collectors, owners of top line galleries, highly successful artists and artists who are receiving a lot of attention. They are extremely well organized and focus intensively on their work and careers. They usually are financially secure or receive family support. They seldom teach or do so part time. These artists are highly intelligent, mobile and reasonably attractive. They usually score an important gallery early on in their careers along with attention from museums. Most are socially adept and able to advance the cause of their art in the art world.
PTB: Is teaching a good alternative path for those many artists who need to make a living but have little prospect of doing so with sales of their work? In your experience, what are the sacrifices a teaching career requires of an artist? And what are the rewards it offers? How do they balance out against each other?
Aside from the detrimental effect on professional life, teaching art is an exciting and highly rewarding activity, and, in its own way, it can be as satisfying as art making. Sadly, for many artists, its satisfactions can be seen to replace the desire to persist as an artist. I believe that every artist does not make a good art teacher but in order to be a really good art teacher, you have to be an excellent artist, whether successful or not. In a truly active professional career, there is no balance; teaching must be on the lighter, less committed side. If not, you may have a wonderful life as a teacher with a secondary career as an artist.
My own experience has been that sustaining an artist/teacher career requires a great amount of energy and considerable amount of sacrifice, that means less reading, movies, traveling, art openings, social time, sleep and, above all, less time with family. I was unable to take advantage of many career opportunities that came my way. On the other hand I was probably born a teacher. I have the deepest appreciation for my own teachers and I have gratefully carried the torch they gave me. My students have taught me more about the future than I could ever know and they compelled me to stay alive to current art developments and dialogue so that I could support their growth and achievements.
PTB: Now that you have retired from teaching, does full-time commitment to studio work bring any special challenges? Or is it all pure bliss?
RR: Retirement has its double edge. While there is more time to make art, and I believe I am making the best art of my life, with retirement comes age, diminished physical energy, and less endurance. The thrilling part is I know more about art making than ever before and I love art more than ever. I now fully understand that art is my life’s work.