A Generosity of Spirit

Wayfinder–In and Through (30), by Matthew Burrows. Ink on homemade paper

This year of isolation and social distanced living—with more still to come—has brought so much discussion about the meaning of community and belonging. This difficult year has felt so personal, like watching the upholstery of your favorite chair ripped open to expose the armature inside.  And for many of us, what we found was a surprise.

It was for me.

Like many visual artist friends, I was trained to approach my art practice as a soloist. I have been telling younger artists for years that they will need grit and fierce independence to survive–and thrive–during the many hours spent in the studio alone. “You have to be good on your own and you have to wear all the hats,” I would remind them. “You have to do everything yourself, from fixing the plumbing to making the paintings, from doing the accounting as well as the marketing.”

And visual artists do have a history of being the least communitarian in practicing their artistic métier. My writer friends spend long hours laboring alone, but every one of them is in a writer’s group that meets regularly. Musicians, dancers and actors conduct much of their creative work in ensembles. Even poets do more sharing among their poet peers than visual artists. The archetype of the visual artist as lone wolf has been ongoing for a reason. And up until now, that did not seem like a problem to me.

But now my mantra has changed.

Two people have caused me to shift my view. One is Peter Hopkins, founder of SHIM Art Network. In creating this innovative network of networks, Peter’s intention was to help visual artists take control of their own careers. But instead of taking the lone wolf approach, Peter believes this happens best when you are part of a group. In Peter’s words, “Every artist needs a guild.”

And I believe he is right.

Working closely with the leading art platform, Artsy, artists in SHIM groups have access to both digital and in person exhibition opportunities. They use this network of networks to broaden exposure of their work, find other artists with whom they are aligned, and identify new ways to exhibit and share their work internationally.

Pell Lucy is part of the SHIM network. The main reason I started this artist collective was because I believe the old ways of merchandising art are not working. I wanted to explore new approaches, digital and otherwise, in the company of friends.

Certainly there are many ways for an artist to tap into collective support. This is just one.

What is clear is that after just six months, my outlook on how to make, share and function as an artist has shifted. A large part of that comes from seeing how valuable a collective group of artists can be for so many aspects of my art making life.

But there is another aspect to this experience that goes beyond these practical, career-oriented concerns. And that something has to do with a generosity of spirit.

That is a phrase used by Matthew Burrows, the UK artist who started the Instagram phenomenon, Artist Support Pledge. (For more about Burrows and ASP, read my earlier essay.) What is often overlooked in the success of ASP is that Burrows spent 12 years prior to 2020 doing peer-based development programs for artists. As devoted as he is to his studio practice, Burrows has exemplified a generosity of spirit towards artists in his community for a long time.

Burrows articulates his point of view well:

What I’m suggesting, in a way, is that the great challenge, and what’s really exciting for me as an artist, is: how do we find a way, with the tools we now have at our disposal, to connect again? I asked that question of myself when I came up with #ArtistSupportPledge. That is what it’s based on: how do you quickly create connectivity in a way that matters, and which has a cultural identity that isn’t just an economic system but drives itself through its ethics? Embodied in that set of relationships are all our values. So, in a way, putting one colour next to another colour is a moral act. It’s not just beautiful visual aesthetics. Those aesthetics tell us something about what we think and feel as human beings, and that, in turn, tells us how we respond to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. For me, it’s all interconnected.

In another exchange, he describes the art world with a point of view that resonates with me:

Last year the art industry was worth 10 billion in the UK alone, but the average artist earns less than £10k per annum. I don’t think the old system shared its wealth well. It’s going to be challenging as we move forward, but those with the most imagination and agility will thrive and create new opportunities. I try not to think, will it be good or bad, but rather, what needs to be done and how do I do it. Purpose matters more than judgement. Do something that matters to you and get good at it.

Those are words I am coming to increasingly understand: What needs to be done and how to do it. Purpose matters more than judgment. Do something that matters to you. Pell Lucy and its artists have given me a rich and valuable lesson in understanding those ideas.

The old adage comes to mind: As soon as we understand something, we think the rest of the world does too. In this case I have been slow to figure out what many of you have known for some time, that operating from a collective position has a whole different set of options that cannot be pursued if you are on your own. As this year comes to its calendrical end, I want to say how grateful I am that I have finally figured this out.

10 Replies to “A Generosity of Spirit”

  1. “Every artist needs a guild.” That’s sounds like a wise observation. And maybe be true for more than just the Arts. I enjoyed reading this. Thank-you,

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Josie. It is a big idea.

  2. Wow Deborah,
    Such a timely piece. Thank you– a lot of what you said here resonated with my own journey from isolated artist into supported and inter-connected art maker. And so many of these networks and deeper artistic friendships have been nurtured over the past year during the pandemic. May we all continue to learn and grow.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I so appreciate your aligned experience. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Deborah, You remind us all about the importance of building community in having created Pell Lucy, and by sharing what other artists have done in the spirit of generosity. While the experience of making is largely one of deliberate isolation for many of us, our lives as artists are much richer when we reach out to one another. Thank you, and best wishes for a luminous 2021.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Tamar, I know this is one of the those concepts that I can say I understand but each year I will be digging into deeper and deeper. I am grateful for what I’ve learned so far about this, and I also want to stay with it and get closer to its profound essence.

      Thank you for your warm message, for your exquisite art that I am so moved by, and for who you are in the world.

  4. A post to re-read and share and save. Warmest wishes for you as the New Year nears.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you!

  5. Deborah, A little late to the party, but I so admire this piece. As part of Shim’s Spliced Connector group, I appreciate your work and Karen Fitzgerald’s: here’s the world, do you want to come in? The lift has been inspiring for me: like visiting studios of good friends. My first individual studio was in New Rochelle: ten of us given free rent for 3 months. All disciplines: papermaker, sculptors, painters, potters, photographers. We learned from each other and wanted nothing more than being anointed by a Soho gallery. I recall one instance when Jack Tilton said he never visited studios past 14th St. Not exactly an eye-opener at the time, but nonetheless a fact of life in the artworld. My salvation was in alternative spaces, such as 55 Mercer, college galleries, and open calls. After 10 years the building changed hands and we all went our separate ways. I knew it was the end of something important. For me, being part of this generous guild of artmakers renews this sense of place with purpose. May we all continue to thrive in work and friendship!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for this message Ann. For some reason it did not post so I am glad it has been found and shared going forward. I love these stories!

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