Sharing lessons learned with emerging artists

I lead an incubation group to nurture and encourage emerging
artists, especially metalsmiths. I’d be very interested in hearing
from the folks on Orchid about:

things you wish you had known when you were starting out; how you
found people to support and nurture you on your journey; what or who
made the largest impact on where you are today; where you find
inspiration and what you do to seek it; and how you preserve and
nurture your creativity;

plus anything else you think a “young” (not necessarily in age)
artist should know.

I’m looking forward to your responses!
Emie Stewart

Things you wish you had known when you were starting out 

Buy higher quality tools and fewer specialized/gadget tools. I
thought my low skills would be fine with low quality tools. In fact,
low skills need all the help they can get. As my skill levels
improved, I was very quickly disappointed in my tools and had to
purchase better tools. Money wasted.

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Hi, Emie, one of the things that I found most helpful when I started
out was to go thru all the art jewelry magazines and then tear out
any jewelry pieces that I was drawn to regardless of whether or not I
was skilled enough to make anything like them. I still keep files
like this for inspiration only; never to copy. The goal was to help
define my own style by having visuals of what jewelry most pleased
me. This is called, of course, using reference. I learned this
technique as a surface designer…the idea is to look at the
reference materials and then break down what you do or don’t like
about them to help crystallize your own style.

I also keep a file called, “Shapes”, originally started for doing
paintings but I’ve often referred to it for new jewelry pieces as
well. Over the years, I’ve been amazed at how helpful a running
background study on shapes has been. Many appealing shapes from the
curve of a lamp base to a fence pattern have been turned into my wire
jewelry. Hope this helps.

Lisa Van Herik

I wish I had know when to say “No.”

It takes 5 years just to learn, not master, the basics.

Learn the basics of how to make and manage money and how to make a
good business model.

If you are really any good you won’t need to write and survive on

Have fun and make lots of jewelry.
Jo Haemer

Hi there, Good to hear there is a mentor like you out there. Wish
I’d known: 75% of my college instructors were failed artists taking
refuge inteaching jobs because they couldn’t make a living out there
on their poor skills BUT luckily the remaining 25% made up for what
the others lacked… it took years to undo the bad habits I learned
from the duds! Mentors: seemed to just fall into my lap, I wished
for one, and one would appear… also I kept in touch with my
classmates and tried to learn from their mistakes!

i.e., don’t take in repairs unless you know exactly what you are
getting into!Inspiration: drawn from nature in all her glory, when I
need it, I walk out my backdoor and go for a tramp through the
forest or to the seaside, when I am really stuck I force myself to
draw, draw, and draw some more until something starts working

Nurturing creativity: I look at new artists for this! And attend
shows and galleries, look at books and magazines, take things apart
to see how they I am a full time designer, formerly custom
goldsmith, now making more money with less hassle because some kind
instructor told me to draw something EVERYDAY. It kept up my skills
to the point where I now do this for a living…

Good luck!

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I started my journey at the Revere Academy nearly 10 years ago and
learned from all of the instructors there to invest in good quality
tools, as well as how to set up a studio to work efficiently. They
also tried to teach me that there is no shortcut to getting good at
goldsmithing, but I didn’t listen.

If I hadn’t been so naive in the beginning, I would not have taken
all of the courses at Revere at once. I would have taken one course
of fabrication, or stone setting, or wax carving, every few months
so I could practice what I learned and feel somewhat confident in
that skill before I learned something else. I have copious notes,
but it’s not the same as when it’s fresh from the teacher’s mouth.

Marlene Richey taught me how to present myself as a professional,
about running a business, and the inner workings of the wholesale
trade. She also taught me that even master goldsmiths have days of
self-doubt, that it is a myth that the work comes easily for them
just because they look successful to the rest of us, and that even
the most successful have sleepless nights before a show because they
are worried about the reception of their new work. That made me feel
much better before my first show.

Right now, the biggest influence on my work is coming from Michael
David Sturlin. My creative boat was adrift at sea and he reeled it
back in and set my feet on solid ground. He helped me realize what I
want from my work, where I want to go with it, and how to get there
with carefully laid out plans. He knows I want to be a skilled
craftsman and he is teaching me the value and personal satisfaction
of using simple tools to work directly in metal. I mistakenly
collected tools all these years that I thought would do the work for
me since I was inexperienced. He says there is no shortcut to
getting better at making, and now I am listening.

Michael is also teaching me how to focus on the work in front of me,
not something I have been very good at. His mantra, “Focused
creative energy brings fulfillment and success” is now my mantra. He
has helped me pinpoint my own definition of success, instead of
trying to fill others’ idea of what it means.

This is what has worked for me personally. I hope it helps some of
your students in some way.


I was one of the lucky ones to make a successful living after
college. Like so many artists, I have both a BFA and MFA in metals,
but started teaching as a TA in my last year in grad school, and also
took a job repairing jewelry. Before my MFA was dry, I sweet-talked a
local goldsmithto hire me. I learned so much about repairing jewelry,
working with gold, and a feel for the fine jewelry industry. After 3
years of repairing jewelry, I burned out on it, and went on my own as
an independent metalsmith. Along with that, I also starting teaching
at a local art school that gradually became NH’s first art college. I
learned much about teaching on the college level, and realized I no
longer wanted to be a professor - all the b.s. and politicking that
goes on in the academic world. I’m happier as an independent teacher.

My only regret is that I never learned business skills in college,
and let’s fact it, back in the 80’s and early 90’s, business was kind
of a dirty word. I also had to be led kicking and screaming into the
computer age in grad school - everything had to be done on a
computer. So, I have old World jewelry skills, and 21st century
computer skills. Still making a living on my craft, so that’s good.
as long I am in good health and full use of my hands, I’ll be making
jewelry. So, for all those young college grads, get all the business
training you can get your hands on. It’ll help and be as computer
savvy as you can. I’ve never had formal training with computers and
here am I, managing my own webstore, blogging, Facebook, doing my own
photographing and the editing required. Invest in good equipment and
that’ll take you far.


While it is important for success to work at a job you love, if you
are not “in it for the money” it is unlikely (not impossible) that
you will ever make a good living at it.

If you are reading this, you almost certainly do love jewelry making
and metalsmithing. You also like the interaction and “shop talk” with
others in the field. A big lesson for me was to un-learn a lesson
from art school. Especially in graduate school, when I was working
for my MFA, we were encouraged and coached on how to make a name for
ourselves among others in the (academic) fine metals field. This
involved submitting work to competitive exhibitions that might get
published, writing and presenting to art magazines and conferences,
giving and attending workshops and all sorts of networking. The flaw
with this approach was that it assumes that the most important
audience for what you do is other artists and craftsmen. Being well
known to others in the field is very helpful if you want a university
job teaching or can afford to be in it just for the ego rush of
seeing your work in nice exhibits or slick magazines. But this is not
the same as having a reputation with actual paying customers.

There is no easy answer for how to find customers. “Build it and
they will come” is a little too dreamy to actually work in most
cases. But for the first several years after college I was way too
focused on impressing people in the “art community” rather than
seeking customers. My customers don’t read the SNAG mag or subscribe
to Orchid and most likely yours won’t either. Figure it out early
that you need to be able to sell what you make and make peace with
that concept. There are plenty of “artists” who stubbornly resist
being a sell-out. But what does it get you? If you have the luxury of
a teaching job, a spouse with a good income or a trust fund, you can
be faithful to that vanity. But otherwise you are sacrificing your
career, your prosperity and all the things you might have made if you
were not opposed to, or ignorant of, what it takes to make money.

Stephen Walker

I agree with much of what you said, Stephen. My 2 cents. Yes…You
don’t have to be a sell-out to have a successful career…well, I
guess that depends on how you assess sucessful.

I feel successful enough. I’ve been able to do work I love and pay my
way for 44 years. I’ve had a lot of positive responses and
validations for my work and made a lot of friends. Do I wish that my
work were recognized by the academics and such, sure I do. Do I wish
I made more money and sold to crowned heads, sure I do! Am I willing
to give up my vision of my work for the former or take on a lot more
stress for the later…I don’t think so. You can work from your own
heart and be “successful”.

Mariane Hunter

Do I wish that my work were recognized by the academics and such,
sure I do. 

Well, Marianne, personally I could care less. Jo-Ann gets these
announcements of shows and wants to enter my work in them and I’m
just like - “meh!!”. I could go on about needing some sort of
reinforcement from people who can’t actually do the work, but I
won’t. Below I’m quoting a rejection that Jo-Ann got the other day.
You can read it how you like - I read it that photos are good, of
course. Beyond that, the work isn’t important, you need to be able to
jump through OUR HOOPS.It’s agame to these particular people.
Meh!..I have work to do.

"As always quality photos are key. In addition, the statement that
accompanies your work should specifically address the theme of the
exhibition. Too many statements are a general artist’s statement
about a body of work and do not relate directly to the specific
images submitted. In addition, avoid discussion of technique unless
it relates directly to the theme

I don’t have much use for “Artist’s Statements.”

If i make a piece of art it should speak for itself.

It’s my job as an artist to stimulate the viewer’s imagination and
to get them to think for themselves. For their minds to go in a
direction they never would have thought of before. The work should
open their eyes and imagination, not my words. Otherwise I should
just be a writer.

If i have to explain myself then I haven’t done my job.

My favorite artist’s statement is…

“Here it is. Lovely isn’t it? You like it? Good. give me money.”

Have fun and make lots of jewelry.
Jo Haemer

Jo, I couldn’t agree with you more. Either they “get it”; or they
"don’t get it" and I can’t waste my time trying to explain. Either
you "get " Picasso or you don’t, and if you don’t, frankly, you never

Gary Strickland, GJG

Jo…I like your attitude!!

Cheers from Don in SOFL.

If I can add another dimension or facet of understanding or
appreciation for my work via an artist’s statement I will. I have
often appreciated a well written, truthful and honest statement
elaborating on another artist’s work.

Writing about my own work has helped me to understand where I have
been and, so, where I am headed with my work. I don’t always write a
statement about each piece. Custom or production work does, in my
studio, speak for itself. Its conception and direction is often
different than the larger, museum or gallery oriented pieces which
begin differently. Which is fine.

Custom, commission and production, limited edition and even some
one-of-a kind work is often about the money. But that doesn’t in any
way mean that all of what I make is. Some things simply have to be



I don't have much use for "Artist's Statements." If i make a piece
of art it should speak for itself. 

So right. I have written a number of “artist statements” but never

Add copy at best, I have many stories of conflict with written works
by art historians and galley folks who had trouble getting their
shoes on the proper feet. I just make stuff and don’t feel any need
to write about it. Maybe bad jeff attitude but so it goes.

Demand Designs
Analog/Digital Modelling & Goldsmithing

Count me in as one who detests “artist’s statements.” I have my
jewelry in a number of galleries and each wanted an “artist’s
statement,” though I wonder why. I don’t imagine that customers ask
to see them or would be interested. I don’t have a"Cosmic Vision"
that imbues my work. Nor am I influenced by archetypal Jungian
philosophy etc. etc. etc. I just love working with metals and
Period. In a pinch I will write a blub about my
techniques, but here again I doubt that the sale of any of my jewelry
is contingent upon the customer being influenced by knowing about=

techniques. If, during a show, a customer does seem interested, I am
happy to discuss it with them. But have to remember to keep it short,
before they become bored.

When I was in college, they actually had a segment of one of our art
classes on how to write an artist’s statement. I managed to come up
with some drivel filled with all the then current buzz words and was
able to pass the course. Complete waste of time.


Telling a “Story” really can help a customer relate to and hopefully
purchase a piece. Perhaps the Artist Statement helps serve the same
purpose as the story. I have done work for jewelers who wanted
featured pieces made for an upcoming holiday, they would want to
determine the “Story” before I even designed the product. Sort of
sad, but it works.

I am always surprised–even taken aback :)–by the powerfully
negative reactions around artists’ statements.

Count me in as one who detests "artist's statements." I have my
jewelry in a number of galleries and each wanted an "artist's
statement," though I wonder why. I don't imagine that customers
ask to see them or would be interested. 

Why the consistently angry response from so many on this forum
whenever the topic is raised?

Either write 'em or don’t…

Telling a "Story" really can help a customer relate to and
hopefully purchase a piece. Perhaps the Artist Statement helps
serve the same purpose as the story. 

Your artists statement should share your enthusiasm for what you do
and why you make it. Telling a good story is useful, fun and a very
important element of salesmanship. The problem with the “artist’s
statement” is it so often is NOT a story as much as it is a
pretentious attempt at demonstrating that the artist is an
intellectual. Shows or galleries that require artists statements are
following a template that is well established, but steeped in an
elitist view of the cultural status of arts and crafts. This annoys a
lot of people, but it shouldn’t. Just tell your story, briefly and
make the points that work for you when you are selling your work to a
customer. If your audience is curators and art critics, then go ahead
and craft the statement that shows how deep and avant garde you are.
But if your audience is people who you want to sell to, write to the
people who you expect will buy, own and love your creations. And
don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are no good at word-smithing.

Stephen Walker

Andover, NY

I suspect the angry response is that writing an artist’s statement
takes time and mental energy, and unless you are an artist who
genuinely engages in a “conversation” as part of your work, it feels
like writing fiction. As I have an MFA I’m pretty good at writing and
speaking fiction :wink:

In defense of artist’s statements, and as one who teaches art
appreciation to college students who have NO exposure to original
art of any sort, a GOOD artist’s statement gives the viewer what I
tell my students is a “hook” - as in a hook on a fishing line - or a
way for them access the work, and begin to “get” it - not just look
and move on. In a selling situation that also means an increase in
the chance of a sale.

Personally, I target my artist’s statements to where they will be
shown. If it is a museum where viewing is the priority then I make it
more “artsy” and go into a bit more compositional discussion using
art terminology, assuming the viewers will be at least somewhat
educated in art. For a sales venue I focus more on the materials and
the “history” of the work - buyers like feeling a connection to the
artist, and focusing on the hand made aspects can strengthen that.

Beth Wicker
Three Cats and a Dog Design Studio