Do Contests Ruin The Artist? Or “Beware: Paint to Sell”

Overwhelmed by the win!

"Banta: Best in Show 2009 VFFF"

I’ve entered many contests with my artwork. In fact, the first prize I ever remember winning was for my Third-Grade drawing of children playing baseball; this was a “design the calendar page for the local park” contest, and I had more swelling encouragement from that bit of approval than I could hold in my little girl heart.

Suffice it to say: I’ve become jaded in my (relatively) old age. I enter contests now, comparing myself to others, wondering if anyone will “get” my art, my intentions, my vision. In my affirmation-seeking weakness, I engage unwisely in what John Donne advised against when he said (in so many words), “Comparisons are odious.” I relate to Madeleine L’Engle’s Meg Murray O’Keeffe, and also to her Vicki Austen, who mulled over that paraphrased quote in her Grandmother’s attic, a brooding pre-teen. Negativity, self-doubt, isolation, despair…one leads to the other and all because I tried to “enter a contest”. This also applies when you create a new work or body of paintings…especially for an exhibit. Work! Sweat! Emotions! Huzzah, here’s my life’s work! And seven people attend your opening… *….*

Bottom line: winning is a great encouragement, and so is selling. But don’t let the high of a win ruin the quiet everydayness of art-making.

I remind myself it’s NOT about the sale, it’s NOT healthy to “paint to sell”, winning isn’t everything; which is to say, don’t paint more of what sells, paint what your heart needs to you paint. Feed your soul with the art and it might bless others. Build it, and they will come; they may not arrive immediately, waving banners of “You’re so WONDERFUL!”, but those who DO arrive will appreciate and admire what they see. You will be valued for what you did because these people “get it”; and you will have the opportunity to see Someone Else and their beauty. When I’m in a funk-y mindset and I do receive an award, it’s a true encouragement; it helps me but also pushes me to ask: if I win awards but do not sell, am I making the right kind of art? That’s a healthy question to ask, to keep you on your toes but not to stimulate self-doubt.

Because making art is a deeply personal act, it can lead to the perfection of a self-centered point of view, one that forgets other people also need responses to THEIR life’s work. “Get thy head out of the sand, Artist. Love someone besides yourself, for Goodness’ sake!” In closing, here’s what led me to share these thoughts: a morning memory of Tolkien’s words about Aragorn, a humble man awaiting his time in obscurity, not painting to sell or entering contests for affirmation or ego-stroking. I mean this as an encouragement, that things will not always be as dreary as they seem now, but life shall be more wonderful than we can possibly imagine.

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

(source: wiki

Hear this poem set to a sweet tune by a guitar hero of mine, Brooks Williams:


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