I’ve spent my life surrounded by creative people producing incredible works of music, writing, and visual art. It’s almost overwhelming, sometimes, to be in this landscape and to feel like whenever I’m associating with a group of my friends, I’m getting a chance to talk with people who have creative strengths in a huge range of fields. A casual dinner turns into a discussion about literature, a conversation about wildlife photography, a debate about the latest MOMA exhibit. From early childhood, I was surrounded by artists, and the unfailing reminder that I should always try to find ways to support them.
On the most base level, of course, because they were my friends. And I think that supporting our friends in their endeavors is very important, because sometimes, following a dream is hard, long, and lonely. It might mean going far from home, making incredible sacrifices, going against the advice or words of parents, teachers, and others. Being a friend, for me, doesn’t mean supporting people no matter what; I’ll be honest and critical when it’s warranted, but when I see my friends pursuing careers in the arts, I want to help them achieve it.
The other level is important too, and helps society in general. Art is very important to me. We need more art in the world, and we need more artists and they need to be diverse. I have a huge respect for the varied talents and modes of expression in the artistic community, even if they aren’t all entirely to my taste. If I can pull pickles off my burger, I can dodge the painting at the Legion of Honour that I’m not that into. It’s no biggie. But I still think it’s important to make pickles, to put them on burgers for people who want them, to collect works of art expressing a wide range of experiences, traditions, schools, and aesthetics.
When I was younger, supporting my friends involved more intangible acts. I could cheer people on from the sidelines, provide helpful feedback on their work, make them feel like their dreams weren’t unreasonable, and they were pursuing something important. Being a sounding board, or a person to encourage someone, was an important role — especially for young friends developing their own aesthetics, dreams, and careers, just as I was. We supported each other in the ways that we could, which were primarily emotional and social — though sometimes we’d buy each other dinner, drop off food while someone was working on a big project, find other ways to express a more physical, immediate mode of support.
That’s shifted as we’ve grown older, though, and I’m finding it really exciting. It started to change when we developed connections in our field through our hard work, and when we could not only establish ourselves, but reach out our hands to pull our friends up with us. For me, one of the greatest personal accomplishments isn’t meeting a new editor and getting a piece published in a new venue, although that is exciting, but what happens next. It’s what happens when my editor and I have been working together for a while, and I get asked for a recommendation for a writer to cover a particular issue. It happens when a friend sends me an idea and I can forward it and add my own notes of encouragement.
This represented a huge shift as we started to move into actual careers and adulthood, where we began to be respected as individuals who maybe actually had some skills and authority, rather than people trying to become. It’s not as though this happens overnight or be magic, and I’ll be honest with you: Like any adult endeavor, it involves a certain amount of faking it. Mustering up the confidence and swagger to own the room, even though you have no idea what you’re doing and how you got there. Acting like you belong, and assuming that you always will — and watching people respond to that, knowing that they can’t challenge you when you don’t leave them room to do so. It’s not always easy, and people will try to undermine you — the older white male editor who tells a woman of colour her work isn’t needed, the disabled artist who isn’t recognised by her peers — but it will happen.
The astounding thing that’s started to happen for many of us as we actually start supporting ourselves through our work and creating careers for ourselves is that we’ve also been able to move onto the third phase, supporting each other monetarily. I can actually afford to buy art from my friends, at last, although often it’s at the friend rate rather than true market value. We’re exchanging support for each other in a way that allows us to help each other build long-term careers and reputations — and in the meanwhile, I get to decorate my home with amazing works my friends have produced. I have Marianne Kirby’s block prints on my walls, a Sven Sandberg painting, and while I love it when I receive gifts from my artistic friends and I treasure them, I also like the ability to support them and value their work that way, too.
All levels of support are important, and all of them mean something. But too often, art is positioned as something made for the people in power to enjoy, while the rest of us are cast as people who can’t appreciate it and can’t afford it. Art is locked away — or it’s treated as invalid. It’s ‘crafts’ or it’s graffiti. These things are art too, and they shouldn’t be undervalued, but so-called ‘high art’ isn’t just something for rich people and museums. I can make it. You can make it. And we can all support it, at any level of our ability.
Image: ‘This Painting is Not Available in Your Country,’ Paul Mutant, Flickr.