Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Put On Your Armor

     Today, I hope you will indulge me, because I’m going to whine a little.  When I first pursued this career, I was having trouble with what I perceived were the injustices of the business, and how hard it was to get into the quality shows.
     After reading an article that renowned oil painter Oleg Stavrowsky wrote in Art of the West, I decided to write him a letter, and sent along some slides of my work.  It was a completely impulsive act and was borne out of sheer frustration.
     Basically, I ranted in one long run-on paragraph:  “I’m a young artist, just starting out and I’m not really sure where to go and what to do…. there appears to be a lot of crap that’s in shows, and some really good art, that never makes the cut.  How do I wrap my head around all that?”
     Imagine my surprise when I received a 3-page letter in return, typed on what I took to be an old Royal typewriter.  (Hint: the letter “g” appeared above the baseline, throughout the entire letter).   Bottom line: he really cleared some things up for me, and I want to share some of his wise advice:

     “Hello, Mark – Just got your note and lovely sampling of your stuff. WOW.  Excellent. I sure like what you do.  Crisp, clean, well drawn and fresh as a new daisy!  You also sound frustrated.  What else can I tell you??!!
     I’ve been turned down so many times for so many unknown reasons to me, that I’ve stopped worrying about it.  But of course, sometimes you really know it’s some political, personality crap and you just boil.  There is an answer:  There truly is.  Don’t steam over it, just go back to the drawing board and work harder.  We artists never really kid ourselves.  We usually know when we do good work and when we do crap!
     The answer is really to work your ass off until you know you’ve done a great job.  Then when some guy looks down his nose at you it simply becomes funny … as long as you’re sure of your position/as long as you know you’ve done something very good.  Sometimes it takes a long, long time to become self-assured. I almost think that’s good.  Because when you are self-assured, you stand on rock solid ground, and you know you’ve paid your dues and have earned that position.  Then all the turndowns and rejections become really funny.
     Oleg then goes on to give me some examples of similar things that have happened to him, and most likely every artist can tell you the same story.  He then gives me some praise:
     “You know you can draw and compose and put the paint down as well as anybody.  Stay with that.  Be your own critic.  I mean tear your stuff apart….find fault with it …. Incessantly.  And then you grow and grow and grow.
     He wrapped up the letter with this recommendation:  “Do the real tough and hard and BEST thing and go to your work place and paint, paint, paint.  That’s always the real answer.  Don’t rest on your laurels whatever they might be.  Consider your work crap and try every thing and anything to make it good.  You do that over and over and sooner or later, you realize that it is really good.  Then you’re home free.  Then nobody can offend you or touch you.  Good work is your armor against anything.”

     I received this letter 15 years ago and I’ve kept it tucked away in my drawing table.  And every now and then I take it out and re-read it.  I treasure it because Oleg gave me a lifetime of art advice and mentorship in one letter….. Put on the armor of good painting and work your ass off!
All content © J. Mark Kohler.


  1. that's exactly what i needed to hear!

  2. Great story and a truly gracious offering of time and advice to write you that long letter. I loved reading it. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Thanks for sharing that, Mark. That letter just mentored me as well. I have been experiencing the same frustration and Oleg's advice helped me immensely, today. Thanks!

  4. Wow- well put. Thanks for posting, Mark.