“Collaboration is how most of our ancestors used to work and live, before machines came along and fragmented society.” - Twyla Tharp: The Collaborative Habit
I grew up in the shadow of a successful career painter who’s impressive artworks lined the walls of my Grandparent’s house. My life was thus punctuated with encouragements to draw and paint as my great uncle had, whenever my small family could make it out to the country for a visit.
The city is where I spent most of my time. It was a terrible place for my creativity to develop. I had plenty of talent, but without guidance, structure, and materials for my learning there was little point in the pursuit arts as a career. I went long periods without practice.
Like many teens I struggled with my self-esteem and attributed this in part to my inability to experience any kind of success with all my natural gifts and talents, artistic or otherwise. As an artist and musician, “I was not yet good enough,” I told myself. I often gave up making any kind of art for lengths of time, and eventually I would come back to it with a renewed commitment to try harder than I ever had before, only to “fail” and quit again. I did not know it at the time, but I was far from a failure.
In my 30’s I was still struggling with these same issues. I had jumped ship on a career in Wildlife Conservation to pursue work as an artist in the animation industry, where I struggled just as hard to find success as ever before, in spite of my abundant talent and recognition among my peers. Approaching decades of developing professional-level technique and skill I still could not earn a living or conjure my most passionate creations into physical reality. I felt like a complete liability to my community: unable to make any kind of worthwhile contribution to the world around me. In short, I was the epitome of “dime-a-dozen talent,” and “it’s hard to make a living in the arts.”
Why, I thought if Joseph Campbell so convincingly encouraged, “follow your bliss, and the world will conspire to set you on your way,” was my way fraught with minor bursts of bliss and vast expanses of disappointment, and lacking in fulfillment? It was a puzzle perhaps too grand for my introverted self to gather in the blossoming culture of extroversion.Today, I know the one important tool missing in my art box then was an ability to successfully work in collaboration.
In her book the Collaborative Habit, award-winning Broadway Choreographer and Best-selling author Twyla Tharp explains, “ ..most of us grew up in a culture that applauded only individual achievement.” I was no different. I had never heard of painters collaborating on a work before. I too believed Michael Angelo had painted the Sistine Chapel single-handedly. The idea that an artist would ever work in collaboration seemed antithesis to everything I understood about being an artist. Consequently, I struggled to find success with anything I felt passionate about my life, until I found Ecstatic Dance and Contact Dance Improvisation.
Being a dancer opened me to the most valuable creative skill any artist can ever learn. Whether a dancer, photographer, painter, musician, writer, actor or director etc., no amount of talent, skill or technical knowledge can blossom without understanding the subtle art of collaboration. Artists work together with each other and with non-artists to bring their creations out of the ethers and into physical reality. Learning to dance ‘alone’ was not enough for me to get it. Partner dancing seemed way too complicated at first, until I learned to improvise in step with other dancers I had never truly made the connection. Improvisation requires letting go of attachment to outcomes. Once that happened, I was able to surrender my “I’ll do it all myself” ego and open up to the possibility of accomplishing something far more powerful and moving in collaboration with others. As a bonus, I started to truly enjoy what I was doing for the first time. I even became a better musician.
Twyla Tharp explains, successful collaboration is not simply about people working together. Many talented people can work together to smash up something awful and loathed by everyone. Successful collaboration requires more than people with an ability to grunt and groan at each other in the hopes that something creative will emerge. I know many artists who for one reason or another kept themselves tucked away in their studio bitter and cursing at everyone that had failed to help them bring their masterpiece to life. If “everyone sucks and wants to steal your idea,” has yet to be made into a bumper sticker, art colleges could make a killing with it.
To this I say, “drop the attitude.” Artists don’t get anywhere easily without learning to work together, and to get along well with the people that will help them find success. Success with art-making is a collaborative process. Selling art requires a collaboration with collectors, buyers, sellers, suppliers, dealers, marketers etc.. Hit songs require the convergence of songwriters, musicians, producers, engineers, distribution channels, and an audience. Sadly, so many artist waste away their precious energies on developing their own websites and brand images, with little prior knowledge of Web technology. This is not to say that an artist should not be tech savvy, or versed in social media marketing. If website development steals energy from your passion for producing music, get someone else to do it. Hire a pro. Barter if you have to. It is worth it.
This blog entry begins a series posts sharing stories of successful artistic collaborations. Click “Join this Site,” for updates and posts, videos and interviews with a wide variety of creative people as they share their tips on how to learn to be successful in collaboration, and how to kick your art into overdrive.
Next: How to co-paint a picture and why more practice at your art is way better than more planning.