From Pleasing Authorities to Pursuing an Inner Vision

Recently, several unrelated conversations have touched on the personal transition from pleasing an authority figure to pursuing one’s own inner vision. It can be scary for young artists to step out from under a teacher’s protective guidance, trusting their own inner vision and direction above all else — and yet it is also the only way to make truly authentic work.

When I entered grad school, I was 23 years old and firmly rooted in a desire to please the authority figures. I viewed my professors as absolute masters who would impart their wisdom to me, and I came prepared to soak up as much of that wisdom as possible. I assumed that, as in college, my own academic and artistic success would hinge on my ability to discern what my professors wanted and to perform accordingly. I was meek and deferential and eager to please, willing at any moment to adjust my process or change my plans at the suggestion of the professors.

I got eaten alive in my first review.

That was over six years ago, and I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was absolutely terrifying. My studio was literally overflowing with work from that semester, I had 18 more pieces hanging in a solo exhibit in Indiana, and I even brought home-made cookies for the review committee. I had done every possible thing my professors could ask of me, except for faithfully chasing after my own artistic vision.

The process itself looks different for each of us, but we all have to undergo that slow and painful transition sooner or later. I think it’s one of the reasons why so many art majors cease making art soon after graduation. It’s not only the pressures of adult life that choke out creativity, but a paralyzing fear that one’s own inner vision won’t be strong enough or good enough — or, worse yet, that it won’t be discovered at all.

If there’s an easy and comforting answer to that fear, I don’t know about it yet. My own artistic journey led me right through the middle of a barren wasteland, and I wandered aimlessly in that desert for most of my three years’ of graduate study. My art went in seventeen directions at once, and every one of them was bad. I made traditional figurative sculptures and experimental non-referential photographs, fragmented ceramic orbs and ritualistic mandala-shaped assemblages, drawings based on illuminated manuscripts and temporary installations of traveling pots. The only constant was in my faculty reviews, where the committee reliably scorned each successive project.

Finally in my third year, my perspective began to shift. I began to trust my own judgment, my inner vision, and my intuitive sense of whether an idea had potential and merit — even when others couldn’t see that spark yet.

In early December, my traveling pots vanished from a public park where they had been installed overnight. (To this day I don’t know whether somebody stole them, or simply mistook them for litter and decided to clean up.) Where my professors saw only an unfortunate accident, I saw a spark of genuine possibility. Here was a work of art that had briefly existed outside of the rigid structures of galleries and institutions, and beyond the tired expectations of cynical viewers — and through a chance event, it had escaped my own possession and control, as well.

Four months and 1,500 pots later, that was an MFA show.

Sarah Jane Gray, Commonage

Sarah Jane Gray, Commonage

Sarah Jane Gray, Commonage

[Sarah Jane Gray, Commonage, Lexington, KY, 2008]

To see one of the conversations that brought this topic up in the first place, check out Lew‘s recent comment on this blog.


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About Sarah Jane

Working artist, university professor, community educator. Currently living in community at the Grunewald Guild, Leavenworth, WA.

4 responses to “From Pleasing Authorities to Pursuing an Inner Vision”

  1. Kari Dunham says :

    Thank you, SarahJane, for beginning this conversation. As I am about to enter into the first semester of my MFA, I value your perspective and your experiences. Granted, I am beginning my program six years later than you began yours; however, I too can be one who leans toward timidity and people pleasing, so it is good to hear about how you persevered through grad school and ultimately developed your own artistic vision.

  2. Sarah Jane says :

    Oh, Kari, congratulations on starting your MFA! I think you’re going to have a much better experience than I did. I was talking the other day with several of the people who were in grad school with me, and we ALL agreed that we would have had an easier time and gotten a lot more out of it if we had waited at least 3-5 years after college. There is — as I’m sure you know — so much learning and growing and self-discovery that takes place during that time.

    I’m really excited for you as you start this next phase of your life. And if you ever need somebody to talk to or vent to along the way, I am your woman. 😉

    Blessings to you.

  3. jenae legg says :

    Everyone has this issue in some form or fashion.. building confidence in your own work and process.. knowing what critique to listen to and what to ignore.. At the end of the day, the conversation is between you and the work, the work and the viewer.. and there’s no one looking over it all to say, “i approve.” I think I swing back and forth between deep insecurity and that place of trust and assurance in myself. Thanks for sharing, sj.

  4. Sarah Jane says :

    I get what you’re saying about swinging between insecurity and self-assurance, Jenae, and I think that’s a pretty good description of what this process feels like. Maybe the doubts never go away entirely, but there does come a point when you can swagger a little and say, “I’ve totally got this.” Even with the fragments of insecurity lingering in the shadows, that’s a pretty good feeling.

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