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Wrangling Rejection

Updated: May 12, 2023

If you are an artist of any ilk, and you have ever put your work out there for public consumption, then you have been rejected. It goes with the territory. My most recent one was yesterday. As rejections go, it was pretty good: upbeat, encouraging, please try again, etc and so forth. But a rejection no less.

It can be crushing, but it is important not to let it be. Of course, like many negative things in life, we don't talk about it too often. Don't want people to know about our failures. Because everyone we know on Facebook is doing great, right? Living great lives, with it all sorted. Yeah, no they're not. Their ups and downs are probably similar to yours. In the case of having your creative work passed over, we need to remember that every single artist of every type has been rejected. Even the 'great' ones. Quilty has. Del Kathryn Barton has. Georgia O'Keefe and Frida Kahlo have. Whatever artist you admire or aspire to be like has been rejected at least once. And very probably many many times.

When I was teaching, I was often somewhat dismayed to discover how little my students knew about art and artists before landing in my classroom. Sometimes they had heard of Picasso, or Van Gogh or Leonardo, but they had no idea about the lives of those artists or that those greats were among thousands that most people have never heard of; who were very similar to those we consider masters in terms of their inspiration, their work ethic or their ability. I still like to remind my students that every artist has been rejected; every artist has failures in their artistic career, every artist has a drawing or a story or song that they just didn't nail. Even Picasso. Even Van Gogh. Did you know that Van Gogh only ever sold one painting in his lifetime? And, even then it was more of a barter than an actual sale. Many of my school students didn't. And the look of incredulous surprise on their faces when they grasped that gem was priceless. Much like Van Gogh's paintings today, really. They sell for millions of dollars, yet poor old Vincent only managed to exchange one of his brilliant works for services rendered during his short life. One amongst hundreds. For the most part, he lived in poverty. In the end, he embraced the failure and rejection and ended it all. He didn't even do a great job of that: shooting himself in the stomach but not dying for days; eventually succumbing to the infection and shock the wound had caused. Of course, he suffered from poor mental health in a time when it was even more stigmatised than it is now. But then, that is something that artists also often have in common. Their sensitive nature means that they can be prone to bouts of darkness and despair. It is part of what makes them an artist.

Van Gogh: Wheat Field with Cypresses

So rejection can be a bit devastating for most artists. Not just because of their sensitive nature, but also because putting your precious and deeply personal art work 'out there' is akin to stapling yourself naked onto a gallery wall for everyone to judge and comment on. But, as I said, it is part of being in the Creative Industries, and so you have to find a way to deal with it; hopefully without it crushing you and stopping you from creating. I am not suggesting for a moment that I always do that brilliantly. Sometimes rejection has caused me to put down my paint brush and petulantly declare that I am never going to pick it up again. But not lately. That's because I have recognised that my art is part of me. And good, bad or indifferent, I have to keep making it. Regardless of rejections.

It needs to be said, as well, that some galleries/groups/organisations really suck at giving rejections. Largely because the people concerned have no clue about what it takes to enter your work in a competition or show, and even if they do, they are more concerned with some other agenda than they are with encouraging creativity. Even when they say that's what they are trying to do. I have received rejections that have included an exhortation to 'support your fellow artists' by turning up to the opening. Clearly this little serve of guilt is much more about the success or otherwise of their event than about encouraging artists. And one that is likely to eradicate any intention I might have had to turn up and 'support my fellow artists'.

Once I even received a generic missive from the curator of an event I had been selected for the year before, ranting about how rejected artists couldn't make an application to save themselves. Those who were unsuccessful should apparently have worked with him (the curator) more closely by discussing their ideas with him personally on the phone. I should mention that the competition took place in another state. He also griped about the fact that some applications had been received on or the day prior to the closing date. All I can say to that is WTF? Clearly this bloke was on some kind of power trip, treating artists as if they were all pinning their everything on being part of the exhibition - his exhibition. This man had replaced a lovely woman that I had dealt with the year before when I had been shortlisted and had an excellent experience. I have never applied for that exhibition, held annually, since, and I never will until I stop seeing his name on the judging panel.

Beyond all of this, though, it must be remembered that no matter how qualified or well-intentioned the judging panel is, they have personal preferences. That doesn't make them bad. Just human. So maybe they love landscapes and you have submitted your awesome portrait. Maybe they are a minimalist and you are a maximalist. They love watercolours and you paint in acrylic. It could be anything, and often judges don't set out to be biased, but despite their best intentions preferences sneak in to their decision making. It doesn't make your work bad. It just hasn't been selected.

Then there are the shows that you are selected for that you soon learn wasn't such a great achievement. Everyone who applied and paid their not insignificant entry fee was selected. Meaning that there was no selection process, really. So the opening was an overcrowded, poorly curated mish-mash of works that you had to be careful not to bump into due to the ridiculous number of people as well as art works in the room. Yes, I speak from experience. To make it worse, the gallery staff made no attempt to understand their 'selected' artists' works or process and behaved as if they were doing them an incredible favour simply by hanging or displaying the work (poorly) in their gallery. I will not apply to that gallery again because to do so serves little or no purpose other than to contribute to their cash flow...even though (or perhaps because) I can pretty much guarantee pre-selection.

You are probably thinking by now that I am using this as an opportunity to vent about my experiences. Okay, maybe a bit. But the thing is, I haven't always been rejected, and neither will you. I have been selected to be included in some awesome and prestigious awards: the Churchie, Woollhara Small Sculpture and Sculpture at Scenic World. Back in the day, I won an award for a kids' novel I wrote and spent time with some of the country's best authors and illustrators as my reward. On multiple occasions I was selected for the She exhibitions held in Melbourne to celebrate International Women's' Day. I have won a national award for a work that reflected my love of the natural environment. I have received other awards and encouraging comments from highly respected art curators. I have been successful in applying for solo exhibitions in public galleries and for grants. Maybe I will experience that kind of 'success' again, maybe not. Regardless, I will keep creating, because my creativity is not about recognition and accolades - those are nice if they happen. But ultimately my creativity is about me and my voice. Your creativity, whatever form it takes, is about you and yours.

And that creativity has another positive effect on you if you let it: it empowers your critical thought processes. This allows you, when you receive a rejection, to remember not to take it too personally. Because even though it feels like it, you haven't been rejected because your work is not good enough. Someone, somewhere will love your work, what it says and how it is expressed. So work on that...your voice. All creative work, made with the heart fully engaged has the power of resonance. It will resonate with someone somewhere and make their day a bit better. Find out what it is that you most want to say through your creativity and keep saying it. That, my creative friend is real success.

Right now, more than anything, we need the creatives, the people who can give voice to the unspeakable, reflect what we are all feeling and nurture the small fire of hope we all need to keep going forward. If you are an artist, regardless of what kind, keep making art. You need it, and so does the rest of the world. Whether they realise it or not.

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