What do successful artists have in common?
Artists’ careers are as unique as their fingerprints. They unfold in unpredictable ways, often without conscious planning. We see artists showing in galleries, licensing their images on products, teaching art to the developmentally disabled, and having their first solo museum show at the age of 88.
What can we learn from such variety? Here are three artists whose unusual careers reveal what successful artists have in common.
Alisa Burke (alisaburke.com)
Alisa Burke is a painter, printmaker, teacher and writer. She supports her family by running a multi-faceted art business. She offers online classes, sells books and DVDS, hosts workshops and retreats, sells her paintings and collages and adult coloring books, and even started a fashion accessory line. Alisa writes a daily blog and has 50,000 followers.
Chris Motley (chrismotleyart.com)
Chris Motley spent 30 years in a “left-brain” job, as a lawyer in the public sector. She has no formal art credentials. After retiring from her legal career, she began to knit 3-dimensional sculptures whose originality gradually brought her national recognition. She has shown her work in galleries and art centers across the United States, and recently had a solo museum show.
Lia Cook (liacook.com)
You can find Lia Cook’s ground-breaking work in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian, among many others. She works in a variety of media, combining weaving with painting, photography, video and digital technology. She is currently collaborating with neuroscientists to investigate our emotional response to images by mapping these responses in the brain.
Each of these unique artists experienced a moment of insight, where they saw their future and it became possible.
Alisa Burke had found it hard to make a living selling her paintings and drawings and prints at galleries. When she volunteered to teach at a nonprofit art center, the openness of the environment allowed her to create her own teaching style and content. Suddenly she knew she didn’t have to choose one art form over another, to become just a painter, or a printmaker, or a crafter, but that she could do it all, and share what she knew with other artists. This insight became her brand: “Redefine Creativity.”
Chris Motley never thought of herself as an artist. Her knitting was an enjoyable hobby that gave her something to do after she retired from a busy legal career. She had always had an identity as a lawyer, and when she retired she was relieved to be able to say: “I’m not doing nothing, I’m knitting.” Then she began to show her neck pieces at art festivals. Her moment of insight came when she saw a small placard placed on her table. It said: “Chris Motley, Artist.”
Lia Cook had also tried out several different careers. Even though she had a job showing slides in an art history class, she didn’t think of art as a career. She studied political science and thought about going into the foreign service. Then she took a bus trip to Mexico, visiting Oaxaca and Chiapas, where she saw women weaving on looms. This was her first discovery of hand-made textiles, a medium that would inspire and inform her career for decades. She later realized that the trip provided her moment of insight, and became a turning point in her career.
So think about your experience as an artist. You don’t have to call it a career, but do pay attention to your own moments of insight. They might contain the seeds of your future success.
All the best,
Mary Edwards, Ph.D.
Career & Life Coach for Artists
I’m a Career and Life Coach for Artists, based in the San Francisco Bay Area and working with artists across the United States. If you’d like to ask a question or set up a time to talk, please write to me at:
As an artist coach, I bring a unique combination of business knowledge, art world experience, and professional coaching skill to my practice.