Makers Gonna Make
On May 17, 1976, Tim Severin set sail towards the arctic circle in a boat made of oxhide. His goal was to retrace the path of a fantastical journey recorded in a 6th-century religious text about St. Brendan’s journey across the sea to the ‘Promised Land.’ The ship he built for the journey was based on a period-specific style that had no keel, and as such it could not tack into the wind. No keel means you can only ‘aim’ the ship within a range of 15º in either direction of the prevailing winds, making the captain more of a guide than anything.
Like sailing, the life of an artist, while attractive in many ways, can seem impractical before you embark. There is no clear way forward, there is no guarantee that it will lead to success no matter how you define it or any kind of stability. The stereotype of the starving artist is based on a very real problem: It is a difficult path with no map through an ever-changing landscape. Better to get a ‘real’ job, right?
I don’t remember choosing to become an artist. From my earliest memories, I somehow knew it was fait accompli. I did my share of railing against the choice but in the end, it was clear the winds of artistic passion were carrying me off. Like Severin’s ship on the Brendan Voyage, I felt like all I could do was give my career some direction.
For the past twenty-odd years, the many iterations of my artistic career have flowed one into the next. I’ve never quit one and started another, but rather overlapped and refined my own vision of what I am doing. It’s not a bad way to go, honestly. It may take longer to get somewhere (wherever that is), but the steps are smallish and not as intimidating.
The artists’ path can be one of experimentation, of trial and error, of growth and learning. The wonderful thing about being your own boss is that you can define your work, and your life, on your own terms. If I’m really excited about a kind of work, I can do more of it. If it doesn’t fit in my vision, I can say no.
Success as an artist, as I’ve come to understand it, is not that you are well known, or financially stable, or that you wear a beret. When you wake up every day thinking about making something, you’re already an artist. To be a successful artist you only have to choose to make that thing. That’s it. That’s the secret. Get up, have a coffee, then go make the thing.
We may not get to choose the direction of the wind, but over the years we can create for ourselves a niche that is uniquely suited to our passions and skills, which leads to a kind of fulfillment not many people get in life.
At 8pm on the evening of June 26, 1977, Tim Severin and his crew sailed his open-hulled leather boat into the harbour at Peckford Island, Newfoundland. In those 13 months, he and his crew had survived cold, hardship, hunger and fatigue to prove the journey possible. Like artists, they used their narrow field of navigation to feel their way through a fantastic journey. When the daily choices you have on your own adventure feel insignificant you have to make them count. At the end of the ride, those choices are what add up to a satisfying artistic life on your own terms.
Footnote: For more information about Tim Severin and his voyage, you can read about it in his book: The Brendan Voyage, Across the Atlantic in a Leather Boat. Penguin Random House, 2000. ISBN 9780375755248