A Trove of Good Insight
Advice is transformative
The most difficult yet transforming piece of advice I have received is: you’re not as good as you think you are.
Confidence in oneself is entirely necessary for publicly creative output, yet too much confidence in one’s ability can undermine the dispassionate appraisal needed to improve one’s practice. I received this salutary lesson when in 2013, unsure how to move forward with my painting, I began Post-Graduate studies.
Adequate, barely so
I was that most difficult of students – mature, with an existing art career. Halfway through our MFA year, we had to fill a self-evaluation form – of course, I placed myself as “better than average”. Meeting with my supervisor, he told me he’d placed me as “adequate, perhaps barely so”.
Humility to improve
Somehow I managed to hold my temper as I defended my exhibition and award history. He explained that to take my work onto a national and international stage, I needed a “psychic shift”, and only I would know how to achieve that. I went home highly indignant, but after fuming for a while, I put my ego aside and began to recognise that what he was telling me was what I’d gone there to learn. Being fabulous and making great work was not the same – my unshakeable belief in myself blinded me to the humility necessary to improve.
Shortly after this, I had an exhibition of ten works in a dealer gallery which my supervisor visited. After a few minutes sitting in silence, he said, “you know there are just two good works here”. I had to agree.
"the honest opinion of someone truly informed about art needs to be listened to, it’s brutally vital"
My ego took more pounding just a couple of months later when PAULNACHE invited me to bring some small works to show at the Melbourne Art Fair. While his art star was exhibiting in the booth, there was a tiny storage annexe where a few others could hang their wares. And so I found myself at my first international art fair, completely in awe at the calibre of top Australian, Asian, and American artists. I saw my small paintings for what they were: barely adequate and saw in the art displayed the kind of rigour that was required to make a painting that could stand the scrutiny of tens of thousands of global art lovers.
Social media likes and the compliments of friends are all very fine, but the honest opinion of someone truly informed about art needs to be listened to, it’s brutally vital. It should make you question how impartially you are viewing your work, and empower hard critical decisions that enable you to push past comfortability and ability.
"Making art can be a solitary, thankless, opaque, and questionable endeavour. Being kind brings smiles."
Once I was able to see past my investment of time, emotion, and ego, and view my work in a more off-hand, dispassionate manner, I was able to start to improve. I’d achieved my “psychic shift”. I have a small Teresa Lane collage in my studio that just has the word “really” on it. When I feel myself getting too cocky I look and ask myself – “really?”.
The long game and karma of kindness
The other advice I’d like to impart: be kind and be generous; be nice. Build relationships not just with galleries and collectors, but with the delivery person, the framer, the art shop, the photographer, and especially other artists with whom you can talk honestly about things.
Making art can be a solitary, thankless, opaque, and questionable endeavour. Being kind brings smiles. Being generous by including others in projects and giving credit where due helps build up everyone. Being an artist is a long game, and by spreading some joy behind you, you sow its return in the future, in currently unknowable ways.
Evan Woodruffe will represent New Zealand at the 8th Beijing International Art Biennale in August 2019. He is represented by PAULNACHE Gallery, and recently presented a major solo exhibition at the Tauranga Art Gallery.
Evan Woodruffe, The World is Porous, 2018. Tauranga Art Gallery opening. Image: Sait Akkirman, Artsdiary
Evan Woodruffe at Sydney Contemporary 2017 where he collaborated with BMW
Evan at the opening of his recent exhibition at PAULNACHE, April 2019. Image: Thomas Teutenberg