The Missing Foundations: Why some of us become artists, but most don’t

“There was a professional artist in our town who’d hang out in the pizza shop and talk to the young delivery drivers. When he discovered one of them had a passion for art, the older artist encouraged him to pursue it seriously,” recalls artist Benjamin Frey.

“Eventually, that delivery driver found some cheap studio space with friends and they started an art collective. Because of their ‘academy,’ six people from our town became full-time artists, including me and my best friend.”

Benjamin and I are talking about why some of us become artists or creatives while most of us don’t. It’s the make or break question for creative education. Solve it, and we help more of us become the people we all have the potential to be. 

Benjamin’s been a professional artist for eighteen years, and is Chair of America’s National Association of Independent Artists (NAIA), so he’s a great place to start. I’d already exhausted the books in my search for answers, and nothing seemed to match with what I was seeing on the ground. As an educator, I knew a student’s failure to thrive creatively wasn’t through lack of passion, openness to the universe or 10,000 hours of practice (just some of the reasons recent self-help books have sold us). There was something missing. And worse, we were blaming students for not having it without being able to tell them what ‘it’ was.

You felt you were on your own

“You felt like you were on your own,” agrees educator Katy Duncan. Katy is Head of Art & Design in the school in which I’m the resident artist, and we often talk about her own creative education.

“Some kids just got it so they were alright. I guess the crits were supposed to get the creativity out of the rest of us, but they weren’t encouraging. I switched from textile art to graphic design at university because I thought there’d be more guidance. Instead, we largely had to figure it out for ourselves. Most of us didn’t.”  

Throwing away vast amounts of creative potential

Katy’s divide between the kids who naturally ‘get it’ and those who don’t is a pattern I’d seen throughout creative education. The divide means that many talented people leave school believing that they ‘just aren’t that creative’. However, according to The Harvard Business Review’s influential article The Innovator’s DNA,1 only one-third of our ability to think creativity actually comes from our genes. Two-thirds depend on our environment, experience and education. So if we’re not actively supporting our students (and ourselves) to develop the two-thirds, we’re throwing away vast amounts of creative potential. 

Which brings us back to those make or break questions. Just what is ‘it’ that some creative students naturally have, and how do we support the rest of us to get it? What do we need to do to develop those creative two-thirds?  Luckily, my call with Benjamin Frey, then countless more conversations with other artists, writers and designers like him, led me in an unexpected and important direction. The breakthrough came when I realised that ‘it’ wasn’t one missing foundation, it was three. And that by recognising and supporting these three foundations we unlock the creative potential in our students, our children and ourselves.

Creativity has three foundations

Let’s listen to more of Benjamin’s experience to see what the three foundations are and the difference that they make. 

“The artist in the pizza shop was Roderick Slater,2” Benjamin explains. “He’d been the director of audio and visuals for Shell Oil in the 1960s then dropped out to make his living through art. Roderick practiced the model that if you don’t try, you’ll never know, which was really important to me.” 

Roderick Slater, ‘The Wrong Side of Five’, mixed media collage. Photo: Artfox

Benjamin describes his own journey to becoming an artist as follows.

“I’d ended up studying Literature and Philosophy, but I also dropped out and went to live in France. Then one day a friend called me to say they were making it as artists in New York. So I moved to New York.”

“I worked a couple of years as a security guard and waiting tables, then saved enough money to try making it as an artist. I soon found it would take representation by at least fifteen galleries to keep me out of restaurant jobs. So I took the advice of an artist thirty years older than me, and tried out a juried art fair. I was 23, and have been a full-time artist ever since.” 

It takes a community to raise an artist

If the saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child, then Benjamin’s experience shows us that it takes a community to raise an artist. The turning points in Benjamin’s story pivot on the support and advice of others, from artist Roderick Slater to the delivery driver’s academy and from his friend in New York to his older art fair mentor. This is Benjamin’s creative community. It’s the community that first helps Benjamin to believe in his own ability, then to find the professional structure he needs to succeed. 

And Benjamin’s story is by no means unusual. In every conversation I have with successful creatives about their background, I hear examples of the same three foundations. To get where they are today, and to continue to creatively thrive, they need Community, Self-Belief and Structure.

The divide of creative privilege

What I was seeing in the divide between my students was the haves and have-nots of these three, interlinking foundations. Even at a young age, these foundations matter. Without the support of our community we can lack self-belief, and without self-belief, it’s difficult to establish the structure (or motivation) we need to create. Similarly, if our situation lacks structure, we will struggle to commit time for creativity. This then affects our self-belief and we isolate ourselves further from creative support.   

The literature on creativity hasn’t recognised these foundations because it’s largely written by successful creatives. If we’ve had an upbringing where our creativity was encouraged, whether that’s by our family, friends or educators, it’s almost impossible to separate our resulting self-belief from our situation. It’s easier to believe that our success boils down to hard work, talent or even New Age-style manifestation, than to accept that foundations we were born with played a part. That we come from a place of creative privilege. 

Every successful artist is supported by someone else

Our society’s myth of the lone genius exacerbates the creative divide. We teach students about a cannon of individual creatives rather than their communities, forgetting that from Picasso to Proust, every successful artist is supported by someone else. Some are born into a place of creative privilege and others build their creative foundations for themselves.   

Proust could be our textbook example of creative privilege. That doesn’t diminish his achievements, but it does make him an unfeasible role model for most. Proust’s father was a medical professor and prolific writer on public health. His mother helped Proust to translate the writings of his mentor, John Ruskin, into French. Their financial support meant that Proust went to an aristocratic school and could devote his time almost entirely to writing.   

Proust, his mother Jeanne and brother Robert. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Picasso is more complicated. Born into creative privilege, his father was a professor of art who trained Picasso from the age of seven. However, Picasso the adult was adept at forging his own creative partnerships, from his collaborations with Cubist Georges Braque to his numerous relationships with women artists like Fernande Olivier, Françoise Gilot and Dora Maar

Dora Maar, Picasso and photographer Lee Miller. Miller had travelled to France with her husband, the art critic and Picasso biographer, Roland Penrose, as well as Surrealist painters Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and Man Ray.
Picasso and Dora Maar had joined them there, making it an extraordinary artistic community. Photo via Vanity Fair.

We’ll go deeper into the communities of ‘genius’ creatives in future articles because we need to start telling the truth. Art movements are communities, artists are enabled by their social context and we allow more of us to ‘be like Picasso’ if we give more of us his foundations for growth.

Creativity is built on community, self-belief and structure

When we recognise that creativity is built on the foundations of community, self-belief and structure, we can start to close the creative divide. In education we can place emphasis on these foundations to help more students to thrive. 

I’ve seen the transformative power of this approach in my own classroom. We started by facilitating connections between our students, their peers and our city’s creatives. We then framed Art History in terms of social context, coached students for self-belief and provided clear structure. In two years, Katy and I increased our students’ average by over two grades. Just as importantly, our students began to see themselves as artists.

Opening the creative foundations to us all

The foundations are equally important for those of us without formal arts education or who have left education behind. Firstly, the foundations become a valuable tool for the choices we make in our creative lives. Does what we are doing strengthen our creative community, our self-belief or our structure? If not, do we really need it as part of our practice? By giving our creativity the best foundations we can, we have a greater chance at our own creative self-actualisation and fulfillment. 

Secondly, the foundations give us a framework to support each other as creatives. When asked ‘how can more of us be creative?’, we can reply, ‘with communities that encourage self-belief and give structure’. We close the divide of creative privilege when we open the opportunity of such a community to everyone. Today, through the internet and social media, we have the ability to do this on a global scale. And with your help, encouragement and participation, that’s exactly what we can now start to do.

Find out more about Thursday Society

About the author

Bay Backner is an artist, activist and creativity educator. She is the founder of Thursday Society, and the author of an upcoming book on inclusive creativity. Bay’s own creative path took her from a working-class background to an Oxford degree in physics, then from open source technology to painting for international art galleries.

Bay is a fully-qualified teacher and is certified by The Smithsonian Institution in teaching critical thinking through art. She is currently the resident artist and creativity teacher at a leading independent school, and teaches creative confidence for women from her painting studio in Valencia, Spain. Bay initially qualified as a teacher through the social change program, Teach First, and is committed to opening creative education to all.

Notes

  1.  From Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen’s research and accompanying article The Innovator’s DNA, in The Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2009
  2. Roderick W. Slater (1937 – 2019) was an American artist best known for mixed media works combining painting and collage. Slater has been cited as an influence by other contemporary artists, including noted American collage artists Jonathan Talbot and Sarah Bean White.

Header photo by Budgeron Bach from Pexels

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