Superstars and Whatnot

It was at the Illustration Masters Class where I first heard Greg Manchess declare that there is no such thing as talent. A rather startling premise to tell a bunch of aspiring artists. But no, Greg stated that artistic skill “is built, not possessed”, created by hard work and training. I wonder about this idea, chew on it occasionally, still not sure what I think. It makes me think of films like Amadeus and Finding Forrester that portray bitter rivalries between merely adequate creators and their brilliant counterparts. I have no idea how historically accurate the portrayals are, but today Mozart is a household name while Salieri is mostly for history buffs. I itch and scratch away at what that thing is that makes one individual a superstar while another is just adequate.

In a recent conversation on facebook, art director Irene Gallo stated “I often tell students they need to find their own voice. There needs to be a reason to hire them  specifically and not any one of a dozen guys. I hire artists based on how smart they are, really. How do they answer the problem. The technique has to be there, sure, but I want someone smarter than me coming up with an answer to the problem better than I could. Otherwise, I can just ‘hire a wrist.’ (Which is useful at times but those aren’t the superstars.)”  Someone recently asked me if being an artist was a “higher calling, just or a craft like any other” and I found myself struggling to answer.  Gallo’s comment touched on that difference. Yes, there is a voice, a vision, something that separates one artist from another. Those artists who are good, who are really good, the ones that just blow your mind with what they can do, it is more than just being technically good at the craft. I find myself wondering how much of that voice is smarts vs. hard work and long hours practicing, vs things like personality and life circumstance and even luck.

 Here’s something else, Gallo’s comment was part of a discussion about Justin Landon’s insightful article on gender parity in SF cover art. (Seriously, drop everything and read that article NOW.)  It hit a few buttons for me: Awards like the Hugo and inclusion in art collections like Spectrum were a few of the guidelines Landon used to determine the plight of women artists working in the Speculative Fiction field today (hint, it’s kind of scary.) Ironically, this past year both of those things happened for me (which was personally INCREDIBLE). My Hugo was in the Fan Artist category, the one for un-paid or low-paid work and my inclusion in Spectrum 20 was in the Unpublished category, the one where Landon assumed there would be more gender equality because “no one has paid for the work.” (There was still less than two women artists for every ten illustrations.) I sometimes wonder if societal conditioning and the fact that a significant portion of my day is spent in cooking, cleaning, and helping a 4th grader with homework is what might prevent me from ever achieving “superstar” status. Or is that just a convenient red herring? Because many many amazing creators have regular life stuff that must be balanced with making their art.

I think Mark Manson, writing for the Huffington Post, is on to something when he asks; “what pain do you want? What are you willing to struggle for? Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives end up.” I have a lineup of awesome jobs for some amazing clients, the bathroom is atrocious, the kitchen sink is full of dirty dishes and if I don’t go for a run today I’ll go crazy. That’s just life. Sometimes creating art feels like magic. More often, creating art is agonizingly tired eyes, and loss of any free time. Occasionally it all comes together and I feel touched by the muse, other times I do feel like ‘just a wrist’. It doesn’t matter: I keep making art (and trying to get better at it) because whether or not it will win awards and make history (or money) is really besides the point. This is just what I do.

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  • Wendy N. Wagner

    I believe that we all have unique neural pathways, primed by our body’s unique experiences in the world, which include training and parenting and all the sensory inputs we’ve ever experienced. And at a very early age, those sensory inputs are sculpting us in ways that scientists can’t yet begin to quantify. That’s what talent is: our personal inclinations, shaped by a million factors that began being ground into our personalities before we were even born. We can push that, we can add to that, but some people really do start out with more advantages and proclivities than others, and some people really do seem to form the new connections needed to grow more easily than others.

    And yes, some days, you just don’t feel the brilliance and wonder of a project like you do on others. Luckily, your wrist comes pre-loaded with pure awesome.

    • galen dara

      thank you wendy, that was brilliantly put.