Over the past year I’ve discovered the incredible value of professional mentorship. Read on to find out why you should seek out a mentor to improve your art.
I’m a self taught artist and I make no secret or apologies for it. My photographic work has been driven by a sense of exploration and a desire to create. Plus, if grad school taught me anything, it was how to research the hell out of a topic! So I’ve largely been satisfied to pursue my art on my own terms. But self taught is not the same as working in a vacuum. I’ve written previously about the value of workshops and criticism (here and here) as ways to advance one’s artistic and photographic endeavors and I strongly believe that having a community of like minded artists is critical for growth.
Working with a Mentor
In the last year I’ve taken the criticism paradigm a step further by working with a mentor. A mentor is different from a boss or teacher in that while they may be curious to see you succeed, they should not have a vested interest in your success or failure. Once a month, I Skype with Connie Imboden (connieimboden.com/) and she gives me feedback, suggestions and criticism of my recent work. So how is this different from feedback at say the local First Friday review?
Working with Connie has allowed me to develop a project over the last year or so. Because she is familiar with where the work started and what I have been trying to accomplish, she can provide suggestions as to whether a particular technique is working, or whether the vision in my head is panning out in the final image. We revisit previous work to compare how things have progressed and to reevaluate work as the project progresses. It’s the consistency that counts here, and you are unlikely to find it at your monthly camera club. Take a look at where this project was a year ago vs. today.
A mentor works outside of your efforts. Unlike a peer, they are not in competition with you and unlike a teacher, their role is not strictly to help the protege succeed. A good mentor should be free to express any opinion about your work and you should be free to either utilize or disregard that feedback without fear of reprisal. Free communication is the key, but it can be scary! Before starting this, I had to be ready to hear if my work sucked but I knew that the feedback would be critical to my growing as an artist. Connie and I argue over the degree of abstraction that works in an image. I find myself attracted to more abstract works based upon esthetics, but she has a point that too much abstraction leaves no place for discussion especially when the human form is totally lost.
It’s easy to get into a rut, or worse to not go down a new road of exploration out of fear. What if no one likes this new direction? What if the work comes across wrong? What if I piss people off? But success often lies at the end of an unknown path and a good mentor will push you into uncomfortable territory. I had been hesitant to have the slashes and creases in my metal mirror photographs interrupt the body. The result felt like it would be a violent act and that is not what I’m about with my art. But Connie pushed me to experiment with it, pointing out that the image is only a reflection and not an actual act of physical violence. And of course digital photos can always be deleted if they don’t work. But the images did work- they were acts of disruption that had a psychological depth that I had not anticipated. The new work awakened some ideas that had been rattling around in my subconscious and the Event Horizon series was the final result.
So you’re ready to work with a mentor, but now what? Finding a mentor is probably the hardest part. Contact artists whose work you admire and see if they would be willing to work with you; it helps if you have met or worked with them previously rather than cold calling. Keep in mind this will likely be a 1-2 hr session each month, not a weekly feedback or instructional session. Expect to compensate them for their time- a mentor is making time for you that they could be spending on their own work and you should respect that. Be prepared for your interaction sessions and make the most of your time together. Nothing is worse than wasting someone’s time by not being ready. Finally, let down your defenses and be open to feedback; you might be opposed to a particular suggestion, but try it out nonetheless. You can only grow from the experience!