In her new book, The Successful Artist’s Career Guide, artist and author Margaret Peot offers experienced advice and empowerment to art students, aspiring artists and longtime hobbyists for taking that next step toward mapping out the creative life of your dreams. Along with advice on practical matters like promoting your work and bidding on jobs, this useful resource includes worksheets to help refine your artistic goals and features interviews with a range of professional artists who reveal how they “made it” and offer tips on how you can too.
The following excerpt is from Peot’s interview with artist Marshall Arisman….
Marshall Arisman’s illustrations, graphic commentaries on violence in our society, have appeared on the covers of TIME, U.S. News and World Report, The Nation and the New York Times Book Review. His fine art is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Guangdong Museum of Art, in Guangzhou, China, among other institutions. He is the chair of the MFA program, Illustration as Visual Essay, at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Did you always want to be an artist?
No. When I was a kid, I had two things I was OK at—music and art. I wanted to be a saxophone player. I was in a jazz band, and we played at dances, weddings and the country club. I was pretty good! It was my intent to go on to music school, but then I went to Buffalo and saw Charlie Parker play. I thought, “I’ll never do this—I can’t get close to him.” So I went to art school instead. There were a lot of older guys in school at that time, Korean vets, serious about their work. I had no art vocabulary, no experience and no real guides in my family, though my uncle painted. So I chose graphic design.
I graduated with a portfolio and went to work for GM as a graphic designer. I made a lot of money, but I was unhappy. I wasn’t ever good in groups; I didn’t like collaborating. While I was in Detroit, I took drawing classes. I realized I was happiest when I was alone, drawing. I was not happy at graphic design. I quit GM and went to Europe. I lived there for a year, taking drawing classes and walking around with my sketchbook. Then I got drafted and was stationed in Georgia in the former USSR. I did my time, was out at twenty-three, went back to New York and thought, “Now what?”
How did you get into illustration from there?
I didn’t want to be a graphic designer again. My roommate, Jerry Moriarty (now a graphic novelist), was illustrating at the time and suggested I try finding work as a freelance illustrator. So I put together a portfolio and started seeing art directors. It was a different time then, when you could actually call an art director and they readily saw people. It isn’t that way now. I worked two days a week in an art-supply store, and spent three days a week seeing art directors. I did everything right, but I still wasn’t earning much money. I made about $3,000 doing illustration work in that first year. Combined with my art-store income, I had money for rent, but it wasn’t what you’d call making a living. I felt that I had failed at graphic design, and was now failing at illustration.
How did you pull yourself out of that rut?
I realized the problem was that I hadn’t really learned how to draw. If you don’t learn to draw, you can’t do anything—you are always relying on tricks to get around the fact of not being able to draw. So I spent the next year taking more drawing classes. I started to realize that my portfolio was relying on style but missing content, and that I was spending all this time making what I thought other people wanted. Ironically, it was at this time that I got a job teaching drawing at the School of Visual Arts. I was teaching and learning at the same time—not only about drawing, but about art-making. I realized that on the days when I was alone with my sketchbook, I needed to start making some pictures for myself.
How did you set about doing this?
I made a list of things I knew about—cows, deer, guns and psychic phenomenon. (All this at the age of twenty-eight!) I decided that cows and deer weren’t interesting enough, and I didn’t know (and still don’t, exactly) how to draw psychic phenomenon. So I started making ink drawings of guns using India ink with spray-painted backgrounds. That turned into drawings of the violence we do as a society with guns, to ourselves and others. I made forty-five drawings of guns and gun violence, and people started saying to me, “You have a book here.”
It was the Vietnam era, and people were starting to see photographic images of the war. Still, publishers would say, “We can’t print this, it is too violent.” A TIME editor once said to me that the difference for viewers between a photograph and an illustration is that a photograph of a violent act or its aftermath seems to take just a second to capture, but an illustration of violence takes time to make, and something about that is super-horrifying to people. Another editor told me that if I got someone famous to write an introduction for the gun drawings, it might be more publishable.
So I made a list of the people who I admired, and heading the list was Kurt Vonnegut. I sent him the drawings. He loved them and called and said, “What do you need—do you need some cash? How can I help?” And, “This book needs no introduction, but if that means it gets published, I’ll write one.” And he did. That started a ten-year association—every year I would send Kurt a case of gin and he would send me a case of scotch. That association gave me a tremendous source of energy. But, no one wanted to do the book anyway, Kurt Vonnegut intro or not. So I decided to print it myself. I chatted up some platemakers, made friends with the printers and managed to print and bind nine hundred copies.
Did you use the book to market your work, promote yourself?
I did not think of the book as a portfolio, but as this cool thing I had done. I sent books to people I liked, including some of the art directors I had worked for—just because I thought they were nice and I wanted to share this thing I had made. The next day, people started to call—people I had wanted to work for when I was taking around my portfolio of illustrations, trying to get work. In fact, one art director called saying, “I know you are a fine artist and illustration probably isn’t what you are about, but would you please do this for us?” He made no association with the illustrator I had been, coming into his office and trying to get work.
The commercial work I was starting to be offered was all stuff I would have done for myself anyway. If the piece I was asked to do had meaning for me, I would keep at it and give it everything I had. If it didn’t have meaning, the work didn’t have the same resonance—it was just a job. Later, when I started taking my paintings to galleries, they told me that I was too well known as an illustrator, and it was ruining my fine-art career. People have this snobbery about illustrations not being art. So I started taking my paintings to editors who paired the paintings with text.
Does your studio work, that is, your paintings that you do for yourself, inform your commercial work?
The personal work is moving underneath everything—it is the river whose energy fuels all other work, even though the personal work is not at all relevant to the commercial work that I do. I have two walls in my studio. On one is my personal work, and on the other is my commercial work. I have no problem keeping the two separated.
How did you get this gig as chair of the MFA program, Illustration as Visual Essay at the School of Visual Arts?
I taught drawing at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) from 1965 to 1968. During that time, I was curator for a show of my students’ work. The well-known graphic artist Milton Glaser saw it and told my boss, Silas Rhodes, “The guy that put together this show should run the department.” So Silas hired me even though I said I would only do it if I could do it for two days a week, maximum. (I’m still not sure how I had the moxie to say that!) I was inheriting a faculty of my heroes, which was humbling, and they agreed to try me out for a year. That was forty-five years ago, and I’m still doing this.
Does your teaching inform your studio work, or vice versa?
rkI have found that I need the balance of the three things: the illustration jobs, my personal paintings and teaching at SVA. I tried to take a year off and just paint, but it made me too squirrelly. I need the social aspect of the teaching and interacting with the world to make my paintings work.
How do you balance the business of art- making with the actual art-making?
I have attended illustration conferences, and they are very business oriented—as if the solution to success is in this arena. But in fact, your career will be further ahead if you are doing meaningful work. And the meaningful work will take care of you.
What is your advice to an artist starting out?
Well, Joseph Campbell said it best when he said, “Follow your bliss.” Paint what you know and care about. I tell my students to buy a cheap tape recorder and talk into it, reminisce, rant—don’t edit, just talk. And through this, you will start to get at what is important to you. Its resonance with you will make it important to others.
I had a student who loved frogs as a kid. He knew everything about them, was quite passionate about them. One day, he caught a frog, put it in a jar and left it on the porch. He forgot about it, the sun shone on it all afternoon, and it died. He was stricken; heartbroken. I asked that young man, “How often do you think about that frog?” He said, “I have thought about that frog thousands of times!” And that guy knows frogs—his drawings and paintings of them show this. That is his portfolio. Does that make any sense?
I would say: Do a series of drawings that is meaningful to you, and that is a portfolio. Also, you must learn that you can’t only just make pictures. It’s the presence of the other parts of you that is so important. What you remember and care about is not incidental.
Like the frog in the jar?
Yes! The worst thing that can happen is you will exorcise some old stuff, but the best thing is that you will come to a real truth. Paul Theroux once said, “Never try to make a universal point, or write a letter to the world. Try instead to find a personal truth and hope that it becomes universal.”