Pivotal Event #13 (c) Basel
Ten years earlier I wouldn’t have thought it possible. Yet here I was, opening my art show in Basel Switzerland, addressing the audience in German, laughing and conversing with the crowd using sign language to explain aspects of my process and the importance of art, and all the while wondering, “How did I mange to achieve all this?”
The answer is: You can achieve surprisingly big things by slowly fitting the puzzle pieces together as you face your day-to-day obstacles. Then, when the project is larger, you know you can tackle it — you still don’t know how to do everything, but you know you can figure it out. Even though every art show is different, you become familiar with the parts, and confident in your skills to problem solve. You realize you can figure out a new puzzle no matter how challenging it might appear at first.
Every previous art show I had back home on the West Coast came with a bit of a guarantee. I knew I had friends nearby, I understood something of the art scene, I was dealing with trusted helpers and suppliers, and I was conducting all my business in English. My art show in Basel had none of those backups in place. But the show was absolutely pivotal because to make it happen I had to face new questions, challenges, and doubts, like the following:
Q.You don’t have an established audience* in a new country?
A. Show up anyway and prepare your art show.
Q. You don’t have your usual helpers on hand to help fix problems that arise?
A. Do your best and step out of your comfort zone. Use sign language to deal with tradespeople and administrators.
Q. You don’t know for sure if the everything is in place for the opening?
A. Put on your dress and show up anyway.
Q.You don’t actually know how to speak the language but want to address your audience in their native language?
A. Give it a good shot. Keep practising ahead of time, including (out loud) on the tram on the way over to the opening. If you feel more heart-racing nervousness than you have ever faced when speaking in English, go for it anyway. (And by the way, you couldn’t have asked for a more supportive audience.)
At every point in your whole career there’s value in being a beginner again–what you gain is quite wonderful and remarkable. Yes, it does require you to stretch yourself a little (or a lot), and maybe you will feel a little (or a lot) uncomfortable, but in return for your efforts you get to know more about who you are and what you are capable of achieving. And that turns being a beginner into a pivotal experience.
*I was deeply touched by how the few people I do know in Switzerland made a huge effort–some travelling many miles and many hours–to come to my opening, to view my show, and to tell their friends about it. Their support, encouragement, willingness to help, listening ear, and kind hearts were the icing on the cake!
Bonus Story Several weeks before my show I began experimenting with how I would hang my paperworks. I hung a number of pieces in my studio, each using a different product to attach it to the wall so I could figure out which product worked best. I checked the pieces carefully over the next few weeks and made my choice of product. On a Thursday I went to the gallery to hang the show. The paperworks were “fussy” pieces to hang–lots of measuring involved–but at last we had them looking perfect. On Friday evening was my opening, and when I looked at my pieces through the crowd I was glad we had taken all that time to get them just right.
Saturday morning I boarded a train to have a weekend holiday–my first time off in a month. While I was on the train I got a phone call from my gallerist. She reported that over night EVERY SINGLE ONE of my paperworks had fallen off the wall! An artist’s worst nightmare to be sure. I couldn’t help but wonder: if the fixative was faulty then what had kept the pieces clinging to the walls the night before? Maybe my sheer force of will that everything would be okay at the opening?
My gallerist assured me to go ahead with my holiday and that we would sort it out on Monday when I returned. On Monday I arrived with a different product and rehung the pieces. Amazingly, none of the pieces had been damaged. This time they stayed stuck to the walls.
By the way, all those test pieces in my studio stayed stuck to the walls until two weeks later when I packed them up to travel home.