Jerry Saltz with artist Rachel O'Donnell

Connections in Context: Friendships in Art

“Wait, so how do you do this?” My friend, Kristen, quickly walks over and with a few simple keystrokes she shows me how to photo-merge my two scans on Photoshop to create a complete image of my oversized collage.

It’s moment like these that help you unknowingly inch your career forward and it would never happen without real friendships. My friendships with fellow artists have been a cornerstone of my career and I don’t doubt that without them, I’d be struggling far more than I do now.

Rachel O’Donnell with her art world friends:
(Left to right): Kristen Liu-Wong, Rachel, Albert Chau, Mark Wang

Artists (and American culture in general) have an unhealthy love of the lone-cowboy myth.

“Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps! You don’t need anyone to help you!” This is and has always been, false, in all contexts. Specifically, in art, can you have an art career without people taking the time to look and share your art? Without galleries and curators deciding to show your work?

Sometimes we just need help with the little things. Art-making is such a specialized profession. It can be difficult to figure out how to execute your vision as you may have to invent new methods or blend two mediums together to make it happen. Being able to pick an artist friend’s brain about how to attempt something new is essential! Even if you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s good to talk to someone who has experience in what you’re doing so you can panic-text them for help or rope them into art-assisting you because, let’s be honest, that’s what friends are for.

Artist friends can also work together to navigate the rough waters of the art world. By sharing our personal experiences about working with different galleries, brands and institutions we can protect each other from predatory sharks out there trying to exploit vulnerable emerging artists.

And to clarify, these artistic friends don’t necessarily have to be in the same exact medium as you are. My favorite go-to hooligans work in film, music, photography and everything else you can imagine. Art is my forever love and it’s important to have kindred spirits in your life that understand that in their own ways.

Sometimes only friends truly get it.

When I was working on my mixed media Texas series, I’d send my friend Daniel hundreds of photos and ask him to help me sift through them to see what he responded to most. Having trusted friends to help show you how your work is seen and responded to is very important.

Most artists are shy and feel anxious when meeting new people. (Duh. I’m one of them) Going to your gallery opening can be very nerve-wracking. (What do I do? Stand by my painting until the curator grabs me to talk to a collector?) This is where your friends come in, we all love/hate openings, and by attending each other’s shows, we support each other by being a familiar face in a crowd that you can go up to when you start to feel awkward. Think of your creative friends as a little band of pirates that guzzles the gallery’s open bar and helps you feel a little braver while you’re standing around in that white cube gallery.

Choosing to live a life with art can feel like taking a vow of poverty and it’s far more survivable when you have friends in the same boat.

As an artist, it’s often feast or famine with money and you and your friends are probably experiencing different levels of income at different times. I can’t even begin to thank all of my wonderful friends who bought my dinner because “they just sold all their prints” or “they finished their animation job”. I do my best to return the favor when I’m having a good month because we are all invested in each other’s survival. In the summer of 2019, I won a $1,000 credit of Chipotle on Postmates and you best believe I fed my favorite people with my new taco wealth. (It’s a true story, I swear. I was once a burrito bowl baron)

Speaking of food, as an artist, I’m constantly hungry for more inspiration. I want to consume as much art as possible and so do my friends. By sharing a friendly connection, you can hang out in their studio, see that artsy horror movie together (that one you’re too scared to see by yourself) and share what podcasts you listen to during late nights in the studio. Having someone to go with to movies, museum shows and art fairs makes you far more likely to go and get inspired to create work.

Last but not last, yes, your friends can be helpful for networking purposes.

Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to live out the Cinderella fantasy of being plucked from obscurity by a major art icon to become tomorrow’s big art star. In reality, the “help” that will actually make a difference in your career (especially in the beginning) will be from your peers, not a worldwide gallerist or institution. The best kind of ‘help’ your career can receive will be from people who aren’t insanely far from your success level.

“Hey, the gallery said I can do a mural for the show. Do you want to paint something in the third room?” BOOM. A major opportunity via text.

Or, maybe someone drops out of a friend’s group show last minute and the curator asks them if they know anyone with artwork available. Your friend immediately sends the curator your website and social media links. Even if the curator doesn’t use your work for the show, they now know who you are. This is how careers move forward.

And now, a cautionary tale!

Not to wax poetic, but I think sometimes we have experiences to show us what would happen if we were to choose the wrong path. I worked for six months as an artist assistant for a California artist a few years ago and it became very clear that he was being eaten alive by career-envy. It happens. Art critic, Jerry Saltz, often advises “make an enemy of envy!” and this experience burned it into my brain forever. Every morning I’d walk into his studio and make a little small talk before we started working.

“My friend Emily is the same group show as you next week! It looks like it’s going to be an awesome show. Are you going to drive up for it?” He involuntarily blurted out “How did she get that?” with probably a little more venom than he had intended. I meekly replied “um, I’m not sure? I know that one of my other friends showed at that gallery a year ago, so, maybe they found her through that friend?” he scoffed. It was clear that he felt his artistic superiority had be confirmed since I mentioned that she knew a friend that had showed at that gallery before. (which, by the way I still have no idea how that curator found either friend, and honestly, I don’t care. If you’re trying to keep score which gallerist found who organically or through a friend, you’ve already lost).

jerry saltz with artist rachel o'donnell
Artist + writer Rachel O’Donnell with art writer Jerry Saltz

As the months of working together stretched on, it became clear that this artist was upset about the lack of momentum he was having in his career. It also became clear that he was the only artist in his friend group and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the major road block in his career. Art careers are complicated and difficult to navigate, but, refusing to connect with other creatives is never going to help.

So, where do you find fellow art friends? The easiest place for me was at art school but it’s pretty easy to connect with people online these days. If you show your work at galleries, be sure to talk to the other artists in the show. I promise they’re just as nervous as you. Ask if they’d be open to studio visits and see if you two click. Pursue all relationships authentically and as you invest in your friendships, your circle will grow as all of you continue to make more friends and add to your rag tag gang of artists.

Bottom line, It’s hard to make it as an artist. It’s hard to make it as an anything. But it’s damn near impossible to do it on your own. Someone has to take a chance on you and I promise that always starts with a simple friendly connection.

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