This post is by Jason Horejs, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Jason Horejs and his wife, Carrie, own Xanadu Gallery in Scottsdale, AZ., which they founded in 2001. Jason also publishes RedDotBlog.com, a resource for artists interested in creating and strengthening relationships with galleries, as well as those looking to sharpen their own selling skills.
Several weeks ago, I received the following email from a discouraged artist:
"I’ve been working on a sculpture for some time now that I thought was finished and at least four times [my husband] walked into the studio and completely upended my thinking by telling me he wasn’t fond of it. He loves the top two thirds but not the bottom third. I’ve listened each time he’s made suggestions and taken them to heart by making significant changes. And, each time the piece was improved upon. The last time I thought it was finished, and he didn’t, it got a little tense. After a few days of thinking about it, I whacked that bottom third off and I’m in the process of rebuilding it yet again.
We both struggle when it comes to the using art terms to describe something. I have to drill down, by asking questions, to what he really means. He can be terribly blunt. He at times doesn’t seem to value the amount of time and emotional energy that goes into the making of a sculpture even though he’s seen me working on it for weeks or months.
I, on the other hand, can be resistant and stubborn and it’s not easy to hear criticism regarding my work when he breezes into the room as I’m ready to pronounce it done. I usually come around but that initial reaction to his statements isn’t pretty.
I’d like to know how other artist/spouse teams handle this type of communication."
I grew up in a household where this was an almost daily question. As many of you know, my father is a painter, and my mother manages the business side of his career. They’ve worked together this way for over thirty years. As I recall, this partnership worked very well for them. My mom and dad seem to have dispositions that compliment one another. My mom has always been encouraging and optimistic, and this has helped propel my father forward, especially at times that he might have felt discouraged.
That doesn’t mean it’s always been smooth sailing, however. I know there have been times, even recently, when mom thought that dad was on the wrong track with a particular piece, or that a certain piece wasn’t as successful as my dad thought it was. I’m not privy to the conversations where these kinds of things are discussed, and I don’t know if there’s ever any tension when the two don’t see eye to eye artistically.
As I thought about the email above, I realized how complex it could be navigating criticism from a spouse, partner or close friend. The criticism can almost certainly never be taken objectively. I would also bet that this kind of criticism is never given in a vacuum. Whatever else is going on in your relationship and life is likely going to bleed over into the feedback about the art.
I thought this would be a great topic of conversation to open up on the blog. Before writing the post, I decided to reach out to a group of readers and ask about their experience and what advice they might give to this artist, who is struggling with spousal criticism. I want to thank all of those of you who responded to my email – your input really gave me new insights into the challenges of this issue.
The first thing I discovered is that the majority of artists I reached out to appreciate the feedback about their art, even when it’s critical. Some struggle, however, especially with the manner criticism is given. Other’s wish that a spouse or partner were interested enough to give feedback.
Education of the Partner/Critic
One of my first questions was how qualified do artists feel their partners are to give feedback? While some artists are paired with other artists or have partners who are trained in some artistic discipline, most artists have non-creatives as partners. This has a big impact on how an artist takes the criticism offered by a partner.
A partner with an artistic education is often better able to articulate their criticism, but many artists find that the lack of artistic education of a spouse can actually be an asset.
Sheila Bycraft, a fine art jeweler from Wardsville, Ontario, says her sister, who often gives her feedback, “doesn’t have any formal art education, but she does represent a large part of my target market, which makes her opinion invaluable. She certainly does not need any education to test out a new bracelet design for durability or to see if it gets snagged on things!”
I heard this sentiment a lot from artists. They felt that a partner critic could serve as a proxy for their clientele, who often might also not have much of an artistic education. Another artist said:
"I don’t think it impacts their criticism. It may impact how they articulate how they feel, but not their feelings. If, as artists, we plan on letting our pieces leave our vision, our creation, and our care, we have to be ready for how the general public will view them, whether we like it or not."
Star Trauth, Miami, Florida
How to Communicate More Effectively
So, how can you build a better artist/critic relationship with a partner? Unfortunately there is no facile answer to give. Each relationship is going to have its own dynamic, challenges and opportunities. I would offer some of the following suggestions as a start however.
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