What It Means To Be An Artist

For many people with a deep creative streak, discovering individual style and finding a way to use skills to have a professional career as an artist, is a dream worth pursuing. We spoke to accomplished artist, writer, director and curator Sarah Walko about her experiences exploring her talent and building a life in art.

An interview with Sarah Walko,
Director of Education and Community Engagement
Visual Art Center of New Jersey, USA



How did you find your creative style?

It was definitely a long journey to find my creative style, in fact, it took decades.  It included a lot of experimentation, a lot of creative failures and working with different techniques and materials. You need to learn the rules before you break them.

Do you have any tips for girls for overcoming doubt or criticism to find their true and original style?

It’s the nature of this industry to be surrounded by rejection and criticism. And part of the training is trying to take in a little bit of the criticism, as long as it’s constructive. Try not to take it personally. Trust your instincts, you have so many more creative skills than what you give yourself credit for. Everyone has so much creativity to add to the world, no matter what direction you end up funneling that in. It takes time to develop skills, but the most important thing is to have passion and dedication to your work. I believe in the creative muscle no matter what, which means show up to the studio every day and keep working. Like a dancer would. Keep showing up and practice. Pretty soon, your body remembers the moves. The more commitment you have, the more faith you’re going to have in your intuition and your voice. Originality comes from that.

What would your advice be for creative girls who believe that the lines between various art fields should blend and they don’t want to be narrowly-defined, yet are sometimes criticized and pushed into one category?

Now, more than ever, it is much easier to cross between disciplines. There are so many tools at our fingertips, and the main one is technology. For example, many artists are working in film and video now, and that was much harder to do even fifty years ago. The lines between creative fields have broken down, even for example between fine art and fashion. We simply don’t live in a world where you have to decide to be either a bronze sculptor or a printmaker. A lot of arts majors will give you an opportunity to learn sculpture, to printmaking, to anything you want. There’s a really good South African artist named William Kentridge. He gave a talk about how every single teacher told him he had to pick one thing, and he just refused to do it. He had to fight it tooth and nail.

Luckily, I didn’t have that experience because I was so many generations behind him. But not everybody has a full access or knowledge to everything that’s going on in the art world. One way is to arm yourself with research and find artists that are working in lots of different disciplines, so when you are told to pick one thing and focus on that, you can just pull out your list of five artists and say “No, these are actually people that I’m really influenced by and interested in. Look how many fields they’re working in and successfully”. You can present a strong argument to whoever’s telling you not to work that way.

Who or what were some of your early influences? Do you have a strong memory of art or an artist that triggered your creativity and curiosity – something that very strongly resonated with who you are or who you wanted to become?

I was definitely a very quiet and introverted kid. I lived in my imagination, and I lived in stories definitely as soon as I could learn to read. Also, it was a different time period and I didn’t have that many distractions like the internet or phone.

My fascination with a lot of the surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst and René Magritte began at an early age. I used to have books with their work. There’s a lot of surrealist influence in my work, the art critics define my work as hyper nature or supernature, supernatural. To me, it’s an updated version of the word ‘surrealism’. So it’s still an aesthetic that I like, my most rudimentary way of saying it is ‘blinged out’ nature. It’s still in there somewhere.

What is the number one personality trait a successful artist should have? And what are the key elements to building a good art portfolio?

I think perseverance and thick skin. You have to practice daily, push yourself to get better and you have to care.  You can stay in your own lane, you don’t have to compete against other people but you have to push your own ideas. I used to teach my students, when you have a good idea, what if you just think about that idea every day for the next week? Where are you going to be after seven days with this idea? It’s going to be a lot more developed.

If you’re trying to build your portfolio, I think it’s important to have diversity. See what you can do with paint or pencil try different materials and techniques, be personal and tell your story.  What I would look for is for someone that’s experimenting and searching, with passion and dedication.

As a multidisciplinary artist, how do you envision the future impact of technology and invention on art?

I always think of technology as just another tool, the same way a paintbrush is. They’re all just extensions of ourselves. It can be used for good, or bad. There’s been a tremendous amount of art made especially over the last fifty years about the impact of technology. Artists reflect life and life reflects art, so there’s a very symbiotic relationship there.

Then there’s a lot of really interesting works that are being done on using technology, specifically the internet or social media, as a way of democratizing information and getting our voices heard.  You still have to decide how you want to work, what you feel okay about, what are your ethics around having your own hand in something versus not. It’s a personal decision.

If you had one piece of advice for a girl dreaming of becoming a full-time artist someday, what would it be?

If I had to pick one I would think it would be to be innovative. How does it apply to your life? Maybe you end up working as a full-time animator for Pixar, and that’s what working as a professional artist in your life looks like.

As a Director of Education of a museum, I would like to emphasize that we’re not trying to steer the kids into becoming artists for the rest of their lives. The skill sets that they’re gaining in art are diverse, from pattern recognition to different ways of seeing, to thinking outside the box. I went to school with people training to be artists and everyone does a million different jobs right now. But everything they learned in art school helped them get those jobs. It’s about learning how to think and how to see and that’s important for life.

Tips and Tricks:

  • Trust your instincts, you have so many more creative skills than what you give yourself credit for
  • Practice, push yourself to get better every day
  • If you arm yourself with research, you can present a strong argument to whoever provides criticism or pushes you into one category
  • It takes time to develop skills, but the most important thing is to have passion and dedication for your work
  • The more commitment you have, the more faith you’re going to have in your intuition
  • Spend enough time with your ideas in order to fully develop them
  • The skill sets you’re gaining in art is diverse, and it makes you think outside of the box. It’s about learning how to think and how to see, and that’s important


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