The inconceivable improbability of your art

Which is to say… your art is one in a million* <3

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*I struggle with really big numbers; I can’t visualize a million. Hell, a thousand somethings is hard to picture without organizing it somehow in my mind. Like, how many stars can you see in the sky? (Five thousand, at best). How long is the average person alive? (Around 29 thousand days.) Contemplating a million? Forgetaboutit. 

As this is Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d write you a love letter to remind you how special you are. I’d say “you’re one in a million”, but that doesn’t even come close to capturing the true uniqueness of you and your art. 

The inconceivable statistics of your art making

I recently saw a post on Instagram (yes, Instagram, yuck) that claimed that only 10% of people have the desire to create. [I’m of the opinion that the desire to create is an innately human attribute, and that this number seems low.] I tried to find the post again and link it here, but Instagram is designed to make re-finding things nigh impossible.

According to the post, only 10% of people with the urge to create actually act on that desire. Only one person in 100 is a creator. The post went on to say that only 10% of those keep going, that only 10% of creators maintain an ongoing creative practice. Only one in 1,000 people are active creators.

[These are numbers I can relate to… I’ve always done better with probabilities–definitely more of a statistics guy than a calc guy].

The post didn’t specify “artist”, though art visuals were shown. While you may question the veracity of the numbers, let’s take them at face value for the moment.

Of those one in 1,000 creators, only some fraction would call themselves ‘capital-A’ Artists. Other creators might be architects or writers or music producers or people who create special effects or any of the myriad of other ways folks bring new things into the world.

According to the United States Census Bureau, as of this writing, there are more than 8 billion humans alive right now. In the U.S., a bit more than 332 million. If we trust that ‘one in 100’ claim from above, there are only ~3 million creators in these here United States.

The US Bureau of Labor statistics says (as of 2022), about 280,000, give or take, are artists of one sort or another. Folks that put “Artist” as their occupation on tax forms. Surprisingly close to that 1-in-1,000 stat.

How many of those 280k artists work with photography? How many paint? How many sculpt, make collages, or compose conceptual music? How many work with performance art, build installations, or focus on interactive art? How many work with stained glass, weave tapestries, make jewelry, carve wood?

Of all of these, how many have an art practice like yours?

Few, I’d imagine. Probably fewer than you’d expect. If we narrow it further to just folks working with the same subject matter and interests, and working with the same materials as you… the number is very small indeed.

The number of people doing EXACTLY what you’re doing?

One. Only you. It’s a tired trope, but true nonetheless: you’re literally the only one who will make your art, the only one who can make it. No one else is going to do it if you don’t. No one else can.

I hope this gentle reminder motivates you, as it does me. In a world filled with comparison, it reminds us that comparison is ridiculous. There is only one you.

I hope this knowledge helps you make your art. I hope it moves you to action, keeping you out of the 90% who have the desire to create, but never do. I hope it helps you avoid being amongst the 90% who create, but don’t make art consistently.

I hope this will help you get going and keep going, to build and preserve your momentum, to maintain and grow your art practice. 

Forget “one in a million.” You (and your art) are one-in-8-billion. Only you can make your art. It’s up to (only) you to do it.

Project update (mid-February)

The current project of “abstract photography” (the intended focus of this period), hasn’t gone particularly well so far. As a result, in addition to photography, I’ve experimented with collage, played with ink, and painted a fair amount. After all, the best way to get unblocked is to do the work.

Back in photography school (years before Columbine and Sandy Hook and other tragedies), you might have been advised to “shoot your way out of the problem” whenever you got stuck. Don’t know what to do next? Make more photos. Feeling uninspired? Make more photos. You get unstuck by being productive, by doing work, by keep moving. I might phrase it differently today, but the underlying advice is solid.

As I don’t have all that much experience or ability with these media (especially painting), the goal has been exploration and play and less focused on producing “successful” outcomes. A few things worth sharing from the last few weeks:

A color photograph of a collage. In the center, a figure stands arms crossed. The figure's head has been replaced by two hands, fingers intertwined. The figure also has multi-colored wings sprouting to the sides of the frame. Behind the figure, a silver disk, brutalist structure, and printed pages form the background.
“Kinfolk #1.” Collage. 02-2024. 14″ x 20″

This collage is made from magazine paper, paint, color pencil, and aluminum foil on a wood board backing. The paper is all from a single issue of a hipster magazine called ‘Kinfolk’; the theme was ‘Adrenaline’ and many of the articles were about overcoming barriers, finding your limits, unlocking your potential.

This piece took quite a while to complete (collage is always more time consuming than I expect), as I limited myself to what was available in that issue and the magazine’s theme. With paper collage, once it’s glued, it’s glued; there’s no undo button. Each new addition can improve–or wreck–what you’ve already done. This is both freeing and stressful; definitely fun to see it come together, and I plan to do another piece with the remaining material from the magazine.

A color photograph of an abstract painting. The painting is a grid of colored rectangles, surrounded by white dots. The rectangles are formed roughly into 14 columns; a single row of white rectangles dominates the composition. Other rectangles are cream, red-orange, and ochre yellow. A line of white dots crosses the painting above the row of white rectangles.
“Board.” Painting. 02-2024. 28″ x 13 7/8″

Acrylic paint on wood. When I started making this, I was thinking back to the paint chip collage I made last month. Can I work in a similar way, while not being limited by those materials? I tried to intentionally be more open, less restrained, more responsive as things developed–I wanted to see what would appear in the work and react intuitively to it.

At various times, I was surprised by the shapes and ideas that appeared. I noticed myself noticing each of them and made the conscious decision to connect–or disregard–the associations. In the work I saw board games, an ocean scene and pier, a piano keyboard and the hammered strings behind it, human teeth… eating, and the minimalist design of old mainframe computers from the 1960’s and 70’s. All of these connections are somewhere in my brain, things I relate to. While the execution (aka my ability to paint) is poor, it was exciting to make this. There’s more to do here, I think.

A black and white photograph featuring a metal fire escape made in bright sunlight. The light casts stark shadows on the metal frame, creating a diverse composition of light-and-dark shapes.
02-03-2024-13 (Fire escape). Photograph. 5″ x 7″.

The big takeaway from my struggle with the current project: with photography, I’m most successful when I discover images, when I respond to and interpret scenes. I need to be out in the world, looking and thinking, finding and reacting. I have not been successful constructing abstract still lifes; the results have been boring, disappointing, uninspiring. This rather straightforward image of a fire escape is more interesting to me than anything I’ve made here in my studio.

Where do I go from here?

I’m holding off making any judgements or decisions about future work; the art, and my life in general, has felt very fragmented as of late. Lots of starts-and-stops, long periods of uncertainty and waiting, and feelings of ill-at-ease have made a sense of progress or direction elusive. Call it ‘dissatisfied anticipation’ for an unknown… unknown. A sort of anxious-ennui. I’m taking some time to figure out what to do next.

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Cover image: Mandala No.28 (cropped). ©2016 Ron Johnson.