Happy New Year 2017! I have a great bit of artsy conversation to share with y’all, so let’s get this new year party started!
Hi Henry! I always say that my writings might not make a living but it makes a life and I definitely know that the coins help sustain my efforts. Who were some earlier inspirations that led you to believe that you could actually make a living from your art?
I love that part about it “…makes a life…” I’ll have used that whole statement. When I think back to inspirations my grandmother, Jessie Overton, is there. There were others but she was the most influential. She was the first artist I knew and loved. Her thing was portraits and painted mainly on commission. Paintings of family members which she did hung in her house. So, her home was I guess the first gallery experience for me too. Her studio space was in her living room in a corner with just enough room for her tripod easel. My job was to hold her stinky oil paints. I watched the colors flow as she painted.
I was always amazed how slowly and steady she could paint. I used to beg her to let me try. Once she did; I thought I was doing something but she screamed, “No, no, no! You’re not making mash potatoes!” I was smashing her beautiful sable brush fibers against the canvas surface. She held my hand and showed me how to simply let the brush glide along the surface.
She always had music playing too and tell me to listen to the music and float the brush and glide. As we painted together she’d squeeze my hand tighter if I was starting to smash those potatoes! If I was doing it correctly, her grip was gentle. I think of her when I look at brushes or shake someone’s hand firmly.
Other artists came later when I attended Fisk University. This campus is covered with history. As students we were encouraged to get the “Fisk Experience,” which during my freshman year I was clueless. I was told to go to college to get an education and a degree. What was this Fisk experience stuff? It was about connecting with the university’s rich past. I saw and enjoyed so much art by Black artists both dead and alive.
On campus I met and spoke with artists such as Earl Hooks, Greg Ridley, LiFran Fort, and Jerry Waters (a new, young artist and professor). They were dynamic force of the art department. Now, I wasn’t an art major. My major was biology. I was never far from anything art because I drew the structures, animals, tissues, etc. to test myself. I drew to learn. Fisk is a small, private university so I could speak with these artists almost daily. The exhibitions of their work really influenced me. Then, I concluded to be an artist you must be a professor to reach and create art to exhibit.
Later, after graduate school, I moved to Chicago and met other artists and gallery owners. My two main mentors in the city were Greg Spears (an artist) and Susan Woodson (a WPA scholar). Mrs. Woodson purchased my first painting in Chicago and took me under her wing. Greg taught me about marketing. He painted tirelessly and sold many prints at festivals. In his home he had one room filled with stacks of prints! There were other people of course, but these two people saw something in me and really encouraged me to keep painting. Mrs. Woodson opened a gallery, Susan Woodson Gallery, and told me to bring some art to it. She carried prints and originals of artists I learned about at Fisk. Then, Susan introduced me to the Chicago Fisk Club which was full of art lovers. You can’t make it as an artist without a supportive community. It’s important to find a “tribe” which connects and helps you. I believe it’s actually part of your identity.
What’s a typical artist work day like for you?
I always start with coffee. This is a must, very essential. My head is always full of ideas. I realized years ago, I can’t realistically do everything. You can’t get anything done by stopping and going here and there. A little here and there adds up to a big nothing! The key, which is what my grandmother taught me while she painted, was to focus. I struggle with this but am better. A lot. My typical day consists of looking for future places to exhibit, following up on interviews of people interested in exhibiting some of my work, surfing social media (a new community to connect with people), painting and organizing. I don’t have set hours because I have a family. I usually work long tiring hours. When they sleep I can paint. I do have deadlines to keep to get art done for people, so I keep a Things to do List to try to stay on track. I feel more like a juggler than an artist. To answer your question moreso, it’s really hard to have a typical day. It doesn’t fit in the whole thing about being creative. But you must CREATE so not to feel discouraged.
Your things to do list is spot on. Plan on doing that for 2017. We met during the early days of Poets United in Chicago. What were some of the takeaways from being part of the group?
Love. Love for other members and dedication. We were writers and still writing. It’s important to reach out to each other for support, ideas, and feedback. I don’t keep in contact with many members like when I lived in Chicago. Strangely, it is possible with video chat, emails, texts, and other ways. Yet, the Internet can’t do this. If you got a series of rejections and went to a meeting and shared that news, a friend would just come over and give you a long, tight hug. That person understood. How can you do that with electronic means? You can’t. I miss those moments of encouragement the most. Just sitting near another poet as you hear a fellow poet share a new piece. Again. Priceless. This feeds back to finding the tribe and place. With Poets United we were truly united on so many levels.
What words of wisdom do you have for newbies and late bloomers in the literary and visual art world who want to make a career in doing what they love, but are afraid to venture out there?
Stop talking about doing something. Stop worrying about and doubting things. Push away the negative thoughts AND people .Find a way to work. I remember when I didn’t have a book published. I hosted open-mic poetry at Jazz and Java Coffee Shop in the early 90’s. There was a poet who came in to recite and tell us about his book. He had a chapbook which he made. He used an old type writer which he bought from a Goodwill for $5! The old kind with the ink ribbon. Page after page he made his book. His poems were beautiful. He didn’t have a computer but put it in his mind to get his words out there. The cover was simple but he did it. He inspired me to get my first self-published chapbook done, Tell Me No Lies. I had no excuse to not have my book done. I had more technology and resources but this guy was doing more. So, to any newbie, use what you have to do what you can. You will grow. I used to paint on an old wooden chair I found in the alley outside my apartment in Chicago. I fixed and glued the broken leg and used a stick to rest my canvas against the back of the chair. That was my easel. I painted on that chair or the floor. But I worked. Many talk themselves out of even trying out of fear. Imagined fear.
We all can do something if we simply try. We will hustle and bust our butts for a 9-5 and that company’s goals but, when it comes to our own dreams, we can’t find the zeal. Why not? It’s faith. We must believe in ourselves and our dreams. This is where keeping out that negativity out of your mind and soul. Believe. There will stop be doubt but keep moving keep trying because you believe this is what your purpose is on this planet. Paying bills or making debt isn’t a purpose. Create and make the world better is what I’d tell them.
Beautiful! I agree. Can people be okay with viewing their passion as just a hobby? What’s that about? Is it the fear of stepping outside of their comfort zones?
What I’ve noticed and experienced aside from what you said about fear is that people don’t want to call themselves a professional because of responsibility. If you do anything as a hobby, you can do it whenever. You don’t have to be serious.
You don’t have to be concerned with money issues and other things associated with being a professional. When you consider and call yourself a professional this means two things: 1) You’re paid for what you do and 2) you maintain a certain amount of professionalism.
I’ve met artists who are afraid to pursue art as a profession because they believe they may fail. In our capitalistic world, if you have a business and you don’t make money, it’s concluded that you’re a failure. The business of arts and the business of widgets are di$erent. We don’t operate in the same arena.
Artists can fail or feel like a failure equating themselves to non-art business owners.
Is it important to sell your art? In a commercial gallery, that is important but other connections are made. In other institutions, such as universities or museums, the whole money thing is di$erent. But artists must take themselves serious to be taken serious. My art has never been a hobby for me but a calling
which I answered and listened to to do. I keep working. And working to create the best I know how and learn. I don’t smash any more!
Too much, Henry! Congrats on your latest award. Tell us more about the GANSPA.
The GANSPA (Gifted and NeoSoul & Poetry Award) is the ideal of Renata Brown. The organization’s mission is to support artists year round through its education and mentoring programs as well as spotlight excellence through the Annual Awards Ceremonies. It serves as a fundraiser for Sick Cell Anemia research and education as well. I felt very honored to win. My family and I were able to go to Atlanta for the awards ceremony.
I couldn’t go to that event alone. My wife and children are an extension of my creativity. They’ve helped me in many, many ways. I knew I was receiving the state award but then they announced the national GANSPA Awards for my category. I was stunned. My wife said, “They called your name.” I remember looking around for Henry Jones. It was like a dream.
At the ceremony I met other artists and learned what they’re doing. I love meeting other artists because I feel less alone. It’s lonely being an artist of any kind. You strive to connect to the internal, overwhelming feeling of human disconnection. The GANSPA award symbolizes appreciation for the work you do. Few people know the about of work necessary to create art. So much goes against you. They see the final creation. It’s not easy. But that award says to me, “Thank you for the work you do.” This is encouraging because you constantly push away and battle the demon of doubt.
Thanks for humoring my interview intrusion Henry. I wish you much continued success!
Thank you Clara. I enjoyed this interview.
Hope this talk with Henry Jones got your creative juices flowing. What a great year of opportunity we have to create to the best of who we are!
Henry Jones is an award winning artist & poet. Activist, Author, Editor. Creativity coach Inspiring the world. follow him on twitter @creativeforlife…
Henry’s post award win interview: