In our 2022 Culture issue, out April 24, T followed a group of artists — musicians, chefs, designers, writers and others — throughout the course of a day, exploring the intimate moments of their lives that contribute, in ways small and large, to their creative process.
Every creative person knows that inspiration is everywhere, and yet the question What inspires you? can be both dull and impossible to answer. Inspiration, the alchemy by which an idea makes it from the mind to the page (or canvas or potter’s wheel or dress form), is often inarticulable or somehow unsatisfying. What feels so clear can, once spoken, sound tinny or fragile or banal. It’s why, I often feel, artists find not only solace but hope in hearing about other artists’ processes instead — what do they do, these other people, to make art happen? How do they create? What might their struggles illuminate about our own?
This issue is dedicated to living a creative life, which is something that all of us, whether self-proclaimed artists or not, have available to us. We asked people across ages, genders, races and mediums to explain how they create and, as important, why they create. Over the last two years, many of us who were fortunate enough to have somewhere clean and safe to live concluded that one of the great pleasures of life is making things: be it bread, furniture or clothing. Pleasure is, naturally, one reason why, but there are others, too, some of them inexplicable.
The 34 people profiled in this issue are testament to not only the diversity of art but the diversity of artistic experience. Some I know personally — they are close friends (the architect Daniel Romualdez, the fashion designer Daniel Roseberry), collaborators (the theater director Ivo van Hove) or former colleagues (the playwright Mona Mansour) — but I consider all of them teachers: They are proof that, many times, the best work is made while doing things that don’t look like work at all. Art is created in front of the easel, but it’s just as often made while gardening or waiting for the subway or sitting on a park bench. Art happens in the day’s liminal moments, the times when we’re able to forget, for a few minutes or hours, the self-consciousness of creation and let our minds drift.
Along with reminding readers that art demands a state of receptivity, we also wanted to ask artists for their advice: How does one live? How does one keep going? The answers, from 40 artists, are practical (“Pay your taxes”), inspirational (“You gain more respect for yourself … when you say no”) and contradictory (“I’ve always been very, very ambitious”; “I lacked ambition”).
One of the reasons their advice resonates so deeply with me is because, after my day at the magazine is done, I, too, try to make art. And because I’m the editor in chief of this publication, and because I’m a fiction writer, it’s my privilege to get to use this letter to offer some advice of my own: Keep your day job — it means you’ll never have to make creative concessions for money. Don’t internalize criticism, or praise — no one’s opinion about you or your art should matter more than your own. Engage with art outside of the genre you practice — it will remind you how many different ways there are to think, to solve, to be. Forget what you’ve been taught about good practices and habits — there is no single correct way to write, for instance; so much of becoming an artist is unlearning what you think being an artist is. If you can travel, then do so, preferably to someplace you’ve never been and where you know no one — a state of discomfort is a fertile place to be. And finally, you have to finish at some point: The people who get published aren’t necessarily the most brilliant writers — the people who get published are the ones who complete their work.
It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? And maybe it is. After all, art making is mysterious. It is also tedious. And somewhere between those two poles is where the artist lives: magic and drudgery, day after day, for all the lucky years of our lives. — HANYA YANAGIHARA
The creative life is one defined by insecurity, doubt and uncertainty (as well as overconfidence, arrogance and delusion). We asked 40 poets, painters, photographers, filmmakers, actors, musicians and writers to share hard-earned wisdom for every stage of an artistic career.
Don’t do this unless you have no choice. There’re easier ways to make a living. All the artists I know really had nothing to fall back on. I can only speak for myself, but I was never going to be a lawyer or doctor or mathematician. If you don’t know if you’re going to be an artist or not, well, then you shouldn’t do it. It’s a waste of time. Once you make a commitment to being an artist, the universe makes room for you somehow. But you have to make a commitment. If you’re thinking about being a biologist or an artist and you’re good at biology and it’s really a tossup — be a biologist because it’ll be more rewarding for you. You should find what you love to do and get someone to pay you for it. That’s true with everything.
My advice might only be relevant to young first-generation immigrant artists. I came to the United States as a student from South Korea via Hong Kong. Despite my fluency in English, I struggled for a while to fully understand American English and many of its cultural, economic and racial references. As a result, I couldn’t read people, and people couldn’t read me. This created a huge barrier. I started to adjust to my life in the States after I got a job, which allowed me to work with local community activists and leaders — American Indigenous tribal members. I learned about U.S. history from their perspective, which also helped me to understand my own displacement and diasporic position. So my advice would be to connect with your local community or history and critically examine your own location or dislocation within the country. This will inform what, how and why you want to write.
Wear a condom. When I was in my early 20s in San Francisco, I hung out with this group of gay male friends — see, I never had a group of gay male friends until then. When you have time on your hands, you go full-throttle. We’d be at [the gay bar] the Eagle every Sunday, blacking out and waking up in motel rooms with different guys the next day. It was chaotic, and it was definitely a fun time. We believed our self-destruction was very sexy, but if we’d been a little gentler with ourselves, that would’ve been equally sexy. What’s that quote from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”? “My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.” Be kinder than you dare to people.
Become very specialized in what you do earlier rather than later. Maybe that means having a little bit of FOMO about the many possibilities of what you could be, or might want to be, but it helps as an artist to become very specific.
I wish I’d appreciated myself earlier on. There is only one of you in the whole world, and you have to trust that. It’s important that you never try to copy or sound like anyone else. But you can admire their work — I’m always open to appreciating other people’s talent.
Subvert the paradigm through as many filters and vantage points as possible. Refuse to accept premises that don’t result in your being regarded as an equal. At the core of Black creativity is the will to express yourself. Blackness is a series of sociological constraints, and so the fact that we persist in making work — that’s inspiring to me. Not simply because it’s a redemption arc but because it demonstrates a greater fallacy in the world. Someone in fashion might say, “The lace must be done in exactly this way, in exactly this mill, in exactly this town in old France.” No: That’s a very specific myth that had the power to become a globally accepted ideal. But that ideal doesn’t exist on the South Side of Chicago.
My mother encouraged me my whole life. Everyone needs someone like that. If you can’t find that person, then you must be that for yourself. When my mom doesn’t pick up the phone and I’m terrified that I’m never going to work again, I have to dig down deep inside and tell myself that I can do it. So you need both. You need faith — and I don’t mean church but a belief in the thing that we can’t see. You also need a person who can stand in your corner, whom you can go to openly and leave whatever it is that needs to be left at their doorstep. They’ll help shoulder the hard times. Nobody goes through this life entirely alone.
You can’t wait for permission. You just have to do it. It sounds really simple to say, but showing up every day and doing it is the most important thing. It’s like going to the gym but for your brain. Being a writer is so frustrating because you have days where you literally feel like you’re stroking out and brain-dead and you’re concerned. But then you have other days where you’re like, “I’m a genius, OK? Go off.” Sometimes, those two moments can exist within an hour of each other. You have to surrender to the process, which can be maddening.
I’m also going to use an ugly word: “ambition.” I’ve always been very, very ambitious, and we don’t talk about that in relation to our work because it makes it feel less chic. It makes it feel premeditated. Every profile I read of a successful person is like, “I was just walking around! I don’t know how I got there! It fell into my lap!” Actually, babe, I don’t think so. It’s very rare that someone gets plucked from obscurity without their consent and thrust into the spotlight. I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about wanting things, or wanting to be heard. You need a sprinkle of delusion. There was no road map for someone like me, a gay disabled person, to exist. There was no reference point. People are addicted to reference points, especially in Hollywood. They need proof of success. Otherwise, they’re fear-driven and spineless. I had to walk around Los Angeles with the confidence of [the actor and comedian] Rob Schneider in the ’90s to get what I wanted — do you know what I mean?
Learn how to advocate for yourself. I figured this out relatively late in life. It would’ve saved me a lot of headache to realize this sooner, because I was naïve. You think, “Oh, hard work is enough. It will get you in any room.” That’s not true. There’re so many other factors that come into play. Make sure that you’re not subjecting yourself to environments that’ll be detrimental to your self-confidence or self-worth, because that can set you back years. Learn the language required to advocate for yourself, and don’t be afraid to do that.
I was one of the only Black girls in my class [at the Juilliard School]. It was extremely hard. I felt unseen. There were things that I couldn’t do. I had such difficulty figuring out how I could bring myself into the classics, for example. Am I colorless? My playing Hedda Gabler [the titular character of the 1891 play by Henrik Ibsen] is very different. No one was having those conversations, or even thinking to have those conversations, at that time. I’m also usually very vocal, but I was silent. I’d observe and listen. Some teachers would confuse this with judgment. It took me a long time after Juilliard to let that energy go and trust myself again.
You think you’ll always have the energy you have at 20 or 24 or even 28. But you won’t (no matter how much wellness-industry rigmarole you try, you really won’t), so commit to those physically ambitious, mentally taxing and time-sucking ideas now, while you can still pull an all-nighter and not be wrecked for the following week. Someday, you’ll care about a little something called quality of life, and you’ll mourn the fact that you didn’t run full speed at a proverbial (or literal) wall back when you had the bounceback of a fresh rubber band and not the sag of a vintage scrunchie.
Don’t be so cruel to yourself every moment you’re not working, because all of that living you’re doing will come in handy later. It won’t be the best time, or even the sexiest, but it’ll be the most heightened. You don’t even cry once a month in your 30s, much less once an hour. Can you believe?
Your first collaborator’s a bit like your first lover — you have trouble imagining anyone else will ever make you feel that way. But dozens of people will (“It’s the 21st century, we’re sex positive now, Dad!”). So don’t be callous or cruel, but remember that nobody else is the major ingredient to your creative formula. If you think you can’t make work without them, it means you should probably try. Any partner you’d want knows they’ll survive without you. Any partner you think you need means you should go it alone.
For this feature, T asked four visual artists to create original artwork that complemented their own experience and advice.
I made this piece while thinking about the studio as a space that mixes both the professional and personal — the two doors represent the membrane between the private and the public. So the dining table is also the worktable. The bay windows are from my parents’ house, so the space is kind of an amalgam of personal memory and fantasy. You have to be defensive about your studio practice. Keep it very safe. It’s the only place where you’re the one in charge. When I was at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, I studied with a professor named Jo Smail who had a mantra: “You really only embarrass yourself if you never embarrass yourself.” That’s very true in the studio. If you’re trying to cover your tracks or make sure you have an art object at the end of the day, it’ll always be mediocre. You have to be open to what isn’t immediate in your work, to what can come from the material. I really believe in that: In art, ideas can happen that’re outside of you.
I had to make the art world bend for me. I was doing everything wrong. I didn’t go to art school, for instance, which is, in my experience, more of a networking thing. Unfortunately, there’s not as much growth as there should be. People get lost in it — as academics or in their practices. It can be an unforgiving place. I studied economics at U.C.L.A., which is an unlikely way to make it in art. But I’m of the opinion that if you’re doing good work, you’ll be noticed. There isn’t a conspiracy to keep you out. Eventually, the art will be recognized. It may take time. In my case, it did. I was never one to wear out my shoe leather and shake hands and show my artwork to galleries and so forth. I wouldn’t necessarily follow in my footsteps. But really, the best thing I could say is: Concentrate on the work itself — whatever kind it is.
As a high schooler, I wrote terrible poems. But when I realized the subject of writing wasn’t far away from me but close by — in the field behind your house, or the dirt beneath your feet — I understood what a poem could be. I wrote about my parents, my grandparents, my family in Louisiana — people I didn’t see in the books I read. Understanding that literature was about them was probably the biggest leap for me. I didn’t discover some confidence in myself; it was more like, “I have to tell this story.” Doing so was very urgent and important. I stand by that. It was crucial to learn that poetry was about everyday people, places and things. It was finding the extraordinary in the everyday.
We live in a very hierarchical world where there are strict lines between selling out and purity. This is the moment not to get paralyzed. You can worry so much that you just stop. Use all your senses and exercise them. And forge your values.
The quality of your intuition will improve depending on your experiences. And how you experience things will depend on how you navigate the road between genius and integrity. Think about the people in all the professions whom we know and have met and experienced, and think about the people you respect, your role models — make sure you’re not just imitating them, that you’re actually getting to their DNA. If you love [the pianist Vladimir] Horowitz, you don’t want to mimic his timing, you want to figure out what makes him tick. For me, it was considering [the Spanish cellist] Pablo Casals, who actually stopped performing in certain countries, including the United States, because the Allies didn’t get rid of [the dictator Francisco] Franco after World War II. I thought, “At what level do you give up a thing you love?”
When you are young, the biggest distraction can be falling in love. Even if it’s going well, it’s full of turbulence. To be able to channel your feelings in a disciplined way helps. Painting is like playing a musical instrument. It’s very different from writing — we use language all the time — whereas painting is an acquired art. It does need constant practice. I believe any musician would say the same thing, that you have to practice every day. For me personally, without my painting, I really would’ve faced despair. Well, I did face despair, but it was painting that actually brought me through and helped me to steady myself and to maintain a sense of my own identity, which might otherwise have been swept away.
Spend time alone. One of the reasons I was able to follow my dreams as an artist is because my mind did a lot of exploration on its own. I was an only child, so being alone was easy for me. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California in a very small agricultural town. It was mostly Mexican immigrants, primarily undocumented. I was raised among farm workers, and there was no fashion. None. As a queer artist, I always understood that I was a spectator. I was fascinated by the way people presented themselves: how the guys would dress up to go out at night and slick back their hair and iron their shirts and pants; how the women would get ready with their lipstick and hair spray and eyeliner. That was my glamour because that was about as glamorous as it ever got. I was motivated by knowing there was something different about me. I carved my own path. I didn’t always have the support of the community around me, because it was a poor community and people were more concerned with the simple things. I always wanted something beyond, something greater.
What do other people get out of your work if you share it with them? That’s a really interesting question, because I lacked ambition. I always dreamed that if I could do something that put me in the same space as a person I really admired and I could talk with them, then I’d die happy. That’s still how I operate. I’m trying to make work that allows me to participate in the conversations I want to have with the people I want to have them with.
I set really clear goals for myself, which I wrote on index cards and then taped to a wall. When I was younger, I had very specific parameters: “You’re not working for free.” “You’re not working for trade.” “Get a guest spot on a TV show in the next five years.” I moved in with my friend from college who was the star of the theater program. He had an agent; I didn’t. One day, after we had been living together for six months, he came home and was like, “You know, they’re seeing a bunch of different types of people for this show called ‘13 Reasons Why.’ It’s based on a book — you should read the pilot. My agent just got me the audition, but I feel like you’d be good for this.” I’d never really auditioned for anything before on camera. So I did, and it worked out, but I thought I was only going to be in a few episodes. Then I ended up being in a lot of the first season and a lot of the second. I found myself in a situation where most of the index cards I’d made for the next five years were done in a year. And I was like, “Great! I did it!” Then I thought, “Well, now what do I want to do?”
Be a sponge. Listen and observe. You don’t have to know everything, because how could you? When you’re first starting out, you can get trapped by this feeling that you have to know everything. But that’s not true. There are people I’m still learning from. Every night right now I perform in “The Music Man” on Broadway, and I watch [my cast mate] Jayne Houdyshell. I just stare at her, observing her genius as she masters a look or a line. You’re constantly absorbing and learning throughout your life. That doesn’t ever stop.
My advice would be to seek out a mentor: someone who supports you and wants you to achieve your own voice and vision, and who can confirm that in you. Real poets can recognize real poetry in a young person. I hadn’t met actively practicing poets until I got my M.F.A. There, I discovered that what they wanted from me was my poetry, which I hadn’t learned how to commit myself to. I wasn’t confident; a good mentor can help you find that center of your creativity and build confidence. My teachers that year were fantastic. One — the great C. K. Williams — was just extraordinary. He was tough on me because he knew that I had something, or he suspected I did. He wasn’t having any of the B.S. I was producing. I was writing jive poetry. I have a really good ear, and I can imitate anything, so that’s what I was doing. But I wasn’t coming up with anything of my own. Once, I brought in a poem based on Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957). I did this dramatic monologue of Washizu Taketoki, the character [Toshiro] Mifune plays, who’s Macbeth, just before the arrows strike his body in the movie. I thought it was very clever, using Shakespeare and all that. Williams looked at the poem after I read it in class — he had these big eyes — and goes, “What next, Hongo, ‘Two Gentlemen of Osaka’?”
When I was 14 years old, I had taken this poetry class one summer with [the poet, editor and journalist] Quincy Troupe. I’d ride the bus from Gardena, which was a largely Japanese American town, to Watts, which was a Black neighborhood [in Los Angeles]. One time, I saw this woman sobbing on the bus. Nobody did anything. Then this kid walked up to her and put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Hey, is everything OK?” She pulled him down into an embrace. He was bewildered. The scene stayed with me, but I never really remembered it until one night when I’d run out of nonsense to write. I composed a narrative poem about that moment and turned it in. My classmates had all been cued by C.K. to give me hell, so they all ridiculed the poem, calling it sentimental, unbelievable. C.K. shut them up and went, “You’re all wrong. This was the real thing.” He looked at me and said, “Garrett, if you can write like this, I don’t know why you waste your time on all that other [expletive].” He waited another beat: “What’s more, I don’t see why you’re wasting mine.”
To someone just starting out, I’d suggest finding a good teacher or institution where you can go and study acting as an art. Though when you’re actually doing it, it’s not an intellectual process — you want to be free to experience the moment. So much of what you learn in training is how to listen, to allow your focus to be off you and on the other actors, which is the great relief that acting can bring. If you respond intuitively, that’s gold. In the moments you feel like a phony, that’s when you go back to the basics, which is what [the Russian theater director Konstantin] Stanislavski taught: “What do I want? What do I do to get it? And what’s in my way?” The more that’s in the way, the better off you are because you need to have a hole inside of you that you’re trying to fill. Sometimes, of course, you just need a job, and if you get a gig that isn’t satisfying those higher artistic ideals, that can be OK. Work is work. If you can be selective and follow the work you love, that’s a privilege.
I regularly took time off because I had four kids, so I was stopping and starting a lot, which ended up being a good thing. Some people don’t want to have children, and they’re able to dedicate themselves in a different way. I’ve found, though, that when you have responsibilities that are outside of yourself, it makes your work better. And your desire to continue to excavate and express the inexpressible doesn’t leave you. It might wane, but then it comes back.
Having come from a family that didn’t have a lot of money, I was never scared to be broke. That’s really important. You learn very early on to keep a low overhead, but you also can’t be fearful of the struggle, because it’s going to be there in some way. I was lucky enough to come up in the age before social media, so I wasn’t surrounded by images of everybody else out there living their best lives. What I saw were my friends around me, us eating rice and beans or having potluck dinners. And I saw my rent checks bouncing. People would be going to a movie or a club, and I’d say, “I got to pass because I don’t have any money.” Some of those nights, I stayed home writing, trying to finish a book that would eventually get me paid, and then putting my clothes together to go work as a temporary secretary at a bank in the morning.
Choose something you love doing because you’re going to be doing it every day. I didn’t think I could be a writer, because it wasn’t what people in my family grew up to do. Our family believed in the larger idea of the Great Migration. My mom brought us to Brooklyn for better opportunities, for better education. We were supposed to grow up and get jobs because that’s what she did. She had a job, a paycheck and a pension. Eventually, you married, bought a house and you had some kids, and that was the dream. Of course, this wasn’t mine, because I didn’t like doing the same thing every day. I saw my mother’s unhappiness. Witnessing this — that she had this job that she was really proud of, that she bought a home and all of this stuff, that she was able to raise four kids as a single mom and that she was able to have this so-called American dream that didn’t make her happy — was heartbreaking. I equated working a day job with not leading a life that was emotionally fulfilled. From a very young age, I asked myself, “What is it that’ll make me happy every single day?” It was writing.
Pay your taxes. That’s the best advice I could give any artist. People get into tons of trouble when they don’t pay their taxes.
In my mid-30s, there was a lot of upheaval in my life and, for whatever reason, I started feeling like I wanted to invest more in writing. I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was one of the few experiences in my life that turned out as good as or better than I’d imagined. I was 36 when I started, and to have all this time to think about books and ideas was kind of a miracle. It was also difficult. I wasn’t afraid it’d end with me being unable to support myself — I grew up poor and can hustle. It was the work itself that was hard. Ultimately, though, it was a transformative experience. My professors would talk about things that seemed very familiar — things that were beyond me but that I understood. I spent my last year there in a kind of fever spell, and I finished my novel on graduation day.
That book was a gift, and what happened to it was a gift. But the cost of a big success like that, particularly with a first book, was that I didn’t quite know who or how to be. Part of the bargain is that you have to take off your small-“W” writer sweatpants and put on your capital-“A” author cap and go out to talk to folks. I sort of lost my muscle for writing, and my discernment. It took a while, and a lot of trial and error, for me to find a new way to write and a new kind of privacy. I don’t mean like Kanye and the paparazzi. I mean an internal world that’s unassailed by external voices.
One of the great things about writing, which is also one of the awful things about it, is that no two books are alike. You never fully learn how to do it, but that’s a good barometer. If you’re utterly confident, that’s a red flag. But if you get to the end of a project and think, “It’s not perfect, but I’ve done everything I know how to do, and maybe more,” that’s deeply satisfying and completely personal. It’s between you and the thing you made.
Don’t wear yourself out. At a certain point in my career, in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was really well known as the singer and performer Kiki DuRane; it was an act that people really liked, and it brought me a level of success. But I was feeling stuck. I had to make a big decision as to whether I was going to continue. I was drinking and doing drugs and avoiding the fact that I wasn’t really happy. And so, at the age of 43, I went back to college and got my master’s in scenography and live art at Central Saint Martins in London, just to shake things up. I believed in myself enough to walk away from Kiki, do what actually gave me joy and change my life. I took a big pay cut and disappointed a lot of people, but I did what I felt was the right thing. I didn’t allow myself to be trapped in a success. I kept moving.
I was lucky because I didn’t have children, so my responsibilities to other people were minimal. I was able to take a risk. It sounds easy for me to say, “Oh, yeah, just drop everything and go follow your muse and do what’s right.” What I really mean is, don’t get yourself so caught up in material things. I do what I need to support myself as an artist, not as a lifestyle.
I don’t really enjoy giving advice, but what I do enjoy is sharing what I know. Art and activism are inextricably bound. There’s no choice any longer. I come from Baltimore, where Freddie Gray lost his life in the police van [Gray was a 25-year-old Black man who was arrested in 2015 and died from injuries sustained while riding in the back of a police van, setting off a wave of demonstrations; the officers were subsequently cleared of all charges] — that’s six blocks away from the house where my family lived for 64 years.
Both of my parents had dreams. In my mother’s case, she wanted to be a chorus girl. Her parents said to her, “No decent colored daughter of ours is going to shuffle her way through life; we barely shuffled our way off the plantation.” My father wanted to be a singer. He had a beautiful voice and sang in the community, but his parents said to him, “How can you be a responsible husband and father with such an insecure profession?” So both of my parents did other things. And somehow among their 11 children, one of us was fortunate enough to receive those X and Y chromosomes of their deferred dreams. I’m lucky number nine. Do you know the  poem by Langston Hughes called “Harlem”? It’s the one Lorraine Hansberry borrowed for her play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Here it is: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore — / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over — / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?” So those dreams exploded in me.
Learning how to deal with people while also getting what you want is an art. Show running is so crazy in Hollywood. You have to possess all these qualities that shouldn’t exist in one human. You become a manager of people. What artist is that? We can barely manage ourselves! But I really liked being a champion for a team, empowering people and letting them feel that they had a hand in making something. The end goal for me was finding how to get to a place where my original intention is unaltered, despite 40 million people weighing in. To do that is work. It’s a lot of social work. It’s understanding baseline human behaviors, wants and desires. Having those tools gets you very far. Also, if you’re a fun person, you’ll work forever because so many people are nightmares. By being a nonpsycho, you already have an edge.
For this feature, T asked four visual artists to create original artwork that complemented their own experience and advice.
John Baldessari has such a sense of humor about his work that I relate to. My piece is a riff on three Baldessari paintings, including “Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell” (1966-68). I crossed out the “Who Want to Sell” part because I wanted to de-emphasize the commercial art market. A lot of practicing artists aren’t actually selling work. They’re doing other jobs or they’re at home writing an application to fund another project. I think that’s a more realistic picture of the bureaucracy behind making art. I’m a former proposal writer — I used to write them for nonprofit organizations, where what you request is straightforward: “I need $100,000 to house this many people.” But in art, it’s more like, “I need some space to think and live and have generative conversations and do things, and then I’ll make something, but I can’t tell you what it is just yet.” It can be really tricky. So much of what and how you create comes from just living in the world. That can be scary, so it’s easy to get boxed in if you make something that gets a response. Don’t be afraid to jump genres. Make the work you want but, also, turn in those applications. All of them.
You’ll always deal with insecurities. That’s just part of being an actor, or any kind of artist, because you need to have that sense of not being quite sure of what’s going to happen. In the ’80s, I got a role in a fancy period film called “Valmont” (1989). I told this older actress on set, Fabia Drake, that I was nervous, and she said, “Ah, yes, divine discontent.” She meant that there’s something we can welcome about that feeling. I also like this quote from a Henry James story [“The Middle Years,” 1893]: “We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
Working as a high school teacher and now as a high school curriculum developer as well as an adjunct alongside my art practice has allowed me to think about how learning is core to all I do in life. The most ideal learning space is one where you have the opportunity to play, to self-discover, to explore. All of my projects are me trying to share what I’ve discovered or to create environments for others to learn with me. For the past couple of years, I haven’t called myself an artist, I’ve called myself a learner. I’ve been using this language because I find the word “artist” to imply a certain narrowness or a certain expertise that I don’t identify with. There’s humility in focusing on learning.
I had a really amazing and very abbreviated studio visit with [the painter] Agnes Martin when I was a college student at Bard. She was just as you’d imagine: a very self-contained butch lesbian. I had this whole rap about why I was doing what I was doing. I was making these very bad paintings, and I had all these justifications for why they looked the way they did. She came in and I ran my mouth at her for about 10 minutes. Then she looked around and said, “You think too much about other people,” and walked out the door. My jaw was on the floor. It shocked me. It was like that scene in the movies where people babble, and then someone slaps them to stop them. She wasn’t mean, but she was exactly right. I’d imagined that being an artist was like being a good student who could figure out the assignment and become a teacher’s pet. That visit made me a better artist.
For this feature, T asked four visual artists to create original artwork that complemented their own experience and advice.
I originally made this piece with the intention of positioning [the artist] Tschabalala Self at its center when we were [at the Yale School of Art] in 2015. I was experimenting with using painting and video in order to explore the history of school desegregation and present-day police brutality against Black children and was dedicating the effort to Aiyana Stanley-Jones [a 7-year-old girl killed by Detroit police in 2010]. Then it lay dormant for years. In 2016, [the painter] Eric N. Mack let me store it in a corner of his studio in the Bronx. Then it moved again, to my Brooklyn studio at ArtBuilt. Last month, I unfurled it and it broke into three pieces. I called up [the painter] Jennifer Packer and asked her, “Should I let these go now?” She replied, “I don’t think you should throw them away.” So I held on to them.
Finally, I got the work to my new studio in Massachusetts, where things started moving. Orderly direction comes from getting lost in the work. My eyes and my hands know what has to be done next because of what the painting is showing me. Visual artists need to encourage each other before certain outside values are ascribed to a thing. Sometimes, we can learn the true meaning of a piece by hitting pause so that it can change and possibly take on a new form that we can’t anticipate.
It takes money to make art, whether we like it or not — so you have to figure out where that money’s coming from. Why is money so important? Because you have to keep answering the phone. At a certain point, you can’t do that alone. You need to hire people to help you. And even if you’ve hired people, you’ll find yourself working for them because you’ll then be forced to create work for them to do in a meaningful way. That’s just the running of your studio. Then there’s the business of the openings that you’ll be asked to attend, the dinners to which you’ll be invited — this, that and the other. The business of art can take 95 percent of your time. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, you could be spending 98 percent of your time doing that, and there’s a big difference between 95 and 98 percent, right? So spend less time on the business of art because you can delegate it to others, which gives you more time for your own work.
I feel like I’m just in my midcareer now. I’m far more successful critically than I am commercially, and so I have fewer people to delegate to than I wish I did.
When a curator invites you to do a show, or someone sends you a proposal for something that you think isn’t really what you want to represent, it’s important to say, “No thank you, I’m not interested.” Consider who you really are. You gain more respect for yourself and from the outside when you say no.
I see myself as more of a creative than an artist, because I have a dialogue with a client and work with a team. In the West, we always celebrate the individual, but fashion is a collective process. Obviously, I’m the driver of a certain vision, but I’m not the only one.
But whether to an artist or a creative, I’d give the same advice I was given. Around 2003, before I started designing, I was working in a fashion showroom in New York where one of my clients was a French sneaker brand, and a delivery arrived so late that the department store wouldn’t accept it. So here I was, stuck with all these sneakers, and I needed to figure out how to sell them. I went to see the owner of a different sneaker chain — his office was at the top of a very steep and narrow flight of stairs — carrying bags full of shoes. When I started taking the pairs out and putting them on the table, he said, “You’re going to make it. But when you do —” and then he pointed to a sign that read, “Don’t believe the hype.” He was someone who’d found success at a young age and never allowed himself to rest on his reputation.
I’d like to believe that I’m still a midcareer writer, just as I’d like to believe I’m still middle-aged. I’ve written less than I feel I should’ve, and I’d like to have a lot more time to catch up; and I don’t want to die. But the grim truth is that, even though it’s surprising to me and it seems unfair, I’ve begun the late phase of both my writing career and my existence. That it seems to me unfair doesn’t speak well of me. But that’s what being an early late-career writer feels like to me: an unholy three-way marriage between all the anxieties, insecurities and terrors that have accompanied me for as long as I can remember, all the regrets over mistakes I’ve made since becoming a midcareer middle-aged writer and an increasingly insistent awareness of my physical and mental being headed toward its noncancelable appointment with nonbeing. It feels like my job now is to figure out how to remain engaged with the world, in love with the world, turned on by the world; how to remain capable of delight in the pleasures of inventing and imagining; how to keep seeking out plausible occasions for hope while remaining as brave and as honest as I’m capable of being; how not to despair; how to believe that generating meaning is the surest way to defeat despair; and, while continuing to try to do all these lively things that writing has always demanded and needed, to keep a watchful eye on mortality and incorporate what I’m seeing into what I write. In other words, my job is to strive to be neither a blissful death-denying idiot nor a dreary, self-pitying panicky old fart.
OK, advice: Try to get enough sleep. Eat sensibly. Stay politically active. Keep reading; keep rereading; keep observing; keep synthesizing. Do not despise the young (even when they’re insufferable, rude, frightening). Locate within yourself the primal sympathy and hold tight to it; find soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering, but stay angry; feel free to toy with the faith that looks through death, as long as you remember that it’s most likely a placebo; and be grateful for years that bring the philosophic mind, even if they also bring wattles and wrinkles and digestive infirmities. And at least consider the possibility that silence in a writer isn’t necessarily failure.
I’m very aware of aging and of knowing that as one ages, one is approaching death. In Buddhism there are the five remembrances, and one of them is along the lines of “I’m going to die, it’s the nature of human beings to die and there’s no escape.” This is something we meditate on. That drive in a young person to write and publish — that’s just not there anymore. Even the thought that “I have to express myself” — it’s just not there. In the past, I’d choose to write. I wouldn’t be with my son often enough, or if my friends were going out, then I’d stay home. If there was a party going on at home, I’d go to the other room to write. It’s very different now. I’ll drop my work to be with a friend. I’ll pick up the phone. Now I think, “I’ll live.” I know there’s less time left. You know that  John Keats sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” about how he’s afraid he’s going to die before he finishes his writing? Well, it’s different when you’re older. I don’t want to die before I can show my love to my friends and family.
Don’t close yourself off. Whether it’s a room of one’s own, or revisiting your memories of self at various stages in your growth, or buying yourself a collection of materials, or going on a hike and collecting natural artifacts, or listening to your favorite music orchestrated publicly or selected privately, or finding new favorites or new friends, or simply going to the gym, on a bike ride, a horseback ride or playing in the snow or on the beach — context is everything. Put it into play and into work.
It’s very hard to generalize, because people get to the late stage of their careers through such a unique sequence of events that amounts to their biography. I can only speak for myself. After the 50th anniversary of my own dance company, I decided only to work if the situation and the subject were an inspiration to me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t work. I’d spent so many years creating on demand — which is part of the profession, I don’t mean to put that down. You’re given three weeks, four weeks, five weeks to make a dance. The curtain’s going to go up. It’s a job, and you get that dance done. There’re many, many conditions surrounding the way that situation happened. But very frequently through my career, I’ve been in a situation where I’ve been engaged in making a dance that I wasn’t inspired to make. And I always felt that my best work came from being magnetically drawn to a subject or piece of music that really excited my inner eye and provoked an irresistible need to create. I’ve choreographed much less since making that decision, but in my own estimation, I think that I’ve done much better.
Starting with “Sunday in the Park With George” [by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, 1984], I seemed to be on Broadway doing a show every season. I learned that it’s very important to make sure that you connect with the role, and that you feel it in your gut. If you don’t, just pass on it and let someone else who connects do it. There’s always a part of me in every role. And for me, “Sunday in the Park” was a love story — both of the art and of the artist.
When you’re carrying a Broadway show, it’s very important to validate everybody who’s making that show work: other performers, the people who sell the drinks in the lobby, the ushers, the stage crew. All of their energy is going toward the stage. I went to see Lena Horne on Broadway when she was 65, and I said, “When I’m 65, that’s what I want to be doing.” And I did that. I’m very fortunate to have such a long, healthy career. You choose wisely. You recognize that everybody’s doing their part to make the show happen. And you bring an open heart to work.
For this feature, T asked four visual artists to create original artwork that complemented their own experience and advice.
“Visual:Ear” (2022) is from an idea that started in 1971 in my first year of graduate school. I didn’t work on it constantly; I thought about it over and over again. I was trying to figure out how to incorporate my interest in music with art. I didn’t begin as an artist; I started out as a writer. The first museum I ever went to was the Museum of Modern Art [in New York], where I saw painting for the very first time in my life. It affected me because I had a speech block as a teenager. I couldn’t talk right, but I figured out that I was communicating nonverbally. And slowly, I became aware that I was a painter. I’m 75 years old now, and I feel like I’m just beginning. To younger artists and also middle-aged artists, I say: You have to let the game come to you. Be patient. Believe in yourself. Trust yourself. Keep your eyes wide open, your ears wide open. Listen to who you are.
I often say, “I don’t want to be the Ann Landers of the art world.” I learned how to be an artist by looking at my predecessors. This year, I’m revisiting the installation of “Womanhouse,” which I first facilitated in 1972. It’s being recast as “Wo/Manhouse 2022” as a way of offering young New Mexico artists across the gender spectrum the experience of making meaningful art. Because of this, you might say I’m enacting advice to other artists.
Many women artists of my generation became bitter because of a lack of deserved recognition. But I’m not bitter, perhaps because I have a global perspective that makes me understand how fortunate and privileged I’ve been in comparison to millions of women around the world.
I’m happy about the fact that success has come late in my career because that meant that I had five decades of uninterrupted art making without ever having to think about the market. I’m all about creating art that means something; I’m not about the market. It’s particularly dangerous now for young artists because they get gobbled up by the business, spit out and then they’re done. What I did — and this wasn’t so much about that as it was about the straight-up rejection of my work by the system; “The Dinner Party” (1974-79) being a piece that everybody wanted to see and nobody wanted to show — was, I made working in my studio my reward. I had a burning desire to be an artist from the time I was a child. After all, who defines what’s good? You have to decide for yourself. I had the support of those who really believed in me, and that’s important — you need people you trust to give you feedback. The art world never supported me. It was the opposite. It tried to kill me.
Stop making work. You’ve probably already said it. You’ve probably already made it. I don’t mean don’t do work, but now is a good time to think, “Do I have to?” I’m currently working on something, and suddenly I’ll be like, “Oh, this is really bad.” The most valuable moments are when I stop. And I wonder: “What would it be like to stop for a year, or longer?” The silence is such a notorious period of an artist’s life. One of the things I noticed in the middle of my career was that my enemies hadn’t made me go away. I might not be getting paid a lot of attention, but I didn’t stop and I didn’t go away. I kept making. The edifice is there. So the most radical thing I think an older artist can do is to be silent. Come back when you really have something to say. There’s no reason to retread.
After you turn 60, if you say or do something and it’s really silly, people forgive you. And if you say something very useful and it halfway makes sense, people are pleasantly surprised. That’s the good part. Hopefully, as an older person you can see what’s coming down the pike better. You can see it from further away. There’s a sense of clarity. You know your time is limited. You can differentiate and maybe occasionally have some choice in saying, “I don’t need to do that. Let me tell you what I really care about.” You’ve gone through several cycles of life. It’s an authority that’s not coming from on high, it’s just an authority of experience.
When I was a teen, I met an older painter and she told me to think of my career as a writer as a long, slow progression. And I did, so that now, in my 80s, I’m doing my best work. Success in old age is achieved by artists (Titian) or composers (Verdi), but it is rare for writers — though I’m probably forgetting some examples.
In my 20s, the great composer Virgil Thomson read my first experimental novel and warned me that the only way for a writer to have a long career was by way of imitating reality. Invention alone was sterile. I believed him, and his statement, as well as my discovery of Isaac Bashevis Singer, made me renounce avant-gardism and embrace realism in its infinite variety.
In my 30s, I discovered the Russian formalist strategy of making it strange — that is, a way of looking at the familiar rituals of our world as if one were from the moon. At about the same time, [the writer] Harold Brodkey told me that writing “they made love” is a lie, since making love is always incomparable and for the first time.
Be kind to yourself. I’m imagining speaking to myself at 90 years old. If I’m still creating, I’d like to make sure that I’m very much enjoying myself and my life.
A glimpse into how creative people live and work, from dawn to dusk to the early morning hours.
Interviews have been edited and condensed. Photos, from top: Jason Schmidt/Courtesy of Marilyn Minter (Minter); John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Choi); Melissa Dale Neal (Purnell); Lucka Ngô for The New York Times (Cheng); Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions (Peters); Courtney Yates for The New York Times (Mohammed); Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP (Aduba); Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times (O’Connell); Olivia Galli for The New York Times (Kalukango); Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times (Dunham); Jason Schmidt/Courtesy of David Zwirner (Pettibon); Brad Ogbonna for The New York Times (Young); Mustafah Abdulaziz for The New York Times (Ma); Tom Jamieson for The New York Times (Paul); Isak Tiner for The New York Times (Chavarria); Dustin Aksland (Smith); Calla Kessler for The New York Times (Dorfman); Ellie Smith for The New York Times (Foster); Steve Varni (Hongo); Celeste Sloman for The New York Times (Bening); John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (Woodson); Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times (Mathis); Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times (Bond); Whitney Curtis for The New York Times (De Shields); Christopher Gregory for The New York Times (Rasheed); Scott J. Ross (Blake); Lelanie Foster for The New York Times (O’Grady); Luis Tejido/EPA, via Shutterstock (Struth); Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock (Hearst); Sean Donnola (Kushner); Jennifer S. Altman/Contour RA/Getty (Kingston); Amy Lombard for The New York Times (Benglis); George Etheredge for The New York Times (Lubovitch); Adria Malcolm for The New York Times (Chicago); Emily Berl for The New York Times (Myles) and September Dawn Bottoms/The New York Times (White).
Digital production and design by Nancy Coleman, Amy Fang and Jacky Myint.
Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article misquoted the artist McArthur Binion on his advice to younger and middle-aged artists. He said, “You have to let the game come to you,” not “You have to let the king come to you.”