Doing it scared…

by Sue Dawson

ALISON LOVES what she does. Her favorite part of her job is getting out and shooting in a variety of locations and conditions, and working with lots of new people. She also loves showing her work in galleries, and meeting people who come to her shows. It can feel like pressure to put a show together, but in the end it’s all very exciting, and validating. All great. But early on, there was one aspect of her work that felt overwhelming…

The first time she taught a photo workshop, for Southeastern Center for the Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, in the mid-1980’s, she was terrified out of her mind. The only reason she said “yes” to the invitation from Neal Chaput (who would go on to start RMSP in 1989) was that it was a good career move. She had to say yes. She knew that it was important, somehow, to push herself. So she did it, terrified. She didn’t sleep for a week beforehand. She read books by Ansel Adams (books she owned, but had never read before), and took copious notes. Alison wanted to be prepared if someone asked about the zone system, even though she didn’t even use it herself. She read photo magazines and other books, studied her notes, and agonized that she didn’t know enough to actually teach others about photography. She also drove her friends and family nuts. She was a nervous wreck.

On very little sleep, she managed to limp her way through that workshop without making a complete idiot of herself. Other workshops followed over the years, each one a little better than the one before. It took awhile, but she eventually stopped studying photography before each class, and developed the confidence to speak for herself, about the way she approaches her own work. And surprisingly, she fell in love with teaching. After all that, it turns out she’s pretty great at it.

She’s still a little nervous before every talk, every class. Every opportunity brings a little fear, right? It comes with the territory, when you care about your work as much as she does.

As it turns out, her angst-ridden past was a gift. When her students are nervous, she can truthfully say that she totally gets it. It’s tough to put yourself out there, especially when it’s your own creative work, your deepest self on display. For her, it was scariest to teach, or give talks. For others, it’s showing their work, or putting together their first show, or doing a book. This is intense stuff.

Alison never really took art classes in college, but I did. There was one class in particular, where a famous illustrator was guest-teaching for a semester when I studied in London. He was brutally honest, scathingly critical. He saw this as a service to his students – the world out there was tough, and he was preparing us for it. I’d work through the night on assignments, trying my best to impress him, to succeed. Once I left class in tears, after he invalidated my project. This was one of the reasons I stopped drawing. His tough art world wasn’t worth it for me, if this was how it made me feel. I moved on to photography for awhile, and then settled on graphic design.

So why am I talking about this? It seems like a perfect time, actually, because we’re offering a new six-month mentorship – a deeper creative experience for our students and ourselves. Alison and I have talked a lot about how we’re approaching this class – the teachings we’d like to do, the technical aspects, the structure for our two weekend retreats. And we’ve talked about what it’s like, being scared or nervous. The creative experience is as much about mindset as anything. It’s often about getting out of our own way (or out of the way of certain obnoxious illustration professors). Alison and I have lots of experience with photography, design, and marketing her work, and we’re both excited to offer this experience to our students. It’s particularly gratifying that we’re offering a safe space for creative exploration, where there is no “wrong” answer.

Alison and I have different ways of handling the pressure to be creative while being perfectionists. For Alison, it’s the research, note-taking, loss of sleep, and obsessive work to perform at her absolute best. I’m the same as Alison with my design work, but when it comes to applied art, it’s been all about buying art supplies, accumulating stacks of beautiful (still empty) sketchbooks, and reading self-help books about getting back in touch with my creativity. In fact, I just set up our guest room as my new studio today. Two very different styles, two ways of moving forward. So now, imagine what happens with each style, when we bring in nurturing support, honest feedback, presence, accountability, and inspiration.

Here’s what Alison has to say about it:

Nurturing support is crucial for an artist, in my opinion. Sue and Claire have been my support over the years. I can honestly say that we’ve all built what we have together. Our gallery, workshops, and mentorship program would never have happened without Sue’s vision. And Claire’s so important to the success of our business that I like to joke with her that if she’d only learn to sign my name, I wouldn’t have to come to work at all. It means a lot to me to pass this gift along to my students.

Honest feedback is also vitally important. When we’re choosing images for a show, Sue and Claire have as much say in the process as I do – they are sometimes better judges of my photos than I am, are more objective, and do not hesitate to give me their honest opinions. It’s tough to work in a vacuum, so I appreciate the clarity I get from our team. I believe in honesty with my students and their work, but always staying mindful to support their vision, help them identify their best work, and help them clarify what’s working for them.

Presence is harder to define, but no less important. There’s something that happens when people you respect – a mentor, a group – are focusing exclusively on your work. Our one-on-one sessions will be all about you and your photography. During our group masterminds, we’ll all be present with you and your creative vision. It’s powerful. Our intention is that you will gain insights during this process, through all of our presence, that push you through barriers, and bring out your own unique creative vision.

Accountability has possibly been the most important key to my success as a photographer. I’ve always been someone who has needed assignments and deadlines in order to produce my art. My early black & white career was built on submitting images to the Vineyard Gazette, with the hope that my photos would appear on page one or the editorial page. I became a color photographer when the Gazette started publishing Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. My annual shows at the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury (my 26th year this past July), and of course having my own gallery since 2006, have always forced me to produce a new, fresh body of work. And my many book and editorial deadlines keep me constantly on the go. Being accountable in this way has always been incredibly motivating for me, and I believe in this for my students as well.

Inspiration is crucial for artists of all types. I’ve been inspired by my students in every single workshop I’ve ever taught. It never ceases to amaze me, actually, since I’m often teaching on the Vineyard, where I’ve been doing my own work for 30+ years. There’s nothing like the excitement I get when I see things with a new appreciation, a new vision. I’m looking forward to the inspiration we’ll all be getting from each other over the next six months.

Sue again:

We’re so excited to get started with the mentorship. It starts on November 12th. There are a few spaces left, and a bunch of people are thinking about jumping in. We already have a great group so far. If you’re thinking about joining us, and are nervous about it, we understand. Maybe now is your time to take your work to the next level, to develop your own unique creative vision.

Photo on the home page teaser by Jamie Fishman

2 Responses

  1. Jeff Macholz says:

    Sue/Alison (and Claire),

    Very enjoyable blog, thanks! So true of how we handle things, I am a combination of both, terrified and I work better under pressure. As many students have said, one of the best parts of the workshop is the one-on-one with Alison (the terrifying part! LOL!). I appreciated Alison’s critique of my older work and the new work I did during the workshop (way back in 2008).

    Last year I was able to put together a bunch of work for display at a local winery. My work was on display for two months, and twice during that time was a “meet the artist” day. Spent lots of money on prints and framing, made very little, but it was a good experience nonetheless.

    Sometimes one wonders, “is all worth it”, “am I good enough, there are so many other better photographers out there”, “everyone has a camera these days, why bother”, etc. The competition is stiff! But then you get the nice compliments on your work, and even though the compliments don’t pay the bills, they are nice to hear.

    Hope all goes well with the mentorship program, sounds like a blast! Wish I had the time and energy to do something like that!

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