There is in stillness oft a magic power
To calm the breast when struggling passions lower,
Touched by its influence, in the soul arise
Diviner feelings, kindred with the skies.
— John Henry
I am seventy-four and have been making art for nearly 50 years. As I have now entered my “golden years,” I feel a need to reflect upon my career; to take stock of both shortcomings and accomplishments and to share something of my life with others. The following synopsis is therefore meant to encourage not only artists my own age who might feel left behind, or unappreciated, but also perhaps even a younger generation facing a difficult and highly competitive vocation that is testing their resolve and creative potential.
Having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s after a stint in the military, I enrolled in art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in the spring of 1969. I soon discovered that I was unsuited for academic life, dropping out after only one semester to continue learning on my own, while also becoming emersed in the anti-war movement. By the mid-1970s I was involved on the periphery of the San Francisco art scene and eventually gained some modest recognition (an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1975, followed by other Bay Area venues), as well as securing a major grant: an NEA Visual arts Fellowship in 1978. At mid-career I garnered the attention of a few artworld heavy weights: Conceptual artists Sol Lewitt and Lawrence Weiner, and philosopher, Arthur Danto. Being an uncredentialed artist, my resume is not extensive, as I have not had all the opportunities that a degree makes possible. Nevertheless, my work has been included in a few group-shows on both coasts over the years. These inclusions, however, never led to representation by a commercial gallery or further group show invitations from museums and other exhibition venues. There were some hard years for me in the 1970s into the 80s; bouts of homelessness and depression, and substance abuse, but I never lost faith in my art or myself.
In 1987 I met a wonderful and caring woman and fell in love. I soon after left California and settled in Rhode Island, joining my angel in a small cottage in Narragansett. Back on my feet and with a small basement studio I was making art while holding down a job as a house painter. With renewed confidence after winning a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship in 1990, I began approaching commercial galleries, “alternative spaces,” and museums. During these years, I also applied for numerous grants: among others, an NEA Artist’s Fellowship; a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant, a Guggenheim (with excellent references), and a Gottlieb Foundation Fellowship, all unsuccessful. I repeated this process numerous times. But ever so slowly, I began to sour on what seemed like endless rejections. One of the last applications was a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship in 2009. All my endeavors to secure funding after the Pollack-Krasner Fellowship in 1990 were unsuccessful. It almost felt like being blacklisted, as if, however accomplished the work was, it didn’t matter because apparently, I wasn’t making the sort of art that interested these institutions. All this effort with no results led me to conclude, like some others, that the system was largely unresponsive to those artists without an inside track with those promoting and selling art, even accomplished artists recognized by art world professionals. To make a long story short, I eventually gave up applying for grants and making inquiries about exhibition opportunities. While my work has found some local and regional recognition since that time, other than a modest imprint provided by my website, it remains largely overlooked; lost in a sea of market-driven mediocrity.
Discouragement has certainly played a role in my giving up on grants, galleries, and museums. But more importantly, at some point around 2010, I asked myself a fundamental question: Why do I make art? With little recognition and no reward, why continue doing something that seems so fruitless? I struggled with these questions for some time, until I remembered what moved me as a young artist; a desire to explore what it means to be alive. I realized that the basic reason that I make art is that it gives my life meaning and deepens a sense of being in the world. As we get older a simple fact sets in: We only have so much time and energy to devote to our calling, whatever that might be. After the first decade of the new millennium, I reasoned that I would invest all my time and energy in art making and accept the relative obscurity of my situation. It was the right decision. And yet, I do wonder about my artistic legacy and what will become of my work when I’m gone. This is much more than a personal problem. This society has never treated its artists and poets with the respect that is their due. Frankly, my disappointment about this has been transformed over the years into a deep sadness, for myself and others. But this transformation has led to an even deeper realization: That the pain that we carry can be harnessed and channeled into positive endeavors resulting in outcomes that can enrich the lives of others. For creative people this may be the most important reason to continue working no matter what, knowing full well that there will be bumps in the road ahead.
Every now and again my inspiration ebbs and I begin to feel as if my creative life is coming to an end. As this dark moment descends, I also begin to question the significance of not only recent work but even the work of a lifetime. The spell of this uncertainty is sharpened by the fact that I have not shared in the worldly success of other artists my age. Whether real or imagined, I sense being judged irrelevant, perhaps because of my years, or my refusal or inability to respond to art world trends and the concomitant drive to exhibit or market my art. This perceived judgment of irrelevance spawns a cloud of dejection that would paralyze some artists, rendering them impotent. For some of us, however, the dejection that results from this perception spins a web of confusion amounting to a futile attempt to counter the darkness that only seems to draw one deeper into its grip. The challenge is, of course, one of will: The artist must accept this darkness and somehow keep his or her wits about them.
This self-analysis is important and necessary because the dejection that I sometimes feel never reaches the point where I question my identity as an artist, although it does give rise to a profound sense of alienation. This painful feeling of being left behind, of being nowhere, paradoxically motivates or energizes the will. I determine to prove to myself that the creative spirit is alive and well. But will, that most personal form of power, is nearly useless because one usually just goes through the motions and suffers one creative false start after another. But perseverance and such false starts can unknowingly contribute to one’s creative process. This floundering might then lead to a reassessment of past false starts: Half-realized ideas that can offer clues as to the presence of the creative spirit. By willfully following these traces I slowly begin to regain my footing and sense of purpose. And then, from the depths something miraculous: That shining face announcing the arrival of wonder. Something greater than mere will once again moves my soul. I feel alive, whole, or complete, comfortable, and confident. I am the artist that I have always been.
— Paul Forte, May 2021