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An Artist's Courage: Sheila Wolk

Posted Jun 15 2010 8:34am

"An Artist's life takes courage--it’s looking for the light while living in the dark."

Rejection sucks no matter how many times it happens. Failure sucks! Everyone gets a good kick in the teeth at some point, but life seems to go freakishly smooth for some people.

On the flip side, I suppose I'd rather be the one failing than the one who's not trying.  Sitting around the house afraid to try anything, just wishing you could get past the feeling that if you try, you might fail. Those people aren't learning anything; they're stuck until they move.

Nothing changes if nothing changes, right? 

Artists, writers, and many other creatives face rejection over and over again. Perhaps their plight can teach us  a thing or two about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.  For them (myself included), rejection starts to feel like a painful ritual. I tell myself I've adapted, but sometimes it's still like a knife in the heart. As that sharp blade twists, I fight the urge to let that dark hole in my soul open up and turn me inside out.  I try to avoid being yanked back to all the earlier rejections in my life, many that had nothing to do with creativity. 

I fight the good fight, reminding myself of all the positives.  I say that I'm learning and growing but sometimes I just feel like crying.  Sometimes I do cry.  Yesterday my novel, CENTERPIECES , was rejected by one of the editors considering it. She said, "Ms. Przekop is clearly a talented writer."  I should be thrilled that a cream-of-the-crop editor for one of the top-of-the-heap companies in the publishing industry made such a statement about my work. I wish her words could take away the sinking feeling but they don't.

Instead, the negative thoughts kick in
Why doesn't it ever work out?
Maybe I'm not talented at all and people just tell me I am to be nice.
Everyone's lying to me; they probably hate my work.
Maybe they're all laughing behind my back.
Maybe my work sucks!
I'm embarrassing myself.
I'm wasting time.
My writing is worthless.
I'm just not smart enough to accomplish my goals.

My guest today, artist Sheila Wolk , knows that dark place I try to avoid. She's worked hard, pushed on, and believed in herself enough to navigate a few tunnels of her own.  I carry on as well but it's not easy.  Sometimes I wonder if one day I'll be forced to look myself in the mirror and say, "It's over, Penelope. It didn't work out." 

So what keeps us going?  For me, it's hope. I can't seem to completely lose hope, no matter how much bad news I get.  That spark rises again and again, reminding me that there are other publishers, editors, and readers. There are other novels to be written.  Perhaps my imagination enables me to keep believing there are other alternatives, new approaches, and untapped avenues to be explored.  And above all, my strange need to write must be satisfied.  

When I consider the people who seem to have it easy, I wonder: Were they lucky?  Did they just happen to make the right connection along the way?  What did they do that I've not done?  Maybe they truly are talented and I'm just second-rate.  It hurts to think that could be true. It's tough to imagine I've wasted so many hours of my life chasing a dream I may not be worthy of.  

But like Sheila, there's nothing else for me. I can't turn away because this is who I am. Shelia says that sometimes you have to fail to succeed.  I don't mind failing a million times if it gets me there; I just wish it wasn't so damn hard.

What's your story? Are you surprised by where you are or did you always see it coming?

I always knew I was going to be an artist. I dreamed about it starting at age seven.  It was a premonition of my entire life and sense of being. As far as where I am today, I am never satisfied because I am always thinking of what’s next.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes…it happened when I was young trying to plot out my life and financial existence to make it in the Fine Art world.

I majored in Fine Arts in school but knew if I were to be financially independent, the Fine Arts would have to wait a bit so I switched my major to Commercial Art. That was a clear resolve because I could earn a living in an Advertising Agency and then paint in evenings and weekends, my bills could be paid and my goals as a Fine Artist could be met securely in all good time.

I knew that combination of the arts would meld together to make me a more refined artist, so I was assured that any job, as long as I stayed in the Arts, was the wisest decision I could make.

The “ah-ha” moment came later when I entered the “sports art” world, everything I had learned up until then was mentally scattered in different compartments, but with Sports it all came together and I realized it was my entire package of knowledge that took me there. The designing, anatomy, fashion, layouts, hand lettering, technique, power in motion and timing was all wrapped up for me to start my career choice in focusing on the business of creating sports art as Fine Art. I was elated at that one moment, with exhilarated awareness of my “now” and future.

For you, is art more about creation or expression? If could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist?

I would say both with Passion and Imagination added to this ingredient as a complete package. You have to have all four in order to survive as an artist; it is not an easy profession, in fact almost painful at times …it’s a smothering existence with self judgments and decision dissections that are made with struggle, but the “gift” to create, express, imagine and love, is what always kept me going. I never doubted these four ingredients; I was always confidant that they gave me the strength to keep on going.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both?

My father used to say  "sometimes you have to hurt yourself in order to help yourself.” I didn’t understand that when I was young but it all came to light of understanding as an adult, and he was absolutely right! Many many times in my past businesses, I had to fail to succeed. I had to fold companies in order to move on and those decisions were very difficult ones to make. I think the latter applies to me. I have turned negatives into positives.

Example 1:

When I was an Art Director, I thought it would take a lifetime to get to that title and position, it took approx. seven years. After that it all became redundant, the challenge wasn’t there and I became quite unsatisfied with my life.

A friend called me one day and said, "With your expertise in anatomy, your youth, your knowledge and technique of painting, why don’t you try sports art?” At that moment I saw my future take a turn. I painted three sports paintings and called my family and asked for a one year loan. I told them in that one year I would either have a one woman show and be noticed in the Fine Art world , and if not, I would stop and find another Art Directors job…they said OK.

I did up about 25 paintings in a very short amount of time and one day on an errand I saw a sports art gallery in one of the best mid town areas here in Manhattan. I knew that was meant for me!

I went home, gathered all the photo’s of my paintings, put them in an envelope and went to that Gallery the next day.

When I was there the secretary told me I had to make an appointment but I heard the owner in his office talking on the phone. I said, “Can’t he see me now? He’s here!” She said no, so I told her I would wait there until he saw me and I sat down.

She went into his office and he came out and was growling at me that it was not appropriate to see him without an appointment, so I said, “OK, lets make one.”  He opened his calendar book and said, “When do you want to come in?” and I said, "Now!" So I pulled out my photos and threw them all over his book and made him pick them up off the floor, knowing he would have to see them.  We signed a contract right then and there, and in less then a year I had a one woman show! I was written up in the New York Times as a great artist and new discovery, and my career as Sports Fine Artist was written in stone.

I knew he would have had two choices: either kick me out or take me in.  I knew I had to make this into a dramatic negative act to get a positive response, or all would have been lost at that very precious moment.

EXAMPLE 2:

After 22 years of being a Sports Artist I felt the need to leave that realm of art.

I took the inheritance that my mother left me and invested it into creating a new portfolio in the Fine Arts, my hyper-realism art. I had enough to live on for one year and at years end I had a new Gallery and a one Woman Show. The show was a total success ... again making it into all the newspapers.

Back at the opening night…a Museum was asking me if I had a financial supporter, they said my work was needed in the Fine Arts but to build a big enough portfolio I would need the financial aid to keep me going. At that one moment I knew I was doomed. I had nothing left to support me and the sales at the show weren’t enough to keep me going.

Even though my art (in the viewers eyes) was born from genius, I knew I failed in what I wanted to do and to where I needed to go. I was devastated at that moment and felt my art had let me down.

I cried for weeks. I couldn’t function. Then I found the need to paint my sorrow. So I painted a mermaid drowning in a pool of her lonely tears. That comforted me, I took it to my photographer to have it shot and he told me about a relative that loved art like that,  “…on the order of Pre-Raphealite."

And that’s what led me into Fantasy art…and here I am today.  Through all that hard work and ups and a huge amount of downs, I just kept on working with faith and belief in myself and my creativity.  An Artist's life takes courage--it’s looking for the light while living in the dark.

During challenging or difficult times in your life, how has art comforted or inspired you?


Art has been my savior. I came from a very difficult childhood (very dark) and art gave me the escape to survive. I totally saturated myself in the arts, from crayons to the now pastels. I have worked in every medium so I knew which to pick to make my mark in the Art World. I was so obsessed with my passion that I would let nothing get in my way.

In some situations it was the Arts that created the difficulty, like in my marriage or in later relationships too…yes, with men always saying that if I loved them I would have to give up the arts to prove it.  What nonsense!

My answer is this: If I gave up the Arts, it would be giving up my identity.  It’s better for me to be alone and love myself than to be with a partner and be miserable, hence my divorce.  And I'm sad to say that  I've found a soul mate to share a life with, but I have me so I’m in great company doing what I love and never regretting my past decisions.  My paintings are my children--and this is the legacy I leave behind.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it? 

Oh good gosh YES! My parents never believed being an artist was a good thing. They discouraged me all the time. Being from Europe, they couldn’t see art as a profession but rather saw it as doodle in life. I fought with them everyday until I was old enough to move out and keep going where I needed to go.

They insisted that I take typing in high school so I could fall back as a secretary to survive if the arts didn’t work.  My answer to them was, "That’s exactly why I'm not taking that class in typing.  If I can’t type then there is no option for “fall back.”  I would have to succeed in the arts and that’s all there is to it."

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

The most important thing to me was to know anatomy. Then you know you can paint anything and everything in realism. How can a realist artist understand and paint anything with structure, without knowing their own structure first? I don’t mean everyone has to paint realism. To paint minimalism you must know the complexities in order to simplify. Abstract artists can’t abstract anything without knowing what they are abstracting from and why. That’s why certain artists end up in Museums.  They paint from knowledge and open a new door to understanding for other great artists to learn from and discover, then take it further.

I don’t paint the same things; I try to discover new knowledge from each piece. It may not seem that way to the observer’s eye, but growth comes in small steps and those are the things I look for. But subject? I can paint anything from knowing anatomy, but I have to choose carefully for my growth. Creativity is an instinctive search engine. So I laid out my areas to discover so that I end up with a complete story at life’s end.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Huge difference in my opinion. You can have talent but it’s the creativity that glorifies it. That’s the one thing that makes you stand out amongst the others, the twist to the subject, the imaginative difference, and the confidence behind the craft.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I have a few mantras
"Motion creates motion.”
”Without Fantasy there is no dream.”

I have another mantra that I keep to myself because I consider it sacred, therefore it must be mentally repeated but never spoken.
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