We had the good fortune of connecting with Max Lehman and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Max, any advice for those thinking about whether to keep going or to give up?
The decision to follow a career path in the arts can be a difficult one to make.  There are many factors that can impact whether one has a successful career or not. I think first and foremost you must have a clear idea in your head of who you are and what are you trying to achieve.

Is it fame or fortune? These as a goal are elusive and ephemeral. Success comes in many shapes and sometimes quite unexpectedly.

Is it to satisfy your ego? How do you rate satisfaction? Is it in achieving the vision you set out to create or to reach a career goal? Approval or appreciation can be hard to come by and especially, when you are young, you tend to be overlooked. I have had several students ask me “what is the secret to having a successful art career?” or more basically “how do I get into a gallery?” I believe persistence is important, but you have to have realistic goals and expectations. Fine Art as a market has undergone several revolutions in recent years. The way prospective clients discover and interact with an artist has changed. The once reliable artist/gallery relationship is no longer the only option to placing your work in front of an audience.

Artists today must be able to manage their output, brand, social media presence, PR, and on and on. It is essential to have an understanding of this, and it all comes under the heading of marketing. Everything is designed and packaged and sold to us to fulfill the needs of “the market”.

Whatever one’s goals may be, if you can clearly define them to yourself you can achieve success even if you are only seeking personal success.

Of course the purpose of this article is knowing when to give up.

Years ago, I was going through a rather difficult period in my life, I had divorced my partner of several years, my sales where dropping if not completely gone, and I needed to focus on my physical and emotional health.

With each misstep or failure, I became more unsure of what path to take. I began experimenting with imagery and attempted to work new ideas into my pieces, but it just didn’t work. My expectations were based on previous success and that aspect of my career had evaporated.

Because of these mounting issues I decided to put my art career to one side and made the decision to stop being an artist. Now how do you stop being an artist? Well for me I simply stopped making art.

To some of my friends and acquaintances when I announced I was “giving up” they reacted as if I had announced I was committing suicide. Some were well meaning and supportive, some were not, it can be a strange experience to realize that other’s perceptions of yourself can be based on something completely external. For me it was as if they could not see me as an individual anymore and that my identity as a person was completely interwoven with my work and what gallery I was showing at. The difficulties I was experiencing in my personal life carried no weight as opposed to the struggles I was having as an artist.

My solution was to remove myself, as much as possible, from the negative influences in my life and to focus on the things I had control over. Now this is a very hard journey to make and not everyone is equipped with the ability to see oneself in a truthful light. I began by looking around myself and tried to discern what was supportive for me and move away from the destructive or self-negating aspects that had taken hold of my life.

I went back to the beginning. When I was at college, I followed a course of study that at the time was known as Intermedia, today we call it Media Arts. Notice, for some reason almost unconsciously I still decided to pursue a creative path. So maybe I wasn’t so willing to absolutely give up on being a creative. However, the new path I chose was wholly different from what I had been following for my entire life. I was a ceramic sculptor and now I was going into information technology. My thinking was I could become an animator and because that was computerized, I needed to learn how that worked. I still looked at the world through an overly simplified lens.

Much to my own surprise I discovered that I had an aptitude for coding and therefore I followed a course of study into web development. At this time the internet was still a very new thing and it had not become so completely encompassing as it is today. After receiving a degree, I found myself teaching at the same college that I had been attending.

But I never really lost the desire to make art either as an image creator or an object maker. After several years hiatus from being an artist, with the encouragement of friends I began making art again. But my approach had completely changed I stopped looking for external approval and began making art for myself. Yes, I understand that sounds really cliché but there is a truth contained within that cliché.

I began entering my art into competitive exhibitions and to my surprise not only was I getting into the exhibits, but I was receiving awards for the work, something that had never happened before.

What I had undergone was a complete process of self-reinvention. The person I had been while not completely gone had a new relationship with how to approach creativity. It was less about trying to make a living off of art and more about making something really fantastic. By giving up the old precepts of how I defined success I had found success without seeking it.

None of this is easy, I was fortunate enough that a part of my support structure remained intact. I had friends that encouraged me and the internal fortitude to not give up. I had discovered a new way of being that was more dependent upon my belief in myself and not in how I perceived others saw me.

But the work is not finished, I continue to look for new ways to express myself, my new life motto is, “anything can happen” and I am not afraid to see where that path takes me next.

Let’s talk work? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I have been successful at getting out of my own way, which is an achievement in itself. One of the high points of my career was when I was chosen to Participate in the Herradura Tequila Barrel Challenge. In 2013, 10 artists from 8 cities in the United States were selected to compete in the challenge. The first phase was to compete locally for a $10,000.00 cash prize. Each artist was given a full-sized tequila barrel, no there was not any tequila in it, and 60 days to turn that barrel into a work of art. The winner would then go on to compete against the local winners from the other cities for a $100,000.00 grand prize at Art Basel in Miami FL.  I won the local competition in Santa Fe, but not the national competition in Miami. Regardless it was an amazing experience and definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

Another high point came in 2018 when the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco CA, ran a contest in conjunction with the Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire exhibit. A contestant could submit any kind of work, paintings, photography, sculpture, poetry, etc. I submitted a number of digital drawings that were fantasy depictions of the ancient city Teotihuacan. Once again, I was shocked to learn that I was one of four selected winners and received free airfare to Mexico City, which was another life changing experience.

The point is all of this happened after I thought my art career was over. If anything, I’ve learned not to give up, anything can happen if you believe in yourself and you are willing to work hard to achieve your goals. The point is, you can never find out how far you can stretch your boundaries if you are closed to the idea of working outside of your wheelhouse. Always jump at opportunities and do not be afraid to fail. Learn from the experience and move on to the next challenge. You might just happen to win!

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Well this is Santa Fe and there is no shortage of places to see. Definitely the International Museum of Folk Art and The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. The Bahti Gallery on Palace and of course the gallery that shows my work, POP Santa Fe on Lincoln. For relaxation I recommend Ojo Caliente Resort and Spa just north of Abiquiu or people watching from the Bell Tower Bar at La Fonda on the Plaza. Restaurants are too numerous to name all of them, but La Choza in the Railyard, Maria’s on Cordova, Tia Sophia’s for breakfast and Rio Chama if you want an upscale experience. If you want to have a real local experience, try Sopapilla Factory about 15 miles north of Santa Fe in Pojoaque. You will get a cross section of locals, physicists and scientists from Los Alamos, Sikhs and other Northern New Mexican types. The food is both New Mexican and Mexican, there is a difference, and it’s inexpensive. Try the Carne Asada.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My shoutout is to Darlene McElroy for her undying devotion to my work and James Marshal for his encouragement to begin making art again. If there is one book that has influenced how I see life it is Engine Summer by John Crowley, it deals with concepts of self-perception, communication, and how we become ourselves. I also want to dedicate this shoutout to William and Sharon Havu, owners of the Havu Gallery in Denver CO and Nick Ryan gallery director. A big shout out goes to Michael and Sharla Throckmorton-McDowell owners of Pop Gallery Santa Fe. And of course, my husband Mark Burton who puts up with all of this.

Website: http://maxdna.com
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