Goals, Purpose, Reframing, and Belonging

When I read Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by psychologist Angela Duckworth, it helped me connect the dots behind what I do as an artist and why I do it, and seeing it in the context of my greater purpose in life. I kept this info to myself or friends until recently. When younger artists ask me about motivations, I’ve started suggesting that they think big—not in terms of ambition, but in terms of connecting your art practice to a higher purpose.

For this reason, I really picked up on the clarity with which LeVar Burton (in “LeVar Burton’s Quest to Succeed Alex Trebek” by David Marchese, NYT, June 25, 2021) speaks about his goals and purpose, and the emotional intelligence, wisdom, and reframing that he practices.

“…my goal is to be authentic to myself as well as have a real relationship with those that I come in contact with through storytelling.”

Amazing: Having a clear sense of your goal, who you are, and how your goal connects you with others.

“That’s the nature of who I am. We love to make each other feel good, and feeling good is one of the privileges of being human, as is feeling at all. I gravitate toward the good vibe.”

Yes! The ability to feel is so easily taken for granted.

“I spent a lot of time and energy discovering, defining, divining who I am and how I want to live my life.”

It takes time and attention to develop self-knowledge and core beliefs. These are fundamental to belonging to yourself.

On rejection:

“What does it mean that I got this [opportunity]? What does it mean that I didn’t get that? The what-does-it-mean game is one that I had to get over if I was ever going to achieve equanimity in my life. The real truth that I have come to recognize is that everything that is supposed to be for me comes to me. If it doesn’t come my way, it wasn’t meant for me. It’s all perfect in its design and execution. I mean, the idea that I’m still here 45 years after “Roots”? I’m not only still here but I’m still making a contribution. Those times in the past when I felt like I wasn’t getting my due, out of jealousy or ego — that’s natural, but it’s self-destructive. I learned how to minimize my response to those feelings to the point where I rarely have them anymore. When I didn’t get certain acting jobs, it forced me to develop other skill sets, and that was obviously part of the plan because now I’m able to do what I do as an actor, writer, producer, director, podcaster, storyteller, public speaker. It all happened perfectly because here I am. I feel like this life is a gift. I used to wonder what it was that I did in previous lifetimes to deserve it. How did my soul get here? This is hard to put into words, David: There are times when I experience my life as having been for a specific purpose. I look at Kunta. I look at Geordi. I’ve been able to express humanity as enslaved in the past and as free in the future and do it as a completely liberated Black man. It’s kind of mind-blowing.”

Events that happen to us are separate and distinct from the story we tell ourselves. We can reframe and tell that story multiple ways. Being able to reframe and see things in the perspective that gives you equanimity is a superpower.

There was the time that I found out that the producers of “Glory” wanted me for the role that Denzel Washington ended up playing, and “Star Trek” would not agree to let me go. When the movie came out and then Denzel won an Academy Award, I thought, Hmm. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t for me, and I’ve made peace with that. That which is mine, no one can take away. That which is not meant for me, no amount of wishing or stamping my feet will make it so.

The idea that “That which is mine, no one can take away” is wisdom echoed from Victor Frankl.

DM: When you say your life has been for a specific purpose, can you articulate what that purpose is? 

LB: Healing through storytelling. Bringing joy through storytelling. Bringing information, education, enlightenment through storytelling. That’s why I’m here.

Again, being able to articulate your purpose in life is so helpful and wise.

“…Fred [Rogers]’s example is about being able to be OK with who we are wherever we find ourselves. It’s easy to forget how important that is: simply being fine with who we are at any given moment.”

I’m thinking maybe at the heart of self-actualization (depicted at the top of a pyramid by Maslow) is idea of self-acceptance (which feels to me more circular than unidirectional). And, of course, self-acceptance is another key ingredient in belonging to yourself.


Points of Reference: Good Grief, Fruit and Other Things, Archive as Action

Socially-engaged artworks and events that reveal relationships and faith in humanity.

Claire Titleman: Good Grief Workshop
Mast on Fig, LA

Next Saturday: May 25, 2019

Once, during grad school, I installed my art in a corridor, and an artist named Emily Mast visited, saw it, emailed me, and now I’ve been aware of her goings-on for over 10 years. I try to reach out and email artists whose work I like, sometimes they’re responsive, sometimes they’re not, but I try. She’s opened a space in LA and this upcoming workshop sounds amazing.

Mast on Fig is ever so pleased to announce its second “Intimate Experience” by Claire Titleman! Intimate Experiences are performative experiments (concerts, classes, demos, meals, conversations, workshops, readings, meditations, etc.) for 15 people or less that will take place on a weekly basis over the course of this summer.

Claire Titleman
Good Grief Workshop
Saturday, May 25th  6-8 PM
Mast on Fig
4030 N Figueroa St LA 90065
RSVP here
Limit: 10 people
$10 suggested donation

What would happen if we passed down the legacies of our loved ones — not just to our family but to strangers? Good Grief will be a space for communal grieving, an opportunity to celebrate those who passed with people they never knew. Share something of them, whether it’s concrete or ephemeral, rational or absurd. Play us or teach us a song they loved, read a letter they wrote, do show and tell with an object you inherited, bring in a food they made for you, including its recipe. Mimic their laugh, teach us how to move our hips the way their hips moved when they walked. In this way, instead of creating a legacy that goes in a straight line, we scatter it out into the universe.

The last line is such a beautiful, wonderful gesture. To me this kind of relationship-building, experience-making, trust, and reciprocity are the essence of social practice. If your story can live indelibly in the minds and hearts of nine other people, art objects and documentation are immaterial.

Grief and loss are inevitable in life. And yet death is taboo in our culture, which makes grief feel all the more isolating. You don’t want to “burden” anyone with your sadness. (This is a double-edged sword of positivity.) I love this idea of sharing a joyful memory with strangers you trust because they share grief in common with you.

Lenka Clayton & Jon Rubin: Fruit and Other Things
Carnegie International, Pittsburg

[Last Fall/Winter]

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see this project in person, only online. It’s a beautiful concept that resonates with me regardless. Here’s the premise:

10,632 paintings rejected by the Carnegie International are painted, exhibited and then given away, in alphabetical order

First of all, what an achievement to sum up a large social-practice-and-object project in one simple sentence. Learn more on their project website.

Watch this two-minute video to hear from the artists about their motivations.

For me, the best social practice projects have an elegance, as if the solution to how to develop this project was the most logical solution (yet only the artists would even think to do it). Fruit and Other Things has this sense of elegance, consideration, and completion.

There’s care, craftsmanship, uncovering history, a gesture of acknowledgment and kindness to other artists who faced rejection, generosity, ambitious scale, and distribution (the artworks living in the world). (Not to mention one of my faves, hand-lettering.)

I also like the exhibition design, with the poster board on a pallet (progress towards the 10k posters done made physical), worktables, and the open-top frames on the wall that allow easy change-outs of the artworks. It makes the process of the project self-evident and accessible.

Plus, there’s the democratization of collecting, with the collectors being asked to register on their project website and send in a photo. (This is something I have asked people to do in past projects, with less success. What do audience member-participants owe? To whom do they owe it? What is the nature of the transaction? What does their fulfillment or failure to fulfill their obligation say? What is a reasonable rate of fulfillment: 15% 50%? What do artists receive? How does participants’ completion of the feedback loop support the completion of the project? What do participants receive? How does it enhance their investment in the project or their aesthetic experience of participation?)

Last, I just want to acknowledge how many people are involved in this project. The artists are supported by a large team. All these people ought to be paid for their labor. This type and scale of social practice project requires tons of institutional support. The artists are giving away the artworks for free, and the aesthetic gestures are  conceptual and relational, it may be tempting to think that social practice can happen on shoestring budgets. But actually this is a site-specific commission and live performance which also requires ongoing administration. So congrats to the artists but also to the curators and Carnegie International team for this vision and investment.

Calcagno Cullen, Amanda Curreri and Lindsey Whittle: Archive as Action
Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Through June 16, 2019

This exhibition makes me happy because:

  1. Amanda Curreri is a grad school classmate who’s one of the smartest people I know and her relational actions have a high degree of open-ended-ness and exploration that I find very risky and admirable. She is attempting to do nothing short of re-writing social relations and experiences of power.
  2. Calcagno Cullen is a like-minded colleague from the Bay Area alternative art scene who founded Wave Pool in Cincy, which does super interesting things in community-facing art.
  3. It’s an exhibition of socially-engaged art and all the artists are women.
  4. Though I can’t visit, I got a sense of the exhibition from Sarah Rose Sharp’s “The Potential of Participatory Museum Exhibits” on Hyperallergic (May 14, 2019) to learn more about what viewers experience (H/T Nyeema Morgan). The artists’ practices seem to cover a spectrum of participatory art, with objects to be manipulated, objects as interfaces that collect contributions (artist-as-gatherer?), and objects as props for shared physical experience in real time.

We can all be World-Makers

I am so grateful to know artists who are world-makers. They saw that certain spaces, practices, and institutions didn’t exist in the world, and they decided to create those them. It takes blood, sweat, tears, and huge amounts of guts. Emily Mast doesn’t have to host events in her studio open to the public. Cal Cullen didn’t have to create and run Wave Pool as a different model of a gallery. Before social practice became a legitimized field, Jon Rubin and Harrell Fletcher were doing projects in the CCA library that almost seemed like extended practical jokes. Now they’ve gone on to found programs and nurture future generations of social practice artists. Ryan Pierce wanted artists to experience a different relationship to nature and collaboration found in your typical residency, so he co-founded Signal Fire, which is now celebrating its 10-year anniversary.


Jeremy Deller, My Failures, installation view, Hayward Gallery, 2012. // Source:

Jeremy Deller, My Failures, installation view, Hayward Gallery, 2012. // Source:

I highly recommend this video of a lecture by Jeremy Deller presented by Situations UK. His background and practice form a welcome alternative to the cult of young, ‘bankable’ artists (he was 31 when he staged his first art show—in his parents’ house). He mentioned instances of his indifference to the contemporary art world’s reception and its isolation/self-regard, as well as being pleased when an art object lost its aestheticized status and returned to being an object. I also appreciated his candidness about failure, and its productive possibilities, as seen above.


Jeremy Deller, My Failures, exhibition of rejected proposals


Be Here Now: Artists’ Majority Power

Lately among my colleagues, sharing information and support has been especially active and enjoyable. We usually send links to art opportunities,* and I’ve also been contributing ideas to CF’s curriculum. In a virtual book club, we share intellectual discourse as well as a sense of camaraderie.

I was reminded to be grateful for this generosity after hearing from a disenchanted colleague recently. He was frustrated and fatigued, but worst of all, he seemed to feel hopeless about his position in relation to the art world.

So many artists feel like there aren’t enough resources to go around; that we are all competing for a limited number of opportunities/commissions/gallery rosters/fashionably “in” careers as art stars, and only the already privileged, networked, and fashionable win. It’s true that the art world is structured so that it can’t accommodate all of the artists who would like to make art for a living. As an artist, the odds are that you win some, and lose most. Rejection is unavoidable, and it can result in

an increase in sadness, despair and hostility, and a decrease in self-esteem, belonging, sense of control and meaning in life

according to Todd Kashdan, George Mason University professor of psychology (“Understanding Rejection’s Psychological Sting,” Huffington Post, September 16, 2011). To counteract the effects of rejection, Kashdan suggests cultivating

those powerful human capacities for awareness, openness and compassion

As artists, we have to help each other. We’re in the best positions to understand what our peers are going through, and to hear of opportunities that might be perfect for a colleague. After participating in a public art program in Poland last year, a friend and I shared this year’s call, and colleague’s work was selected. A deserving artist and an interesting program connected.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #40, 2011, glitter gel pen on gridded vellum, 11x8.5".

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #40, 2011, glitter gel pen on gridded vellum, 11×8.5″.

People assume that optimism is simple minded, but it’s actually pessimism that’s all too easy. If you look for reasons to be cynical about the art world, it will provide in abundance. But if you cultivate optimism and enact your principles amongst your peers, I think it will be more rewarding ultimately. Cooperation, not competition, is the best approach for a life in the arts.

Disenfranchised artists might consider RY’s advice:

Pressure leads to perseverance; perseverance to character; character leads to courage; courage to hope.

Since my birthday, I’ve been grappling with a personal achievement gap of sorts—what I’ve done or am about to do, versus some ideas that drifted down from aloft like stray pigeon feathers about where my art career and personal life should be now.

Just like everybody else, artists can easily mistake career achievement for happiness. A lawyer might think, “I’ll be happy when I finally become a partner,” and artists might think, “I’ll be happy when I my career takes off.” The challenges of working day jobs to support art practice are in ample evidence in our daily lives, so we assume that selling enough art to live on will unlock a more authentic state of creative freedom.

But as AV pointed out (in a book club meeting!), art stars aren’t necessarily more free or happier. They may feel like sovereigns of mini-empires, compelled to pump out increasingly higher priced products in order to sustain multiplying sectors on organizational charts, while terrified by the thought of ceding relevance and influence to other artists.

Two ways of looking at the art world. Left: A conventional model where the majority of artists are struggling and strive to become a member of the tiny percentage of art stars. Right: A different perspective, extolling the  benefits of not being darlings of auctions, media, collectors, etc., and appreciating the kinship of peers who are hardworking, inventive,  tenacious, and generous; free to re-invent our practices and shape the communities in which we would like to participate.

Two ways of looking at the art world. Left: A conventional model where the majority of artists are struggling and strive to become a member of the tiny percentage of art stars. Right: A different perspective, extolling the benefits of not being darlings of auctions, media, collectors, etc., and appreciating the kinship of peers who are hardworking, inventive, tenacious, and generous; free to re-invent our practices and shape the communities in which we would like to participate.

I’ve written before that the “art world” is too often equated with a tiny sliver of artists, auction houses, collectors, galleries and critics, who, in my view, are actually on the margins of most artists’ (and people’s) experiences.

Similarly, I’d like to re-frame a pyramid of working artists. I’ve always thought of the vast majority of artists as underlings, trying to claw their way into inclusion into that elite world of international art stars. But just as one chooses whether a half-glass of water is half empty or half full, we can choose to imbue the majority of artists with the majority of relevance (the beauty of majorities!). My peers are vibrant, meaningful, and no less creative and worthy of attention. To complain about this disparity is to reify the minority’s hierarchy. To acknowledge our majority power is to assert our freedom over our attentions. 

Susan O'Malley, Inspirational Posters: Be Here Now, You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be and Listen to Your Heart billboard, Rapackiego Square, Art Moves Festival, Toruń, Poland

Susan O’Malley, Be Here Now, You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be and Listen to Your Heart billboard, Rapackiego Square, Art Moves Festival, Toruń, Poland // Source:

* is an artist-initiated website that offers users the chance to review residencies. I love this idea, and have been hoping for something like this appear for some time. This site is still pretty new, so not many residencies have been reviewed, and I think the interface could use some tuning up, but in the meantime, it’s a great resource for upcoming deadlines.