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Advice To My 22 Year Old Self: Merthyr Ruxton

Penny Kember, alias Merthyr Ruxton, in Paris
Merthyr Ruxton, REDXX, Cadmium red deep oil paint on white gesso on board. Courtesy the artist
Merthyr Ruxton, Landscape. Charcoal on 300 gsm Fabriano paper. Courtesy the artist.
Some golden advice on managing in the creative world, brought to you by a contemporary abstract artist.


Back in the ‘70s in Wellington I did a three-year design course and found myself a job with a print broking firm. They were halcyon days, lots of businesses were starting up and I designed corporate identities, annual reports and prospectuses. It was an exciting time and I just loved the work.

Then they sacked me. I was 22 years old.

It was humiliating – but I was not beaten by what seemed at the time to be a rather strong vote of no confidence in my ability. Instead, I set up by myself – found an office, made myself a business card  and started to call people. I liked working for myself as I was able to make my own judgement calls and if things went wrong, I only had myself to blame.
I found out what I was capable of. Tough times teach you that.

There are many aspects to a creative life. The two worlds I reviewed when writing this story were the ‘upbeat and pushy’ world we artists work in, and the other, quieter world – where ideas grow and form. Magic lies waiting in this world.

Surrender to the off days

You know those ‘in-between’ days – where you pick up the pieces and keep the soul energised?

There are times when you are painting when you will lose the thread of what it is you are doing. Painting can be fugitive like that. There are these moments when the whole point of what you are doing is lost.

I do a *mix paint and put it on a vertical surface* day when this happens. A day of painting without agenda or forethought. The paint paints me. All I have to do is surrender to it.

Take time to think

I am a broken record about meditation and perceptive thought. The creative process needs ‘interior time'. It doesn’t have to be floppy mindfulness where you end up blissed out – and looking goofy. What I am talking about is active, effective, and enormously useful.
Perception has been described as the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through the senses. For me, this is what artists do. It is how they access the world in order to interpret it in their work.  Meditation gives you this access. In my research, I discovered Freud, Newton, Nietzsche and Goethe’s writings. There are many references online to what Goethe called “delicate empiricism” and what Freud referred to as “the oceanic sensation”. It is these sorts of altered states of mind they describe which are so useful for working creatively.

Know your worth when putting yourself out there

I am talking about that feeling that you are valid as an artist. No-one can take this from you. Think honestly about what you are doing and put it into words. 
It amazes me how devastating it can be to get a bad review or an exhibition where you sell nothing. It is a leap of faith to exhibit. We expose ourselves to our adoring public in trepidation each time.

I have no advice for this – apart from suggesting that all artists feel the same – and the fear of failure never goes away!

Review and learn

Learn who you are and where you are going. It is a cliché I know. Try to write an ‘artist review’ of yourself – something that our wonderful critic Terry McNamara might write of your work. It will help you to put into words what you are doing, and how you are doing it.

Learn to talk to people who matter to you. Offer to sweep their floor (just joking).
Do some work on your public profile and make sure that you are visible wherever possible.

And lastly…..

The art world is tough and competitive.
There is a good book, “7 Days in the artworld” by Sarah Thornton.  I would totally recommend it. It’s a fly-on-the wall narrative of the art world.  I wish I had known all that at 22.

Merthyr Ruxton is a  contemporary artist who lives and works on the Tawharanui Peninsular near Matakana.
She will exhibit some of her most recent works at the North Art Exhibition 24-25 February.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

14 Feb 2019

The Big Idea Editor