What They Didn’t Teach Me at Art School

Elliot Collins
Elliot Collins is a poetic painter who operates in what he describes as a "world of free associations", frequently employing words to "visualise the stuff of thoughts" and explore the process of making meaning.

A list of things that AUT University has taught me over five years that I’m still learning to understand and that one day—hopefully during my time completing my PhD—will sink in. This has all come from the tutors of the Visual Arts department, both past and present so I’ll thank you now, you know who you are.

1. Art School is about cultivating authenticity: which means letting go of what people think, and in a way shedding some expectations of others and getting back to you. Whoever that ‘you’ is, is important.

2. You will be lost without community. Even if you just need some cheerleaders (not literal cheerleaders, but supporters) at an opening. It’s also a great way to build resilience. If your peers have got your back you often risk more and try more things, which is vital at university and sets you apart on the outside. This group doesn’t have to be huge but you can’t go it alone. 

3. If you don’t value what you do, no one else will. Learning to say ‘thank you’ is really hard but is ultimately more respectful of yourself and of someone complimenting good work. We don’t tend to do so well at this in our culture, but disagreeing with a compliment is stupid.

4. Nice art will get you nowhere. That’s not to say that there isn’t any room for nice art in the world. You just have to be doing it for the right reasons.

5. It has to cost you. Where do you spend your money, time and energy? If you don’t sacrifice anything, everything will suffer.

6. Making mistakes is better than not making. The rewards of doing anything greatly outweigh the results of doing nothing. 

7. So with number 6 in mind: Embrace uncertainty. It’s the world that most creative people live in. Trying to fight it and make it certain, balanced and safe will keep you from those really good ideas.

8. It’s meant to be hard. If it were easy would you really care about it? Art is hard because you are dealing with really big, scary issues like anxiety, love, mortality, fear, shame, sorrow, boredom, ordinariness etc—essentially just some pretty core things to all of us. But you might just be painting a picture of some grapes.

9. Be / Get vulnerable. Without vulnerability we can’t have joy, risktaking, creativity or connection – and without those things there is no innovation. 

10. Make meaningful work. Let go of ‘supposed to’ and self-doubt. Which, I know, is like saying ‘don’t look down’, and I’m still talking to myself when I’m saying this. Mark Rothko said, “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing” which is a good thing to remember. I’m not sure if the role of the creative arts is to reveal the truth, but it is probably more likely there just to pick up truth and look at it from all angles. Or pull it apart and see all of the parts; not necessarily with the intention of putting it back together.

11. Be kind. To yourself and to others. Competition is great, but let go of comparison. Learning the difference changes everything. Find what it is you do that is special and important and that no one else can do. That is valuable. The world is mean enough without you contributing to unkindness.

12. Only take criticism or advice from the person in the arena with you. It’s like people without tattoos telling me what tattoos I should get.

13. Let it all wash over you. Most of these ideas will take ages to sink in, but don’t shut off to them just because you don’t understand them yet. They will make sense somewhere down the road, probably when you need them to

14. Put down your phone and read a book. A real book, in a park or at the beach—somewhere pleasant. Take a break. The reading of the book isn’t really what’s important here. Cultivating play and rest allows things to happen. If you are out in the world and available for them to interrupt you they will. 

It’s that catch-22 thing: when you’re trying so hard to find an idea and make this thing, which will lead on the next great thing, you get so bogged down with the work and its weight of importance that you go blank, have a breakdown or worse… and the ‘idea well’ dries up.

And then—it’s very annoying—but as soon as you sit down on the bus, or get home, or you’re about to get into bed, this idea arrives. Or you begin to understand some theory and now your brain’s awake again and it’s 2am. If you can tap into those moments when you want ideas rather than being at the whim of your chemistry, you can encourage them out.

Ideas arrive when you unplug and breathe in.