The Lessons From Carmen Herrera -A Woman Artist Who Found Success Very Late in Her Life
She was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915. By the age of eight, she took art lessons from a well-known art professor. By the age of fourteen, she chose a school which could help her to pursue her passion-Art and painting. After school, she then joined Architecture course where she came across an extraordinary world of straight lines which fascinated her and influenced her later works.
In 1939, She got married to an English teacher and shifted to New York. She continued to paint and create art but success eluded her. It appears that ‘beginner’s luck’ is not for everybody.
From 1943 to 1947, she studied at a famous art college in New York where she had received a merit scholarship. She then took printmaking classes at the Brooklyn Museum. Meanwhile, she continued to submit her artwork to exhibitions but never could get the required acceptance.
In 1948, she moved to Paris with her husband as the city was a happening place for artists. She was influenced by Bauhaus and Russian Suprematism. She could hang around with famous artists. Her artistic skills underwent a further transformation. But publicity eluded her.
In 1950, She attempted a solo show in Havana at the Lyceum, but the people were not responsive to her works. She again failed. Her husband kept supporting her with a belief that one day she would become famous. Due to financial struggles, they had to leave Paris for New York in 1953.
After returning to New York, she continued to paint. She experimented a lot. But she continued to face rejection in the art world. She faced another problem — Gender bias. The art world was dominated by male. They knew how to work with the system or manipulate the system. She could not get an opportunity.
The year 1965. She was nearing the age 50 by now. She got another problem. The galleries have an unofficial rule to avoid introducing older artists. Her window of opportunity was decreasing every year. But she was not to be deterred. She continued to paint, and the world continued to ignore her.
Though she could not get an opportunity to display her artwork in famous galleries, she tried her hand at some solo shows but success never showed her the face. Meanwhile, her husband continued to be patient, supportive and encouraged her to keep working.
Every day she would get up and make art in the morning. Lack of recognition gave her freedom to practice, refine and experiment. There was no one to appreciate or criticise her work. She could continue to work true to her passion and vision.
She continued to paint in the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s. She was yet to earn any money from her paintings. She was getting older but her grit never diminished. She worked for herself alone. She was her audience. As she was getting older, it was a struggle to keep painting every day. But she continued. Due to lack of money, she could not preserve some of her work properly. They deteriorated.
In 1998, she got the first press coverage of her work — It was a short review of her work being displayed in a small exhibition in a gallery dedicated to Latin American Art. She was 83 by that time.
In 2000, her husband died. She was extremely shaken. He was an empowering force in her life. She lost a major supportive pillar of her life. They lived together more than 60 years. He had a tremendous amount of faith and belief in her. He constantly reminded her that one day she would be recognised. He made sure that she didn’t throw away her work in frustration. He kept her going.
Even after her husband’s death, she would get up every morning and continued to paint. Though limbs were frailing, her will remained firm.
By 2000, she was around 85 years old. She had seen so many rejections from the art world than anybody else. She was not recognised or appreciated for decades. Most of us would have thought that our work was not good enough and would have left the field or shifted to another career. She never thought about all those things. She never stopped painting. It is easier to get frustrated, feel angry, disappointed and fall into a negativity trap when things did not go as expected.
THE LUCKY BREAK — In 2004, her close friend attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan. Sève had publicized a show featuring three female geometric painters. Fortunately or unfortunately, one of the painters had dropped out and he was looking for a replacement. The friend suggested her name and gave a sample of her work. When Sève saw her paintings, he was blown away. He looked at some of her other paintings and was shaken to the core. He realised that he was on to something. He displayed her work in his gallery and it was a massive success. The tide finally turned around.
What followed later was unbelievable. She was covered on the front page of many magazines. She was hailed as ‘Discovery of the decade at the age of 89’. She had a sudden meteoric rise. A long overdue recognition in short span. Her paintings started selling. She became rich. She wished that her husband was there to see her success. Later, her works were displayed at many famous museums among every decade’s greatest artists. She was none other than ‘Carmen Herrera’.
Even after her success, even after she has made so many artworks, she would get up every day and continue to paint with the help of an assistant. She painted till the age of 101. Now she is 102 years.
OBSCURITY IS GOOD — She was not just inspiring for everyone but her life showed us that relative obscurity helps us to produce a wonderful piece of work. You have an option — Either you spend part of your time in promoting your work or use that time to get better yourselves at your work.
CONSISTENTLY COMMITTED — Successful people were successful because hey stuck with their commitments longer than others. Against all odds, Carmen would get up every morning and do the artwork. She did this for decades. She worked every day even when no one else is watching her artwork or incentivising or motivating them. She was consistently committed to her passion.
SELF-REJECTION IS THE BIGGEST SIN — Carmen is lucky that she lived long enough to see her success though it came too late. Some good artists did not live long enough to see their success and many never succeeded. Many factors play a role in a person’s success. We generally think that lack of recognition or success points to lack of quality in our work or art or problem with ourselves. The truth would be one of those environmental factors. If we assume that the problem is with us, with our work, we would go against ourselves. We became the judge and the victim affecting not only ourselves but people around us. This mindset would further ruin our life. Carmen’s works are now regarded as one of the finest abstract, minimalistic artworks. Imagine what would have happened if she thought that the problem was with her. So, do not take anything personally. Be happy and continue to work. Don’t blame yourself, blame the situations.
SUCCESS IS NOT HAPPINESS — Though success eluded for decades, Carmen lived happily every day by keeping her mind occupied by work. Her mind mostly thought about paper, paint, lines, shapes, composition and colours. She never kept the mind idle. She did not focus on the results but loved the work for the sake of action. As long as we keep doing something significant, strive for something personally significant, we would be happier.
INTRINSIC REWARDS — As success eluded for long, Carmen began to stop thinking about external rewards — recognition from others or selling her painting. She became her own audience and critic. Noone besides herself rewarded her work. She did it because she could divert her mind, she could find something pleasurable and meaningful to her life. The research shows that working towards intrinsic rewards than external rewards obtain more satisfaction and pleasure resulting in more happiness.
Working for extrinsic goals mean working for what others would approve or desire. Rather than working for our own vision or passion those external rewards(money, seeking power or fame etc..) would force us to work to meet other’s vision and their biases. It would affect our mind and quality of work. As Carmen pursued her own rewards, her work over the decades was of higher quality. Some of her paintings were sold at a price range of $450,000 to $900,000.
Carmen pursued something which she termed meaningful and satisfactory to her. When you watch her interview, you see how much ‘emotional maturity’ she has. Intrinsic rewards allow us to grow as a person and develop emotional maturity.
WHO OWNS YOUR GOALS? Carmen pursued artistic work from her childhood. Nobody pushed or forced her to choose the goal. She chose her own goal. Even her husband didn’t try to change her goals in life. He, in fact, encouraged her to pursue her goals and passion. People truly value their work if they ‘own’ their goals. Carmen shows that we could be happier and more hardworking if we are following work or goals which we chose on our own. She also proved that if we choose our own goals, we would more likely to persist with the goal against all odds. Are you pursuing your own goals or goals instilled in you by your parents, relatives or spouse?
With age, we experience more, mature more, gain more insights, grasp deeper knowledge, have diverse perceptions — Do not worry about the delay in success, or worry about getting aged. Every day, we are learning something new, experiencing something new — They all are going to help us in future. Keep working, Practising, Innovating.
References:: The 100 years show by Alison Klayman, Wikipedia, Article on Carmen Herrera in The Guardian by Simon Hattenstone, Article in artnews.com by Andrew Russeth, Article in ‘Artnet news’ by Henri Neuendorf, The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, The Art of Creative Thinking by Rod Judkins.