Dealing with Rejection

I was submitting some work for selection for the annual exhibition recently, when I met Michael, a friend and fellow hopeful. While discussing the whole business of submitting work for selection – and how we have to be brave when opening the envelope, taking any negative news on the chin, and walking the “walk of shame” to collect work if it hasn’t been selected – he said something I had never considered until then… counselling.


Every year we select what we consider the best of our year’s output of work for the likes of the R.H.A, R.U.A and other open submission exhibitions: we usually get it framed or cast; we fill out the forms and pay the entry fees; we deliver the work: and then we wait for THAT envelope. It may seem extraordinary, but even without any identifying sign on the envelope, it is recognisable!

At this stage, even after thirty years, I get a sickening feeling, and I can barely manage to open the letter. And when I do manage, I usually loose the ability to read, and scan rather than read the contents. The first indication that all may not be well on the selection front is when 'the numbers who entered' and 'the high quality of the submissions' are mentioned. This is to soften what is coming further on. After delivering the death blow, they sign off cheerily hoping that we 'are not too disappointed' and that we 'will submit again next year.'

It is always extremely disappointing – sometimes devastating – and if anyone tells you otherwise, they are telling lies. It is like a slap across the face, and in public view. This is the end result of placing (what we thought was) OUR BEST WORK in an open submission show. Their decision is final, there is no (and nor should there be) any recourse. So we pick ourselves (and the rejected work) up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again! Gluttons for punishment!

Very few people realise that all this, and much more, goes on in artists’ lives. Some people think that we are all living in a sort of luvvie parallel universe, spending our days getting up late, drinking wine and 'doing arty stuff' oblivious to reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of course we call what we do work, but non-artists call what we do “work”: with emphasis on, and sometimes actually mimed, inverted commas.

Please let me tell you (non-artist reader), there is nothing more daunting than taking out a sheet of paper, canvas, metal plate, clay or stone etc, looking at it, and wondering where to begin. If we are lucky enough to create something we are happy with, there is an almost greater task trying to get it to the public in some way. First we have to frame/fire/cast the work. We have to become agents, approaching galleries or submitting work for exhibitions. There are fewer and fewer open submission exhibitions with the demise of the Independents, An tOireachtas, etc. We have to be computer literate - even if we are from the other side of the digital divide. We have to be good at sums in order to price the work, work out gallery commission (40% to 60%) and make returns to revenue. We have to be able to talk in public about our work and write artists statements* (which I dread). Then, after all of this, we have to face the public with our work, explain it, take criticism(s), and of course, remember to smile, but not too much in case this makes us appear “not serious”.

We are all like individual one-man-bands; and the extraordinary thing is that, most of the time, we manage to do all this, and produce the work! We have had to develop the hide of a rhino, but sometimes the hide becomes perished and brittle and it isn’t tough enough to protect the person.

The negative contents of THAT envelope or a bad critical review can be crippling to some people. I know many who have been unable to work for months, others never recover, giving up completely as a result. If we admit it is painful, are we whingers or moaning-minnies who should toughen up? After all, didn’t we put ourselves up for rejection? I think if it happened in any other profession the reaction to rejection would be different. Perhaps Michael was right: maybe we do need counselling.

*Sheila Pomeroy said recently in an artist’s statement of her own “I find writing about my work to be a stressful task, and painting to be only slightly less so. A writer is never required to paint a statement”.