Yale alumna says critique is key to growth as an artist

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Shana Waterman ’94 B.A., ’00 J.D. and Sarah Lewis ’10 M.A., ’15 Ph.D. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

In 1904, artist Auguste Rodin invited Virginia Woolf and her friends to his studio for a private viewing of his work. He told them they could look at anything, except what was underneath sheets. Woolf walked over to a hidden piece and began to lift the sheet when Rodin slapped her hand away.

While many artists in Rodin’s place would probably hesitate to slap Woolf’s hand away, said, alumna Sarah Lewis ’10 M.A., ’15 Ph.D., it is important that artists respect their work enough to know when it’s not ready.

“But that’s what the creative process requires: to be able to have enough conviction to know when you’re not ready to show your work to anyone, sympathetic or not,” she explained.

Lewis was being interviewed by Shana C. Waterman ’94 B.A., ’00 J.D. before an audience of students and alumni interested in creative professions at the second “Careers, Life, and Yale” event.

The author of “The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery,” Lewis noted how vital it is for creative professionals to receive critique about their work in order to continue growing. Citing her own book as an example, she said she originally intended it to be a children’s book until her friends convinced her to write the book for adults.

“I sent it to all my friends who are parents and they all said, ‘Sarah, this is great but it’s over every child’s head!’” she said, laughing.

Lewis had been writing her dissertation at Yale when she was inspired to write the book after watching someone “parenting in a really unusual way.” After deciding to write a longer version of the book, she wondered if she could do so and write her dissertation at the same time. However, she credited Yale and New Haven for creating a “safe haven” that allowed her to leverage her time to write both without sacrificing excellence.

She emphasized that artists need a secluded space where they can concentrate on their work and be critiqued in a way that allows them to grow, noting that she couldn’t have written the book if she hadn’t been a critic at the Yale School of Art.

“It was a process that showed me the delicate balancing act of being able to withstand the barrage of critique but also knowing what critique is necessary to ignore in order to have allegiance to your own work or your own intention,” she said.

While critique is important in the growing process, Lewis also cautioned the audience about when and how they decide to critique one another’s work. Instead of critiquing someone in front of their friends, she suggested, it’s better to wait until they are in a more private setting to suggest improvements, so as to not “stifle” their creativity.

She told the audience about one her friends, who as a child would doodle in his book rather than pay attention to the lesson in school. Instead of suppressing his creative instincts, the teacher noticed his passion and allowed him to present his doodles to the class in return for his attentiveness. Her friend said the teacher “saved him” and allowed him to become an artist later on in life.

Lewis also talked about how she didn’t originally know if she could be an artist because she didn’t think she had enough “context” to be one. While she still doesn’t think herself as an “artist,” she told the audience that she does think of herself as a “creator” and emphasized that, to be an artist, one must be “compelled to create.”

“People sometimes ask me if they should be an artist and I say to them, ‘Only do so if you can’t do anything else.’ Not because of how arduous it is but because it requires dedication and a willingness to create,” she said.

Beyond critique and dedication, she emphasized the role that failure plays in the growth of an artist. When a student asked her how artists could grow if they don’t think they’re failing, she said they’re “probably not taking enough risks.”

“Why not go for more?” Lewis asked. “There’s a metal plaque I have on my desk that says, ‘What would you do if you could not fail?’ If I ask myself that question everyday, then I certainly will fail, but I will also gain the tools to grow and my life will be richer for it.”