The Long Way to Success
Updated: 5 days ago
This is a virtual speech I delivered recently at my former high school, College of the Holy Spirit Tarlac (Philippines), during the Career Fair 2022 with the theme, Design Your Success.
Hello! My name is Michelle Carlos and I am an artist. Thank you for inviting me today to speak to you about my experience and beliefs as an artist. I remember during career talks in the same gymnasium, not once was an artist invited to speak. I wish they had because I had to learn everything on my own. Know this:
You can have a career in art.
Yes or No?
I have a question for you. Do you know what you want?
It is impossible to know what your future self will want. To spare you needless anxiety, make your choices only for today. I guarantee you that no matter how much you plan your life, nothing will go as intended.
You should know that I did not want to be an artist so naturally I took up Fine Arts in college. I did not care if I was going to be a painter, an advertising executive or an architect. All I wanted was to take it easy for another four years after high school and not let my parents pay for an expensive education. Thanks to my early training and exposure in Holy Spirit, making art was effortless.
However there was one thing I badly wanted: to make movies. I wanted to write screenplays and direct them, too. Naturally right after college graduation, while I laid on the floor and stared at the ceiling, I decided to go for it. Months later I was taken in by the award-winning director Erik Matti to be one of his personal assistants in the movie, “Prosti.” How did I do it?
You would be surprised in how the universe works in tandem with your goals. That summer after graduation, I was hired to teach art for kids in Ecumenical School. The money I earned from that gig, P4,000.00, was enough to fund my trip to Manila to look for a job. I cold texted all the movie directors that I found in a directory and outright asked for any opportunity to work with them. One of those who responded was Erik Matti. On the day we met in his movie set in San Juan, he gave me two choices: to join his team without pay or just walk away. Two days later I came back to the film set and never went home to Tarlac for more than a year. The only reason I returned was because I got fired for being young and female and I was broke. You starve working in the movies.
Not to worry though because six months later I was under his wing again. This time as a hired graphic artist in his production company. How did I do it? I pretended to know how to use Photoshop when asked to make a poster. Not only was I the in-house artist, I had opportunities to design costumes and movie sets, manage events, direct fashion shows, and became part of his directorial staff again. I did everything that was asked of me because I was young, hungry and still hopeful. In my heart I believed that if I remained in Matti’s team, I still had a shot at making my own movies.
But then the responsibilities and pressures of being an adult crept in and I became weary that I was not earning enough to pay for my life in Manila. I was stuck in this cycle of doing everything for nothing. I was Jack of all trades, master of none until Matti and his business partner, DonDon Monteverde asked me if I wanted to work as a colorist, which meant specialist training abroad, higher salary with benefits and a contract. How could I decline a serious offer for a steady job?
I did not know what the job was but I was determined to learn. A colorist corrects and enhances the cinematography of any moving picture as in film or TV commercials, similar to adding filters on your videos only much more technical, complex and with clients breathing down your neck.
Fast forward 6 years, although the colorist job was one of the coolest positions in post production, I wanted none of the inauthenticity and the politics of the corporate advertising world. Everything was fake. At that point I was surely far away from making my dream come true. I was depressed, broken hearted and yearned for a change. My bosses tried to convince me to stay but I sensed that I will never be valued in that company so I quit and left the country with my acquired skills, life experience and new sense of hope and wanderlust. I wanted to travel so I did. I wanted to fall in love again and I did.
The truth is I could go on and on about my life but I hope you have been paying attention to the pattern. A pattern of saying yes and no to chance no matter the consequence. A pattern of making choices at crossroads and owning every decision. A pattern of facing uncertainties, successes and failures.
American journalist Shankar Vedantam said in his TedTalk that there are three rules in life:
Stay curious, practice humility and be brave. I‘m glad I got fired early on in my career in the movies. That experience slapped you back into humility and forced you to grow up. You realize that you are not the best and the world does not owe you anything but you also keep on going.
Stay curious, practice humility and be brave. -Shankar Vedantam
You are at a very crucial stage in your life, a crossroad. Some of you might already have figured out your college plans: for which course to apply in which university, while some of you are probably still scratching your heads. Whichever you are, you know you will have to make a decision.
Relax. Whatever choice you make, your future is still a blank slate, which makes it exciting. This is the time for self discovery. For experiencing new things outside the safety of your homes, for meeting new people and having fun. Embrace that you are young. Accept that you need to grow. Use the next four or five years to learn as much as you can while nobody else is pressuring you to earn.
What is success?
I am a master of second chances. I am an artist right now because I gave myself another chance to reclaim that role. I am an artist right now because I was given a second chance of life after being diagnosed with cancer in 2015. I am an artist right now because I refused to become obsolete and a nuisance in society while I was an unemployed expat wife. I am an artist right now because I said so.
Am I successful? First of all, let us define success. Think about it for a second. Is it equivalent to status, popularity or wealth? It is true that all of these would be a perfect scenario at least according to society conventions. Our society celebrates all of that. We look up to celebrities, rich people, influencers and compare ourselves to them. We often fail to see that each of those idols had to fight their way to their position just like the rest of us. A medical doctor had to study at least 10 years and undergo a series of examinations before they could practice. A sushi master in Japan also needed 10 years of apprenticeship before a master title can be granted. A K-Pop idol needs to undergo numerous auditions, grueling training, and maybe plastic surgery to finally perform on stage. Does one title make the other lesser in value? Each of them trained especially for their profession and they are going to be really good at what they do. Their individual successes were determined by effort, skill, time, location and perhaps luck. You cannot compare your present self to those who have gone ahead of you but you can definitely learn from their experience.
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine asked me, “So Michelle, now that you’re a published children’s books illustrator, are you done?” I replied, “No, it’s a continuous journey and there are so many stories to tell.” You see, even though I failed to make my movies, the goal to tell stories still rings true to me. I have just found another way to do it through my illustrations. I have also realized that I did not really want to make movies so badly—not at the expense of my self respect and integrity. In my twenties I was not strong enough to battle the forces against me. So I had to back track and find what else is out there for me that suits my skills and personality well.
Measure success on your own terms not from other people’s idea of success. I was successful because I was brave enough to set about achieving what I wanted in certain stages of my life. I said I wanted to work in the movies, I wanted to travel, I wanted to live in Europe, I wanted to find love and I wanted to make children's books. I did all of those. Guess what? I have set another goal and it is not going to be easier than the last time. Accept that you will be challenged, that you will stumble, that you will doubt yourself, that you might be poor but you will be richer with experience that will become your ultimate weapon against all trials along the way.
Measure success on your own terms not from other people’s idea of success.
How to become and artist?
You do not actually become an artist. You either continue or stop being one. My niece who is also your age asked me how, why and when I started getting into art.
There was no clear recollection on when I started making art. Remember that all children are artists. Some just stop being one because they were interested in something else or were discouraged early on. It is a pity because I believe there should be more artists in the world.
In the 90's I enjoyed watching American TV painter Bob Ross on weekends as he quickly painted landscapes. He also believed that everyone can make art. When I was in grade 5 I copied him and painted my first landscape using Elmer’s pan watercolors on an untreated flour cloth that I haphazardly stretched on a picture frame. Do you know how difficult it was to use watercolors on cloth? Teachers kept entering me into poster-making contests as well as asking me to make their visual aids. I was in charged of hand-lettering blackboards for the school programs and Holy Masses. My mom taught me how to make paper dolls and custom felt paper bookmarks that I sold to classmates for one Peso each. I also impressed them with charcoal drawings of celebrities. I was making art all the time and I flaunted it to everyone. I was shameless! In college I studied art and then just stopped being creative once I became an adult and started working. I was still in the creative industry but I was not creating.
Many years later, I was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus, which meant I will never have children. After I recovered, my husband and I moved from Germany to South Africa where I was not allowed to work. Then I decided to go back to making art, first as a hobby and therapy and then eventually as a freelancer after taking up online classes in making art that I can actually sell like illustrations for children’s books, surface patterns, greeting card designs and so on. Note that artworks are not limited to paintings on walls. There is a wide array of industries that need art and design: advertising, book publishing, fashion, home decor, toys, gaming, entertainment—the world is your oyster!
There is a wide array of industries that need art and design: advertising, book publishing, fashion, home decor, toys, gaming, entertainment—the world is your oyster!
This time around I was really driven to succeed because I realized there was nothing to lose except my gift. I have been often asked what motivates me to make art? I have stories to tell and I feel like I have a duty to send them out to the world. Sometimes I would receive an email or a message in Instagram from strangers telling me that my artwork meant something to them. Right there I knew that my job as an artist is done.
Those 5 years of my unemployment in South Africa was an ideal situation for any aspiring artist. I had so much time and all the basic needs to live comfortably. I had all the tools to create. I even have my own studio. Best of all I had a support system through my husband, family and friends. So I told myself, if I fail at this, it will be my fault.
To pursue this creative career, I practiced everyday, made both shitty and good art, then shared everything via social media and eventually built my own website once I had a decent illustration portfolio to showcase. I also explained to my loved ones that what I was doing was important. For you aspiring artists out there, listen. You alone can make people around you understand that what you are doing is important for your well-being, your future and your soul. You are not here to save the world but if you could save one soul then your job is done. The positive effect of art is not in a macro level but in a micro scale. It is not the cure for cancer, but making art can help cancer patients deal with the trauma just at it had helped me.
My husband though supportive is also a skeptic and works in the manufacturing industry. I would show him my artwork and ask his opinion. I could sense his discomfort because he always claimed he is not an artist. Then I would ask him what he thought of the color combination or what he felt about the image. Whenever I get job or collaboration inquiries I would ask him how I should deal with the business aspect. Over dinner I would talk to him about clients because I knew he understood client speak. He would later give me insights that would help me look at a situation in a different perspective. Basically, I involved him and eventually he understood that what I was doing was no longer a hobby but real work. He even built me an easel.
In addition, I networked by participating in artist group meetings, attended workshops and gallery shows, joined an international organization of illustrators until people in the industry started noticing my work. In 2021, I signed a contract with an international illustration agency and I could not be more relieved because I knew I have crossed another threshold. I am finally getting paid to do the work that I love.
There is no better time than right now to become working artists because of the Internet and you are the most Internet savvy generation—the first digital natives. You instinctively know how to navigate the virtual domain. You have multiple online venues to showcase your work for potential clients and then sell them. Once you have found the right company or people, you can simply send an email to introduce yourself and your work. You can also sell in Etsy or online Print-on-Demand shops. You just need to do the work—actually you will have to do all the work in your small business. But first learn how to make great art.
Anything you create is art. Humans are different from all animals because we can make something and then put meaning into it. Cave paintings, any kind of tool, language, music… these have been around since our species evolved. All of these is considered art that is both functional and ornamental.
How about chimpanzees or pigs that paint? Can you expect an animal to draw a flower, hands or a face on their volition? This made me wonder when I saw a video of elephants painting an elephant, a tree and one that even wrote its name! Did they know that they were making art, were they just scribbling or were they trained for months by humans? In order to make art you have to make conscious decisions on what concept, medium, colors, shapes, etc. to use. Elephants do not see color as we do. They could not even load their brushes with paint on their own. The elephants become an extension, a tool even, of the human trainer/artist. There has to be an intention and vision executed with skill. In museums or archives, before we attempt to restore or conserve any artwork, conservators always ask what is the intention of the artist and we will try our best to preserve that as well as the actual object.
For an object to be called art it needs the human touch. The elephant did not wake up one day and taught itself to paint an elephant. People who recognized the animal’s intelligence and acute memory trained them to hold a brush and paint lines much like the robots or artificial intelligence that were also programmed by humans to create art. But if an elephant can be taught to paint so could you.
Is art important?
Well, look around you. Is there some kind of artwork on it? Is there a logo? Look at a building, a car, your clothes. Almost every man-made object is designed or has art placed on it, right?
For something to be important it has to have a value. I am not just talking about the monetary worth because some artworks are even priceless. I am referring to the values that we care about, whether the emotional effect, the religious symbolism, the practical function, or even the aesthetics the object projects on us.
That is why climate change protesters threw soup on valuable paintings of masters. They knew people who saw value on the paintings would react.
Depending on the context and value of the object, art is both important and dispensable. Many people were outraged by the vandalisms in museums but most of us would just ignore it. In the worst economic crisis, art is the first to go. Fundings for art projects are cut off if there was at all. But art scenes also bring back a decaying city to life because people find value in entertainment—a way to escape the mundane or hardships. The irony is that sunflower painting was valued mainly because of the story of the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, who used art making as his therapy.
Going back to cave paintings. Why were they made? At the height of the pandemic when we were all locked up in our modern caves what did most people do? Our resourcefulness and creativity kicked in and we started making things because humans are predestined to creation. We cannot help it.
Those cave paintings told the stories of those humans that once lived thousands of years ago. We understood their way of life, how they hunted animals, the size of their hands and their intelligence. Millions of years from now, if our planet still exists, future humans or maybe aliens will also discover our civilization through the art we made because art is a form of recorded visual language. A picture can indeed paint a thousand words. If you see art not just as an object to look at but also something that has meaning or purpose—whatever that is, then art is valuable and therefore important.
Know your worth
You have a role in society and you need to figure that out. Figure out where you will thrive. Figure out how you could contribute. There will be a lot of trials and errors until you find your place in the world. Those early experiences, first hand from relationships, travel, or observation or second hand from books, testimonials, or movies will all contribute to your character building and inform your desires. Build your character.
To know your worth means to not allow people to take advantage of you and your talents. The problem with inexperience is that you will become an easy target for predators who will exploit you, the artist. For example, you post your artwork in social media. You get many likes and a few DMs asking for a collaboration with your services maybe for an event in exchange for exposure. Do you agree right away?
The problem with inexperience is that you will become an easy target for predators who will exploit you, the artist.
Exposure, no matter how thousands of followers that potential collaborator has, will not pay for your time, materials, labor and everything you have poured into that artwork. Ask them, if you agree to work for free in exchange for exposure, are the other service providers like the caterers, photographers, drivers also working for free? You need to understand that there is value in what you do. That is the reason money exists. Listen, if this happens, do background checks about that collaborator, ask for a contract or make your own and always negotiate. If they do not reply, they are not that serious. You move on.
Exposure, no matter how thousands of followers that potential collaborator has, will not pay for your time, materials, labor and everything you have poured into that artwork.
To know your value, you need to know yourself and that is a life-long process. I did not want to be a professional artist after I graduated art school because one, I did not know how to get out there and sell my work or services. Art schools do not really teach you how to be entrepreneurial. Second, I did not have an opinion—a voice. I was only agreeing to more experienced people, popular culture, friends but not really my own intuition. That is fine because it is all part of your education. You are becoming the person you are meant to be. You cannot rush this. But certain circumstances, life events, will force you to steer into a different direction or discover something more enticing. Take that all in. Because when you are in my age, 40's, you will look back at those experiences and put them all into your art and it will be meaningful. Your aim as an artist is to make art that has meaning. Art that has a heart and soul.
The first formal art academy was founded in Italy in the 1500’s. In there they decided which ones will be called art and not. Only men were allowed to enroll. Humans have been making arts and crafts since the Homo habilis (2.31 million years) and the Neanderthals (64,000 years). Those handprints on the cave walls, were female.
Whether it is in a formal academic setting like a university or in the comfort of your home through Youtube university, you need to constantly learn skills, techniques, medium, discipline, time, project or business management, networking and most of all, life lessons.
The advantage of art schools is that you will meet your contemporaries who will later become your allies as you navigate the creative world. Stay up late nights working with them. You will also be thrown into opportunities like mentorships or on-the-job-trainings as well as art competitions that will fill up your CVs. Everything else you can learn which ever way you like because you are hardwired to create just like our ancestors.
The good thing about being an artist is you do not need a license to practice. Not once did any of my employers look at my resume nor my grades. What mattered to them was if I was capable.
Artists are patient. To put an idea into action you need to plan. You need a blank canvas and your paint medium. Once you have made your sketches, you paint and wait until its dry. You cannot rush a creative process in the same manner that you cannot take a short cut to your life destination.
Have you tried climbing a tree, a pole, a wall or two hundred steps of stairs? You start by scaling the impediment, right? You start from the foot up to the zenith to understand how much of an effort you need to get to the top. In this age of instant gratification, many of you do not realize that your goal may be on top or on the other side of a mountain. I do not care how you get there. The fact is, there is a mountain in front of you to overcome. Take a look at that mountain because that is the bulk of your task in life. Along the way you will encounter signs, obstacles, people, small and big triumphs as well as small and big failures. You will spend most of your adult life preparing yourself on how to climb that mountain and it all begins in a single step forward. You may not know your future but you could always look forward. Keep moving. You are young. You have energy and stamina. This is your world now. This is the time to discover, learn the hard lessons in life, fall in and out of love and take up space.
You cannot rush a creative process in the same manner that you cannot take a short cut to your life destination.
This may all seem overwhelming but if you break your main goal into small chunks, your task will be less daunting. Small steady steps gets you to the finish line, right? Never mind who is running behind, before or beside you. They have their own obstacle course to finish. Honestly, no one really cares what the next person is doing.
If you want to become a working artist, start by drawing a dot and carry on drawing a line until you finish a picture and then repeat until drawing flowers, trees, faces and human anatomy is second nature to you. Then disregard everything you have learned, art principles, theory, history and challenge the rules. Stay curious. Challenge the status quo. Ask why there are only famous white male artists in the art history books? How about the women artists? Why are there no internationally well-known Filipino artists? Why are art competitions in schools only focused on poster and slogan-making? Do you need to win contests or be internet famous in order to be validated?
In fact I encourage you all to always ask questions. I have tried to tell you today things that I wished I knew when I was in your age. The fact is, no one should really tell you how to live your lives. These are just guidelines and you can always break them. You define your success. You design your success. You do you.
Finally, the students sent a few more questions so here are my answers: