This week I got to hang out with a 95-year-old woman who lives on Gramercy Park and has a better social life than any of us… She was like ‘have you seen this underground flamenco show that only happens one night a month inside a secret brownstone?’… She lives alone with a key to the park and wears green eye shadow the color of a peacock’s tail and…keeps a bookshelf full of books on the history of fashion … Anyways the way I think about it is if you live in New York City and you’re not regularly talking to people over 70 you should start.”
- Rachel Syme, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine
The beauty of elder wisdom captured by Syme tells us something important about ourselves: we often overlook the great benefits of a mentor. Yet at some point in our lives, we’ve met people either in real life or online who’ve set us on the path we’re on today. Creative agency We Are Social cited a report in June 2018 that found “over a quarter” of us “want a mentor”. And rightfully so! Mentors help us grow our skills, teach us to see things we might not have before and even introduce us to people we otherwise wouldn't have met.
Francisco Goya honed his penchant for mortality and mischief while painting reprints of stamps for four years under the tutelage of José Luzán. Helen Frankenthaler, one of the few women to achieve equal acclaim to her male counterparts in the abstraction movement, learned from the well-regarded Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. Jay Z built his flow and cadence when recording features for fellow Marcy rapper Jaz O in the 80s before he won Beyoncé over. All great producers and creators have had some sort of mentor at one time.
What can a mentor offer?
Working in creative enterprises or in a studio with a darkroom is like working in a pressure cooker in that it becomes a most consuming part of our lives at the expense of our sense of self and our values. It’s especially easy to feel unfulfilled like our work is missing an element or two. In the world of constructive criticism, our improvement relies on messages and symbols that we can understand and act on. Few artists and fewer critics are able to offer those lessons as eloquently as the painter Knox Martin, a central figure in the New York School, a network of painters and writers including Philip Guston and Frank O’Hara.
“The alpha artist has got to be a virtuoso in performance; [they] must understand what composition is… the idea of encoding within the choreography of the thing you’re putting together a series of rhymes, an underground geometry of depth” and an understanding of how colors ‘talk’ to one another on the canvas or paper. If this isn’t specific enough for us, he points to his easel with a finished painting and annunciates each aspect of what he defines as the “performance” and composition within it. Martin, like many who’ve come before him, has been quick to share his understandings of painting and creation with scores of students as a teacher at the Art Students League of New York.
Everyone deserves a mentor, but there are sometimes costs involved
This brings us to an important point about apprenticeships and mentors: accessibility. Helen Frankenthaler was able to study with Rufino Tamayo because she had access to him through a selective school in Manhattan. This doesn’t negate Frankenthaler’s great discipline and skill, but it reminds us of the reality that some mentors are less accessible than others. For painters such as Titian, Goya and Joan Mitchell, the desire to take on apprenticeships could be done without a second thought regarding cost due to the eras they lived in.
Although the options seem limited for those of us who don't have that same access or operate with a limited personal network, there are actually many avenues for us to find a mentor and blossom into the creative we want ourselves to be.
She Runs It
She Runs It was first established in 1912 in response to the exclusive, all-male Advertising League. It has grown into one of the leading advertising, marketing and media networks that mentors professionals and provides access to thousands of other media professionals in New York City and Chicago at companies that range from Google and Twitter to Publicis and Digitas. Both women and men are encouraged to join, after which they'll receive annual mentoring, access to discounted event tickets and even opportunities to apply for some educational loan relief. If you're interested, follow this link to learn more!
Mentorly, connecting mentors and creative professionals
Launched in 2017, Mentorly is an app that connects creatives with hundreds of mentors of diverse experience ranges—from over five years to more than 15 years. “It can be really difficult to find an established artist who’s accessible, and who has the same or similar path that they can share insight on,” filmmaker and Mentorly co-founder Katherine Macnaughton tells Artsy. This app solves that problem by allowing you to choose a mentor to digitally session with based on their experience.
The platform is open to everyone but does require a fee based on the duration of the session (30 minutes or one hour) and the level of experience of your selected mentor.
Free lectures and networking events
A lesser-known avenue to explore if you’re looking to limit your expenses is through sites like AdAge’s events page, Cooper Union’s Events and Exhibitions, Eventbrite and Thoughtgallery. While the latter leans toward conversations in painting and drawing – particularly suited, though not exclusive, to designers – AdAge, Cooper Union and Eventbrite feature comprehensive lists of upcoming, free lectures and networking events covering marketing, advertising and public relations, as well as visual and fine art.
The Art Students League of New York
For graphic designers, storyboard artists and writers interested in working out of an atelier, The Art Students League is one of the city’s oldest institutions providing studio-based education. The costs begin at 130$ per month for half-day classes, but if you’re willing to invest you’ll learn from the most knowledgeable teachers including Ronnie Landfield and Sherry Camhy.
A no-brainer, but your library is an under-utilized resource for information and knowledge. If you live, work, go to school or pay property tax in New York State, you’re eligible for a free New York Public Library card. With thousands of autobiographies and works at your fingertips, you don’t need a mentor in the physical sense to learn from one.
In cities like New York it’s commonplace to avoid conversation. There’s an idea of a New Yorker who “can’t be bothered” with others, who has “no time”. Ironically, most established or native New Yorkers are genuine, warm conversationalists with eccentric stories to share who can help us see the world through a different lens. While avoiding simple pleasantries on the street is absolutely fair, if someone offers an unusual, thought-provoking remark or if you feel compelled to offer a hand to someone in need, we encourage you to talk with them. One day you’ll be the mentor someone comes looking for.
It takes a village!
With warm regards
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