What if Your Art is Just for Your Refrigerator? | Matt Tommey

Engage Art | Artist to Artist, Reflection & Growth | February 1, 2024

I was talking to a friend the other day who is quite an accomplished artist and a real spiritual father to many creatives around the world. We were chatting about our mutual passion for helping artists thrive and, knowing I work with many hobbyists and emerging artists, he posed the following question:

"How do you tell someone who is mediocre and not really called (or ready) to make his living with his art (simply because it will never sell) that perhaps God gave you the passion for art just to enjoy and glorify Him with, but it is not your calling to make it your financial sustenance?"

It's a great question, and I'm sure no one talks much about it because it can be a sensitive issue for the artist. No one wants to have that complicated conversation with an artist who thinks they are ready to take on the world when, in reality, they are still stumbling around with the basics. And then, sometimes, there are those tough cases that almost seem like the American Idol auditions where someone thinks they are God's gift to art when, in reality, there's not much there but desire and belief.

"The Struggle" by Cody F. Miller. "Sometimes the spiritual forces of darkness seem like a blitzkrieg of unbeatable giants. At times they’ve overtaken me; they yawn at how easy it is. My prayers are elementary; I have a white-knuckled grip on the fact that maybe God will come and reason with me there. And I wait."

I hope the following thoughts will help you navigate your own artistic calling and season in that journey.

1. Everyone Starts Creating As A Hobby

No artist in the world ever started out as a pro. Everyone starts creating art because of a passion for creating, responding, and reflecting on what's going on in their own heart with the tools and techniques of their chosen creative medium. And unless you continue to cultivate that deep connection and love for creating over time, you'll become a burned-out replicator of yesterday's inspiration. Creating as a hobby is valid, meaningful, and a worthy pursuit artistically, personally, and as an act of spiritual devotion to the Lord.

2. Everyone Can Use Creative Expression for Personal Enjoyment

Most people start creating art because they love it. They find the process and the product to be enjoyable and fulfilling, and that, my friend, is enough in itself! You could create for a lifetime in the context of your own personal enjoyment and be completely happy in your artistic pursuits. In fact, if you're creating and not enjoying it at any point, you should stop, take a deep breath, and ask hard questions about where things took a wrong turn. Enjoying the process is core to why we all create.

3. God Is Glorified through the Act of Creating

The first way humanity is introduced to God in the Bible is as an artist. Then, the story reveals an artist-father who creates His man and woman, inviting them into the creative process with Him. We are His image bearers on earth, and we reflect the nature of our Creative God when we participate in the art-making process. That alone is enough justification to create a whole life long because God is most glorified when we fulfill the design He formed in us.

"A New Creation" by Dechia Potthast. "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of Holy Trinity has a new influence on us to make us new, and it not only is in our outward appearance but on the inside as well."

4. Selling Your Work Doesn't Validate Your Creativity

Your creative process is valid, important, and worthy because it's a gift from God and a way to connect with and reflect His nature. If you never sell a piece of your work, it doesn't mean your creativity was somehow lacking. It simply means you chose not to take it in that direction. For many artists who sell their work, including me, it's a wonderful encouragement that others love what I do, but it doesn't define me or my enjoyment of the process. I created for many years before I ever sold any of my work and if all the sales stopped tomorrow, you would still find me out in the woods doing what I love... creating.

5. Maturing as an Artist is an Intentional Process

For most artists who sell their work, it's been an intentional act of maturing— artistically, spiritually, and in business. Frankly, it takes years to develop that maturity, and there's no way to shortcut the process. It's a day-by-day pursuit of creative excellence, spiritual connection, and understanding how to market and sell your work. Just because you can sell really well doesn't mean your work is worth selling and just because you're not selling a lot right now doesn't mean your work isn't worthy. It just means you're in process and you have to stay in process until all those variables start to work together as one. You can mature, but you have to realize it's an intentional process. (That's what we do in my Created to Thrive Artist Mentoring Program—help artists bring it all together and grow in maturity.)

6. Selling Art for a Living Isn't for the Faint of Heart

I have never been more fulfilled in my life than since 2009 when I started creating and selling my artwork for a living, but believe me, I work hard—really hard. Before that, I made my living as a worship leader and even owned a marketing company in Atlanta for several years. Trust me when I say I know a little something about making a living as a creative.

When you move from hobbyist (someone who's doing your art for fun) to someone who's creating as a way to make your living, it's a completely different ballgame. You now have to work both on your art and in your business because you're an entrepreneur and an artist. Unless you're ready to embrace both sides of that equation, empowered by the Holy Spirit, you're in for a rude awakening. You can learn to do both and when you're called to it, there's grace for both but realize it takes grit, faith, and focus to succeed.

"Saints and Savages" by Geoffrey Bowton. "Glass is a material that can embody . . . intangible things. Glass is fragile, opalescent, or translucent—it can hold form, shatter, break, and be mended, formed, packed, and shaped. It is a material that transforms under high temperature and pressure, much like the environment of deployment and war."

7. Watch for Signposts of Favor

If you are intentionally growing in maturity artistically, spiritually, and in business, wanting to sell your work on a larger stage, then you have to keep your eyes out for signposts of favor. I've learned over the years that no devil in hell can stop you when it's God's time for you to be promoted in the marketplace. And at the same time, when it's not your time yet, nothing you can do will open any door that God still has closed. Recognizing the season you're in and following the favor in your life is key for every artist. When the time is right, the relationships, resources, and connections you need to succeed will be there. Until then, be faithful to what's in your hand. Bloom where you're planted. 

8. Believe in Yourself but Receive Critical Feedback

If there's a life message in my work, it's about helping others to agree with who God has called them to be. Do not be bound by fear, but stand in strength. That's foundational for all believers because no fear-laden, shame-filled artist will ever thrive as God intended. However, it's VITAL that you have a clear view of where you are in the journey, especially from an artistic perspective.

Just because your work isn't good enough to sell or be marketable right now doesn't mean you're no good, God doesn't love you, or the world is over. It just means you either have an excellent opportunity to continue enjoying your work as a hobby OR you have a lot of work to do to mature your work to a place where it's salable. That's just the bottom line. Please don't think, however, that just because you love creating and feel called to create professionally, you're immediately ready to do so full-time. If you're serious about really knowing where you are in this process, pray for God to bring someone in your life who will shoot straight with you. And when He does, listen.

9. Don't Try to Force It

Anytime you're moving with the Lord, you should feel forward momentum. You should know you're on the right track, moving in the right direction. If you don't, I'd encourage you to stop and say, "Ok, what's going on, Father? Have I made a wrong turn, made some wrong assumptions, or am I pursuing a direction that's not Your will?" This is so important. Where God leads and guides, there is favor, grace, authority, and opportunity. If you're not feeling any of those things, it's essential to get clear before going any further. If you don't, you'll end up birthing something you have to sustain with your own strength.

"Invisible Cities" by Ivania Lasso. "My work addresses a theme of social and economic inequality found in violently ignored and overcrowded spaces. These informal communities, living on the margins of illegality, abandoned by the government, are constantly exposed to forced eviction. In my work I generate assemblies of found materials that are discarded in these communities."

10. It's a Process

None of us finish where we started. Life is a process, and so is your artistic journey!  If you believe God's plan for your life is to eventually create and sell your art, then that's awesome! Don't ever give up on that dream. Just be realistic about where you are in that process, what needs to happen next, and who's going to help you get there. I'm passionate about that process, and if that's what you need, I'd encourage you to check out my Created to Thrive Artist Mentoring Program. It's for any artist in any medium and at any stage of their artistic journey.

This article was originally published by Matt Tommey and is adapted with his permission from https://www.matttommeymentoring.com/. Matt Tommey is an artist, internationally-known Christian speaker, and the author of 7 books who is passionate about helping artists thrive spiritually, artistically, and in business. He is a mentor to artists around the world through his Created to Thrive Artist Mentoring Program and also hosts The Thriving Christian Artist Podcast. Find more resources from Matt at https://www.matttommeymentoring.com/.

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