When we talk about “big breaks” in the arts, we often think about the gallerists, collectors, and critics who discovered and nurtured young minds. We think of people like Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, John Kasmin, Linda Nochlin, and Alexander Iolas, who championed painters and sculptors and catapulted them to worldwide stardom. 

But life-changing opportunities like these are few and far between. More often than not, the path to success is winding and complex. Luck sometimes plays a role, but so do tenacity and perseverance. Below, five working artists tell us about what they consider their “big breaks” and share the unexpected stories behind their success.

The Creation of Adam by iSteef
The Creation of Adam by iSteef

“I had to let go of my ego, and I had to rethink how I made my art.” – Stephan Brusche (iSteef)

Stephan Brusche, who goes by the moniker iSteef, launched his Instagram account as a way to showcase and promote his award-winning illustrations and webcomics, but on a whim, he decided to start sharing the “banana doodles” he created during his lunch breaks. They were an immediate hit with fans and followers. 

“In the beginning, I was a little annoyed I got more likes for those–in my eyes–simple ten-minute rushed doodles on bananas than for the illustration pieces that I had been putting a lot of time into,” he admits. “Only after I got over my ego, I realized I actually had a golden opportunity to really stand out among those millions of other illustrators. If people were liking my ten-minute banana doodles, what would happen if I put all that time and energy I gave to my illustrations into my banana art instead?”

Fishbone by  iSteef
Fishbone by iSteef

Less than six months later, his work had gone viral. “I had to let go of ‘my darlings’ (my other illustration works),” Brusche continues. “As a result of being featured by Hi-Fructose, I got loads of new followers–and the extra pressure to now really bring it. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I had to raise the bar and pushed myself even more.” 

Healer with Penitent Painter, 2019 (private collection) by  Adrian Cox
Healer with Penitent Painter, 2019 (private collection) by Adrian Cox

“If you want a big break, you’re going to have to create it for yourself.” – Adrian Cox

“There were a number of years in my career when I was making a ton of work, and exhibiting very little of it,” Los Angeles-based painter Adrian Cox tells us. “At the time, I was living in the Midwest, and was completely invisible to the larger art world. I felt that what I was making was interesting and worthwhile, but I didn’t have the slightest clue how to find an audience for it.”

In that moment, he turned to a friend for guidance. “He told me to spend at least half of the time I would otherwise be painting to promote the work I was making,” Cox remembers. “Most artists that I know don’t feel particularly comfortable with self-promotion. It’s difficult, often awkward, and, simply put, we’d rather be making work in the studio.

“But I took his advice to heart. I started reaching out to countless arts and culture websites. The first few articles about my work felt like a breath of fresh air. People were finally starting to pay attention to what I was making. And then gallerists that had seen these articles started reaching out to me. 

“Speaking from personal experience, visibility can be vital to a fulfilling creative practice. And if you’re not in a place where that visibility will happen organically, it’s up to you to show what you’re making to the world.”

Mural in Kent by Mary Iverson
Mural in Kent by Mary Iverson

“The toughest moments can lead to the biggest breakthroughs, so reach out to friends when you are under pressure.” – Mary Iverson

“My first ‘big break’ was because of a public art project that ran into complications and almost failed,” painter Mary Iverson remembers. “It was a large outdoor mural in Kent (a small town south of Seattle), painted on panels then hung on aluminum rails attached to a brick wall. The installation was flawed, so water soaked into the panels, ruining the work.”

Reinstalling and repairing the work seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, and although she nearly stepped away from the project altogether, Iverson rallied. “With the help of some close friends, I got through it and the mural turned out amazing,” she tells us. 

That’s not all that came from overcoming that obstacle. “A few years later, someone who knew the owner of Park Life Gallery in San Francisco just happened to be passing through Kent,” the artist remembers. “They saw the mural and told Park Life to check it out, which led to a show and a review, and everything exploded from there. 

“If I had given up on that mural, none of that would have happened. My advice is: reach out to friends for support when you’re faced with tasks that seem impossible. They will get you through it.” 

You Are Not Who You Were by Xaviera López
You Are Not Who You Were by Xaviera López

“I’ve learned to take things less seriously, be more playful, and take care of myself.” – Xaviera López

Animator Xaviera López had already been uploading videos to Vine for years when she created one titled What Really Happened. It was a personal piece about a kiss, and she’d made it for a loved one, without any hope of recognition. A few days passed, and she didn’t think much of it. 

Screenshot from What Really Happened by Xaviera López
Screenshot from What Really Happened by Xaviera López

“I was leaving my therapy session at 5 PM one day and got a notification that my video was chosen as an ‘Editor’s Pick,’” she remembers. “My phone almost exploded. It’s funny because, at the time, I never thought about the exposure or career opportunities that it could bring for me–though it did!–it was just about receiving that recognition from a community I loved. I danced and cried on that sterile corporate building staircase.” 

Her takeaway? “The experience taught me that if I want to give the best I have, it needs to be from a place of health and abundance,” López continues. “It taught me to set boundaries and say ‘no’ sometimes, because time and energy are limited. It also taught me gratitude–because I still can’t believe that all these great things have happened to me.” 

Der Kuss , 2018 by Cathrin Hoffmann
Der Kuss , 2018 by Cathrin Hoffmann

“Socializing in real life is more important than social media. But you can use digital media to make connections.” – Cathrin Hoffmann

“I wish I could say something pretentious about my ‘big break,’ but it was only Instagram,” painter Cathrin Hoffmann tells us. “I wasn’t surrounded by many artists, and I desired dialogs with others. When I created an Instagram account, I was overwhelmed by all the strangers who were liking my work. I know that sounds childish, but it gave me confidence. What was even more important for me was the access to artists, galleries, museums, etc. which I had never heard from and seen before. It blew my mind.”

Der Jäger, 2018 by Cathrin Hoffmann
Der Jäger, 2018 by Cathrin Hoffmann

In the end, however, she says it was the connections she made in the “real world” that kept the momentum going and kick-started her career. “I see Instagram as a kind of window you can look through and where you can present yourself,” Hoffmann adds. “My ‘big break’ started when galleries became aware of my work (through Instagram) and asked me to be part of their shows. I started traveling for these exhibitions, and, in each city I was, I went to shows, museums, galleries or art fairs. 

“I also reached out to other artists I knew from Instagram. I asked for a studio visit or a coffee or whatever. In a short period of time, I met so many wonderful and interesting people–and that network is still growing.” 


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Header/thumbnail image credit: Skillshare student Lena S. for Charly Clement’s Fun with Faces: Create a Stylised Digital Portrait.

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