“I am not in the right place,” Michelangelo wrote while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Already established as a sculptor, the Italian artist wasn’t keen on taking on this new and ambitious commission. He was much more interested in sculpting the tomb of Pope Julius II, and he struggled with the artistic challenges that the Sistine Chapel presented.“I am not a painter,” he lamented.
It’s hard to imagine the history of High Renaissance art without the Sistine Chapel, but when he began painting it, the fresco was far outside of Michelangelo’s wheelhouse. And Michelangelo isn’t the only artist to take on a new challenge and find great success. We spoke with six artists working today about the decisions and challenges that changed their world. Read on to learn how they stepped outside of their comfort zones and came out the other side stronger than ever before.
From Paint to Pencil (Sculptures)
At the start of his career, Salavat Fidai worked as a lawyer. When he first ventured into the arts, he found his footing as a still life and landscape photographer. Over time, he turned to oil painting as well, but nothing captured his imagination quite like miniature art. “The first pieces I made were miniature copies of famous masterpieces on pumpkin seeds and matchboxes,” he remembers.
In 2014, Fidai began working with an altogether different medium, crafting miniature sculptures from graphite pencil rods. It was a risky move. “There are very few masters of this unique art form,” he tells us. “It is an extremely intense and time-consuming process. Graphite is a very fragile material, and the sculptures are exceedingly small–measured in millimeters and even in microns. These graphite micro-sculptures often break while working with them. Carving one sculpture may take up to 8-12 hours and sometimes several days or a week.”
Despite the challenges, Fidai has committed to the precarious genre. “I found my unique style because I experimented a lot in different types of art,” the Russian artist admits. “I started over and over again, gaining experience and patience along the way. New projects and new challenges are a prerequisite for me. I always want to do something more and more complex.”
From Mixed-Media to Modifying Ceramics
Debra Broz began her career as a mixed-media, collage, and found object artist. “The work I was making at the time was often visually sparse, labor-intensive, and thematically on the relatively serious, quiet, and poetic side,” she admits. “But when I started learning ceramics restoration techniques, everything changed.”
Broz now works as a ceramics restorer and sculptor. Creating surreal animals out of forgotten ceramic items found in thrift stores, she considers herself part mad-scientist, part surgeon. “The idea that I could seamlessly modify ceramics without using clay or traditional ceramics processes was amazing to me,” she says. “I became fascinated by the idea that I could transform these objects that seemed so unchangeable into things that were humorous and strange.”
The transition was a significant one. “When I started modifying ceramics, they were so weird, funny, and attention-grabbing, and I initially felt like they were an affront to my previous work,” the artist tells us. “People were buying my mixed media work, and I didn’t want to ruin the reputation I’d built by showing something so completely different.”
Slowly, she shared her work with her friends, and later, the public. Despite any fears she might have had initially, they were a hit. “One tip I would give to other artists who are considering changing media is that you shouldn’t be afraid,” she adds. “You just have to go with what feels right to you. That’s what art-making really is: listening to your creative voice and following it, even when it’s taking you somewhere that doesn’t necessarily make sense in the moment.”
Out with Clay and Bronze, in with Paper Creatures
Roberto Benavidez has always been a sculptor, but before transitioning to bronze, he made his early work in clay. “The move from clay to bronze was largely due to access and affordability,” he remembers. “I began taking a metal casting class at Pasadena City College, where I had access to casting facilities. I only had to pay for the materials, which were relatively cheap.”
Today, Benavidez is best-known for neither clay nor bronze. After completing the class–and losing access to those facilities–he transitioned to an unlikely material: paper. He’s since reimagined characters and creatures that once roamed the canvases of the painter Hieronymus Bosch and other medieval works, and he’s done so with piñatas.
“When contemplating my next step after PCC, I saw a piñata that impressed me, and I challenged myself to venture into this medium,” he tells us. “It only involved cheap materials that I would more than likely always have access to, so I had no excuse not to work every day. Luckily, I fell in love with paper and the piñata making technique not only because of its accessibility but also because of its versatility. I feel like I can make anything from paper.”
Existential Anxiety Leads to Space Opera Success
“I did my Masters of Fine Art at the San Francisco Art Institute,” Robert Xavier Burden tells us. “I tried my best to cater to what I felt art school wanted, or what I thought the art world wanted, but during my mid-program critique, I received generally negative reviews from my advisors and from other students. What’s even worse is that I didn’t like anything that I was making. I hated my own paintings. They felt pretentious in the worst kind of way, like I was trying to say something so important, but they ultimately felt contrived and banal.”
Looking back, he says he had “a bit of an existential art crisis”–which ultimately led him to cast off expectations and pursue ideas that mattered to him. He sketched dozens of large-scale paintings, which he called his “dream paintings.” Many of them were inspired by his childhood love of action figures.
“The first one on the list was a 9-foot wide painting of a Battle Cat action figure from He-Man,” he says. “It was a dramatic departure from my previous body of work. But it was the first time in a long time that I made a painting I actually loved, and it ‘clicked.’” In the years since, he has refined and expanded his skill set–perhaps his most famous work to date is The 20th Century Space Opera, a 15-by-8 foot Star Wars-inspired piece that took him 2,000 hours to bring to life.
“I’ve been painting 70 hours a week, eleven months of the year, for the past fifteen years,” Burden says. Admittedly, his creative path is unique, and it requires countless hours of hard work in the studio–but he’s glad he followed his gut. “I’m very passionate about the work, and I have about 40 more giant paintings that I hope to make before I’m dead,” he tells us. “Those paintings might take another 25 years to complete. I’m a bit of an anomaly in the art world. I’ve been told that my work is way too nerdy and fanboy for the ‘high art’ crowd, but way too conceptual and inaccessible for the ‘fanboy’ crowd. I don’t seem to really belong anywhere, but I’m proud that I’ve stayed true to my vision.”
Wood Offers a New Way Forward
Hayley Welsh has always been a painter, but eight years ago, she was stuck in an uninspiring job. “I felt really trapped and was just painting in my spare time to keep me sane,” she remembers. “At the time, I felt so low, and the process of painting literally made me feel happier.”
The revelation came when she challenged herself to use found wood instead of a traditional canvas. “Through the knots in the wood, I saw eyes staring back at me,” she says. “Through the process of painting little creatures and bringing these new souls from the grain, I found a happy place where I was at peace.”
These days, Welsh works on a larger scale, painting elaborate murals of imaginary animals in cities around the world. She traces her path to street art all the back to those wood pieces. “Although my creatures have evolved over the years, the premise that they are comforting friends which I find in lost surfaces is something that I still have.”
“They say from pain you grow, and that was definitely true in my case. I often look back at that time in my life. Even the days were the darkest and I remember them being so low, I don’t regret them. I am happy they happened. They pushed me to where I am now, and I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.”
A Brush with Something New
For years, Alexandra Dillon painted on canvases until she began painting on a less orthodox surface. “The turning point came when I was invited to be in a show where all the art was to be made from the remnants of a studio fire,” she remembers. She grabbed some burned paintbrushes on a whim, and at first, she experimented with abstract artworks. While taking a break, she decided to paint a face on one of the brushes.
“The moment I did it, I knew I had created something special,” she tells us. “My paintbrush portraits have since gone viral on Instagram and the web, and they have been published in many magazines. That all came from that initial challenge.”
The Los Angeles-based artist still works with paintbrushes, and she’s also incorporated other found objects like axes, locks, dresses, gloves, and more. “The juxtaposition of my portraits on these objects create new meanings, and it’s opened up a whole new direction in my artistic thinking,” Dillon says. “Art is problem-solving and treasure hunting. It’s always good to try things a new way.”
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