5 Lessons Learned by Working with Two of the Most Successful Artists in the World
by Sergio Gomez
Over the last ten years, I have had the pleasure to work along side with two of the most successful artists in the world. Although I have learned many lessons from this experience, I would like to share in this post the top five in hopes we can all learn something we can integrate in our art careers. Who are the two artists I am referring to? Let me start there. If you were asked by the President of the United States to make a painting on behalf of the country as a gift to the president of another country on his visit to the US, that would put you on a very important list of people.
Not only once but twice these artists have been commissioned by the White House. Their work can be found in countless museums and private collections around the world. Even Chicago has now a street officially named after these two brothers. Their studios are the dream space of every artist and their work sells in the 6 to 7 figures. I am referring to the Zhou Brothers.
“The Zhou Brothers are among the most legendary and established cultural figures in the contemporary art world. Originally from China, they have been residing in Chicago for the last thirty years. As artists, they live in a world of the self. Their art is made to explore the topic through inquiry about humankind itself. Their life reflects their pursuit of art, which is a heroic journey to conquer the world.” Mo Chen, Artsy Editorial (https://www.artsy.net/zhou-b-art-center/article/zhou-b-art-center-the-legend-of-the-zhou-brothers)
The Zhou Brothers are known internationally for their 40+ years collaboration. Each work is created simultaneously by both artists. Their well documented art and life philosophy stands as a testament of their success. Their legacy includes the founding of the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago in 2004 and the upcoming Zhou B Art Center in Beijing scheduled to open in the Spring 2017. These and many more accolades make them two of the most successful working artists in the contemporary art world today (Read their full story at www.zhoubrothers.com).
I have the honor of being the Director of Exhibitions and curator for the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago. Since 2004, I have known the Zhou Brothers personally and have followed their career from close proximity. After many lessons learned and many years of working with them at the Zhou B Art Center, I would like to share with you the top 5 things I have learned from ShanZuo and DaHuang.
Lesson 1: Follow the Vision You’ve Established for Your Future
One of the many things I highly admire about the Zhou Brothers is their razor-sharp vision for the future. From their art studio to international projects, they often envision the future. But a dream is only a wish if not followed by action and hard work; two things they are both committed to.
“When they first came to Chicago from China for an exhibition at the invitation of the East West Contemporary Art Gallery, they arrived with their paintings, $30 in their pockets between them and little to no command of the English language. In order to afford a place of their own where they could live and paint, they sold 10 of the paintings they had brought from China for a total of $1,500 to a gallery and rented an apartment on the South Side of Chicago for $250 a month. “We stopped at a friend’s place in Los Angeles for a week, thinking we could learn English first,” ShanZuo said with a laugh. Their cherished ambition was to “conquer the world”, as DaHuang wrote in a letter to their mother”. (JIAN PING in Chicago for China Daily, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2016-04/01/content_24235230.htm)
Over the years, their tenacity and hard work has led them to achieve success like not many other artists in the world. When I first met them and they showed me the spacious empty warehouse they were about to name “The Zhou B Art Center,” I had no doubt in my mind they were serious about it. Their eyes of confidence about the future of this dusty empty warehouse spoke louder than their words.
Lesson learned: As artists, we need to have vision, confidence and unparalleled tenacity to pursue the very thing we are passionate about. Nobody is going to come and build your vision or your art for you. No one really cares about your vision until you make it true in yourself enough to take action. Then and only then others will follow. Don’t expect others to believe what you are not willing to build with hard work.
Lesson 2: Don’t Take “No” for an Answer
When the Zhou Brothers arrived in Chicago they were told by other artists that their work was more for museums and not really fitting for the American market. Others encouraged them to leave abstraction behind and adopt a more figurative style to fit with the trends at the time.
“Their journey was not always a smooth one. They didn’t sell any paintings at their first show, nor in the first few months, despite some positive media coverage. But they persisted, rejecting friends’ advice to change their style to “cater to potential Western buyers”. (JIAN PING in Chicago for China Daily, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2016-04/01/content_24235230.htm)
However difficult these conversations were, they did not take “no” as the only answer or even as an acceptable answer. Instead, they went back to their studio and worked with focus day and night to demonstrate that their vision had value. Many years later, people still doubted the Zhou B Art Center was going to grow into what it is now. Today, we get visitors from around the world just to learn about the Zhou B Art Center’s story.
Lesson learned: Obstacles come along the way no matter how much (or less) you prepare for them. “No” is an answer we don’t like to hear. For example, not getting in the show we wanted or not being accepted into a gallery, residency program, grant, etc. “No” does not have to be the end. In fact, it may just be the very thing that pushes you to keep working hard. Additionally, doubters will alway be around, especially now that we are all connected via social media. Everyone has an opinion from the other side of the screen making it easily to share their negativity and doubt. Follow your bliss and don’t take NO for answer when you believe in your artistic vision.
Lesson 3: Value Collaborations
The entire Zhou Brothers’ artistic career is in fact a story of collaboration. Although excellent artists in their own right, the Zhou Brothers made collaboration their distinctive mark in the art world for over 40 years.
“Very few people possess a deeper understanding of collaboration than The Zhou Brothers. 2018 will mark 45 years of collaboration in painting for brothers whose work is, amongst other things, an exploration of the collaborative process and its essential role in creativity. The artists view collaboration as an exercise in discord, or a conversation acknowledging and overcoming difference to achieve harmony or wholeness” Lauren Xandra, Partner at Sinclair Global. (https://www.artsy.net/zhou-b-art-center/article/zhou-brothers-in-london)
Each work whether a painting, sculpture, print, or performance is the result of collaboration. During their long trajectory, they have also collaborated with musicians, artists, fashion designers, architects, luxury brands and many others. Building the Zhou B Art Center community itself has been for us a collaborative process.
Lesson learned: You can try to get ahead on your own or you can collaborate with others. When you practice the latter, you will likely move faster, further and with more focus. It is true that there is power in numbers. This lesson is one that I have embraced in my career and just about everything I do involves others in a very direct and purposeful way.
As you think about your future plans, ask yourself these questions: Where can I collaborate with someone else? What groups can I join virtual and onsite to connect and collaborate in community with other artists? Just having tons of friends in social media just does not cut it. You need to build relational capital. Authentic relationships you can count on.
Lesson 4: Art and Business are Not Opposites
“Commercial success and pure artistry are usually considered mutually exclusive. To them [Zhou Brothers], however, it’s not a conflict. They just live their life with the same artistic feeling of making their paintings. They call their philosophy “Feelingism,” [感觉主义] and elaborate it as “feeling is liberty.” [感觉是自由神] It can be interpreted as going with your guts, blindly believing in yourself, and following your heart. As painters, they make decisions spontaneously based on their intuition in the moment. In that sense, they are just simply applying this “feeling” to other areas of their life practices, including business. Labels such as Artist or Entrepreneur are irrelevant to them. Before the secret of how human’s intuition works is unraveled, they can only be defined as geniuses in life.” Mo Chen, Artsy Editorial (https://www.artsy.net/zhou-b-art-center/article/zhou-b-art-center-the-legend-of-the-zhou-brothers)
Over the years, I have witness how the Zhou Brothers were able to move into the entrepreneurial world with ease by carefully managing the Zhou B brand and making sure there is a level of sophistication to every business they put their hands on.
Lesson learned: At the end of the day, as an artist, your name is your brand. If you don’t watch it and protect it, nobody else will. Be careful what things and causes you associate with. Here is the kick, you don’t have to be a superstar to start. In fact, you should always be thinking about how you can monetize from your creative efforts. Art and business are not two polar opposites.
Lesson 5: Don’t be Afraid of Change
“At the beginning of the new millennium, the Zhou Brothers started a new series, diptychs called “Open My Door” which combine painting, printing, sculpture, all the techniques they have explored in previous years. The complete interchangeability of medium and technique as tools in their expressive vocabulary speaks to a new stage in the Zhou Brothers’ work, indicating they have reached a certain point of conceptual and technical maturity. Works in the series are mixed media wall pieces, many of them comparatively small, and each one comprised of two complementary sections hung side by side, as though one. In each, the ground of the adjoining sections is in strong contrast: one half lead, the other half transparent silk. Lines, geometric shapes, symbols, and figural forms are painted, stamped, molded, or printed on the ground. As DaHuang articulated in an interview with Barbara Wally: “… ‘Open My Door’ is a new page for another era… The 21st century is a different time — so the work has to be different. The philosophy of the new series emphasizes purity and contrast. It is about now and the future, yin and yang, past and future. We still have the same kind of philosophy of creating, but a different approach. Whatever medium, it is always speaking…” (http://www.zhoubrothers.com/iii-dreams-made-real.html)
In the brothers’ 40-year journey there have been many changes of direction, focus and ideas. Personally, I have witnessed a few new directions as they have unveiled new work series into the world. From figurative imagery to non-objective abstraction, they have tried many things never feeling intimidated to try and take new steps knowing that each new direction is a new journey.
Lesson learned: Don’t see change as your enemy. Sometimes the comfort of doing what we know and practicing what we have already mastered prevents us from growing and trying new things. While randomness is not exactly the point here, transformation, evolution and change should be considered as normal practices in an artist career. Knowing that most of the time, it is a hit or miss practice each time you embark on a new direction. However, new beginnings bring about new opportunities to indulge ourselves into uncharted territories worth pursuing.
Follow the Vision You’ve Established for Your Future, Don’t Take “No” for an Answer, Value Collaborations, Art and Business are Not Opposites andDon’t be Afraid of Change are the top five lessons learned by working with two of the most successful artists in the world. I consider myself blessed to have access to the Zhou Brothers and for being part of their story in the making of the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago. Like they often say “it feels like the best is yet to come” should be an artist’s ongoing way of positively thinking about the future.