Arts·Point of View

20 lessons Vivek Shraya has learned in 20 years of making art

Listen up, budding artists: Ms. Shraya has some wisdom to share.

Listen up, budding artists: Ms. Shraya has some wisdom to share

Vivek Shraya. (Vanessa Heins)

2022 marks 20 years since I began my professional art career with my first independent album, Samsara: The Sketches. As I celebrate this milestone, I have been reflecting on what I've learned on this journey — what I wish I had known when I started, what I still have to remind myself of regularly, lessons I don't like to (or don't have the opportunity to) talk about that I hope will be useful to other artists. Here are some of those lessons.

1. There's no such thing as an uncompromising artist.

Compromise is necessary to survive as an artist, so it's better to figure out what your boundaries and limits are. For the times you compromise on your values: forgive yourself and learn from these moments.

2. For BIPOC artists, comparing yourself and your path to white artists is a waste of time.

You don't have white cards and you never will. Look at the cards you have and make the best of them. Strategize. Leverage.

3. Perfectionism is a valuable quality — until it becomes a barrier.

Think big picture, body of work, instead of being hyper-focused on getting every individual detail or project right. Some learning can only come from making and disseminating art. The work you create now is helping you build skills to realize your vision more closely next time. 

4. Realizing the full extent of your vision often comes down to money — a banal but sometimes comforting fact.

5. If institutions refuse or reject you, become your own institution. 

6. Look for champions, believers, people who don't just see what you do, but who else you can be.

Your career depends upon them.

7. A cruel paradox: in a career that requires you or your work to be likeable to be successful, you must also learn to be OK with the fact that some, even many, won't like you or what you do.

8. In the moments you are afraid to speak up for fear of being seen as difficult or a diva, remember you will feel worse later if you don't than if you do. 

9. When you make art that involves or is about a particular community, you will be expected to represent every single member of said community and punished if you fail to do so.

Find ways to engage with and support "community" on your own terms. 

10. Good art can only become great art if you work with others.

Get feedback on everything. Collaborate with everyone. Banish the idea of the solo genius. 

11. Artists are weird, insecure, narcissistic and insufferable creatures.

Remember to cultivate relationships with non-artists.

12. The longer you make art, the less you will feel like an imposter and the more you will finally start to see what you are good at. 

13. The longer you make art, the harder it is for your work to be ignored.

Long game.

Vivek Shraya. (Vanessa Heins)

14. School will never teach you how to be an artist. 

15. You don't need to move to a bigger city to make art or be successful (but any change is an opportunity for inspiration).

16. Contrary to what most will tell you (and criticize you for) — especially if you are brown or femme or queer — there's nothing wrong with being ambitious.

(But at some point, please figure out how to be both ambitious and enjoy what you have). 

17. Celebrate every win, particularly the "small" ones.

Especially if you are brown or femme or queer. You will need to, to keep going (and no one else will).

18. You can't control if/how you are seen or received.

All you can control is whether or not you choose to follow your inspirations, your muses. 

19. Many of your dreams won't come true.

This will keep you up at night — but so would not trying at all. 

20. You will imagine a better world, one that's a little less hard than the one you started your career in.

You will make art to help try to build that world. And the world will change! You will watch others, in this new world, self-actualize faster and be given opportunities you never had. You will struggle to reconcile feeling simultaneously elated about this new reality and heartbroken for your past. In your jealousy, remind yourself of the many artists who built the world that you got to make art and be you in.

Vivek Shraya's new book People Change is out now.


Vivek Shraya is an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre, and film. Her album Part-Time Woman was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, and her best-selling book I’m Afraid of Men was heralded by Vanity Fair as “cultural rocket fuel.” She is a director on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Calgary, and is currently adapting her debut play, How to Fail as a Popstar, for television with the support of CBC.

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