Try again. Fail again. Try better. – Samuel Beckett
We all love to announce publicly our most glorious moments and accomplishments. However, a life best lived is a hero’s journey, a journey in which we must overcome great obstacles and challenges, none greater than our failures. It is overcoming these failures that make the hero.
This being the year 2020, the opening onto a new decade serves as an invitation for me to reflect on the past and to consider the full story behind my success.
Here are just three of my many, many failures. By sharing them, I hope to pass on one simple message: aim high and have the courage to fail greatly.
#1: I failed at becoming a comic book artist
Sometimes we have no clue about what we really want, or what our purpose is. The one and only reason I went to art school was to become a comic book artist and tell a story of American Industry. More precisely, I wanted to adapt a certain rather famous book into a graphic novel.
I picked illustration as my major and jumped in with great enthusiasm. I was convinced this was my calling, but after much struggle, in less than two years, I realized that I didn’t like making comic books at all. I was too slow at drawing, I hated calculating perspective, and I didn’t want to sit 10+ hours daily staring at the computer screen (somehow I had missed the fact that illustration was moving to digital, forget pencil and ink).
A panel from my unfinished graphic novel, a labor of love which took me to art academy. Ironically, when I was presented with an opportunity to make the adaptation of the book, I chose to turn it down.
Ironically, when I was presented with the opportunity to fulfill my dream and make the graphic novel adaptation of the book, I chose to turn it down. It took me a long time to let myself openly admit what was happening, even as I dreaded going to illustration classes because my identity as an illustrator, a storyteller, was on the line.
Which brings me to my second failure:
#2: I failed at becoming an academic painter
It’s funny how we can rationalize and lie to ourselves to maintain our self-respect. In my case, all my self-worth was attached to the idea of creating a graphic novel.
When studying illustration started feeling like an unwanted duty, in my twisted way of thinking, I gave myself an excellent excuse to abandon it altogether and embark on mastering classical painting. The story I told myself was, I need to become the best classical painter in order to gain mastery that will translate into a stellar graphic novel.
So, there I was, taking painting classes, spending most of my days in the fine arts department and eventually dropping illustration altogether.
2016: River of Doubt, oil on linen. 48” x 48”
I immersed myself in painting, and actually I became quite good at it. All that would have been great if it wasn’t for one little fact: I went to art school in order to tell a story: the story of American Industry. Instead, here I was painting grand portraits in what seemed like technical masturbation, a hobby, work that had no purpose, no story, and no real significance. It made me feel good, but it didn’t lead anywhere.
Which led (even though indirectly) to my third failure:
#3: I failed (twice) at painting a portrait of new technology
In 2016, struck by sheer luck, I was asked to paint a machine, in what was to become the first in my heroic machine portraits series, and what ultimately brought me back to the story of the Machine and of American Industry.
Since then, I painted many great derelict machine portraits, and I met wonderful patrons and institutions along the way. Then, in 2019, I decided it was time to include new technology in my work. I was bold and optimistic. Without much consideration, I decided to take on this new feat at the most public of places: Google/Alphabet.
Needless to say, the combination of self-imposed pressure, the high-profile nature of the commission, and the novelty of the concept, I had to admit failure after weeks and weeks of struggle.
Detail. One of the many variations from the painting at Alphabet I was unable to bring to completion. It was sanded down, stripped, and the panel was used as a base for another painting, which was eventually sold.
I must be a slow learner since without much self-reflection, I thought it would be a great idea to do the same thing again. This time, I chose a different tech giant (Autodesk) and different new technology (robot arms), but essentially using the same approach: an oil painting, a portrait of new technology, with a studio space in a public location.
I failed again. I terminated my Autodesk residency and left with no finished work to show for it.
(Note: I have not given up on finding a visual language to represent new technology. Painting might not be the best medium for this conversation, so I am exploring a failing at other approaches, including ready-mades in the tradition of Duchamp. Stay tuned!)
A Hero’s journey is paved with obstacles, which can become stepping stones. It’s a lesson I slowly learned in the last decade. I used to believe that my resilience and tolerance for failure is what makes me successful. Now I know it’s way beyond that. I see failures as a springboard into the future, a welcome correction on a wrong path, a proof that I am working to my fullest potential and beyond.
Failures in progress: A small sample of many thumbnail sketches that were rejected by a collector. Eventually a commission was finished, but it looked nothing like what I started with here.
I am sure more failures are awaiting me in the next decade. As my career progresses, my failures will become more public. No one took much notice when I came up short of my goals as an unknown artist. But now more is at stake: my reputation, my identity. With my increasingly public profile, the risk of testing new waters is becoming more daunting.
Theodore Roosevelt said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
We are all dreamers, and I am one too. What’s important, is finding the courage to act to make our dreams reality, for life without purpose is empty. Give yourself permission to fail, even celebrate failures, and inspire others by getting up again and again, every time you fall. I find nothing to be more heroic than doing just that.
Polish born artist, Agnieszka Pilat studied painting and illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. She is an award-winning artist and her works can be found in public and private collections in North America, South America and Europe. Pilat currently lives and maintains a full time studio in San Francisco and is represented by numerous galleries throughout United States. www.agnieszkapilat.com