I couldn’t resist writing a post today, having just read an inspiring article about the artist Carmen Herrera. It seems Herrera has been a serious painter since the 1930s. Now at age 94, she’s suddenly famous, having had her first museum show 5 years back when she was a youthful 89. Her “secret”: persistence borne of her love for painting.
In spite of more recent evidence, I think there remains the idea that if you don’t make it in your field by 30 or 40, you really can’t expect success. Now, if you’re trying out for the New York Yankees or most ballet companies (a few seem to be including older dancers), you can assume that before 40 you will definitely know if you are going to have the success you may have wanted.
But for most fields not dependent on an extremely high level of physical skills and performance, you may not need to give up on your dreams at any given age. You may need to find other work for financial reasons–and that work can also be passionate, meaningful work, perhaps in a related field. But you can also keep working on your dream goals part time in one way or another.
In Herera’s case, she never quit painting. She didn’t run after success, but kept doing her art with her vision, not making any attempt to fit the latest trends. “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she said in a New York Times article (read the full article here). There’s the key–not whether others accept you for what you love, but your own sense of needing, loving to do something.
But there’s another secret less celebrated in our culture. Herrera’s success like everyone else’s is also dependent on a support network, in spite of all the myths about individual triumph. For instance, Herrera knew other artists and was supported always by her husband of 61 years (a NYC schoolteacher). That network of supporters were also persistent. In fact, the person who created a turning point for her, the artist Tony Bechera, had been a booster of hers since the 1970’s but only in 2004 did Bechera make a connection that led to the big break for Herera.
An artist had dropped out of a show of geometric female painters. Bechera told the director of the museum with the show that he needed to add Herrera. That director had never heard of her, but was convinced to look at her work and was amazed. She was put in the show, and now some of her paintings are being sold for 40 thousand dollars.
The ‘secret’ of persistence is hardly unique to Herrera. In fact, it is ensconced in traditional sayings and lore. According to the NY Times article, Bechara toasted Herrera recently with a Puerto Rican saying:
“The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”
Herrera responded “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”