Failure Sucks

by Lisa Call on September 11, 2013

in Being an Artist

art quilt
Structures #150 – In progress

Learning from Failure

A few weeks back, Alyson Stanfield had an interesting discussion on failure on her blog.

It was a question for her deep thought Thursday that I sent to Alyson after hearing a panel discussion about failure in art.

They asked the panel this question “Is failure in your art practice something to be embraced, managed, or forgotten?”

The answers given by the panelist were uninteresting and forgotten.

The answers given in Alyson’s blog post were essentially one of the following 2 answers:

  1. I learn from my failures.
  2. I don’t believe in failure – I just do something else when things don’ work out as planned.

Alyson wrote a follow up post today and she selected answer #2 by saying “The only failure is not trying your best.”


In my opinion these 2 answers are the same answer.

I think it is a question of semantics if you call it failure or something else (things not going as planned, things not going as well as you wanted, etc) but both groups are saying that when things don’t work out they just try something different.

It’s a great answer.

It was the answer I gave (using version #1).  It is, of course, the correct answer.

Right – because who wants to admit that when  ‘things don’t go well’ it derails them or they give up?

Noone.  Cause that sounds like a weakness.

It sounds like, well, failure.

True Failure

So here’s the thing.

I lied.

Yes – most of the time when things don’t go well I just do something else.   I’ve read that chapter of the self help book and I know the drill.

But sometimes failure knocks me on my butt.  I become completely derailed.  I do nothing.  I get stuck.  I dwell.  I procrastinate. I do nothing.

According to Alyson’s definition “The only failure is not trying your best” –  I reach true failure.

Like right now.


It happened earlier this year.  I designed this gorgeous 5’x10′ textile painting – Structures #150.  I had it 1/3 of the way quilted.  I spent  hours and weeks in my studio making the thing.

I sent a video of the work in progress to my collectors mailing list.  It was the biggest piece I’ve made to date and I was in love with it.

I was suffering a serious case of the Ikea Effect because I’d spent 60 or 70 hours on this thing.  And right? – anything I put that much time into had to be good!!

Yet in the back of my mind I knew something was wrong.

Fortunately my son, who has  a brilliant eye, said something.  Something like “I don’t think this works”.

He was right.  And I knew he was right.

So I did exactly what I said I do.   I went right to work fixing it.

Derailed by Failure

At least I started fixing it.  And then  I went to Italy.

When I got home the big failure not successful pieced loomed in my studio and it drained my energy.

So I came up with excuses for avoiding my studio.   And my blog, and a lot of things.  Except facebook.  I got really good at facebook.

It has now been 4 months and I’ve worked in my studio very little since my return from Italy.

I have a zillion rational excuses but I know very clearly what the problem is.  And it drains me to think about it.

The Interesting Part of the Question

For 1/4 of this year I have been derailed by something not working out.

Call it failure, call it whatever you want – but it sucks.

When things don’t work out there is a period of time between them not working out and us getting back on track and trying something new.

Because for the most part we all do get back on the bike and ride away.

Sometimes it takes just minutes.  Sometimes it takes hours.

In this cases, it’s taking months.

For some people it can be years.

So in my opinion the interesting part of the failure question: what do you do in between?

In between recognizing it didn’t go well and then doing something positive about it.

To me this is where we start getting really vulnerable and authentic. This might require admitting weakness.

This could mean admitting that the self help books don’t always help us.

Maybe for some of you, this time in between is never more than a minute.  Or an hour.  Or maybe even a day.  Maybe you say you don’t recognize failure because you never get derailed.

My hats off to you.

For everyone else – what do you do?  Where does your mind go when you know you should be moving forward but instead you are dwelling on the past? How do you deal with that time in between?  How do you get back on the horse?

I Have No Answers

Me – I obviously have no answers for how to always deal with “things not going well” successfully.

I know what I’m supposed to do.  But I don’t do it.

Instead I watch a lot of netflex and wait it out.

Time works.

As does chocolate.

Nor Do I Need Answers

A small update written the morning after…

I’m not asking for answers or help by posting this. Nor am I giving answers.

I think I’m just wanting to recognize that when people go around saying they don’t believe in failure or that they just get up and try something else when they fail a large part of the story is missing. Because this time in between is where the juicy stuff is.

This is where we are uncomfortable. This is where we struggle.

And it is because of this discomfort, I think we want to cover it up. It’s why I lied. It’s uncomfortable to admit I can’t be positive and moving forward all the time.

Its also uncomfortable to be around someone that is stuck. People want to offer advice. But the problem is – the advice often comes out as empty platitudes.

It’s not like we don’t know all the right things to do when we are stuck – it’s not like we hadn’t thought “gosh – maybe I should just go make more art” – we know this.

Thing is – we don’t do it. We are derailed. If we weren’t the advice to “learn from our mistakes and move on” would already be in action.

So this post is about recognizing that life is sometimes just messy. It’s not perfect.

And it’s okay that it’s like this.

We don’t always need solutions. Sometimes we just need acknowledgement that we aren’t alone.


PS – this is a bonus of staying off of facebook – having more time to write long blog posts.


PPS – I have 3 online art workshops starting this sunday – September 15.  This is an example of the mindset stuff we talk about in Working in a Series and Abstraction.


Elize September 11, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Hi Lisa,
I followed your response via Alyson Stanfield’s blog post on failure.
Thank you for talking about “the period of time between” when things go ‘wrong’ and when you get back on track. This is exactly where I have found myself for a number of years.
I was embarrassed about the fact that I could not be ‘successful’ at my art – to the extent that I abandoned my blog, my paintings, even drawing. I now know that, for me, it had to take as long as it did, because an entire other life had to be led which informs my art now.

Lisa Call September 12, 2013 at 6:06 am


Wonderful to hear from you. Life does just needs to happen as it happens.

Thanks for sharing as it’s hard to admit such things. And hurray for working through it as you needed to.


pat September 11, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I stuff the currently unsuccessful piece in a drawer. Then I dig out my scraps and make a baby quilt (there are always people who will love an even semi-successful baby quilt). And keep working until I make a successful something. Only then will I have enough perspective to objectively view and alter my design. (or cut it into something else…the first cut is hard but everything following is exhilarating. )


Lisa Call September 12, 2013 at 6:08 am


Thanks for sharing. You are making the world a better place in your time inbetween – those babies thank you! :)


Robin Maria Pedrero September 12, 2013 at 6:10 am

Hey Lisa,
Alyson and I were discussing this a bit when I shared the failure quote from her on twitter and she said you’d expanded on this tough subject. I read your post in my email and nodded the whole time in understanding. I shared it on my facebook then when I came here to respond I noticed your piece has the form of a few pieces that I am working on, like that of a bridge. I even turned it upside down. In the center it feels a bit to me like walking on a tightrope and hovering in the middle, just as you expressed the piece is in your process. Sometimes our work is exactly where we are – trying to cross that bridge, or walk that tightrope to get to the destination, that is what I am learning this year. It’s interesting how the voids, complications, or insights and revelations appear in artists’ works and our visual language for expression is actually more intuitive than we even realize, at least that is where I am it. Not that I ride horses, but I got back up on my horse, re the bike.. let’s ride!

Lisa Call September 12, 2013 at 6:21 am


Interesting observation about my piece. Thanks!!


Jacquie Gouveia September 12, 2013 at 6:41 am

Oh the time in between – isn’t it just marvelous? I’m there right now and dealing with feelings of failure – it can swallow you up whole. Here’s my “failure” story – of course I think it’s pathetic – but it’s real emotions and thoughts.

I had a show this summer in NY at 1stdibs in the NY Design Ctr – totally awesome opportunity and had 16 paintings in the show. It ran from end of June to end of August. I sold 1 painting, which I translate to “only” 1 painting. I know I should feel proud about the show etc. and I do and got great feedback – so many people love my paintings – but I don’t sell even close enough to making a living – and that’s really what we want, right? The day that all the other paintings came home was really sad – tears – you bet. I haven’t spent much time in my studio this summer and have had tons of free time. I think I’m starting to shake it off, but my thought process now is I’m not even going to try and sell my work anymore – no more twittering, facebooking etc – my work will sell when it’s ready. I really really thought things would turn around for me this summer, but now I’m back in the position of having to find a day job to pay the mortgage. Feeling totally defeated and a bit embarrassed. I promoted the bleep out of the show, told everyone, and everyone wants to know how many paintings I sold. It’s embarrassing to say “just the 1”. I know other opportunities could come from this, but right now I’m still having my 1 person pity party.

WOW this is really therapeutic!! haha! I

Lisa Call September 12, 2013 at 6:47 am


Yahoo – thanks for sharing your experience.

It’s so hard to admit this stuff because we know we aren’t supposed to feel this way. Yet we do.

So hurray for sharing. I’m glad it was helpful. I certainly found writing my post yesterday therapeutic also!


Jacquie Gouveia September 12, 2013 at 7:01 am

Thanks for expanding on this issue Lisa – everyone feels insecure at times (CEO’s, CFO’s etc) it’s not just artists.

Daniel Sroka September 12, 2013 at 7:08 am

I have two quotes on failure that I shared on Alyson’s blog:

In her song Walking and Falling, Laurie Anderson explains how walking (progress) is intertwined with falling (failure): “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself from falling. Over and over, you’re falling.”

Douglas Adams describes how a character learned to fly: “There is an art… or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” So flying is failing at falling.

Lisa Call September 12, 2013 at 7:59 am

Great quotes Daniel – thanks for sharing.


Connie Carrington September 12, 2013 at 7:56 am

I have been dealing with failure for about 4 months. This spring, the piece was hanging on the design wall, halfway pieced, and looking pretty Meh. It is the next step in my series, in developing my own style. I wasn’t going to learn anything else from it by completing it, and that’s my mantra, that if I can’t learn anything more, it’s time to throw it away. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so it hung there, like an albatross, while I worked on other fun, easier things like exploring motifs. I have a deadline at the end of this month, a presentation to do with new work, and yet the work I had ready was not in the style I am trying to develop. So I buckled down last week and finished piecing it, showed it to a few quilt art friends at a Sunday lunch, didn’t get any negative comments, or even worse, uncomfortable silence. I’m quilting it this week, not critiquing it, just getting it done. I’m hoping that I will get some feedback on this piece after the presentation, since I’ve let this piece slow me down for too long. Maybe there’s something to be learned from this after all.
Your post hit a raw nerve.

Lisa Call September 20, 2013 at 7:30 am


Thanks for sharing your story.

“I’m quilting it this week, not critiquing it, just getting it done.” Hurray for you!


Nancy Eichenberger September 12, 2013 at 8:05 am

I appreciate you sharing this. I used to take my failures and put them away out of sight. Recently I made a piece that was not right at all and I worked a long time piecing tiny strips and squares. When completed I knew it was not right so I set it out so I could look at it every day and finally realized what it needed so I took it all apart (getting very proficient at seam ripping). I am now ready to submit it to the local gallery. It was not easy looking at that piece every day but it finally came together.

Lisa, I have finally found structure in my day since retiring. It feels great. I may not be selling work but it is getting out there locally through the gallery. Time will tell but I will not give up what I love.

Thanks for your posts. nanc

Jacquie Gouveia September 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Thanks for posting Nancy. We, as artists, will never give up. Our desire to create and express ourselves will supersede selling any day of the week.

Lisa Call September 20, 2013 at 7:32 am


Yay – glad you got that piece sorted out.

And yay! Wonderful finding the structure in your day. That can be so incredibly important, especially once our entire day becomes our own to do with as we please.


Danai Gud September 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Hi Lisa

I’m exactly where you are right now. I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush in 3months, until just the other day. I decided to pick myself up and just paint, just see where it takes me. And when I did, it was difficult. I felt like I’m only doing it because I’m forcing myself to, not because I want to. It’s been really hard to get back.

About your textile painting, from my past experiences, I think you should just destroy the thing, kill the failure and the memory. Start afresh. Forget the that piece ever existed. You’ll have more space in your studio, hence more space in your mind to make fresh new art..

Lisa Call September 20, 2013 at 7:34 am


I’m with you – destroying things that don’t work is the perfect plan – and that is what I will do – part of it works, part of it doesn’t – I’ll sort them out and toss the part that is just UGLY :)

And thumbs up for you getting back to it!


Natalya September 12, 2013 at 5:17 pm

and on that note – when something is seriously not working, I go into avoidance mode… avoid studio at all costs > windows must be washed! that junk drawer must be emptied now!

Lisa Call September 20, 2013 at 7:34 am


Ha yes! Suddenly all those things feel so critically important :)


Vivien Zepf September 12, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Ah yes, the tap dance around the studio, scale, etc….. I know I’ve done it. I too can feel so defeated by my failures, in whatever form they come, that I pretend they don’t exist despite the fact they’re almost always the proverbial elephant in the room. I don’t think I have a “formula” to guide me as to when I can tackle whatever it is I’ve been avoiding. To date, my avoidance strategy has allowed my head and heart to work behind the scenes to get me ready to go back to my failure and accept it and move on, in whatever form that may be too (toss, try again, cut up and restart, who knows). I do think when the chips are down and we really have to pull through, we will.

Lisa Call September 20, 2013 at 7:36 am


” I do think when the chips are down and we really have to pull through, we will.” I agree – so often the solution is to figure out how to move from failure to “the chips are down” again super fast so we don’t end up wallowing in it.


Pat Bishop September 12, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I was reading about your failure experience not really relating when I remembered I haven’t worked in my studio since I screwed something up and know that’s the first thing I have to do when I return. Procrastination is my tool also. I am going back today or tomorrow after about a week. Sometimes I think the time away gives my subconscious a chance to solve my problem for me. But then maybe my problem isn’t a failure yet, but I am fearful that a failure is in my near future if I can’t figure this out. Thanks Lisa, it’s nice to know you are human too.

Lisa Call September 25, 2013 at 8:12 am


“Sometimes I think the time away gives my subconscious a chance to solve my problem for me.”

Indeed yes it does! Good point – time away is a good thing!


Bev September 12, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Oh Lisa, your timing with this post was perfect! Yup, have a piece that was going well — the small scale experimental piece that was the run up was good enough to get juried into a show — all should be good — but in the space between the fusing and the thread painting it went off the rails somewhere — or at least I thought it had

so what did I do in that space in between — well, tried to deal with some health issues that hit at the same time as the beginning of the thread painting — and tapped into my critique group on FB to get reassurance — and let it rest — or maybe more correctly stated, I let myself rest

next Monday when I go back to the studio I’m going to try again and see if I can get past the problem

(and I would also add that some pieces just aren’t meant to be finished — but I don’t think this one is one of those)

Lisa Call September 25, 2013 at 8:18 am


“or maybe more correctly stated, I let myself rest ”

Good for you! Sometimes rest is what we need to regroup. I hope your return to the studio was fruitful!


PS “some pieces just aren’t meant to be finished” YES!

Stacy Hurt September 12, 2013 at 8:57 pm

I love that you shared this, it makes me feel not alone. I admire your courage to admit this happens and also the insight as to what you do about it.

I find that frenetic time between the ‘well sh*t’ and “OH, I have an idea…” can give me stress like nobody’s business, that stress to ‘go, do, try,’ when you’re not ready can be crippling and further the downward spiral until all that’s left is hitting ‘refresh’ on your facebook page every 15 minutes while waiting for the next episode of (fill in the blank).

I have found a new thing to try and it seems to work well. The two minute rule. It’s helped me so far over the gap.

Stacy Hurt September 12, 2013 at 8:58 pm

(*gaps) plural.

Lisa Call September 25, 2013 at 8:22 am


” it makes me feel not alone”


Your 2 minute rules sounds interesting. Care to explain it more? Do you give yourself 2 minutes before moving on or something else?

Thanks for sharing!


Cynthia Morris September 12, 2013 at 9:08 pm

I like how you point to the complexity of life, and of making art. It’s not just one-size-fits-all advice. It’s not just a slogan ‘there is no failure’ or ‘just do it’.

The truth, as you’ve bravely shared it, is humbling, it’s human, it’s messy, it’s confusing and it’s not always tied up on a neat blog bow.

I’m gearing up to write an end of year report sharing some of what I’ve been working on this year. It’s not upbeat. It’s not complete. It’s messy and confusing and well, painful. But I am excited to share it because as you have done, it’s real and it reflects what people are actually experiencing in their own lives.

I think you’ve shared a wonderful story of how someone who is successful and has it going on isn’t always ON.

Thank you. And, chocolate is on its way. :)

Lisa Call October 5, 2013 at 9:36 am


Thanks for the support. And for being real yourself.

And for the chocolate :)


Judy Murdoch September 14, 2013 at 3:32 am

Thanks for sharing your dilemma honestly, and you are so right you don’t need answers, most creative people ‘bomb’ and each of us must get through however we get through.

Lisa Call October 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

Judy – yep – we all figure it out and move on. Just being there to support each other is a huge win.

Thank you!


Cher September 14, 2013 at 10:08 am

there is certainly no one answer that fits everyone, however, it is always good to be kind to yourself and honor how you are feeling. kudos to you for sharing what I am sure happens to all of us, yet, so few put it “out there” for the world to read. I enjoyed reading all the comments and your answers and look forward to what you discover feels right for you to take as your next step of action. I would point out, “merely” posting this to your blog is a huge step in itself. I do value your point of view and always enjoy reading what you have to share.

Lisa Call October 5, 2013 at 9:35 am


Yes – just posting this on the blog was a huge step. You are right – being kind to ourselves is important!


Katie Stein Sather September 16, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Chocolate is good for anything. not that it solves anything at all. but maybe, just maybe…. at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Lisa Call October 5, 2013 at 9:35 am


Indeed – chocolate never hurts :):)


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