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5 Important Lessons on Being an Artist from The Artist

Lessons Artist Prince

Often, we don’t gain full appreciation of something or someone until it is gone. In the weeks since the death of Prince, I have realized something: “The Artist” was a rare advocate for and inspiration to someone like me: a young black female artist. Or anyone who is one or a combination of these things. There are some important lessons that Prince’s life exemplified. Lessons that can be useful to an aspiring, emerging, or maturing artist alike. Let me explain…

By Penner, Wikimedia Creative Commons.


When it comes to self-confidence, it seems that people either have too much or too little. Overconfidence makes you an egotistical asshole. Too little confidence means that you are soft and weak. Now, I didn’t know Prince personally, so maybe he was a jerk. I have no idea (although I’d like to think that he was the coolest guy ever). However, as a creative person, confidence was one of the things that made him great. Think about the first few well-known, self-made artists/designers/musicians that pop into your head. Chances are these people have/had a ton of faith in their abilities and really think/thought they were the shit. Otherwise, you probably wouldn’t know as much about them.

“A strong spirit transcends rules.”

– Prince

The hard truth is that to “make it” as an artist or designer, you have to have faith in your abilities. Lack of confidence can not only lessen your chances of making a living from your work. It can also increase your chances of being taken advantage of by others. Prince knew—for much, if not all of his career—that he was an incredible musician. He didn’t necessarily say it publicly, but it was pretty evident in his music and the way he presented himself. His strong sense of character and talent permitted him to maintain creative freedom, control the rights to his work, and build a strong, loyal fanbase (of which I am proud to be a part).

LESSON 1 : Confidence in your abilities and knowledge is the first step to building a career as an artist and the key to maintaining that career.


Prince’s confidence made it much easier for him to be his crazy self and get away with it. Prince initially had some pretty obvious influences: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Earth, Wind & Fire, just to name a few. His early hits strongly reflected these influences. Over time, he came more into his own, as most artists do. With the confidence in his ability to sing, play instruments, and write songs, Prince was better equipped to experiment with sound, developing a genre that was uniquely his. Although he changed his sound with each new album/identity/hairstyle/outfit, you can always pick out a Prince song from others in the bunch. He coined a way of being that drew others to him and his music.

When it comes to style development, artists should keep this in mind. You can emulate and replicate those you admire, but it is finding your own means of expression that will get you noticed and respected. Fill your “inspiration bucket” with a range of influences. Be patient as your research, ideas, and trials work themselves out over time. As you find your so-called style, you become more confident in yourself and your work. You start to care less and less about what the haters say. Instead, you focus more on constructive feedback and being true to yourself.

LESSON 2 : Your means of expression (a.k.a. “style”) is developed over time, by examining a range of influences, experimenting with many methods, and maintaining confidence in your abilities.

3 : Learning

In addition to recognizing your influences and exploring new ways of making, continuous learning is a big part of sustaining creativity. This doesn’t mean you need to go back to school or take classes. It simply requires being open to new ideas and experiences. Recognizing advances in your field and adjusting (or rebelling) accordingly. Studying history: what worked, what failed, and what is still developing. Really, Prince explains it pretty well:

“The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.”

– Prince

For me, teaching has been a great way to ensure that I keep learning. Although I am tasked with teaching others, my students open my eyes to new perspectives. I am required to keep up with the latest technology and trends. It seems that Prince had much of the same approach. He worked with many other artists, many of whom were at the beginning or middle of their careers. As he helped establish these singers and musicians, his own music would evolve. Learning and growing never ceased.

LESSON 3 : Never stop learning (‘nuff said).


If you come up with a brilliant idea, there can be this limbo between wanting to share the idea with the world and to protect it from moochers. Prince has been known to adjust ticket prices and add shows to his tours to ensure that fans get the tickets—not scalpers or second-parties. In a similar vein, his history of name-changes—from “Prince” to “the Love Symbol” to “the Artist” to “Prince” again—was about control. Prince had concern for two things: the integrity of his music and loyalty to his fans. His choice to use a symbol rather than his name was his way of rebelling against his music label. He also gained control of when and how his music was released.

“Like books and black lives, albums matter.”

– Prince

I remember when Prince changed over to “the Love Symbol”: the female and male symbols melded together to form an undefined term. It was both cool and crazy. One minute, he had a name and the next, he had a mark. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned about Prince’s true reasons for the change. After giving several lectures on plagiarism and copyright law for artists and designers, I get it. No matter why you are producing work or who you are making it for, you should always maintain some type of control over the things you make. Prince took it to the extreme, but the premise of the action is a valuable lesson.

LESSON 4 : Keep control over your ideas and protect your work. Make sure you maintain some degree of rights over the work you produce.


People question a lot of things about Prince. Was he gay? Why did he straighten his hair? Why did he sing about sex all the time? There are many questions that will be left unanswered. I feel like Prince would want it to stay that way. Despite all this, Prince had pretty clear convictions for the respect and uplifting of others. In particular, Prince was an advocate for women and people of color.

Much of Prince’s music describes his love and elevation of the feminine. He worked with and was surrounded by talented women, his latest being the all-female band, 3rd Eye Girl. He wrote for and launched the careers of many impressive female singers and musicians. Outside the spotlight, Prince started, promoted, and maintained initiatives to help those in his community, particularly black youth. As Jason Johnson of The Root explains, “He played up his ambiguity when it came to sexuality and race, but he loved his blackness and black people.”

All of this to say that, despite what others thought of him, Prince addressed and fought for the things he believed in. He allowed his convictions to be exposed in his work. I would argue that this was key to his longevity as an artist. I know from my own experiences that having a purpose to my work drives my motivation, allows me to create more interesting work, and builds stronger connections to my audience. The work becomes more than just making something that looks pretty; it has a reason for existing.

LESSON 5 : Having a cause or purpose behind your work increases the meaning behind it and sustains your motivation to continue making impactful work.

Lessons from a Life well-lived

I hate that I will never get to see Prince perform in person. But then again, I didn’t need to see him in concert to know how much of an impact he had on people, myself included. I not only love his music—I am inspired by his passion for life and his craft. All of us creatives can benefit from these lessons Prince left behind.

Your turn

Have you found inspiration in the life of your favorite artist? What lessons have your learned from your idol?

Remember September

Remember September

Update : 06.14.16

My father, Peyton Jr., passed away on February 13, 2016, after a 16-month fight against colon cancer. He was a humble guy who loved people. Family and friends were always extremely important to him. He is incredibly missed by many.

This post is dedicated to Dad. I will always cherish September.

Something Special

Yes, I realize it is November. But there’s something special about September. Professor Jeffrey Peretz of New York University explains, “It’s the end of summer, it’s the beginning of fall, it’s that Indian summertime, it’s the transition from warm to cool.”

Well, Professor Peretz is actually referring to the song by Earth Wind and Fire. A fun NPR piece describes how “September” is the quintessential party song. No one can stay in their seats when the beat starts and you hear the words:

“Do you rememba… the 21st night of Septemba…”

On September 1, 2013, this joyous ode to the beginning of autumn introduced my now-husband and me, and our wedding party, to our guests. The song got everyone to their feet and set the tone for a dance-filled evening. I’m actually holding back from dancing in my seat just thinking about that moment!

Devin and me arriving at the reception to “September.” Yeah... I was pretty excited.
Devin and me arriving at the reception to “September.” Yeah… I was pretty excited.

So, that’s the obvious reason why I love September.

As sports fans, the ninth month signifies the wrap-up of the incredibly long regular baseball season and the beginning of the post season. Of course, this year, the Cardinals had the best record in the MLB, so September was particularly awesome. October… Not so much. Yeah. I am still heartbroken that we lost to the Cubs this post season. But I digress.

Dad, Devin, and me at a Houston Astros game... In our Cards gear (like true fans).
Dad, Devin, and me at a Houston Astros game… In our Cards gear (like true fans).

Oh, and then there is the fact that fall begins in September, usually around the 21st of September (coincidence?).

But as of last year, I have another reason to find importance in this month.


Midnight Plane to Houston

On September 18, 2014, I found myself on late flight from Nashville to Houston. A few nights before I had spoken to my mom over the phone. She was tired and scared and physically alone, dealing with an immense situation. My father had been diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and was in the ICU, on an ventilator. His liver was failing and there was no certainty about what would happen next.

I thought I was going to lose my dad that September.
We all did.

I was not prepared.
No one was.
No one could be.

Dad had been progressively losing weight over that spring and summer, but my family and I assumed it was stress. He had been through a lot over the previous 11 months.

See, in April, Dad moved to Houston to start a new job. He would travel back home to Knoxville every so often and Mom would visit him occasionally, but the separation was understandably difficult.

Also, his father—my grandfather—had been in hospice since the spring and passed away in June.

It turns out that tumors—not emotional distress—were the issue. The growths were throughout Dad’s midsection, consuming all the nutrients that he was taking in. A tumor on his back was so large that it crushed his spine and took away his ability to walk.

All of this had put Dad in the ICU. In an induced coma. With a tube down his throat, doing what his lungs were not strong enough to do on their own.

On the morning of September 19th, Mom received a call from the oncologist. He explained that there were two options: try a tiny dose of chemotherapy in hopes that it would slow the destruction of Dad’s liver, allowing his organs to regain strength, or…

I’m not gonna even mention the other option, because it really wasn’t an option.

My brother arrived at the hospital from Knoxville and the three of us (my brother, Mom, and I) stayed in Dad’s room for the night. The medical staff revived Dad from his induced coma and began the chemotherapy.

I didn’t sleep that night. Neither did Dad.

Dad slept most of the morning, but had become responsive. I asked one of the nurses if I could play some music from my phone. Dad has always loved music, especially R&B, soul, and funk. Maybe it would aid in his recovery somehow.

I chose “September.”

As the song queued up, Dad lifted up his hands and forearms and started to move them left to right, to the beat—an abbreviated version of his typical dance move. I was ecstatic.

Dad and me dancing to Ray Charles during the reception.
Dad and me dancing to Ray Charles during the reception. Photograph by B+B Portraits.


Celebration + Survival

Long story made slightly shorter, the chemo worked that day: Dad’s levels began to improve and he was soon moved out of the ICU.

This past September marked one year since Dad’s diagnosis. His recovery since his time in the ICU has been truly miraculous: he is walking on his own, gaining some weight back, and seeing a cessation/reduction in growth of some of the tumors. Although the future is not certain—and rarely is it certain—we all feel grateful for where he is today.

September. It has contained both the best day of my life and the worst.

It is a marker for celebration and survival.

Dad and me walking down the aisle. Photograph by and courtesy of George Middlebrooks.
Dad and me walking down the aisle. Photograph by and courtesy of George Middlebrooks.


From Adversity to Art

Now, I’m sure you want to know what the hell all of this has to do with art and design. Well, in grad school, the focus of my work was transforming awkward and painful situations into interactive art. I put my personal experiences into a new form that could be understood by a broader audience. My “found narratives” became visual stories.

As a teacher and designer, I want to help others tell their own stories in a way that connects with others. We all have stories to tell. My goal is to assist in choosing and ordering these narratives in a manner that educates, entertains, or excites. In essence, I am encouraging people to become visual storytellers.

September has presented narratives to me. Ones that I absolutely cannot ignore. Despite any pain or emotions that may be associated with this sequence of events, I feel the need to record it and remember it. And so decided to make something to communicate these stories. And now, share them with you.

Icons that represent the month of September, in my mind.
Icons that represent the month of September, in my mind. These icons are available for purchase as a font. Click here to learn more and to purchase the font.