Artists Anonymous: Local Artists Gather with Karen Finley at Hallwalls


Do you have a problem with art? Buffalo artists were recently invited to participate in Artists Anonymous groups facilitated by Karen Finley. Known for her performances, visual and conceptual works, the New York-based artist has appropriated the self-help model of 12-step programs to create this new work. She had just completed hosting a series of such groups during the NYC Makers Biennial at Manhattan Art & Design Museum when she visited town last month to join the 40th anniversary celebration for Hallwalls.


An Artists Anonymous meeting is open to those who feel that their lives have been affected by artmaking, the art world, and the troubles of maintaining a creative life and career. Finley began offering these groups after a difficult time when she was looking to rekindle her own sense of joy as an artist. Modeled after the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program (AA) developed in 1935 by Bill Wilson, the steps for recovery from alcoholism were outlined in his handbook, referred to as “The Big Book.” People maintain anonymity at these meetings by using first names only with one another. The AA format helps people to connect with others facing similar struggles.

“Find your tribe,” encourages Finley. One of the foundations of the original AA is the act of turning one’s life over to a higher power. While Finley’s version does not require this, many artists view their pursuit of art as a kind of religion or an alternative to it. Often an obsession, artmaking can veer off into the territory of addiction, a term that is casually tossed around to define any out-of-balance activity. Traditionally, addiction implies powerlessness. Most 12-step groups guide a person into their individual story to ask “How did you arrive at this place of powerlessness? While recovery in the original AA model implies “giving up” the use of alcohol or other harmful substance, Artists Anonymous is not asking anyone to give up as artists. Instead, recovery is more a case of recharging and rediscovering the passion for creating and engaging with art.

Finley suggests that artists find the joy in what they do. She has reimagined the twelve steps as thirteen thought-provoking ideas to ponder: 1) We are powerless over art; 2) The power of art is greater than ourselves; 3) Turn our will and our lives over to the care of art; 4) Admit we are artists; 5) We are addicted to art; 6) Ready to make more art; 7) Get out of the way–we are making art; 8) Whatever it takes–make the art; 9) Art is all around us–we make art available to others; 10) Continue to make art despite the consequences; 11) Give of ourselves with our art to others whether they like it or not; 12) Hope to provide a spiritual awakening with art and maybe some cash; 13) Life is more important than art but life is meaningless without art.

I gathered on a Sunday morning with thirty artists in chairs circling the main gallery. Anticipating the event to be part spoof, part performance, and not entirely serious, I discovered a fairly no-frills support group.The meeting began with introductions and small group discussions to arrive at personal additions to Finley’s list of thirteen steps. Some of these were shared with larger group: 1) I express, therefore I am; 2) Don’t rush it–art tells you when it’s ready; 3) People do not have to understand your work; 4) Fake it ‘til you make it; 5) Make art from your personal struggles; 6) Art is a process; 7) Lack of time or funds for materials should not be a deterrent; 8) Be sure to play; 9) Fail and fail again.

A second round of small group discussions addressed how the spiritual enters into art as a maker and a viewer. Many recalled the first time a work of art impacted them. More than one person mentioned influential moments that occurred at Albright Knox during childhood visits. Books, teachers, wilderness adventures, travel, foreign places, meeting experienced artists—all translate into fuel for the creative fire. Experience the largeness of the world. Find connections.

Someone asked the question that comes up over and over again in conversations about art: “Hasn’t everything already been done?” Always a good conversation starter that always come to yes and no. It hasn’t been done by you in your voice through the filter of this particular time and place in history. The need to make and express is much like an itch that must be scratched. Artmaking offers a therapeutic aspect that can have an immediate reward. Finding that connection can keep an artist from drifting away. Harnessing the gods and goddesses of creativity is fraught with possible troubles, as well as joy. Getting snagged in the angst of the process is the affliction of the artistic. Only the addicted stick around.

Observations on the perils and gifts of an art practice are plentiful in the book, Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They demystify the pursuit and arrive at the realization that those who continue to make art over time are simply those who have learned not to quit. “Making art is dangerous and revealing,” they explain. Therefore, the artist will face doubt and failure repeatedly, but finding a way back into the work takes it to the next level. Each of us is living out a modern-day heroic journey. We may not be slaying dragons and walking through fire, but our complex world is no easier. Making art is chancy and it does not mix well with predictability. Those who cannot tolerate the uncertainty will not endure. Artists Anonymous is a place to address these kinds of concerns in community with others.

The original AA group model includes a testimonial presentation by a group member who stands at the podium to tell their tale. Every artist has a story. One painter bravely stepped up to the front to speak. The two-hour session was just enough time to uncover a small slice of story from all who attended, but it was a worthwhile experiment. While the meeting did not conclude with the traditional AA Serenity Prayer, we were asked to stand in our circle holding hands for a good length of time—a powerful moment for an artist group not inclined to touchy-feely gestures.

Artists are often introverts who express themselves best through their art. Some may not find the appeal of an interactive group, yet the mood upon leaving was energetic and people seemed generally pleased. Thank you Karen Finley (and Hallwalls). Watch for future “Friends of Karen” Artists Anonymous groups at

November 2014

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