Your First Art Exhibition

If you are like most artists, you have a clear recollection of how you felt when one of your drawings or paintings was first put on display on a school bulletin board, in an art-school exhibition, or in a commercial gallery. All of a sudden, the artwork you didn’t think much about became the focus of attention among your fellow students, family members, neighbors, teachers, and friends. And if you saved that early work of art, it has taken on even greater significance in the passing years. In fact, the importance accorded that first publicly displayed picture may have contributed to your becoming an artist today.

My first public recognition as an artist came when I was in the second grade at Bienville Elementary School, in New Orleans. My drawing of the classroom with my best friends standing at the blackboard and the clock announcing the 3 p.m. end of the school day was reproduced in the Times Picayune newspaper, along with a photograph of the actual classroom and selected students. That’s the day all my friends and relatives decided I was an artist.

Your experience may have been more nerve racking than mine. After all, most young people are very nervous during their first public speech or exhibition, and many adults hate attending the openings of their art shows. Nevertheless, the recognition can be extremely encouraging to artists of any age because it allows them to see how others respond to their intensely personal, private activities in the studio.

I’d be interested to know if you also have a clear recollection of that first public display of your artwork and the bundle of emotions that came with the experience.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

20 thoughts on “Your First Art Exhibition

  1. Technically speaking it was my second exhibit, but will always be the most ‘memorable’ for having been shafted by the organization holding the international exhibit. I received what in retrospect I believe was a merit award for my watercolor portrait, but they never gave me the award nor did they ever respond to my query about it. There is no doubt that the award was assigned, but I never received the recognition. I have since referred to it as my ‘Cinzano Moment’ from the movie “Breaking Away” where the star of the movie is dumped on the side of the rode during a bike race against his idols….the Cinzano Racing Team. I have had more positive experiences since then, but none that are as memorable.

  2. I’ve been pretty private about my artwork until late last year when I started posting on the internet with the hope of getting critiqued to get better. After numerous positive comments online, I started displaying my work offline to friends and family. The positive remarks from them boosted my confidence to keep going. In January, I was approached by a friend to do an anniversary portrait of he and his wife as a surprise to her. Then I was asked by Amy Lovett to illustrate her now published young adult science fiction novel, Worlds Away. I even set up a drawing blog I update weekly! As my confidence increased, the fun of drawing came back. I have always thought that the title “artist” didn’t really apply to me. Now I do.

  3. I am a self taught artist, and I was more into impressionist kind of painting, painting wildlife.. Here in India we rarely come across who is not abstract. So I had no guts to come out and show. I was also associated with wildlife photography. I met a fellow wildlife photographer who had come from neighbouring state Kerala in some phtographic event. I showed him my art album which I use to carry regulalry. He was very much impressed, he took my phone number and he told that he will keep the allbum for himself. In a months time I recieved an letter from a environmental organsiation from Kerala that they want to honour me on earth day for my works on wildiife art. this was in the year 2002. I could not believe this. I was also asked to bring my art for three day show. And it was all expense paid. I was so thrilled I put all my works in car (40 of them all together) and drived down.. This was two days drive, driving only in day time. The show was such an hit that the local governor visited my show, invited me for tea in his palace, and purchased 4 of my paintings!!! Totally I sold about 8 of them. This is the day that told me I am also an aritst. Since then I had a long way with many more shows, interviews in newspapers and tv channels. Last year my article appeared in INTERNATIONAL ARTIST #56. All this for a self taught artist is, not to ask for more.

  4. As a child I would drive my mom nuts when we went anywhere at all. Picture three small restless children parked on a beach, on a stonewall, or in a field somewhere while Dad went off to attend to a property line or work out someone’s family history. Mom always took her sketch book and to me it was a miracle that she could put on paper what we were viewing. I wanted to do that and tried on anything and everything.
    Flash ahead to grade 7 when in the only “art class” we had in school, my picture of two women and a child sitting on a beach was chosen to be hung in ‘the special place’ on the display wall. I was over the moon and rushed home to tell Mom.
    Instead of the hugs and maybe a kiss of pleasure for my success, she had the picture removed and she distroyed it when I brought it home. “Just garbage!!”
    It has taken many years, after a career as a draftsman, for me to get back to painting and still I battle with that voice. I don’t crave acceptance from anyone else (except for that voice in my head) but I have yet to produce a painting that I am at all satisfied with. The trick is to not overwork the current project but to stop and amend the next one. I have learned a lot from American Artist as well as from the books and artists mentioned within. I enjoy this forum although I don’t get here as much as I would like to.

  5. My first public exhibit experience was also in second grade and Mrs. Ohl, the local art teacher, gets the star for being an inspiring and thoughtful influence on the young, budding artist in me. At the beginning of the school year, she had assigned us to draw and color something about our summer vacation. Thinking about the beginning of school and apples, I drew a child with a basket, stepping onto a ladder that was at the base of a big, colorful apple tree. Later, Mrs. Ohl took me to the outside of the classroom to the public school bulletin board and proudly showed me that she put my drawing there. She specifically explained that she loved the way I drew the child in motion and with purpose. I will always fondly remember and appreciate her thoughtful praise of my work then and during the following school years, as much of my art was displayed in the schools. Finally, in high school, she pushed me to enter a local art contest. Again, with Mrs. Ohl’s inspiration and guidance, I painted in oil for the first time and my impressionistic wood scene won first place. I remember looking at her when I received the award and she was smiling.

  6. I took an interest in drawing people when I was 10 years old. When I was 12 years old and entered into junior high, I was excited about the opportunity to take art classes that were available to me. Every year after that, I made sure I was enrolled in some kind of art class from junior high through senior high. In my senior year, there was an art competition for high school students, the Scholastic Art Award held in Oakland, California, in which my art teacher wanted me to participate in. I procrastinated (as teenagers will do) and the deadline for submitting artwork was fast approaching. Up until that time, I had received “A+” in all my art classes; my art teacher told me that if I didn’t submit something, I would receive an “F”. I had waited until the 11th hour, the night before all artwork was to be submitted. I completed three pieces of art – a study of a nude in ink, a watercolor of my cat, and a portrait of Mick Jagger in oil pastel (a medium which I had on hand but never used before). I submitted all three the next morning to the surprise of my art teacher. I won First Place in the competition with my portrait of Mick Jagger and it felt pretty darn good. I have kept all my artwork from when I was a teenager (geez, that was 40 years ago) and 15 years ago, decided to frame that winning portrait of Mick Jagger with the First Place ribbon alongside it. Thank you, Mr Westphal and Mr. Holbrook, for being such great art instructors and kicking my butt when it needed it.

  7. I remember the first rejection much better than the first acceptance and award(I’m happy to say there have been a few awards)
    I left with head hung when I sat in the back and the judge giving critique announced to all that the person who painted this picture(didn’t even have the decency to say artist) obviously doesn’t know how to handle paint. I read a lot of American Artist Magazines after that. Too scared to take lessons.

    BTW Steve, I used to live on the corner of Nashville and Magazine. Bought my first tiny set of oils from a small shop up the street. I still have the first picture I painted from them. It was so exciting to walk through all the art shops and smell the fresh paint.

  8. I had entered contests through junior high and high school but the standout for me was when I went to my Nana;s home in Pacific Grove, near Monterey CA. It was the 60s and I was getting ready to go in the Navy. I spent most days painting (I didn’t know that was Plein Aire) while Nana was at work. I went into a local gallery and they had a call to artists. I read the rules and decided to enter. I took the bus home and framed my best painting, Rode the bus back on the submissions day. I was so excited! It was my first grownup art contest!
    I went home and waited for the announcement of rejection. It came and I was in! I rode the bus up on the last days of the show so I could pick it up too. I walked in the door and there it was, the first one you saw walking in! No award but for me, I had won first place!
    So far, it;s my #1 show experience…so far!

  9. My first “public viewing” was sort of a nervous experience for me. I was in the fourth grade, and I already I had a hint that I was an “artist”. After all, I wasn’t very interested in anything else, and avoided “real” school work like the plague. At this particular time, my class was assigned a book report (I know the book was about a “bully”, but I cannot remember the name of it). I just could not “get into” this book! The night before the book report was due, I decided to put my illustration skills to the test: I thumbed through the story, and illustrated a scene from one of the chapters. Then, I proceeded to literally copy the small synopsis from the back of the book! I prayed (I did go to Catholic school after all) that Sister Bridget would be so distracted with my finely done illustration that she wouldn’t notice my plagiarism. Not only was she fooled, but I received a stellar grade and my shameful book report was displayed in the hallway, right where families (including my own!) would see it as they exited church on Sunday morning! I was sure to keep my head hung low in what people probably thought was humility as people showered me with compliments on my “creativity”.
    I vowed that if God could “get me out of this one” I would never plagiarize again. (He must have shook His head like we do when we catch our children in a lie, but take pity on them.)
    When all was said and done, no one learned of my secret (until now) and I learned a valuable lesson from that experience. Although I’m not proud of the particular road I took when I felt I was in a pinch, I learned that presentation REALLY IS EVERYTHING.

  10. My first ‘professional’ show was a juried group show/sale. I had 3 entries in. Imagine my surprise and consternation arriving at the opening, only to find one was missing. I was in a panic, running around trying to find the curator to tell him my piece was gone. Well, he just chuckled and said, “yes, its gone alright. It sold.” I couldn’t believe it. The last thing that occured to me.

  11. My first art exhibit, will I never had a solo show in my life except one at fifty where I paid the gallery eight hundred bucks to have a solo show. I had my first museum purchase in 1076 and after that I have a list of museums otherwise I have been in group shows at galleries but solo exhibits cost a lot of money, nothing is free, getting into in art galleries is a impossible task. I was in two galleries, Christopher Park Gallery and America Oh Yes after forty years I finally got into two galleries outside of Minnesota but if I had the money I would have more solo shows but galleries dont give solo shows free, you pay for them in Minnesota or most states.
    My real first show was on my parents front lawn at five with crayon drawings hanging on a clothes line then at thirteen I went to my first street fair then to Minnesota Museum Of American Art in 1976, this painting Old Downtown Saint Paul Building Tops Was Purchased by museum otherwise that one solo show that cost me eight hundred bucks plus fifty percent of sales was the only real gallery show. After fifty years, now at 59 I realize that I have to have my own studio gallery and sculpture garden, it is not worth the effort to try many years of your life promoting, ambition plus hard work does not gurantee entry into art galleries, juried shows or getting big art grants, it is like winning a lottery, odds are against any artist, I found other ways like using my own home for gallery, being hosts on other websites, working at regular jobs to pay for art materials or selling on the streets. There is no free lunch or better say art scholarships, grants or big prizes or free solo shows, I paid for everything out of my pocket and only received three grants in fifty years, a $300.00, $500.00 and $750.00 grants, big grants or four year scholarships dont exist, after fifty years experience, I know. I have pulled my own weight, built a outstanding track record and dont live in a dream world of big solo show in New York for free or those outrageous hundred thousand dollar graqnts or thirty thousand dollar scholarships or twenty thousand dollar prize money, Iam not dreaming, reality is a full time job like Nek Chand of India who worked full time then did his sculpture garden while supporting a family. My first show then was on my parent’s front lawn at age five with crayon drawings then first museum purchase in 1976 then from there, just hard work and paying your way.

  12. My first art exhibit was a total surprise!—a birthday present from my wife to celebrate my 60th birthday. She worked secretly for a year with the help of my family and friends to make it happen. The exhibit was at a gallery at the University of Kentucky in December of 2007.

    Several things made it really special and emotional for me. The first was, two years previous I been diagnosed with a neurological condition that causes tremors in my hands. These tremors make it extremely difficult to draw and paint. I had been a graphic designer for 42 years and planned to paint in retirement, but I had all but given up on that dream and had felt depressed over the loss for quite some time. The second thing was (and this is something even my wife didn’t know), I regularly visited that same gallery when I was a student at the university decades ago, and I often wondered if my work would ever be considered good enough to go on exhibit there (dreams can come true!)

    The day before the surprise event, my wife had arranged a rouse to get me out of town for a couple of days. She told me I needed to go babysit one of my grandsons, so his parents could have a night out to celebrate their anniversary, but in reality, my family and friends were stripping my old paintings out of the house and had gathered to arrange the works in the exhibit hall. My wife called me the next morning and told me that instead of coming home, I should meet her at her office at the University and we would go to lunch from there. I didn’t think anything of it, since she works there and it was not unusual for us to meet at her office on occasion.

    When I arrived at her office, she handed me some fresh clothes (including my favorite red sweater) and told me to go to the restroom and change. My thought was, “Oh, I’ll bet she’s hired a photographer to take a family Christmas photo near the big Christmas tree at the Student Center.” But when I came out of the restroom, there stood my best friend, Jim, who I hadn’t seen in over a year, since he lives in California! So, okay I thought, “I surprised Jim with a visit a couple of years back, so now he’s done the same for me.” (I still don’t have a clue as to what is really going on.)

    Jim and I returned to my wife’s office and the three of us started walking up the stairs, when suddenly, they both walked ahead of me, turned with huge smiles on their faces and said, “Read the sign!” They both stepped aside to reveal one of my paintings on an easel above a sign that read, “An Exhibition of Paintings by Gene Doyle.”—I was speechless! They walked into the gallery and as I reached the doorway, I was met by about a hundred of my friends and family members, all cheering and shouting “Happy Birthday!”. My grandkids came running up to me, and when the laughter and applause died down I could only stand there and weep for joy! There, neatly arranged, were my oil and watercolor paintings and some of the best of my hand-painted commercial works I had done through my professional career. Over 350 people attended the reception that day and many more U.K. students and faculty viewed the works over the exhibition week.

    I have never felt more honored, or been so surprised. And the fact that so many people were involved in keeping the secret for over a year, is amazing! Today, overcoming the tremors has meant learning how to adjust my painting style, but I will always be eternally grateful for I am eternally grateful for my wife, family, and friends who worked so long and hard to make it all happen for me. It will always be one of my fondest memories.

  13. Having drawn since childhood and keeping the results to myself and family, I was surprised, but pleased when my father, who was helping coach the highschool football team, asked me to do a large art work to be used on a poster to publicize the homecoming game. I did so; a three foot rendition in poster paint of one of the linemen poised for charging. It was very recognizable and after the game was over, I discovered it hanging on the wall in syudy hall where everyone could see and comment on it. (My first public recognition as an artist.)

    Fast forward sixty years through many art classes and workshops, the development of acrylics and other mediums and I am still doing artwork. Still as an amateur ( more advanced now), but never quite at a professional level. I
    still enjoy the challenge of trying something new and reaching the goals I have set for myself, yet nothing since then has ever given me quite the feeling of acknowledgement that seeing that football player up on the wall did. And the work itself? Long gone. It was never returned to me, so I can only hope the player himself took it down and kept it.

  14. I have been a full time professional artist for 33 years and still vividly remember my first notice of my art in sixth grade. The principle of my school hung my crayon drawing of an explorer ship with full sails and rough seas in her office. I am fortunate to have several earlier crayon drawings (horses, Blessed Mother, obviously Catholic schooled) and my first oil at 10, a paint by number horse, signed, dated. I often give lectures and incorporate my early work into the any school presentations to encourage students the work they are doing now can possibly grow into a business. I have a gallery and people have brought in with pencil drawings I did in my teens of the Beatles, Sonny & Cher, etc., that their families have held onto. Of course your family will tell you your work is good but the principle placing it in her office made an impression on me. To this day I wonder what happened to the ship picture. Mary Hagy

  15. I was 51 years old and terrified! I began painting 5 months after my firstborn son lost his life serving in Baghdad as an Army MP. I was afraid that my art would not be well received and that what I was trying to accomplish would be misunderstood.
    Since that time, I have been greatly encouraged by the military family Joseph left behind as well as numerous non-miilitary people.

    I am thankful for my artistic abilities and how they have helped me deal with the most tragic event of my life. I have overcome my fears of failure through this entire process and am travelling a road of healing because of painting.

  16. Note for Marg,

    Hey Marge, my mother was a champion at removing my chances for success. For some reason, she didn’t want me to succeed at anything, told me I should drop out of college, never marry and just get a job and take care of her. She was a single mom.

    So I understand how hard it is to put those voices behind you. A lot has to do with the personality traits we are born with. I am always in pursuit of “fun”, so that gets me moving upwards.

    Hang in there, and realize that your mother was wrong. We artists will never paint as well as we think we ought to – because we’re always growing. It helps to know that we were all beginners at one time. No one can say they were born as a great artist.

    If art were easy, it wouldn’t be worth much. Keep on moving forward, work hard and never give up or give in to those voices.

  17. A claim to art fame, and a fond childhood memory:
    In Kindergarten, about 1960 in New York, I recall winning a school art contest. I don’t know many details, but I painted on an easel a picture of two birds on a nice green fluffy tree. One had the red tummy of a robin; I had placed a fierce straight line right across the tree to form the branches where the birds perched on equal sides. I remember even then thinking I should have done two angled lines instead- I guess my critical eye was forming early.
    Teachers were talking animatedly around my easel, and it was all
    a bit too much for me – suddenly I had a bit of an accident in my little tights. My father got called to school, and I got cleaned up, and fresh white socks. My father, normally very austere, was patient and kind while we were in the bathroom, and when I returned to the classroom the teachers were beaming, and there was a blue ribbon stuck on top of my painting.
    I don’t have the blue ribbon now, and I never saw the painting again; I heard it went on a tour in banks across the country. So I guess I can say I was accepted into a national exhibition – a great start!
    Recently, at 52 I began anew to paint, trying to catch up to that past glory.

  18. I teach art at a small school and twice a year have the opportunity to showcase student art as part of our presentation night programs. It took a couple times before people really started paying attention, but now the guests all enjoy perusing the students’ work. I usually post something of mine, too. Most surprising to me, however, is how much time the students spend looking at the work. There is a wonderful transformation that happens by putting a simple matboard frame on their drawings and they gain a bigger sense of accomplishment. The younger students are always excited to see whose artwork was chosen and I have heard from several parents who tell me how excited their kids are that night. I wish I could leave the art up for a lot longer, but one night is all we get. But that one night is such a treat for the students.

  19. Each spring, our high school library showcased artwork by one specially selected student. In my heart of hearts, I longed to see my work hung in that space. This was Lakewood High School, CA.

    My family moved to Tucson at the end of my junior year, and so my dream of having a one person show at the library evaporated. At my new location, I took 2 art classes each semester, but seemed to have lost the audience I was building at my former high school.

    As the end of my senior year approached, I shared these dreams with my painting/drawing teacher. Much to my surprise, she rallied for me by setting up a one person show of my work during the “spring fling” weekend of events – drama, concert, and other artistic evening performances that parents and students attended.

    When I arrived on the opening night of spring fling, I was elated to see that my work was displayed at the main entrance – right across from the doors. I didn’t have to stand there or talk about my art… but my name was clearly displayed, and that was enough to make my dream come true.

    Sometimes we have to make out dreams known and ask for what we would like. I was certainly not the best artist in the school, and probably didn’t deserve the spotlight, but Miss Beal took it upon herself to make my last year in a new high school memorable. For her – I am thankful.

  20. What a wonderful post. You must have made quite an impression to get a story in the paper!

    Like yourself, I had that moment when everyone realized I was an artist, at a young age.
    I can still remember getting my first sketch pad on my 12th Christmas. I was as surprised as everyone around me, when I discovered my latent ability to sketch everything. I wasn’t nervous at all, in fact, I basked in the attention.
    Later, however, I began drawing portraits on the spot, and before every portrait I would (and still do, sometimes) say to myself “I can’t do this”. Everytime.
    I have a theory…perhaps with art (as with all of life) the innocence of youth is a great blocker toward fear.
    I am curious to know if know, as an adult, you ever have moments of intense self-doubt