The Importance of Persistence and Resilience in an Artist’s Life

Commencement Speech: The Illinois Institute of Art

Photograph courtesy of Sandra Zmuda

In writing this speech, I reflected back to my own graduation from Barat College. I won’t tell you how long ago that was. My commencement speaker was Jane Byrne, former mayor of Chicago. I’m sure she gave a great speech, but to be honest I can’t remember a thing she said. So in writing my speech that took a little pressure off me. If you remember just one thing I say today, then I’ve done my job.
I’d like to talk to you about two traits you’ll need in your careers as artists: persistence and resilience.

Why are these traits so important? Because, I hate to break it to you, at one time or another in your career, you’ll face rejection? It goes with the territory.
To prove my point, let me tell about some famous people who faced rejection early in their careers.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job as a news anchor. The reason given was “she wasn’t fit for television.”

A book editor told J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter books) that she should get a day job. “You have little chance of making money in children’s books.”

Vera Wang failed at making the Olympics Figure Skating Team and then was passed over for editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine. At 40 she designed her first dress. I guess she showed Vogue.

Walt Disney was fired from his job as an illustrator at a newspaper. The editor fired him because “he was lacking in ideas.”

Having had my own share of rejections as a writer, I have to admit I did get perverse pleasure in reading these famous people’s rejections.

So why did they refuse to give up on their dreams? Experts in their fields were telling them, they had no talent, they were never make it in their field, and that they should give up.

“Get a day job.” “You have no ideas.” “You’re not fit for television.”

What made them persist? Let’s face it; rejection is hard. It hurts. But you have to look at rejection as a rite of passage. Rejection is a part of the artist’s life. Rejection is a part of life.

I’d like to share with you my rejection story, which like my mystery novels is full of twists and turns, a shady character, and a surprise ending.

My first mystery novel, Destroying Angels, was published in 2006. What most people don’t know is that it took nine years and two book contracts before it was published.

Why did it take so long to be published, you might ask? I always console myself with the fact that the average time for a first novel to be published is 10 years—this was before E-publishing. Plus I’d made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t go with a vanity press or self-publish. That vow was tested during my long road to publication.

During those nine years I accumulated two drawers of rejections letters from agents and publishers. Most were form letters. But some who read the manuscript made suggestions on how I could improve my book, which I took seriously. Afterall I was learning my craft. But each rejection felt like a wound to me. I took it personally. Luckily, I didn’t have to get a day job. I already had one, teaching at UIC.

After about five years of rejections to my surprise and delight a reputable independent publisher accepted my book. Now here’s where the story takes a dark turn. That publisher, who will remain anonymous, held my book for two years, and then one day I get email saying, “So sorry, but we’re going out of business. Here’s your book back.”

I was crushed. It had all been for nothing: During those two years, I’d secured endorsements from two well-known mystery authors for the book jacket. I’d had professional photographs taken, and I’d gone through a rigorous editing process. But most crushing of all was, I wrote the second book in my series, Death’s Door. Not only did I have one book on my hands, now I had two.

This was a defining moment in my writing career. I questioned whether I should continue writing. I thought maybe it’s not meant to be. Maybe I should give up writing and try something else. Though what that something else was, I didn’t know. Nothing else but writing gave me such pure joy. When I wrote I felt that I was doing what I was meant to do with my life.

My husband saw I was on verge of giving up on my writing and said, ”Look, whether this book gets published or not, you’re still a writer. And you’ll write other books.”
Though his words rang true, I wasn’t sure I could take any more disappointment. So I put the two books away, stopped submitting them and took some time to think about whether I had what it took to persevere as a writer.

Then a mystery writer friend told me about a mystery conference being held in Chicago, “You know what you should do,” she said. “Attend Love Is Murder. Pitch your book. What have you got to lose?”

Reluctantly, full of doubt, steeling myself against rejection, I went to that conference and pitched my book. Within two weeks I had a book contract from Five Star Mystery. And Five Star has been my publisher ever since. They’ve published four of my mystery novels.

What I learned from that experience was that it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It’s what you do with failure that counts. When you encounter failure, learn from it. During those nine painful years I rewrote my first book, refashioned it, learned from the suggestions offered by editors and agents.
But most importantly, I learned there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life but write.

Rejection refines us. Those who persist past it are the survivors. While you’re dusting yourself off and getting ready to enter the fray again, keep honing your craft. It’s not just about the outcome. We’re all focused on the outcome, myself included. It’s also about the journey. I’m a better writer today because I was rejected.

I can’t prove it but I’ll bet Oprah, J. K. Rowling, Vera Wang, and Walt Disney learned something about themselves and their craft because of their rejections. And because they didn’t give up on their dreams, the world is a more interesting place.

Take to heart what the poet, Li-Young Lee, says about rejection: “When even my most excellent song goes unanswered . . . I’ll not crack. Threshed to excellence. I’ll achieve you . . . I never believed that the multitude of dreams and many words were vain.”

So go out and make some interesting mistakes. Learn from them. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done or that you can’t do it. Maybe they can’t do it, but you can.

If you remember nothing else from my speech, remember this: All of life is a story waiting to be told. And only you can tell your version of that story.

I charge you to go out into the world and tell your story. I charge you to go out into the world and make your art. And never ever give up.

Thank you and enjoy your day.

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The Lost Artist and The Trail of Tears

Little history remains of Illinois’ involvement in the one of the darkest episodes of American history—the Trail of Tears or as the Cherokee call it “Nunna dual Tsuny” or “Trail where they cried.” The fact that Illinois was part of the Trail of Tears story comes as a surprise to many, myself included. Like many of the forgotten or little known historical events that The Lost Artist unearths, this one held surprises I wasn’t expecting.

In writing The Lost Artist, whose nineteenth-century southern Illinois farmhouse is directly connected to the Trail of Tears, I relied on diaries, newspaper accounts, family lore and interviews for historical facts about the trail.

As far as the actual trail that the Cherokee walked in Illinois, much of it has disappeared, covered by Illinois Highway 146. Even the graves of the Cherokee who died in Illinois can’t be located with any certainty. Only the faint traces of ruts worn by the wheels of the wagons and ox carts found in farm fields bear witness to that horrific march across Illinois. Like a fading memory eventually they too will be gone.

Treacherous Conditions 
In the spring of 1838, the Cherokee was forced out of their homes near the Great Smoky Mountains with only the clothes on their backs, most without shoes. Lacking food, shelter, blankets and warm clothing, they were ill prepared for the harsh condition they would encounter in Illinois. Though some had wagons and ox carts, most didn’t and had to walk.

Before embarking on the trail in late fall, they’d spent an especially hot and dry summer in military stockades, where disease was rampant. By the time they neared Illinois many were already sick and it was winter. In a terrible twist of fate for the Cherokee, the summer had been one of the hottest and was followed by one of the coldest, miserable winters of that century.

Harsh Treatment
The first detachment arrived on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River around December 3, 1838. To be ferried from Kentucky to Illinois, they were charged a toll of $1 a head. This was an outrageous fee for the time. The usual ferry passage for a wagon was about 12 cents. “Berry’s Ferry,” which was operated out of Golconda, Illinois, made over $10,000 that winter. This would be the first of many mistreatments the Cherokee would have to endure in Illinois.

Reverend Butrick, who accompanied the Cherokee on the trail and kept a diary, recounted their reception in Golconda after the ferry crossing. “But we had scarcely landed when we were met with volleys of oaths from every quarter . . .. On going up from the boats into the village, called Golconda, it seemed to be made up chiefly of groceries [taverns], and little boys in the streets had already learned to lisp the infernal language.”

A day later he wrote about a number of whites who came to their tent and how they listened as he explained to them the suffering of the Cherokee. Weeks later he thanked God for the kindness of a good wagon maker and his family.

But most of his entries were negative. “Thus far the citizens of Illinois appear more and more pitiful. They seem not only low in all their manners, but ignorant, poor, and ill humored.”

In contrast to Butrick’s description of the Cherokee’s reception in Golconda, the Buel family passed down a legend about their ancestor Sarah (Jones) Buel whose house was near the ferry landing. According to family lore, Sarah shared the pumpkins she was cooking with some of the weary travelers. The account ends with Sarah’s ancestor commenting that Sarah Buel was probably “thankful when they left (Musgrave).” Whether this was a true act of kindness or came from fear, who knows. But the legend persists.

A verifiable act of generosity came from George Hileman who allowed the Cherokee to camp on his land, cut wood, and bury their dead. Hileman’s daughter and son who’d died in 1836 were buried in an adjacent field to the one where he let the Cherokee bury their dead. I can’t help but believe he had great sympathy for the Cherokee, maybe due in part to the loss of his own children.

During that severe winter approximately 3,000 Cherokee encamped on Hileman’s land. In 1850 Hileman dedicate a portion of his land as a permanent home for a church that eventually became known as the Camp Ground Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Today a stone marker on the church grounds commemorates the site of the cemetery and its association with the Trail of Tears.

The Camp Ground Cemetery is thought to be the site where many Cherokee were buried. Sandra Boaz, a longtime member of the Camp Ground Church and a board member of the Trail of Tears Association, told me that the church is the only place on the trail that still has bona fide graveyards. “All along the way they died,” she said, “but this is the only actual graveyard.”

Harvey Henson, a geologist with the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Geology Department, has done noninvasive ground penetrating searches at the Camp Ground Cemetery and has found several unmarked graves. But whether they’re Cherokee graves can’t be determined with any certainty.

Trapped between two rivers
Once in Illinois the Cherokee became trapped waiting for the ice floes on the Mississippi River to thaw. It’s estimated that 9,000 Cherokee were stalled there between December 1838 and January 1839.

No one is quite sure how many died in Illinois. But it’s anywhere from 400 to 4,000. And 4,000 is not an unrealistic number, since nine of the thirteen detachments came through Illinois on the northern route. Plus around 17,000 Cherokee began the march. They perished from exposure, hunger, exhaustion and disease.

Martin Davis, Commissary Agent for one of the detachments described conditions on December 26 as “the coldest weather in Illinois I ever experienced anywhere.”
On December 27, Reverend Butrick wrote: “We proceeded with the detachment about 6 miles, where we camped for the week. Here the snow increased to three to four inches, and the weather was excessively cold.”

Impossible Choices
With so much suffering and death, the Cherokee showed amazing fortitude. According to Gary Hacker, Trail of Tears Association board member, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as they walked. Known as one of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee had assimilated to American society, were educated, with their own written language and newspaper. Hacker stated that they were better educated than the townspeople who jeered them.

To save their children some Cherokee made difficult choices. Hacker explained that there were reports of some Cherokee who made arrangements with local families to take one or two of their children rather than see them die on the trail. Other Cherokee offered their daughters in marriage.

Reverend Butrick’s dire description of conditions sheds light on why some Cherokee chose to place their children with local families. On December 28, 1838 Reverend Butrick described the state of the nine detachments. “In all these detachments . . . there is now a vast amount of sickness, and many deaths. . . [T]here are more of less affected with sickness in almost every tent and yet all are houseless and homeless in a strange land and in a cold region exposed to weather almost unknown in their native country. But they are prisoners.”

A first person Cherokee account
The most heart wrenching account I came across in my research was from a survivor of the trail, Samuel Cloud who turned nine on the trail where he lost both his parents. He described waking to his mother’s cold body beside him and then her burial. “We bury her in a shallow grave by the road. I will never forget that lonesome hill of stone that is her final bed. I tread softly by my uncle, my hand in his. I walk with my head turned, watching that small hill as it fades from my sight. The soldiers make us continue walking. My uncle talks to me, trying to comfort me. I walk in loneliness.”
* * * *
In The Lost Artist, the impact of this bleak page of Illinois history echoes into the twenty-first century with deathly consequences. It’s a story that must not be forgotten.

The Journal of Reverend Daniel S. Butrick, May 19, 1838 – April 1, 1839
American Weekend, “Southern Illinois history lost on Cherokee Trail of Tears,” Jon Musgrave, January 3, 1999.
“Forgiveness in the Age of Forgetfulness,” Michael Rutledge,

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Rufus Porter and The Lost Artist

Rufus Porter (1792-1884), the nineteenth-century American muralist, became part of The Lost Artist by happenstance. Prior to writing the book, I’d never heard of him. Though I suspect I might have seen his work somewhere, maybe, maybe not. And this is what intrigues me about the writing process, when you begin a book, you just never know who’ll end up in it.

I learned about Rufus Porter while researching contemporary art restorers who specialized in mural restoration. I’d seen an episode of “This Old House” where a historically valuable mural had been restored after it was discovered under layers and layers of wallpaper. So I knew that it was possible to do this.

That episode confirmed my concept for the book: that the secret to finding a sixteenth-century American art treasure is hidden in four murals. The murals are concealed under about one-hundred-and seventy-five years of wallpaper and paint. I was embarking on a story told not only in words but also in images. It was vital that I understood mural restoration and was familiar with nineteenth-century American murals.

My online search led me to a Massachusetts art restorer who was in the process of uncovering and restoring a Rufus Porter mural that had been painted on the walls of a house in the nineteenth century. The photo of her perched on a ladder painstakingly removing the wallpaper stayed in my mind, as did the splendid Porter mural she was restoring. I think the article said something about wisps of clouds being revealed.

Before calling her for an interview, I began reading books and articles about Rufus Porter. What I discovered about this extraordinary man gave me a window into a little known way of life, a glimpse into the spirit of a newly formed country, and a way to make the nineteenth-century section of The Lost Artist come alive.

Yankee Peddler

From 1819–1845, Rufus Porter’s wandered up and down the east coast from New England to Virginia plying his trade as an itinerant painter. He traveled on foot, carrying nothing but his painter’s kit on his back. Porter would arrive in a town, set up a makeshift studio, often in a tavern, and hand out leaflets advertising his services as a portraitist and a mural painter.

In Jean Lipman’s book, Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer (p.5), she reproduces one of Porter’s advertisements:

PAINTING. The Subscriber respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentlemen of Haverhill and its vicinity, that he continues to paint correct Likenesses in full Colours for two Dollars at his room at Mr. Brown’s Tavern, where he will remain two to three Days longer. (No Likeness, no Pay.) Those who request it will be waited on at their respective places of abode. RUFUS PORTER Haverhill, March 31, 1821.”

At a time when the wealthy were decorating their walls with imported wallpaper, Porter offered a more affordable alternative for Americas who couldn’t afford the expensive wallpaper but very much craved the finer things.

He was a persuasive salesman, telling the tavern owners and farmers that mural art was better because wallpaper “is apt to get torn off, and often affords behind it a resting place for various kinds of house insects (Lipman, p. 94).

Taverns not only supplied him with an income, but often he’d paint tavern walls and floors for room and board. In early-to mid-nineteenth-century America, taverns were a stopping place for peddlers of all kinds. The taverns offered good food and good company. A typical tavern supper consisted of beefsteaks, broiled fowl, ham, cold turkey, toast broiled in melted butter, waffles, tea, coffee, and rum. The tavern customers were a democratic blend of local townspeople and peddlers like Porter, who believed that “to sit by a tavern hearth in those days was to have an ear to the world,” (Lipman, p. 69).

The descriptions of the tavern scenes in The Lost Artist owe much to the murals Porter painted at the Coburn Tavern in East Pepperell, Massachusetts and the Prescott Tavern in East Jaffrey, New Hampshire. The wide expansiveness of the Coburn Tavern’s ballroom, which could accommodate one hundred dancers, showed his method of painting almost every wall surface with his signature trees. The Prescott Tavern sported one of Porter’s quixotic elements, a Vesuvius-like mountain, attesting to his notion of following his own artistic path.

Muralist and Teacher

Early on Porter eschewed artistic academic goals, as well as European models, adopting instead a more democratic, more American approach to art. He was a firm believer in painting for pleasure.

Howe House countryside

Rufus Porter Museum,Bridgton, Maine, Linda Carter Lefko, photographer.

In the Howe House countryside mural 1838, you can see some of the earmarks of his work: massive trees in the foreground, orderly composition of the farm land, billowing round clouds, and bright colors, just to name a few.

To look at this Porter farm scene is to get a glimpse into nineteenth-century American agrarian life—sylvan, picturesque, serene. The inspiration for one of the murals in The Lost Artist derived from various Porter farm scenes.

In one of Porter’s articles on landscape painting he stated: “There can be no scenery found in the world which presents a more gay and lively appearance in a painting than an American farm, on a swell of land, and with various colored fields well arranged.”

Water wall from Howe House, Westwood, MA now at RPM, Bridgton, ME

Rufus Porter Museum, Bridgton, Maine, Linda Carter Lefko, photographer.

Another scene favored by Porter was a harbor view. The Water Wall from the Howe House brims with energy, visually capturing the spirit of a new country on the move, optimistic, heady—basking in its freedom. Again, another mural in The Lost Artist was loosely based on Porter’s harbor view murals.

Porter’s method was to work quickly, using sponges and stencils when needed, and to paint as he wished, encouraging others to do the same. He was more than happy to teach the farmers and their wives how to paint. He believed that everyone could draw and to support that belief he wrote and published Curious Arts (1825) one of the most read of the early art instruction books. The book was simple and easy to read, fostering early American arts and crafts (Lipman, p. 77, 81).

And in that democratic spirit Porter often traveled with assistants, the most famous of whom was his nephew Jonathan D. Poor. Porter taught his assistants mural painting and they, in turn, helped with the execution of the murals.

Writing Art           

Rufus Porter was a true find for this author. His embodiment of the nineteenth-century idea of the restless, adventuresome young America helped me envision this time. His murals, so vivid and full of detail, made describing the book’s murals that much easier.

Though the book’s main narrative occurs in present day, the nineteenth-century section was vital to telling the story of the lost artist.

Rufus Porter: Yankee Pioneer, Jean Lipman

Recommended Reading: Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes 1825-1845, Jane Radcliffe and Linda Carter Lefko

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