What Native artists can learn from “Real Artists Don't Starve”

Broken down into three parts, Real Artist Don't Starve takes you on a journey of transformation. What does the life a successful (“Thriving”) artist look like? Are you born with special gifts, talents, advantages? If not, can you still make it as an artist? What traits must you possess to make a living in the 21st century?



The first section of the book, Mind-Set, made me think of an artist I recently wrote about for First Peoples Fund, a non-profit that supports Native artists. Tanaya Winder (Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute) is a writer, educator, motivational speaker, and performance poet. She also founded Dream Warriors, an Indigenous artist management company.

“I think of how once I didn’t think this life was possible. The path I’d been taught success was to become a lawyer or doctor. No one told me I could become an artist or have my own Indigenous artist management company. It wasn’t until I lost someone I loved, a dear friend from a reservation in North Dakota who took his life on my college campus, that I was shaken into a grief that forced me to question everything – my life, who I was, what I was doing, and who I wanted to serve and help in this lifetime. It was then that I chose poetry and art (although perhaps poetry chose me). Now I do what I do because I want to help carve a path for others to follow and I hope to share opportunities that come my way so that those who follow know that anything is possible. By creating and managing a successful artist management company I can continue to pay it forward to those who want to practice their art in the future.” Tanaya Winder

This story would easily fit among the many artists Jeff Goins included in Mind-Set. He wrote, “Before you can create great art, you first have to create yourself.”

And I loved this line: “We don't fake it till we make it. We believe it till we become it.”

We have to be stubborn (in the right things). Giving up isn't an option.


The first chapter in this section, “Cultivate Patrons,” started me thinking of my own journey. I've had many patrons along the way. In the beginning, my parents were my patrons. Then, in 2012, the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of the American Indian with their Artist in Leadership Program became a strong patron for my literary arts. That led me to one of my significant patrons today, First Peoples Fund (FPF) and their Artist in Business Leadership fellowship (2015) and now through writing stories monthly for their eSpirit newsletter.

The more I write for First Peoples Fund, the more I learn how critical their overall mission is in building “Indigenous Arts Ecologies.” I can't cover the scope of it all here, but you can read more on their site about this strategy and the powerful work they do.

Real Artists Don't Starve brought to mind again and again the work FPF does with Native artists through their programs and partners. The “Go Join a Scene” chapter made me think of FPF artist Wade Patton's (Oglala Lakota) story:

“Working in Boston doing high-end framing, Wade handled modern works where he prepared gallery pieces for places like Manhattan, London, Miami, and Los Angeles.

“But he kept in mind how he wanted to do his own work, to someday become a full-time artist. He began drawing landscapes and clouds. What Wade missed most from home came to life on ledger pages: the beauty, the splendor of the Black Hills and the skies of South Dakota.

“He sent work home — pieces reflecting his memories — where it was well received. Awards. Shows. He finally made the leap.

“Wade has become part of the thriving Native art scene in Rapid City, motivating him to push his art to new places. Now full-time, Wade is learning to manage opportunities as they flood in: Santa Fe Indian Market, Red Cloud Indian Art Show, wrapping up illustrations on a children’s book, preparing for the University of South Dakota’s Native Arts Indian residency, and mentoring youth.”


The final section in Jeff's book gets into the gritty realities of perhaps the most controversial and uncomfortable aspect for Native artists. Are we selling out when we market our work commercially? How can we insist on being paid for work we put our souls into? Then there is the big question: Is it right to make money off our culture? Am I just using my tribal membership as a free pass into a niche market to get rich off my ancestors' sacrifices?

Though not specifically addressed to Natives, Jeff answers this with a quote from Walt Disney that I've adopted to my own work and share with others: I don't write books (make art) to make money. I make money to write more books.

Ultimately, that's the aim for many Native artists. They aren't getting rich. They just want to make a living, support their families, and preserve their culture for the next generation. They can do this through art.

Make the Transition

If you're an artist and not sure how to make the transition to full-time, I recommend you read Real Artists Don't Starve. Let it set you on a path from being a Starving Artist to Thriving Artist.