Autodidact Artists Who Overcame Obstacles

Age nor life circumstances do not have to be barriers to success. Even when you teach yourself a craft in obscurity, the world can still take notice.

How can you learn without a teacher? If the teacher is yourself, that’s how. Yes, sometimes it’s best to have a formal instructor to share their knowledge with you, but for certain activities, all it takes is practice. The passion that leads to repetition perfects a craft, and a perfected craft will always draw attention to itself.

The benefit of being an autodidact artist is the joy that comes from figuring things out by yourself. Instead of following somebody else’s template, you can explore a craft on your own terms. Autodidact artists should not be seen as less qualified, but people who did extensive study by themselves to become competent, recognised professionals.

Even kids who tell you what they want to be when they grow up know one thing: they want to be competent, recognised professionals. No matter the age nor the circumstances, you can teach yourself a lot more than they think. What matters isn’t so much the elite school where you learned the craft, but how well you have mastered it.

Legendary filmmaker, Werner Herzog, is an autodidact. Singer-songwriter, Fantastic Negrito, taught himself many instruments during his teens.

Werner Herzog

Sometimes, it takes a while before a master is noticed, like autodidact architect, Benjamin H. Marshall. A contemporary of the great American architect Louis Sullivan, and a fellow Chicagoan, Marshall didn’t receive the same notoriety as his more famous colleagues. Yet his buildings are some of the most beautiful in Chicago. Now, a wealthy couple is trying to build one of America’s biggest architectural societies with his name. Obviously, being an autodidact architect would be illegal in many jurisdictions in the world today, but there was a time when formal architectural education was more a suggestion than a requirement. Still, even though Marshall died in 1944, his self-taught craft will eventually earn him recognition alongside some of the masters of U.S. architecture.

Drake Hotel in Chicago by Benjamin Marshall

The same could be said for former White House news photographer, Milton Williams, who taught himself photography by taking inspiration from famous African American photographers. For 40 years, he photographed U.S. presidents and world leaders, from Ronald Reagan to Anwar Sadat. He also captured images of celebrities, such as Ray Charles and James Brown. At 75, Williams is still at work mastering is passion. Now, his life’s work will be on display at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture in Roanoke, Virginia.

Even when an autodidact artist has passed on, or is in the twilight of their career, they can still get recognised for the quality of their work. What motivation for the rest of us, right? However, you may think that you’re too old to teach yourself a craft, but you’re wrong. Even difficult circumstances cannot stop a motivated person from being an autodidact artist.

Take for example Tom Barnard, a right-handed calligrapher who suffered a stroke 3 years ago at the age of 89, losing his ability to write. He also lost his speech, and for months couldn’t swallow. Despite the lost of his writing hand, he eventually taught himself how to write with his left hand. Now the 92 year old regularly attends an art group in the Bournemouth area. For Barnard, age and stroke couldn’t stop him from learning how to enjoy his passion again, and he’s become a noticeable figure in the lounge of his care centre, sketching artworks.

Calligrapher Tom Barnard

Even in a world of credentials and certificates, your self-taught craft can be turned into a business. Recently, autodidact shoe designer, Marc Hare, opened a new flagship store in Notting Hill. His shoe brand began in 2008 after a holiday in Andalucia. From his bedroom, he started Mr. Hare, which became an instant favourite of Hollywood celebrities, and led him to be nominated at the 2013 British Fashion Awards for best accessories designer. All this without formal training, though he did study business at the London College of Fashion.

Mr Hare in his studio

Mr Hare Notting Hill

The Balinese pianist, Joey Alexander, taught himself how to play his instrument at 6 years old. Now 12, he has already performed with Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, and Esperanza Spalding. He’s received numerous awards and has even performed at the White House.

Joey Alexander

What all of these examples show us is that there are fewer obstacles to being an autodidact artist than we think.

The deaths of unknown, self-taught masters will be wonderfully exposed. The several decades of toil of self-taught artisans, will get their due. Though health can bring uncertainty to a life, passion brings renewed hope to the feeble. Your self-taught craft can be the start of a thriving entrepreneurial career. Even the young and inexperienced autodidact artist can work with the greats.

What can you teach yourself, starting today

Words: Phil Roberts


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