How to Become a Fine Artist

Who knew paper packed so much perspicacity? Dynamic artist Mason Milani demonstrates the depths of satisfaction and challenge that emerge from the paper-making art form. One look at his stunning webpage proves both the beauty of his work and the precision of his vision. Aspiring artists of any medium can extrapolate reams of wisdom from his interview here. 

You’re a distinctive commodity in the art world: a bona fide multihyphenate (printmaker, papermaker, painter, and bookmaker). Can you speak to how your interest in all these fields began? When did you commit to pursuing a professional career in them?

I’ve always been drawn to working with my hands. As I’ve explored different artistic methods, my interests have become focused on working with print- and paper-based processes. I studied printmaking as an undergraduate student after discovering how versatile the numerous printing methods could be. It was the versatility that hooked me and inspired me to explore ways of applying my interests in drawing and painting with printmaking. I began to realize how attentive one has to be toward their materials.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn, New York, and got involved with the handmade paper studio Pace Paper that I really became aware of how to use my materials to their full potential. I literally stumbled upon the Pace studio, and as soon as I began learning the art of papermaking, I realized that it suited my artistic sensibility perfectly.

Learning the process of making paper by hand made me realize how useful the methods could be for printmakers, bookmakers, and even painters. A papermaker can control every aspect of the characteristics of the sheet they are making, [including] size, color, shape, weight, and texture. To me, this meant endless possibilities and I have been working and educating myself in the papermaking field ever since.

Life as a paper artist, indeed as any variety of artist, can be vexing at times. What are the unique hurdles someone faces with such a career? In contrast, what are the advantages also unique to the profession?

Like many hand-crafted processes, papermaking tends to be expensive, laborious, and time consuming.

It requires specific equipment and a sizable work space which many studios cannot accommodate. The availability of existing paper mills is limited, as is the ability to find mills that will rent space to artists. In order to tap into this field, I began as an intern in 2009 with Pace Paper in Brooklyn, New York. The knowledge and experience I obtained by working as an intern lead me to the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory and Educational Foundation when I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 2011. I began by contributing my time as an intern to learn the functions of the studio as well as techniques that I had not learned while with Pace.

After a few months of volunteering, I was hired as a teaching/studio assistant. By making myself actively and enthusiastically available, I have been able to foster a serious career in the papermaking field. Despite the limitations of the papermaking field, I have found that the professionals within it are very tight-knit and are constantly sharing knowledge and ideas with one another.

This exchange has allowed me to discover countless techniques related to papermaking and printmaking that I would have otherwise had a difficult time discovering. Once I was able to network within this niche community, I found that it offers a welcoming potential to grow and learn from masters of the craft that other fields do not offer.

For our students’ benefit, could you outline a typical day-in-the-life for you?

I am typically at the Morgan Conservatory from 10 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. My time there is spent making paper out of various fibers such as cotton, flax, and hemp. During the summer months, I will be responsible for teaching courses as a part of the educational facet of the Morgan Conservatory. My evenings and weekends are dedicated to developing my own artwork and participating in upcoming exhibits in the Cleveland area.

Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become such an artist?

Everyone has their own expectations for what they would like to become, and I have always made a point to explore as much as possible in order to gain some direction. I attended Hiram College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio, where I adopted the interdisciplinary approach to education.

I believe that an artist’s ability is informed by personal knowledge and experience, which is why I find academics to be the fundamental basis of my creative expression. I enrolled in philosophy, zoology, religious studies, and political science courses while studying at Hiram, all of which engaged my interests an artist. I took studio art courses in every possible department which allowed me to exercise and learn many different techniques for making art.

All of these various courses have contributed to the state of my current artistic sensibility, and I believe it will infinitely continue to grow as I develop as an artist. My suggestion to anyone considering higher education would be to explore everything you can with an open mind and make yourself available to opportunities that may allow you to grow in whatever direction you’re interested in going.

What personality traits could help, or hinder, someone from success in professional art?

It took me a few years out of college to have the confidence to say to people, “I am an artist.” I always aspired to become an artist, but I didn’t feel like I had established myself or produced enough work to claim to be an artist. Everyone moves at their own pace, but looking back I realize that I should have been more confident in my ability and passion for art.

It is important to be humble, but the art world is competitive and if you’re not confident or willing to take chances, people won’t see your work. Part of being confident in one’s art includes being able to accept and learn from rejection. Rejection and critical critiques help an artist to develop and grow. An artist has to be prepared to stand by their art with an open mind for improvement.

What are the common misconceptions of paper art (both as an art form and a career) that you’d like to dispel?

I think a lot of people believe that papermaking is a relatively light craft in nature. Working in a paper mill is probably one of the most labor-intensive jobs I’ve ever had. A dried sheet of 22×30 inch paper might weigh barely a pound, but since the fibers of that sheet start in a vat suspended in water, pulling that sheet out of the vat probably weighs closer to 10-15 pounds in water weight. Not to mention the weight of the large wooden mold used to pull the fibers out of the vat.

People seem to be mystified by the idea that paper can be made by hand. One of the most interesting things about working with paper and understanding the process, is understanding the accessibility that the craft offers. It is a basic process and can be done by virtually anyone with an interest in learning about it.

Some people believe that art requires talent that cannot be taught. What is the value, or detriment, of pursuing a formal education in art?

I read an article in my first year of college that offered a powerful perspective on the ability a given person has as an artist. It was expressed in the article that if you are capable of legible handwriting, then you are capable of rendering a realistic drawing. Basically, in order to draw well, one must start with the ability to see well. The key is to know how to look closely, analyze, and really understand how to break down the elements of what you are viewing, and translate them.

I believe that art can be taught to anyone willing to listen and analyze the world around them. If you approach your education critically, then you will make progress at your own pace and find your own success. To me, the value of an art education was learning the ability to see as an artist, and that is not an easy thing to learn without instruction.

Your Web presence immediately catches and maintains our attention. How has social media impacted on your career?

Networking in an extremely valuable way to expand your network to circulate your name and your work. This goes for face-to-face personal connections as well as internet-based networks. We all know the reach of internet-based networking is expansive and offers connections that exceed the local level. By creating a personal portfolio website and connecting through websites like Twitter, Etsy, LinkedIn, and Facebook, I have been invited to exhibit in galleries and local showcases, obtained freelance commissions for private companies, and networked with art world professionals. Once able to tap into the artist networks, the expanse of knowledge and opportunity was vast. And that’s where things start: find an interest, pursue it, and discover new avenues in which to explore it.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student considering study to become an artist?

Approach your education with an open mind and allow the things that resonate with you to provide you with direction. In my opinion, the most successful artwork is that which is outwardly honest and passionate. And again, it is important to highly value criticism and suggestion. An artist must be willing to step outside of themselves to rethink what they thought was a finished work. They must be open to continuous reevaluation of their work in order to come to a successful and thoughtful product.