I’m not one for labels, but I admit that I was always the ‘Art Kid’ growing up. It was a role I was given and one I took on with pride. But then, a tween epiphany in the early 80’s: I discovered and began a life-long affinity for Prince.
Yes, that Prince. The legendary genius musician and ultimate rock star.
I was mesmerized by his music and how he entertained us all. But it was observing his standards of excellence and how he conducted himself as an artist that truly inspired me as a creative over the years.
What kind of artist am I? I create pop-infused conceptual work in whatever media I feel best serves the idea. Sculpture. Print. Painting. Photography. Whatever it is, my art quite often explores themes of modern culture and identity, and I always try to elicit an emotional response to my work – to make people think, question, reflect. I’m fond of movements that question what art is and what art can be. Pushing the envelope is always exciting and magnetic and it’s something that Prince did, too. In fact, Prince inspired my art in a literal sense, too, when I created the Le Petit Prince project – a surreal, miniature Prince, who I have photographed and filmed – illustrating his life story.
So yes, you could say he’s inspired me. But there are countless takeaways from Prince’s artistry and personal brand that anyone, creative or not and whatever the industry, can learn from in the pursuit of excellence. Here are a few of them from my perspective:
Work Ethic (or, Just do it.)
My folks instilled in me a great work ethic and were hard workers themselves. But Prince’s legendary work ethic was truly next level, and while I wasn’t able to build and sustain my creative foundation quite like him as a young man (who could?) I aspired to reach the level of discipline he had to build his.
Many tales have been told of the blessing and curse of Prince’s overactive creative mind that compelled him to work incessantly. If you look back at how much he created in the span of just a few years in the ’80s (let alone his entire career), it is staggering, dumbfounding, and completely inspiring. I could never measure up to Prince’s work ethic – few could – but he has inspired me to work harder at what I do. Now I get to be creative for a living, and I don’t ever take that for granted. I work hard to hold onto that as my reality. As Prince sang, let’s work!
Eclecticism, (or Be unpredictable.)
There’s a specific moment when I realized you don’t have to define yourself as ‘one thing’ as an artist. That moment is when I heard Around the World in a Day, the follow-up album to the cultural phenomenon Purple Rain.
It blew me away – the music, yes – but more than that, the difference from what came before. That’s what really got me. Prince’s bravery and the ability to jump from genre to genre and remake himself time and again is what always excited me as an artist, and I’ve always wanted to emulate that.
Today, I have several bodies of work in media as diverse as the work itself. There’s a common thread that runs through the entirety of my work, underscored and sewn together with my unique visual language. And it’s Prince’s astoundingly eclectic body of work that’s the inspiration for the diversity in media choice, genre, and subject matter in my work. Be brave and be unpredictable: a mantra to create by.
Idea Antenna, (or Be open to outside inspiration.)
In the past few years, I’ve been learning more about how Prince worked with his close collaborators, and one of the greatest takeaways for me was how he was always fully open to absorbing ideas and inspiration from the outside (kind of like an idea antenna), and then distilling them through his own unique creative filter to emit something entirely new.
That’s what I try to do with my work. My subject matter, like my media choice, is fluid and wide in range, addressing iconography and identity, referencing contemporary culture and my relationship with it.
I watch, I look, I read, I take in media like everybody does, and then, when inspiration strikes, I synthesize it into whatever it is I want to say about it, as a visual manifestation. I feel like that’s akin to what Prince did with his music. I have my favorite visual artists that speak to me and their work has influenced my work, for sure. I pick up a trick here, a kernel of an idea there, a color palette from around the corner, and all of that informs my work. Sharing one’s own distilled inspirations via any medium, is to me, another way of connecting – myself to you, you to the art, the art to other art. Let inspiration make those connections.
Do It Yourself-ism
Prince taught himself how to play the countless instruments he played – so well. He taught himself how to sing, write, produce, dance, etc. And that’s just the artistic side. He was also a visionary businessman and built an empire. His drive and persistence was second to none, and to this day, it inspires me to no end.
Without passion, you have nothing as an artist. And without persistence and drive, you won’t achieve much even if you have all the passion in the world. Without a healthy combination of them working together, nothing creative is possible.
Prince’s passion to create and undying commitment to doing so, no matter what, is my roadmap as an artist. I look to Prince as a role model in how he broke the rules, forged new ground, relentlessly made his own path, and more than anything showed that with talent you don’t need a degree to make art. For that lesson, I’ll always be grateful. He was true to himself and his vision and he did it himself. Persistence and creativity are a powerful combination.
Never Give Up Doing It Your Way
Prince had the world scratching its head many times along his journey. He skipped out on ‘We Are the World’ and Live Aid. He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Frequently, he was the target of negativity and judgment throughout his career.
None of it ever buckled Prince’s resolution to do things his own way. If anything, the ridicule and criticism propelled him to stay true to his vision. He followed no one but himself, and that outlook helped me. Being something of a late bloomer, I’ve always felt like an outsider, even in my own arts community. I spent my first few years in my career here hearing ‘Your work would be great in LA’, which I took to mean ‘It doesn’t fit in in Seattle’.
Well, I’m from Seattle and so is my art, and it has thrived here. It’s funny, actually, because it’s Prince and the Le Petit Prince project that has brought me the most adverse reaction from the public, but also the most love and joy. When the project was new and I began devoting more time to it, I sensed negativity from my local peers. ‘Why is he playing with that Prince doll all the time?’ I imagined them saying. But I never stopped. In fact, the work evolved and garnered a life and fanbase of its own, far outside the confines of provincial judgment, bringing joy and comfort to Prince fans around the world, while introducing them to the rest of my work. It’s a truly amazing gift. And it is in Prince’s powerful spirit of never giving up, of always being true to his vision and path, that I continue to create at my own will, despite trends or opinions. I say I’m not a follower, but I do follow Prince’s lead.
So, there you go. Just a few ways that Prince has, and will continue, to help fuel my creative soul and business.
No matter who you are and what you do, whether you’re an artist or an engineer, a coder, teacher, CEO, COO or CTO, I know that the lessons I take from Prince’s approach can be applied to however you strive for your own personal excellence.
Thank you, Prince.
— Troy Gua photo credit: Mike Hipple