Success as a Professional Artist: Insights from Sharif Bey

McColl Center alumnus artist Sharif Bey (2007) and visiting curator Jonell Logan met on Facebook Live during the summer for a conversation as part of our Creative Shifts series of artist talks to share creative processes, technical tools, and suggestions for professional development. The two discussed Adorned, a McColl Center exhibition that featured Bey in winter/spring 2020, and his career trajectory as an artist. These three insights are part of Bey’s keys to success as a professional artist. 

Consider apprenticeships and residencies to build your career. 

Bey thinks highly of the apprenticeships and artist residencies that he has participated in during his life. He attributes much of his success as an artist to these programs, beginning as a kid at the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild—both in Pittsburgh. At the latter, Bey was part of the apprenticeship program in ceramics. “[It] solidified my passion [for artmaking] because they had a program that started kids out at age 14, [and] they had an amazing visiting artist program,” he says. “I was meeting these people who had state of the art facilities, or who are going all over the world firing their kilns and teaching workshops, and seeing so many different trajectories.” This apprenticeship sparked interest in the arts further and made him realize early on that this was the career path he was meant to take.

Step out of your comfort zone and ask questions.  

A key to Bey’s success has been stepping out of his comfort zone to try new things. “Engaging in [various] arts practices, having these exchanges within communities, integrating new facilities, and forging other alliances…to keep the work going became so much of my identity,” he says. While making the next step sometimes seems overwhelming, Bey thinks it’s important to be flexible. “Sometimes adapting is what forges the kind of necessary community and alliances we need, so I might have to step outside of myself to ask a different kind of question to get this idea, to facilitate this idea, or to realize this trajectory.”

Installation image of Adorned at McColl Center in 2020.

Go with the flow and trust your gut. 

It can be hard for Bey to adjust to his demanding roles as a parent and as an artist. Going with the flow and mastering the art of multi-tasking are the best ways for him to get everything done, both in his personal life and art practice. “I’m not particularly scientific about how I work, but I have been very committed to this for more than thirty years,” he says. Experience and trusting his gut helps, too, referring to one of the pieces in Adorned. Prior to firing one of the ceramics pieces displayed in the exhibition, he was told by “science people” that the material he used would not allow the piece to be carbonized. However, Bey had a feeling that it would. He trusted his gut, tried the process anyway, and got the results he wanted. 

Get more artistic and creative insights and ideas.

Watch the whole conversation between Bey and Logan for more insights on how professional artists at every level can develop professionally and creatively.