The Genteel
April 21, 2021


Jim Mezon and David Coomber play mentor-student in the critically-acclaimed play Red about artist Mark Rothko (Photograph by Bruce Zinger).

More often than not, I hold the belief that finding a mentor, or someone willing to fulfill that sort of role for you, is a combination of really rare and really hard to find. Add to that, luck and timing. And definitely hard work. Take a moment to think about yourself: Have you ever been mentored before? For certain professions, it's a basic requirement. Law and medicine students, for example, are usually subject to the standard practice of engaging in this sort relationship; older, wiser colleagues often oversee them before autonomy officially kicks in. But in other lines of work - perhaps in the more creative and unbound ones - it can often appear to be an underrated connection with untapped potential, either unacknowledged or simply unavailable to newcomers. Maybe the idea isn't always "cool", some might even find the concept stifling - but it's important.

And to exit into the professional world bred from an environment that pits student-against-student without a no-judgment "haven" is a pretty disconcerting thing.

I've been working in publishing in a "professional capacity" for a little over four years now. There have been countless instances where I have questioned the viability of mentors in a creative environment where a lot of what we create, and how we operate, is within our own established, often unstable systems. (Think: organized chaos.) While I was apparently studying how to put words together, I never really got the opportunity to have access to a mentor. My professors were often other writers and editors, or hardcore, studied media enthusiasts knee-deep in some massive ethics thesis of their own. Most of my educators were busy with their own careers outside of occasional academia - there was hardly any time for "office hours" or extra guidance. We didn't have an internship program; we didn't have an after school writer's program or anything. Instead, we became our own guides and many of my prose courses revolved around self and group critiques. And to exit into the professional world bred from an environment that pits student-against-student without a no-judgment "haven" is a pretty disconcerting thing. I'm sure my experiences have partly contributed to my belief that I maybe didn't need a mentor. But, of course, when you can't have something, you want it even more, if only for the allure of how this reciprocity is documented. (Think: Aristotle and Alexander the Great, Batman and Robin, even Miranda Presley and Andrea Sacks.) As I started to take my work seriously as a possible career, I grew even more desperate for guidance, for someone to let me talk about the realities of working with thoughts and words.

When I look at a class system of art and artists like fashion, then, I'm reminded that the only way to ensure the livelihood and growth of one's own industry is to play an active role in building it up.

In November, I saw Red, the acclaimed John Logan play about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. (It won the 2010 Tony for Best Play.) At its core, and through the introduction of a fictional assistant, the drama explored both the thrilling and complex relationship that develops between mentor and protégé. It mirrored back everything I ever thought to be true about mentors and the silent, strong connections that are forged through the passing on of institutional knowledge between generations. However, at times the partnership felt desolate and withholding, as if Rothko could never fully commit himself to helping his assistant-cum-protégé excel. What I love so much about the story, rooted in Rothko's real-life temperament and pretension, is that it further explores the themes of cultural relevance - or the threat of lacking it - that I imagine some mentors may really experience, and the work comments quietly on the natural order of industry. Maybe it's the fear of drifting further away from "up-and-comer" status into new definitions of one's place - perhaps as mentor - in, say, art. Maybe you'll shift into "icon" status, maybe into nothingness.

When I look at a class system of art and artists like fashion, then, I'm reminded that the only way to ensure the livelihood and growth of one's own industry is to play an active role in building it up. There is no better illustration of this than the superfluity of mentorship programs emerging almost seasonally for aspiring designers. There is, of course, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and its invaluable business connections. There's Project Runway and Tim Gunn. Now add in all the knock-offs and spin-offs like NBC's upcoming Fashion Star that will see Jessica Simpson fulfilling the Gunn-esque role of proverbial figurehead. (Yes, this counts even if you don't agree or can't get past the other vested interests ($$$) at work.) Designer Tory Burch established an organisation to offer microloans to entrepreneurial women in various fields; she has received continuous praise for her efforts. In Canada, there's that new Mercedes-Benz program with a strong emphasis on financial foundations for emerging talents, and our longstanding Toronto Fashion Incubator's New Labels competition recently received an infusion of $25,000 to further help support and entice young designers. On Monday, Passion For Fashion, a local program that supports youth interested in this field of work, held a mentor "meet and greet" night. (I was following along on Twitter, and you can see for yourself just how valuable and important resources like this makes people feel, and the true need for involvement from industry professionals.)

In fact, I even considered participating in one of the programs associated with Passion for Fashion, but hesitated because I wasn't quite sure what I could - or would - be able offer. I have people in my life that I guess I would call a mentor, and their input and guidance has been paramount to how I have developed not only professional, but also as a person. In contrast, I've also misread relationships and consequently placed people in a position that some don't necessarily want to be in, regardless of how close you think you are or how much you look up to them. Mentorship can be cyclic like that, an experience of trial-and-error or unexpected progression.

Still, I realize that things like my own perceived sense of experience, or even age, won't prevent me from confronting situations where I have to "coach" or "advise" other aspiring professionals, like the interns I've collaborated with and "managed." And while I have tried my best to refrain from putting anyone on a pedestal, I have always appreciated a word or two of advice from other people doing what I want(ed) to. I mean, I may not be the best at being a definite guiding light or anything, but I can be courteous and willing in ways I thought was missing from my own beginnings.

Just don't forget to pay it forward either, okay?

Canadian Stage presents Red: The Mark Rothko Experience



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