I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve been a full-time artist. It hasn’t been that long, but it sure feels like a long time. This is probably a good thing.
Unlike in school or with certain jobs, there are no real milestones here. Occasionally, you gain an accolade here and an award there, and everyone seems to be very impressed– but deep down inside, you sort of wish people cared more about things that actually matter: like when your parents finally admit that they’ve given up on you ever pursuing a corporate career, or when you finally discover the powers of good gesso.
On Monday, October 19th, I will be speaking to college students and some art career hopefuls at San Francisco City College– a school that I still credit with helping me making my leap from the tech to the art industry when I turned 30. City College gave me an opportunity to meet people from my community from all walks of life, with the drive and passion to just learn.
So, on Monday, I’ll be a guest speaker at Nancy Elliott’s Art Career and Transfer Portfolio Prep (ART 185), a class I took 3 years ago (Or maybe it was 4? 2?) I consider this to be a pretty cool milestone for two obvious reasons: One, as an alumnus and huge proponent of affordable art classes. Two, because someone actually considers me worthy enough to espouse advice to a bunch of unsuspecting adults.
I will have a few slides prepared for the presentation– not of my work, but of the community projects I’m involved in. It’s not that I don’t think my art is worth sharing (it is), but I know nothing of these people, and for me– my art career and work for the community are deeply intertwined. If I may be so cavalier to use the word “success” in my career so far, it’s because I cared enough about the people around me to participate in things that matter. Sure, I get burned sometimes and I broke down crying yesterday from pure exhaustion, but if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I would have it any other way.
In any case, there are rare moments that provide one with an opportunity to pause and reflect: so I’m going to jot down my notes on this blog, because I started this blog with the sole purpose of chronicling my “journey to being a ‘real’ artist,” and the last time I checked, I still can’t afford to get an MFA.*
Since I have so many, *way* more successful, more-deserving artist friends here, and on social media, I would like to lob this request out there: Please feel free to add, edit, or comment on these ideas– I will probably add them to my presentation. I appreciate this in advance, as I can’t possibly imagine ever receiving adequate advice from an individual for something as unregulated, individualistic, and schizo as the art world.
Actually, for those who care about this sort of thing, I’ve been reading this great book by Alix Sloan, Launching Your Art Career: A Practical Guide for Artists, (appropriately priced under $15 for those on a budget), which is proving to be helpful. Now, I’m not typically one to follow a guidebook on this sort of thing, but this one is written in a no-nonsense, easily digestible way, and quotes tons of people I respect from the SF scene and beyond: Ken Harman, Jen Rogers, Mark Wolfe, etc. Pick it up, if you haven’t already. It most likely won’t give you resounding, slam-duck advice you probably don’t know already, but it frames things in a different perspective that is both refreshing in its straightforwardness, and affirming to those who might’ve figured out things the hard way.
Book aside, here are some things I would offer up as advice (again, feel free to comment, edit, and share):
- Do Good Work and Keep Learning. If you’re enrolled in a class at City College, you’re already doing it right. Now, force yourself to spend more time creating work (any work) even if it sucks. This part is really hard for various reasons:
- Yes, you’re an artist, but you also need to exist in this world and make a living. We all have 24 hours in a day: Succumb to trying to balance time between making art, and making money for the rest of your life. Maybe, if you get lucky, the two will come together: this is not easy, takes tons of luck, and happens to 0.00000001% of the people who try it. I’m not counting on it, which is why I have about 4 jobs: I have bucketed these jobs into varying priorities based on time flexibility, pay, relation to my art career. No job is really “below” me. If you find that a job is ‘below’ you: check yourself on why you think it is. It doesn’t matter if you do the job or not- the important thing is asking yourself why. This will tell you a lot about yourself that will help with the soul-searching I will get to in point #2.
- There are days I would rather do *anything* else than paint. It would be easy to say, well shit- that makes me a fraud, doesn’t it? But guess what– Everyone feels that way, but the only way to get #1 done is to make stuff. So force yourself to sit in that chair and prop up your dominant hand with your less dominant hand, and get to working. Unlike my job in the tech world, you don’t get paid if you don’t produce. It’s pretty straightforward in that way.
- Get Involved with the Community. This takes some soul-searching, because your “community” can involve any number of people who care about the same thing you do. Double the emphasis on this if you’re one of the few artists left in San Francisco: this one is important- I mean it. If you don’t get involved now, there won’t be anything worth doing for you soon.
- Early in my career, I found local groups within San Francisco like AAWAA, NCWCA, who introduced me to other passionate, ordinary people living creative lives in various ways. Go to their shows, read up on their history, volunteer, start an event and invite them to it, offer to gather signatures for initiatives you care about– this proves you care, and have something to offer. No one likes a poser, so look for causes you actually care about. Here, you’ll meet talented, amazing people who are the most generous with their time and resources, and this will really inspire you– as an artist, and as a person. Knowing people who care is soul-food, for when things get really bleak. Also, I sometimes think the true currency of Art is a gift-force that needs to constantly be put in motion–which in turn helps a community, and ultimately, in a long, roundabout way– you.
- Surround yourself with hard-working, humble people who live their values. You’ll find them by participating in your community, and you’ll keep them by doing #3. Which brings me to:
- Have Something to Offer. This is the soul-searching part: think about what you’re better at than most people. Sometimes, these so-called ‘strengths’ can be defeating and rather inconvenient. For me, I found out it involved bringing people together: except that 1. I couldn’t speak in public, 2. I can’t work in front of people, and 3. I hate talking to people on the phone. It took some time to get over these things and did things that scared the shit out of me: I found teaching jobs, I enrolled in a museum-drawing class, and well– I still text/msg everyone instead of talking to them, so I really haven’t gotten over that third one. Also, people really piss me off sometimes. But, you know, baby steps.
- Part of the difficulty in the art world is the fact that there is no such thing as “work friends” and “regular friends.” You are your work are your friends are your life, so forget about work/life balance. You’ll most likely lose friends and maybe even significant others who don’t get it. It’s not their fault they’re not insane.
- That said, cherish the ones that care and are crazy enough to support you. Shit isn’t easy for you, much less for them, so if they’re still around, its not because you’re awesome– It’s because they’re awesome. They are the good ones; and you need as many of them as possible in this line of work. Go out of your way to make them look good, or find opportunities to help them.
- If these people happen to also be artists, go to their shows (if you can), and be genuinely happy for their successes. If they’re artists, they’re also really good bullshit detectors- so unless you’re genuinely happy for them, they’ll know. Trust me, because you’ll know. Also, don’t be offended if they take advantage you for your strengths- be lucky you have something they find worthy, but know your self-worth. We’re all in this together.
OK– so this is already entirely too many words and if you’ve read this far, thank you. I still need your help in shaping these minds on Monday, so please send me your comments and thoughts. I really appreciate all of you being here, and part of my journey. Wish me luck.
*Right now, I am filled with anxiety over the fact that I just typed out 5 short paragraphs without a photo or bullet points. If you read this far, you are awesome.