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.
Thank you, Dan Foley, for these great photos of Work in Progress‘ debut event at 2 Blocks of Art last week!
Source: Who Really Is The Artist…
September 15th, 2015
I’ve gotten a bit too busy to write, but I do wish I could make more time for it. Writing helps clarify my thoughts: the act of writing forces me to focus and structure my thoughts in a way that is both challenging and necessary. Hats off to all my writer friends; shit’s not easy.
Last month, I received a letter from a highly respected Art organization in Oakland, congratulating me for being nominated by someone from SFMOMA, Jewish Contemporary Museum, Yerba Buena, or Oakland Art Museum as one of the artists selected to apply for a solo show next year.
As an artist, having a solo show is a huge milestone, but even being nominated by such esteemed organizations was a huge honor in itself. Given that I had started exploring new media, playing with textures, and thinking of new ways to incorporate my ideas, I wanted to produce work that reflected this.
What resulted was my first real foray into the sculptural– titled, Cinderflora, a series of mixed media work exploring an appreciation for decline, the rhythm of growth and decay, and the use of cracks and imperfections as sources for newfound strength. Using traditional philosophies of wabi‐sabi, ikebana, and kintsugi, it collides organic, natural forms with industrial building materials (such as cinder blocks and bricks) to explore the oft‐overlooked meanings in conventional objects. Here is an excerpt from my write-up for the show (many thanks to Henry Lien, my amazingly talented cousin, who is an accomplished artist and writer–for his help):
Establishing a balance between two assumed binaries; harsh, industrial building materials are met with natural, delicate, hand-made forms to question our assumptions around seemingly opposing concepts such as fragile/strong, delicate/harsh, beauty/imperfection,and growth/decay. Each piece tells a different story of nature waiting for man‐made obstacles to crumble, seeking fissures and cracks as a point of entry to find its path into the light.
The title of the series itself attempts to rehabilitate a reviled cliche of a female narrative. The story of Cinderella is perhaps most controversial, because it is a traditional fairytale of finding salvation in a prince’s arms. It elicits sneers from progressives as readily as floral craftwork does, and yet‐ Cinderella’s story can also be read as a tale of hard work, patience, resourcefulness, and taking advantage of opportunities as it presents itself. The alternative reading of Cinderella’s story harmonizes with the alternative reading of paper flowers; which, in turn, suggests an alternate recounting of women’s stories and contributions throughout American history.
It’s a weird feeling; to make the jump into the third dimension, but I’m very proud of this new body of work, and I feel good about my application. Now that it’s submitted, I will have to knock down my expectations a few notches. But either way, I am excited about my new body of work, and intend on furthering this series because it represents so much of who I am. Thank you to Carlos Lopez for his amazing photographs of my pieces, and for his continued patience with me while I work an inordinate amount of hours in the studio. Fingers crossed, and wish me luck- I’ll need it!
Sending this commission off today, which took me a few months to create. Commissions always take a lot longer than I anticipate; it involves a lot more back and forth to communicate a shared vision. This piece took some time, because I spent a lot of it understand their story and the emotions behind what they wanted to convey.
A long-time friend, (whose name I’ve been asked to withhold, so let’s call her “A”) messaged me via my website and asked me to do a painting for her husband. I hadn’t seen either of them for almost 15 years, and was happy to see that they had gotten married and have a wonderful life together. Social media certainly has its drawbacks, but I’m so grateful for its ability to reconnect me with old friends and it inspires me to see so many people find their own versions of happiness. These friends are no exception: I find myself sharing their ups and downs through Facebook, and it astonishes me that I haven’t seen either of them for almost 15 years, but can still share in all their joys.
I often have trouble finding a tangible purpose for my ability to create, and commissions challenge me to empathize and understand other people. I’m continually surprised and grateful for so many people willing to share such intimate stories of their lives with me, it helps my creative process. Of course, I have also asked A if I could share her story here, so this is printed with her permission.
A’s husband’s story inspired me for various reasons. In the past 10 years, he went the prescribed path into Finance, made enough money to buy his parents a house, then dropped everything to own and run a private Kung Fu school. Battling mental illness in his family and being a primary provider, he decided to join a local police department in Los Angeles as an officer. Being in law enforcement allowed him to live his values as well as provide for his family. Since joining the police force, he has encountered life-threatening situations daily, while being deeply conflicted by those he seeks to fight and those he wants to protect. “A” shared with me her husband’s personal struggle with having to come to terms with news of police brutality, his own family member’s struggles with mental illness, his own personal values, and his devotion to his family and the people he serves. As an introspective, thoughtful person, I couldn’t imagine the daily struggle he goes through to put on his uniform every day while facing such opposition within and outside of himself.
Part of being an artist, I believe, is also being able to step outside of yourself. I’ve had my fair share of negative interactions with the police growing up as a kid in LA: Police officers have applied unnecessary force on my close family members and arrested them on zero charges. I have had my car hit by a police officer, been cited multiple times in a week for going less than 5mph over the speed limit, and have been dismissed by not one, but two trial jury panels for not being “objective enough” to rule against law enforcement. But having these personal beliefs didn’t prevent me from understanding his conflict and empathizing with his choice to stay in police force. Despite all of that, I commend my friend for having the conviction and willingness to put himself in harm’s way every day for all the ugliness that he sees in the world.
So Friends– this is for you. I wrote these phrases in my sketchbook on a couple sketches when I started your piece: “Broken armor has stood the test of time,” and “we are all imperfect vessels.” These phrases helped me develop imagery around your piece.
In addition to 4-5 sketches not-pictured here, I wrestled with the concept in various ways and took a trip to the Asian Art Museum in order to find out more about the folklore around “Guan Yu,” a legendary Chinese warrior. I did color charts to figure out what colors to use for various metal/bronze/leather objects in blueish light, and tried different compositions in order to find the right balance between symbolism and imagery.
What resulted was a fragmented, imperfect depiction of an old warrior chest plate, battle-tested and cracked, revealing only a thin blue line; ready for the next fight. It depicts an object used to protect– something tough and built to last, but hides the scars of the person wearing it. The painting itself represents stillness and solitude, a reflection of the path you’ve taken to protect your family and for strangers who you’ve never met.
Thank you, friends, for sharing your story with me and allowing me to be a part of your lives so many years later. I hope to see both of you soon.
I’m a “nice girl.” I know this about myself. I’ve often told that I may be too nice…perhaps too trusting. “Nice guys finish last” is the old trope that men, in particular, like to point out when they don’t get what they want. I have opinions on this (like I do with most things), but I won’t get into all that. My point is that I am well-aware of all the problems with being a “nice” person.
“…but you’re so nice.”
I’ve struggled with this characteristic of being a nice girl: On one hand, it has given me immeasurable opportunities to connect with people. On the other, it perhaps reflects some of my inherent need to be accepted, to be liked, and to avoid confrontation. I’ve also been screwed over more times than perhaps I choose to count. The latter doesn’t bode well with me, especially considering the inevitability of stepping on a few toes and hurting feelings in the game of Art. That can be a dissertation in itself: whether or not you can establish a career in Art without competition. I’m pretty sure that’s impossible at the current state of things- blame Capitalism, blame poor taste in Art, blame Canada, blame it all—but I try my best so I can keep going.
As you may know, I’ve recently hit few big milestones in my career in the past few months: landing two great positions with a leading art supplier, Savoir Faire, as a demo artist and a marketing contractor– and being selected to join Pacific Felt Factory as one of the first artists in a brand new, creative think-tank/community minded artist space in a highly competitive, hostile space/housing market. These are significant achievements for me, mainly because they contribute to three important elements in building my long-term art career:
- Financial stability
- A like-minded community of great artists
- An affordable space to do it in
Oh yeah, and I’m also still teaching the kids. As I said in a previous post, Art is a game of survival, and I’m here to play the long game. In this game, there are no defined rules, no prescribed milestones. You just have to make your own and celebrate them as you see fit. So friends, let’s party!
It Takes a Village
That said, I am enormously proud of these accomplishments because I know I did my part in getting them, but my pats on the back are limited, because, if I am truly honest with myself, I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it on my own merit as an artist. Sure, some of my early success as an artist must have played a factor. But if I’m honest, every one of these opportunities trace back to my one characteristic that has also given me pause: being a nice person. The truth is that I have so, so many people to thank in every little success I have– whether it’s a live painting gig, a commission, a salon I host, a show I’m in, or even just a meal I enjoy (Thank you, Carlos. ;)) Although it seems a bit silly to feel so much gratitude for something so insignificant to others, I feel it all the same so I’d like to acknowledge them… because when other artists ask me how I get these opportunities, I can help them connect the dots and hopefully convince them that– despite the risks, nice people win.
On Getting the Studio
I originally wrote about 6 paragraphs about this, but realized it was really TL;DR (too long, didn’t read), so here’s the synopsis: If you buy me a drink I’ll divulge all the details and more. Here’s how it happened:
December 2013: Met Sandra Yagi by chance, after I spoke on “Choice” Panel, a show juried by Catharine Clark of Catharine Clark Gallery, hosted by Arc Gallery.
April 2014: I featured Sandy at “Escapism” at Art Song Salon – the salon Jessica Wan and I host quarterly. I visited Sandy at her studio afterwards, and we chatted about studio prices being exorbitant. A few days later, she asked me if I’d be interested in sharing her studio. I said HELL YES.
June 2014 (?): Not sure exactly when, but I moved into Sandy’s studio on 10th and Mission.
December 2014: Sandy tells me Michael Yochum (from Arc Gallery) has been working with some folks to a huge project in the Mission aimed to provide long-term, affordable studios for SF Artists and a creative space for gallery talks, lectures, workshops, and events for the community. They wanted a diverse group of well-established, gallery-represented artists who were in need of studio space. Sandy jumped on it, so did I.
March 2015: Found out that not only did Sandy get a studio, I qualified for my own space at Pacific Felt Factory as well. I suspect Michael Yochum and Priscilla Otani gunned for me to get the space, along with Sandy, who has worked and been friends with Michael and Priscilla for years.
On Getting the Job
This one was much more straightforward: I met Rick Kitagawa and Eve Skylar while taking a course at City College back in 2010, I think, and we’ve stayed in touch. Rick and Eve are amongst my favorite people, and their pure grit, humility, passion, and hustle has inspired my artistic career. So when Rick referred me to Savoir Faire as a potential demo artist, I was honored. After interviewing with Savoir Faire, I realized I also had a mutual friend to the founders of the company, Deb Cook Shapiro, a fabulous painter in my studio building. I had also been helping Deb with some of her tech stuff, which led her to give me a glowing recommendation to Maureen and Pierre at Savoir Faire, who asked me in for a few interviews and promptly offered me a job as their marketing manager.
Surrounding Myself with Good People
If that was too much for you to read: Here’s an even shorter version. I acknowledge that I’m a crazy lucky person, so I will never take full credit for my successes. BUT– if I were to take credit, it would be for being able to surround myself with great people who, despite having had their fair share of difficulties, choose to be kind and supportive. When I think about the crazy trajectory that I have taken in the past three years since leaving Google, I can only be grateful to those who have believed in me and helped me get to this position. The rest is up to me, and it will be a long game, but I know one thing: I’ll do my best to succeed, and help others get there too.
Writing helps me think, and lately I haven’t been able to think a whole lot. Funny, I came into Art as a way to become more deliberate and thoughtful– but I find myself thinking less, and doing more. A lot more, like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. The act of thinking is almost luxurious…now that I’m thinking about it. These days, I have fragmented, incoherent thoughts, so I’ll formulate them into bullet points and/or a list. I might even tack on a catchy link bait title like “She Quit a Dream Job… You Won’t Believe What She Did Next!” Anyway:
- Cindy Shih, Artist. A few years ago, I cringed every time someone referred to me as “an Artist.” Honestly, I still cringe when I hear that now. I think what I should actually call myself is an “Art Worker” or “a worker who does Art,” because that would probably be more representative of what I do, but that would also mean I’ll have more to explain when people ask me what I do. People seem to be fairly satisfied with the term, “Artist,” so I just leave it at that and try not to be too irritating about it.
- I celebrated my 33rd birthday nearly two weeks ago, and the thing that struck me the most was how life continues to surprise me. I find that it’s really difficult to take yourself too seriously, when things change and often don’t always make a whole lot of sense when you think about them logically. In the past five years, I’ve scrutinized, examined and uprooted myself from every aspect of my life and turned it upside down. And somehow, it works pretty well too. Go figure.
- Remember how people say things like, “Don’t work harder… work smarter?” Well, apparently that shit doesn’t work (at all) with Art. Art is humbling, because there are simply no shortcuts. The most successful artists I know work 12-14-hr days in the studio, often to their own detriment. They are relentless bad-asses, and they put me to shame. If I had all the money and hugs to give, I would unquestionably give it to them. Because apparently, paintings don’t paint themselves, and I’m convinced it’s actually impossible to enjoy the entire process of creating any of them. To this point, I find that the better I get, the more work I have to do. I’m not sure why that is, or how that works, but that seems to be the way it goes.
- Does crazy beget crazy, or does being isolated and alone for hours at a time make you crazy? I’m still trying to figure this one out. I’m putting my bet on the latter, although I’m convinced no sane person would choose this line of work to begin with.
- To all my personal relationships: Thank you, and I’m sorry. As of this month, I will have three part-time jobs, in addition to being a full-time artist. (This also makes me bad at Math) Fortunately, these jobs are all hard earned, art-related and teach me things, but that doesn’t leave me a whole lot of time for a social life. This concerns me a bit, because my friends mean so much to me, but until I figure out how to balance teaching, hosting Art | Song, art demos, live painting, social media, shows, and commissions– I might not always be as available as I’d like to be. Call me out if you need to, but I ask for your forgiveness in advance.
That’s all for now. Thanks for listening,