Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Business of Being an Artist

Many people have a preconceived notion of what an artist's life is like. It isn't REAL work right? An artist gets to play with paint or clay and spend endless self-indulgent hours in the studio honing the fine art of fantasy. Spectators fawn over the magnificent creations and exclaim "how do you do that!" They roll out of bed at extraordinarily late hours to offset the night before that was no doubt filled with hordes of people gathering in a gallery toasting the genius of this talented super-human.

Um, excuse me, where do I apply for that job?

The truth is, while being an artist can be exceptionally fulfilling, it is also hard work. Yes, I said work. That four letter word that the non-artist community often thinks is in no way synonymous with the word art.

I have said before that a person doesn't choose to be an artist, rather, the art chooses the person. It is literally a calling. An artist feels compelled to create, much like a child who picks up a crayon for the first time and makes her first mark. From then on out, there is an obsession with making marks. For a two year old, they will make a mark with anything can they put their hands on. As children grow older hopefully this is nurtured and they retain some of that artist-self. For a few, that need to express outweighs life's other intrusions and that person becomes an artist as vocation.

So, what does an artist's life look like? How much of it is about "fun", and how much of it is about work? From my perspective, it is all work. That being said, it is work that fulfills me.

I am able to break my work as an artist into four categories.

I spend my full-time work week during the school year teaching. A lot of teachers claim that they are unable to be an artist while teaching because it is such a demanding and tiring job. For me, it is the opposite. Yes, demanding and tiring and wearing to the bone, but also inspiring. I have a job where I am surrounded by young minds creating all day long. Sure, there are school politics and endless amounts of paperwork, discipline issues, all those side things that go along with teaching, but, it is still inspiring to see the endless amounts of imagination that comes from these young minds.

Many artists that I know supplement their income with teaching. Maybe not all artists are naturally skilled with a patience and willingness to share trade secrets, but most that I know do enjoy sharing their knowledge and watching others' lives being transformed by the magic and power of art.

An artist is a visionary. They draw, sculpt, paint, photograph, dance, act, sing and compose a work that would never have existed, in a particular arrangement, without that specific artist's interpretation brought into physical existence. This is what artists, much like inventors, feel compelled to do. They have a vision in their mind, and they make that idea tangible for others to experience in the physical world.

Let this quote ruminate in your mind for a while.

"When I examine myself and the method of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge." -Albert Einstein

What is an artist's job? Is it all about self-indulgence and making marks that make us feel good? Or, do we have an obligation to society?

Doctors are expected to heal the sick. Lawyers are expected to defend the innocent. Teachers are expected to teach, and law enforcement are expected to protect. What is an artist expected to do?

On one level, we brighten the world. We fill museums with color, write novels and screenplays to entertain, and design clothes for folks to wear. We are architects who build inspiring spaces, photographers who capture a child's transition from infancy to wedding, and people who create music that makes others want to dance.

And, we are a voice that records the society in which we live. We hear and see what is going on in the world around us, and we translate that message in a way that people can understand. When visual arts transcend spoken language, the message becomes universally understood. With pictures, we help to make others aware of what is happening in our world, what we should celebrate, and what needs to be changed. An artist takes license to be the voice that speaks a truth.

Business and Marketing Specialist:
This is the least glamorous part of being an artist, but one of the most important aspects should a person wish to make an actual (financial) living at it. We don't create for the monetary rewards, however, to support the work of being an artist, money does come into the picture. Supplies are costly, and there are bills to pay. An artists time may be spent working at McDonald's to cover the bills, but it would seem a more fulfilling goal to spend those forty hours creating in a way that feeds the soul and then using the income from that to support the household. It is bittersweet to hand one of your creations over to another, since each unique piece is in a sense your child, but there is also this feeling of sharing a part of yourself and the knowing that something you created brings meaning to another person.

I estimate that I spend at least
one quarter of my creative time on the "business" aspects of being an artist. I don't want to go into detail on every component, but will offer up a basic list of what I contend with on a weekly basis that is just pure old grunt work.

The List: cleaning the shop, cleaning up after making messes, painting walls, painting signs for business, updating consignment lists, delivering work to shops/galleries, creating postcard announcements, thank you notes, organizing sales binder, tax forms, insurance paperwork, photographing artwork, blogging, community art meetings, banking, making tags, printing, contacting artists, networking, advocating, budgeting, ordering supplies, researching ideas, traveling to purchase supplies, making lists, making phone calls, paying bills, and continuing education/taking classes.

I am sure as soon as I hit the "publish" button for this blog, I will think of at least ten more things I should add the the list.

And while I am writing this blog, there are at least ten other things I should be doing! The shop opens at 10 a.m. today, so I need to shower, eat breakfast, get the sign up, turn on the heat, lights, music, price a few items, then get back to painting the sculpture that I have been working on for the past couple months.

So, if you are an artist, you understand this all perfectly well.

If you are thinking of plunging into the world of "working artist" then consider yourself warned!

Hindsight, knowing all that I know now, how much work and determination is required, the blood, sweat and tears.....

I wouldn't change a thing.


Kim Hambric said...

Excellent post!!

I'm actually a slacker on the business and marketing end. Gotta do much more on that in the future.

Have you thought of those 10 other things yet?

Throw motherhood on top of all of these things and you know what people will call you first. Mommy. Then homemaker (if you dare to work from home). And then, possibly, an artist. Could be that this is how I see myself . . . Hmmmm. I need to go think about this.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write all of this out. I'm going to bookmark this post.

madeleine hopkins said...

Exactly. The business of being an artist so much more than people realize. Promoting, advertising, purchasing materials, etc... It's all part of the process. And in a dysfunctional economy we are hit hard. In my experience, there is also unfair treatment, or discrimination because of being artist, mostly involving fair payment... or I should say, lack there of.


Kim - whenever I see your blog, it looks like you are doing a fine job marketing! but, it does require a huge amount of dedication just to get to the point where an the art can at least support itself....cost of supplies and such. I remember once figuring my hourly wage on a was like $3! But that amount is probably like making riches compared to much of what I do!


Madeleine -that would make a great blog topic! hope you don;t mind if i end up stealing that idea...

Lisa Tyson Ennis said...

YEY!I love this post Shanna! Wonderful to hear the some of the actual particulars of life as an artist revealed. You bet it's work! Can be so wonderful, can be so awful. Thanks for taking the time to expound on some of the actualities of our lives as artists. I don't think any us would ever want or could stop being artists, but sometimes it's hard when you get the feeling people think you're leading a simple life. Glad to know you girl - can't wait to see your beautiful new work.
Lisa Tyson Ennis


thanks for the comment, lisa. it all rings so true for me right now, too. i am almost 8 hours straight into a project that i thought would take two. i am tired and want to give up, but it needs to be done to complete the sculpture that i have invested the last three months of my life to. i painted the sculpture, then finally covered the entire thing in gesso - and have started all over again. will anyone look at this work and have a clue what went into it? or that it was a real pain in the butt more often than not? nope. it is tough work and requires a dedication much like any other job.

Onedia said...

Shanna, I am such a slacker compared to you....and you probably have a clean house and a good meal.

Your paragraph on Artists as visionary and their role in the world is exceptional...

I intended to take an artists route at college and allowed myself to convince ME that I did not have and talent or ability to do so. 40 years later I find I was wrong and am now evolving and learning more. However ..... I tend to let too many things go in one direction and then must bring myself back....

I really admire your ability to both organize and execute your very busy life as an Artist. I applaud you.


thanks, onedia.

clean house? hmmmmm.....

good meal, usually :)

it may have taken you forty years, but you still found your way. I imagine your path was valuable to your development as a human being - and it unfolded just as it was meant to.