Someone asked me the other day on Instagram how I’d made art my career. If you are looking at my Instagram feed or this blog, it certainly looks like art is my career.
I show up everyday and make things: check.
I have a studio/office: check.
I’ve got a show opening in a few weeks: check.
I am on a creative team of a website I love: check.
Supporting myself on the money I make? NOPE. In that respect, I am nowhere near the neighborhood of a career.
It’s All About the Money, Money, Money
I’m gonna be really honest and talk about money for a minute. My husband works at a fabulous job and supports our family. We decided 14 years ago that me staying at home with our kids was a priority, and so we managed our money to do that. When my children were big enough for me to think about doing something other than changing diapers and and playing with play dough, I had the luxury of saying I’d spend time working on art.
In those early days, I wasn’t even thinking about it as a career. I just wanted to make art again after a lot of years not making art. The first year I didn’t make any money at all, but each year after, I’ve made enough money to pay for supplies and sometimes a tiny bit of profit. I am thankful for that much. I recognize my ridiculous amount of privilege. I work very hard to not take it for granted and to share my knowledge as a way to give back to the community because of it.
A few weeks ago, my friend Starr invited me to guest teach her high school advanced placement Art Class. (AP classes are a big deal in high school. If you do well, they garner you college credit for the cost of the test at the end of the year as opposed to paying for college hours.) I got a chance to spend some time with five young women who love art as much as I do. And they asked how I made art a career. I told them my story, but went on to say that their story would likely look like something else. Their story might look like working some other kind of job during the day and spending nights and weekends making art. Their story might look like their teacher’s: where they get to make art alongside students in a junior high, high school, or college. Or maybe they love graphic design and will jump on that as a career. Art can look like a lot of different things, and artistic creative problem solving can apply to many, many job situations.
Last year I wrote a blog post called Turning Pro. It was about reading The War of Art and the things I took away from that book. The biggest point for me is still showing up every day. You can want something all you care to while sitting on the couch watching TV, but until you get up and get moving, nothing will happen. We all have to show up and keep showing up even when we feel like it isn’t working.
My husband and I talk a lot about how it takes ten years to be an overnight success at something. I’m watching that play out in real time with my friend Alex. He’s a writer. He was a writer when we met him eight years ago. He was a writer before that. He got an agent two years ago and the agent got him a book deal. That book came out last year. He has a book coming out this next year, the first in a trilogy. He’s got another book deal in the works. I’ve had the deep privilege to read early drafts of several of his books. Alex is very clearly a professional writer. He crafts amazing, unusual stories. But he also has a full-time day job. So he dedicates his lunch hour and some time on the weekends to writing. He shows up every day.
Say Yes to the Thing. Don’t Worry How It Will Turn Out.
A long time ago, my husband started coaching me in the art of saying yes to opportunities. I’d tell him about an opportunity that had presented itself and I’d fret over possible outcomes. I’d worry I wouldn’t do well or things wouldn’t go as planned. I’d want to say no out of fear of the unknown or the inability to control the outcome. His response was always, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? Someone can say no to you or turn you down? You can survive that.”
And what I learned as I started saying yes is that things won’t go as planned. Sometimes I’ll say yes and not get picked. Sometimes I’ll say yes and fail anyway. But sometimes on the fourth or fifth or sixteenth try, things would go right and the outcome would be amazing. But missing out on the potential for growth or excitement because of fear of the unknown is not a good way to live life.
Every good thing that’s happened in my career is because I said yes to something scary. Something too big. Something I was afraid to try and wrap my arms around. It’s how I started. It’s how I’ve grown. It’s how I got my show and how I got on the creative team for Get Messy. It’s how I’ve gotten turned down for an artist’s grant and turned down for a group show at the local museum.
I say yes, and then let it go. This is hard. It never stops being scary. But every time I open up and say yes, it feels right, and I can surrender to letting the outcome be whatever it’s going to be. I might have to lick my wounds or I might get to celebrate. Either way, I can celebrate taking the big scary leap and knowing I can survive even when things don’t go my way.
I’m a rule follower and a graphic designer. There’s an order to things. When I am sending something to a printer, it needs to be exact to be printed correctly. That preciseness leads to pretty packaging. Packaging is the business of capitalism. Therefore, anything I create needs to be perfect to sell.
Do you see that deadly circle? It’s a loop that has paralyzed me for a long time. I’ve only recently identified it in myself. Perfectionism is a form of procrastination that can keep you from doing the things you love.
Painting, gluing things down, drawing by hand, making prints: all of these are messy business. I’m learning to shed the perfectionism every day. Insisting on sharing something every day online, no matter what state it’s in, helps with that too.
Repeat after me: It’s better to have a finished, imperfect thing than an unstarted, imagined perfect thing.
Go make stuff. Work at making it better. But don’t wait until you think you can make a perfect thing. That day will never arrive.
Maybe It’s Less About a Career and More About a Way of Life
So now I’m looking at this list of things to do and I’m wondering if maybe I should call this post “How to Live a Good Life” instead of how to have “Art as a Career”. Sure, it’s applicable to an artist’s life, but I can see it being just as applicable to the life of other careers as well. Bottom line is that you have to show up and keep working. Then take opportunities as they present themselves and chase after others, even the big and scary ones.