Recently I sat on a panel at the Windup Space, addressing students on the subject of “Finding Your Career Path in the Arts.” It’s impressive that these young folks, nearing graduation in all sorts of disciplines — illustration, dance, film, writing — are thinking so diligently about a 5-year, 10-year, even life-long plan. I remember that feeling of peering out from the safety of art school with utter bewilderment at what the world of working adults held. There was a palpable mix of anxiety, excitement, and confusion in the room.
The panel was also a great cross-discipline mix: a middle age fiction writer and professor, a perky early twenties freelance film production assistant, a rugged maybe 50-something fine artist, a reserved young woman who works in community arts programs, a stylish 30-something guy who runs a non-profit dance company. And me, a (ahem, 40 or so) painter and Creative Director of a national agency.
As the questions bounced around — and most at first seemed to be directed at the recently graduated film student even though she said up front that life was difficult and she was living with her parents — something disturbing slowly became clear:
This breakdown still exists in artists’ minds: you must choose between two archetypical paths: remaining true and suffering for your art as a freelancer, or selling out and getting a full time job (this package includes a spouse, kids and a dog).
Someone on the panel — one of the working adults in the room! — actually made a sarcastic crack about the choice of working 9-5 and coming home to pet the dog. At that point I cracked up; the students looked at me and then started laughing too. And then one student raised her hand and said that she tends to get depressed if she’s alone too much, and the thought of working all day and coming home to pet the dog actually sounded great.
How is it that such a crusty old stereotype still survives? Well, take a recent episode of Girls on HBO. Hannah, who has taken a job on the “advertorial” side of the writing staff at GQ, is horrified by her writer counterparts who have been seduced by money, a nice office and free snacks to abandon their true calling. She resolves to have it all by writing on evenings and weekends, but in her first attempt after work, falls asleep. You can’t have it both ways, apparently. An easy cliché to perpetuate if in real life you are living your artistic dream writing for HBO, I suppose.
There are some assumptions floating around out there that in my book just aren’t true:
- You have to choose ONE THING.
- You have to abandon your passion and your soul at the door if you work full time.
- You have two choices: work full time, or you’re hanging out there on your own.
No no no and I’m going to give you some real life people that I know here in little old Baltimore to prove it!
Case in point against #1: Kim M.
Kim is a painter, got an M.F.A from MICA, has done numerous artist residencies, and sells her paintings here and in NY. She got her start in small business as the owner of a decorative painting company, sold that business, and now owns an uber-successful chain of 7 yoga studios, where she also teaches.
Case in point against #1 and #2: John B.
John owns the company where I work, TBG, and runs it passionately, full time. He is also an accomplished and prolific experimental musician and performance artist, and writer of philosophy.
Case in point against #1 and #2: me!
I began as a freelance illustrator, then a muralist, but yearned after the cutting-edge world of design, got my start at a firm in Italy, and have been at the same firm here in Baltimore now for 15 years, doing super challenging work that I love, and have kept a painting studio through all of it.
Case in point against #2 and #3: Lesley H.
Lesley does interaction design — her passion — and works full time for a company in D.C. But she doesn’t physically work there: she works at a cool group studio here in Baltimore that she shares with 4 other women who work in other disciplines.
Case in point against #1 and 3: Shauna K.
Shauna is a UX designer, who runs her own business but works as a regular subcontractor for TBG 20 hours a week, leaving the rest of her time to pursue her other creative passions: writing, storytelling, and performing.
Case in point against #1: Ed H.
Ed has played in numerous well-known bands and has toured here and abroad, and mid-way through his music career made a serious push as a painter. He has done painting residencies at home and abroad and sells his paintings internationally.
I could list SO many more, just here around town. These are all people who have truly followed their passions, have not starved, and have not sold their souls.
Every young artist loses sleep over the thought of what on earth they’re going to do with their talents and how they will live, but it should help to know that there are more than two paths to follow, and new ones being blazed all the time. It’s not just a matter of how to make money or about how true you’re going to be to your art; it’s about creating the lifestyle that suits you.
P.S. Why do young people seem to be putting such excessive pressure on themselves to have a 10 year plan laid out at all times? But that’s a tangential rant that I’ll save for another day.