I was recently invited to speak with a group of high school students on what it means to be a working artist. Although the focus of the class in attendance was art, the students were from a variety of backgrounds and interests – everything from business, forensics, theatre, even a few musicians were sprinkled in the mix.
I had to preface my speech with the fact that being an artist wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be – that I was indeed an artist, but also so much more. I then leaned into my slide show presentation of what I like to call, “The Hustle,” an inter-connected web of seemingly disparate skill sets that has led me to where I am today.
Throughout the talk, I shared that I saw everything through the lens of being an artist. I began with my story of how tying for second place in a K-Mart coloring contest at the age of three gave me the tiniest nudge toward recognizing myself as an artist. That first taste of artistic achievement – that $10 K-Mart gift certificate payout led me to believe that I had potential. A couple years later, I told the other kids in my kindergarten class that I was an artist, and was quite disappointed that some of them didn’t believe me. I had determined at that point to fully invest myself in this new-found identity – “the Artist.” Little did I know that being an artist could lead to so many different things. So, what is “The Hustle?” you might ask.
My current role at the Art Center of the Bluegrass is definitely the largest and most important of all the different facets that make up my collective career as an artist. As Visual Arts Director, I do many different things – schedule and hang exhibitions, work with artists to make sure the exhibits are the best that they can be, teach classes and art camps, graphic design, building maintenance (you wouldn’t believe the amount of projects you can get into in a hundred + year-old-post-office turned art gallery), video editing, public speaking, creative writing, photography, and more.
In addition to working at the Art Center, I also do graphic design and help build sets for West T. Hill Community Theatre (where I did some of my earliest graphic design work as a teenager), create merchandise for the Great American Brass Band Festival, paint public art murals, design T-shirts to sell on Amazon, do freelance design for several local businesses, and more. All of this is in addition to the creation of the body of work that I consider to be “my art.”
When I was telling my fellow students in kindergarten that I was an artist, did I ever imagine that I would be an arts educator? Did I imagine I’d be a graphic designer? When I attended the Great American Brass Band Festival as a teen, did I ever think that I’d be designing the posters for the event? When I was working as a temp on a factory maintenance crew, did I imagine that those handyman skills would eventually come in useful in an art gallery? Of course, the answer to all of these questions is NO. I had no idea that any of the seemingly random skills I’d picked up along the way would someday tie back into my role as a working artist. But in hindsight, nearly everything I’ve done (when I say “nearly everything,” I’m looking at you, calculus) has somehow been useful on my career trajectory as a working artist. Small opportunities later became bigger opportunities, and I believe that trend will continue into the future.
Not every part of my career as a working artist is tied directly to the ideal situation I had imagined when I was younger. I had always imagined a much more linear, and perhaps much more selfish path of – “I’m the artist. I’m making art.” I hadn’t considered that sometimes being an artist is helping others with their art. Sometimes being a working artist means helping others realize their potential by sharing your knowledge and skills. Quite often, being an artist is about helping others interpret and share their ideas (rather than your own) through commissioned work or graphic design.
Am I yet to be exactly where I want to be as an artist? I’d have to say, no – there’s still more to come on that journey. I think that if you asked any artist, from amateurs to internationally known, if they were completely satisfied with their current status on the spectrum of artistic self-fulfillment, they’d all agree – they still want to see what the next level is. I still think that my ultimate rock-star dream is to create “my art” for an eager audience – and I may yet get there someday.
If you want to work as an artist, look for those seemingly rare opportunities to find creative solutions. You might find that they aren’t as rare as you once thought. Look for ways you can apply your creative touch to everyday tasks. I’d like to hear from you. If you are a professional working artist, how has “the dream” of being an artist varied from the reality of the situation? What makes up your hustle to survive as a working artist? If you are not a working artist (or are in the process of getting there), how do you imagine that the skills you are gaining now might someday be relevant to your career in the arts?