Sunday, June 24, 2012

Artist For Life



I'm in my mid forties now and I've realized - I'm an artist for life. I've met a lot of artists - some successful and some working on becoming successful and a few who have given up. I would like to talk to those of you who might be thinking of giving up or working on your back up plan.

First, I believe that we're all artists. Even someone who is mostly left brained has had to create a solution to a problem using duct tape and for that moment he/she was an artist. Second, for those of us who are mostly right brained - using our creativity feels natural and is expressed on a daily basis in one form or another. How we approach a simple interaction with a stranger is a chance to either use art or shut down and go into robot mode. Of course we all do that from time to time - like in elevators - it's ok - sometimes you just can't think of anything to say right? 

So if using your art is natural to you - you can't really turn it off. You can choose to do different things with it - different occupations - different projects etc. But some occupational choices will leave you fulfilled at the end of the day while others will leave you frustrated and discouraged. I don't mean tired and annoyed like many school teachers. At the end of the day a school teacher still has a lot of autonomy and can exercise a great deal of creativity in the classroom with each student interaction. I'm talking about taking on a job or project where using your art is unwanted, unappreciated, and unnecessary.

Let me tell you about the time I almost became a prison guard. Yes you read that right. Six years ago we were living in California and had just learned that my wife had contracted an auto-immune disease. She was a special ed teacher at the time and we realized she was going to have to quit her job due to this illness. I was worried that we would lose our medical insurance and knew that I wouldn't be able to purchase any for her. We both went into panic mode and over the next few months I found myself looking into occupations that would provide coverage.

I'm really only "qualified" to do a few things on this planet - one of which is painting pictures. Trash pick up is another but they don't provide medical insurance so I skipped over that one. Soon my search revealed that working for the state of California not only provided a decent salary and hefty benefits but was also relatively easy to land. A few classes and training and they would practically take anyone willing to lock themselves up with murderers and pedophiles. I was frustrated, scared, disappointed and broken as I filled out the proper paper work and checked myself into the preliminary classes to become a California Corrections Officer.

I felt like I was turning my back on my creative side. In prison creativity can get you killed. My next door neighbor was a corrections officer and we spent a lot of time talking about how different I would need to become in order to survive as a C.O. He basically said I would have to become a robot in order to avoid getting noticed. Inmates will try to get to know you so they can manipulate you, extort you, threaten you, and exploit you. He said, "I'm a totally different person inside the prison - you wouldn't even recognize me".

I got letter from the state telling me that my application was complete and that I was to report to the academy in one month for final training and then I would receive my assignment. My wife and I struggled with the decision. She didn't want me in there any more than I did. In the end we decided that the price was too great and we moved to Utah to be closer to family and figure out our next steps. In the end I can tell you we made the right decision - for many reasons.

The truth is that I probably would have "washed out" in that occupation. The whole goal was to last 25 years for a full retirement but in reality many can't take it and as one ex- C.O. told me, "I would rather wash dishes for the rest of my life than go back in there one more day"...It's as if you're just one of the inmates in many respects...you'll see horrible things...they're a bunch of animals" -this after he had recently quit. For the record there are some people who not only do that job well - they love it. I don't think I would have been one of them.

So back to art. I've come to realize that I'm an artist - period. No matter what - I'm going to be making art and trying to figure out a way to monetize it. I love it! I will never retire from it because it's what I love to do. I think you'll find that most successful artists have a desire to create and while not all of what they produce is commercially successful they never stop. There's always the next project - the next canvas - the next film, album, photo, or book...they're artist's for life.

26 comments:

  1. Wow, that was a near miss! I think it would have crushed your soul to do that job, no matter what the benefits.

    I've been freelance pretty much full-time since the mid-80's and every now and then finances have demanded that I get a "proper" job. I've discovered that whatever the non-art job is must have some potential for creativity or I just became very depressed quite quickly. I can't live like that so being an artist in some way shape or form is the only option for me. I think a lot of us are the same.

    It's so much more than a job, I can't imagine "giving up", how can you give up on what you are?

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  2. First of all, you look much younger.

    Second thing, I agree with what you said. Right now I have 2 jobs and though they are quite creative I sometimes feel like stuck in a box. You just have to survive from hour to hour and in the evening, if I manage my time well (!), I'll have some precious time to spend on my illustrations. It's the best time of the day :)

    Hopefully, in the future I'll be able create from sunrise to sunset ;)

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    1. Thanks Aleksandra - I don't feel 46 :) ...you're so right about that precious time! Use it wisely!

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  3. All artists should be locked up and put away from society with the rest of those murderers and pedophiles! You know, like that Picasso guy, putting eyeballs on the side of peoples heads and such. Then there's Jack the dripper. Scary bunch of folks! Some artists even think they can draw, imagine that? I've been stealing peoples money for years with my silly doodles. Karma will catch up with us all in the end! Seriously though, I'm glad to see you've found a way to keep at it, you're talent is too good to be shut up behind bars. Great post Will!

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    1. Thanks Rob...One thing I've learned is that you can't control the future so why worry about it - it's going to happen either way so I just smile, work hard, try to treat people right, help them, and take it as it comes.

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  4. Wow Will. Thanks for sharing that!

    Brian and I make part of our living playing music for a lot of retirement communities and elder care homes. I have to admit it makes me think about retirement every day. For a while I was way too obsessed with it really. Mainly, we play the nicer communities that hire entertainment, so we meet the people (or mainly the widows of people) who worked within the system all their life. They live VERY comfortably with plenty to eat, people to clean their very nice apartments, and plenty of care and assistance if they need it. It's the luxurious institutional life. Some are happy, some are not. We also see the poorer people at day centers who largely have to depend on others for their kindness in every way. Most aspects of these places aren't easy to see, but some are wonderfully mind blowing in their own kindness as well (there are a lot of immigrants working at these facilities who are absolutely amazingly loving and generous people). Of course we see more of the upper class situations, because those are primarily the facilities that can afford musical entertainment. I too, am in my mid forties and because I spend many of my days in this sort of environment, I was spending way too much time thinking about being old. Lately, it was plaguing me since both my husband and I have been self employed (or self-unemployed depending) doing music, art, and teaching for many years and have no secure plan for retirement. Recently (with the help of many of your insights and suggested reading) I think I've finally let that go. There is no security in this life. We're seeing friends who have given their life to working "in the system" lose their jobs and any sense of security that they were promised. One of Brian's favorite past students was the AP Bureau chief of the major newspaper here. He used to be so busy and stressed that he could barely find time to take mandolin lessons, but it was his one half an hour a week that he could turn the pager off and give himself something creative and fulfilling to do. Now in his mid fifties, with the changes in technology, he's unemployed and not only that, so is his wife and children. His entire family (grandchildren and all) are living in his house and all of them are scrambling to figure out what to do now "til they can retire". Like you, I've come to the conclusion that I'm an artist for life, no matter what that might be. I've always felt suffocated whenever I've worked a mindless job that pays the rent. I have to admit that the stability, the pay, and bennies of cashiering at the local Whole Foods sounds appealing many days. But then I realize that if I'm cashiering I can't be playing music for the seniors during that time. When you see someone whose mind is so far gone that they can't remember their own children or their own name, but they can still smile and find immense joy in remembering and singing the words to "Moon River", well, it just makes you realize that's way more important. I hope someone does that for me one day. Brian and I are now working on a kid's music project that involves everything we do and love...his writing, my illustration work, our playing and love for world music and other cultures...and mostly our love of the great things this world has to offer to make it a brighter place for kids and adults. Hopefully, we can grow it into "the family business" and will be able to do it for the rest of our lives (performing, ebooks, CDs etc)....with no retirement. Life can throw you some curve balls and I guess you never know how things will work out or how long you'll be physically capable of doing what you want to do. I guess I just want to focus now on being healthy, happy, and inspired enough to stay in the game as long as I can....then come what may.

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    1. Thank you Sheralyn for all your insights! You guys are doing so much right - it's tempting to think about the money and doing something that will just solve the income problem but in the end you'd just end up like those people who did that and are trying to figure out how to live like you and your husband. Way to go!

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  5. Will, may I take this moment to say how much I love your blog, and how much your posts and tutorials mean to me as an artist. It was fate that I stumbled, purely by accident, onto Dani Jones' website, and through her links and bookstore, I found you and many other fantastic artists.

    There are many that will go through life never knowing the effect they've had on other people. Just wanted to let you know now that your lessons and thoughts are inspiring and making a difference.

    I am about to go back to work after spending a week off reconnecting with my art. As a graphic designer at a newspaper, I can still be somewhat creative, yet long for the day when I can be an illustrator full time. When I get frustrated at work, I'll think of your story, and appreciate having a job with good people and good benefits, while continuing to strive toward my goal.

    Since I was six, art was all that made me happy. So, I guess that makes me also an Artist for Life.

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    1. Thank you so much Teresa for letting me know - it really means a lot to me to know that I made a difference. I think that's what most of us want in this life - to know that we mattered. You're doing that too - by working on your art you are and will influence others. The key is to never stop learning and growing and by doing that you'll inspire others.

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  6. Will- thanks for posting, I struggle everyday with money worries and how to get a paying freelance job (there are plenty of people who will hire me to work for nothing or next to nothing). My family has been hounding me for a long time to find a "regular" job. I have been doing this for 30 years and it's hard to believe how things have dried up for me. I haven't thought of prison guard, but I don't thik that I would be too good at it...

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    1. Hey Lyn - I really believe we're entering a new phase in the way ideas, information, and art are being dispersed to our audiences. The people who hired us to help them complete their dreams are suffering for many reasons. It's time to work on your own dreams...it's relatively cheap to spread the message of Lyn now. Scary? absolutely - Liberating? oh yeah. You can fill your time working on your own potentially income earning projects while you wait for the phone to ring. I'll be talking alot more about this in the coming year when I get a few of my apps launched.

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  7. Thanks so much for the inspirational story. When I left college in 1995 I did just what you were thinking of doing and gave up. I took the back up gig doing total non creative work....I have to say that you are right I've regretted every day of my life when I drag my bones out of bed to hit the daily grind. The last four or five years I've gotten back into freelance and slowly I'm heading towards making it a full time career and I can say once that happens I'll never look back again. After all these years I can honestly say the money just isn't worth it.

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    1. We all follow a different path - I wish you all the success in working towards your self fulfillment. Don't regret your past - work on your future - and don't panic - be grateful for each day!

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  8. Not qualified to do anything else- check
    can't turn it off- check
    can't imagine not creating- check
    nothing else I'd rather do- check
    I guess I am a lifer too!
    Well said Will- at least we are all in a really fun club together.

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    1. Hey Greg...if this art thing doesn't pay off for either of us - what say we develop a Vegas act together - me sawing you in half or something?

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  9. This is an inspiring post. Thank you! I made that decision not to be creative early on and now I wish I had followed my dream. Better late than never!

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  10. What a great post:)Illuminating!I'd like to say that I menage to live and pay the bills doing my art jobs but surely I'm trying to do it:)

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  11. Another great post to your inspirational blog. I once dated a writer who thought correctional officer work would be a good job too! Being a creative is tough, and often under appreciated. As a college student I completed a placement at an art gallery co-operative whose group of artists consisted of retired teachers, military, medical professionals etc. My point being, that they felt that they had to do what was lucrative first before doing what they were truly called to do. I think artist struggle everyday with this. I once read somewhere that creativity in the workplace will be considered an asset, to some extent it can be taught, but for the most part it is an innate ability which sets the creative types apart from the mechanically minded.

    As a stay at home mom reliant on my husbands income I stuggle with the guilt of being an artist and not getting a job to poor coffee!

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    1. Don't feel guilty for raising children - that's a far more important act than what I'm doing - in my opinion. If you're doing a good job you're insuring our future! - You won't win any awards - you're an unsung hero!

      You're right about creativity in the workplace too - as jobs become automated and outsourced to other countries it's the people who choose to be creative in the workplace that will become irreplaceable.

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  12. Thanks Will for the kind words...I didn't want to sound whinny there! I appreciate you taking the time to leave a response however, they are always so insightful!

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  13. Will, I applied once in a moment of dispair at a meat packing plant. When the woman filling out my papwrwork learned I was an artist she asked "you work with your hands?" I recapped my resume and she refused to file my forms. She gave me a pep talk about believing in myself. I suppose I could have been indignant. But I was grateful for her stubborness.

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  14. I love to hear stories like this Brad - feels less lonely :)...I'm glad you didn't give in either - the world would miss your beautiful art - nice to hear from you BTW!

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  15. Beautiful story, very inspiring! :) Thank you so much for sharing!

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