How do you answer that question?
The answer can change from year to year, maybe even more frequently than that for some of us. I don’t think about it as much anymore, and when I realized that, I wondered Why?
Do you remember the days of being asked what you wanted to be when you grew up? I was trying to recall how I used to respond to that question. As children, it was something we were asked often in school throughout the years. We might be asked to draw pictures of our future selves, doing our dream job, sometimes accompanied by a little paragraph of description. When I was very small I wanted to write and illustrate my own books. I think my next phase was all about basketball–I wanted to play in college and then the WNBA. It makes me smile thinking back on that–the days of being convinced I could play a professional sport someday! The next phase may have been even less grounded in reality, if you can imagine: I wanted to be some kind of “rock star,” which led to me taking guitar lessons in grade 8 and begrudgingly continuing with them throughout high school and junior college. Let’s just say I didn’t exactly take to it. The thought of ever having to play in front of anyone made me want to crawl into a hole and die of embarrassment.
Drawing and painting had been a hobby of mine since I was very young. Unlike other things that caught my interest through the years, art was one that I actually pursued consistently and seemed to improve upon over time. It never felt as forced as some of my other hobbies. I never gave it much of a thought as a career. More on that later.
In high school I learned to enjoy writing. Before, it had only been something that I wished I could do. Then I suddenly had the opportunity to take an elective in Creative Writing, and it terrified me. I was so nervous for that first class–I only signed up because my friend Kelsy did. Between that class and another called Film Appreciation, both taught by the same instructor, I learned that I kind of enjoyed writing analytical essays. Who knew?
I can at least say it made college much easier– having lots of papers to write seemed like no huge task.
When it came time to apply to college, I decided to declare a major in English Literature. I only lasted one semester at that out-of-state university. I moved back home, enrolled in community college, and didn’t really have anything specific in mind for the future. I took classes in American literature, creative writing, film, theater, and painting. Clearly I was in it to make the big bucks…
One of my art instructors there told me that the department had a scholarship to offer me if I decided to declare a major in art. So I did. It paid my full tuition there and gave me a path to follow. The department’s Art Club even organized and raised money for a trip to London. I went. I was sick the entire time, but of course it was still wonderful.
After a year and a half in community college, I transferred to a small-ish school in the nearby city. Now I was in deep in the arts. This was My Thing now. Soon after, I switched my emphasis from Painting to Printmaking. I still took electives in other areas I enjoyed–creative writing, gender studies, poetry translation, basically whatever seemed fun. I took part in a study abroad program, living in Vienna for a couple of months during the spring and summer. The tail end of the trip took us to Venice for a week, where the 53rd Venice Biennale was happening. That was ten years ago. I thought of that summer as the most significant experience of my life for what it did in terms of propelling me forward in my work and my intellectual life. A few months of having so many new and intense experiences gave me the motivation I needed to complete my degree. I feel like it provided me with the solid foundation that I had been in search of. School changed in a drastic way–I became obsessed with my work in a way that I hadn’t been before. I still had two more years left to complete, but the enthusiasm that remained after that trip was not to be stifled.
And here I am, ten years later. Art is not my career. I doubt that it ever will be. The future I envisioned for myself at age 20 is not one that I can really relate to at 30.
For instance, when I was in art school, the idea of exhibiting my work was still a very attractive idea to me. I enjoyed nearly every chance I got to be a part of different shows or exhibitions. Especially toward the end, we were organizing a lot of these things. People would turn up; all my friends would be there (because they were in these shows too). The pressure seemed minimal. I took pleasure in prepping for the exhibitions and getting everything ready. The receptions could also be fun. Eventually the work came down, and we’d do it all over again with another show at another place with new work to display.
Graduating from art school involved writing my thesis and taking part in organizing the final BFA exhibition. I’m still proud of what I did for it, but the actual reception was one of the most unpleasant I can remember. The work I exhibited was made up of 151 ceramic vessels. A few were broken during the course of the night. It was kind of nightmarish for me at the time. Literally, I had nightmares for months afterward about the show because of how stressful it was. I did win an award, and my step-mom cried out of happiness, which made me feel good because I knew she was proud of me. Most of my family was there, and that was the best part. I didn’t produce any more work after that, not for at least a year.
In the last ten years, I’ve gradually lost my enthusiasm for pursuing a career in art. I don’t think I fully grasped what the “business” side of art entailed. The networking, the rigorous self-promotion, the constant filling-out of applications for residencies, shows, and whatnot–none of that ever stops. It’s not like other jobs where you apply once, maybe get an interview and then a job offer, and then you’re finally able to focus on doing your work (with the guarantee that you will be compensated). When that reality settled in, the future I thought I had wanted began to look very bleak.
In school they don’t really tell you that charisma and connections are just as essential to the working artist as the actual art practice itself.
No matter what job it seems that I have, the ability to be totally professional and polished at all times is beyond me. Sometimes I think having a structured workplace is the only thing that keeps me in check. I don’t think I have what it takes to be in the business of “Me.” Over the years I’ve been involved in little side-projects at times to keep myself entertained, but these things tend to wear out their welcome once they become more of an obligation than simply a “fun project”. If I still wanted to pursue a career in art, I would have to be 100% invested in my art practice, in my own self-promotion, in the constant and endless search for opportunities, and somehow I’d still have to find a way to make money because it’s not as if I’d automatically be compensated for these efforts.
Maybe at age 18 or 20 we’re not really in the best position to make decisions regarding who we want to be or what we want to do for the rest of our lives. I wish apprenticeships were more of a popular thing nowadays. Vocational school sort of addresses that need in some ways, but not to the extent I’m imagining. Four-year college is just too expensive to justify enrolling in when you’re still at an age when you’re discovering new things about yourself, your interests, and your abilities on a daily basis.
I wonder how different my life would be today if at age 16 I had begun an apprenticeship with someone who was willing to teach me a specialized skill set of some sort. What it is doesn’t matter–just imagine some skill you wish you had today, and substitute that in this example. Carpentry, cooking, cobbling, computers, cameras, canines (and the training thereof)–I’m trying to be funny and it’s not working. Just imagine anything. Anything you can imagine becoming pretty skilled at doing, and doing it for about ten years, until you’re in your late twenties or thereabouts. And then you enroll in college.
To be continued…in Part 2