I’ve been out of art school for almost two years. In those two years, I’ve hardly been able to get any work done. I’m mostly a printmaker but also do installation and sculpture when I can. I can’t cope with not having access to the equipment and presses and supplies I had in college. I also had a good-sized studio space. Now I share a cramped apartment with three terrible roommates, and don’t have any space to make work. Not to mention, I wait tables, so I’m broke and can’t afford a studio or membership to some expensive collective studio, and I don’t know any other artists to share a space or equipment with. I guess I don’t really know what my question is here, I’m just trying to center myself and figure out how to make my art without the support structure of art school. What should I do?
The Duke of Stagnation
Okay, look, I know it’s hard times out there, I do, but you absolutely must take that “poor-me” attitude and chuck it right out the window. Today. Nobody has ever done anything good with that kind of thinking. I once knew an old Russian artist who told me that during World War II, when paper became extremely difficult to come by, he’d cut off the margins of newspapers and glue them together to make his drawing paper. Now that, my sweetness, is hard up. You can make art, but you’ve got to get some perspective.
For starters, you’re in a funk. We all find ourselves there at one point or another: that mopey abyss in which you fixate on everything you don’t have instead of all that you have, where you make excuses for not doing the only thing you truly love to do. And yes, it sucks, but if you continue to let less-than-ideal circumstances dictate your creative output, you’re going to have an extremely disappointing professional life. Because things are never going be easy. Art is hard. It’s writing your novel over six years in hour-long increments between feeding and bathing your children. It’s painting after work in a closet with clamp lights and no air-conditioning. It’s writing poems in your car in a Walgreen’s parking lot. So many great artists have done so much with so little, and you know why? Because they adapted. Find a way to adapt your work to your circumstances, because you have to, now and forever.
Secondly, I have a hunch that your rut isn’t really about having adequate space or supplies. I think it’s more than that. So let’s talk about your job. I know it’s hard to leave serving; I waited tables for seven years before I could finally cut my ties. It’s quick cash, flexible hours, and you don’t have to dress like a yuppie (usually). But beware: it can be a major soul-sucker for art-minded people like you. Get yourself out of there! There are lots of jobs in the art world besides being a curator or a full-time artist: look into them. Art handling, gallery/studio assisting, art-related nonprofits, design companies, film production. Take a pay cut, take on three part-time jobs if it means you get to be around art-related stuff all day. Whatever it is, get the hell out of the restaurant business and into the creative workforce.
If you can’t find other work soon, participate in every art thing you can. You’ll be surprised how many big opportunities come out of the seemingly piddly stuff you do. Plus, it will help build your network. My gut tells me it’s not the presses you miss so much, but the people: the artistic camaraderie you had when you were in art school. Like most artists and writers, you likely thrive within a community. After all, it’s much easier to work when everyone around you is working, too. So whatever you have to do to surround yourself with people who inspire you and energize you, do it. If it means quitting your job, do it. If it means eating rice and beans every night, do it. If it means moving to a different city, do it. Mold your world into the place you want it to be. It may not be easy, my bright starshine, but nothing worth it ever is.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville, Tennessee. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to renowned paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space, Threesquared. Her writing and art criticism has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.