Sharon Louden has found the key to working and living in the art world, pitfalls and all.
Wait for it.
There isn’t one.
Or so she explained candidly to a mid-sized audience Tuesday night at Artspace, where she presented her newly edited volume Living and Sustaining a Creative Life with contributing writers Sharon Butler and Jay Davis and visual artists Larissa Hall, Debbie Hesse, John O’Donnell, Ben Piwowar, and Blake Shirley.
The discussion came at a timely moment for the art world, where the topical job market has shrunk while the commercial market has exploded. Artists are certainly feeling the strain: Piwowar described his day job in a bar as “shallow, constant multitasking” in contrast to his studio practice. Butler, on a self-professed “divorce schedule” (and whose very cool blog just earned a grant for arts writing), must structure her practice around weekly time with her daughter and teaching. Shirley fits it in when not caring for his three small children (which is seldom). Louden described herself and her husband as “living in the cracks,” loving their lives as artists while largely dependent on grant funding.
Panelists were surrounded by works in the current exhibition Smart Painting, which includes pieces by Butler and Shirley and was curated by O’Donnell.
The book, a collection of 40 essays by artists practicing across the country, asks a fundamental question: What does it mean to be working and living in the today’s art world? And how do people do it?
More than 40 different ways, it turns out. “There’s no silver bullet for artists to make a living,” Louden explained.
Sitting to her left, Davis added “It’s an example of how we look at things differently every day.”
The hour-long conversation that followed suggested diverse approaches to maintaining a work-life balance and successful studio and business practices. Moderating, Artspace’s Visual Arts Coordinator and Gallery Manager Sarah Fritchey structured her questions around the book, which she described as “emotional” and showing “glimpses of honesty.”
How did Louden go into such a project? she asked.
“I had to trust that they [the 40 artists] would tell the truth.” the author answered.
And it seems that they did. From Fritchey’s first question, several overlapping themes emerged. The strongest among them were the use of humor and the importance of community. Likening painting to improv acting, O’Donnell suggested that one simple rule may help artists: Never say no. “The key to humor, to evolution – you can’t say no. You learn to accept anything that comes your way.” Piwowar agreed, adding a new twist: “Sure. It’s a coping mechanism.”
Others draw from their physical environments. Hesse, who has deep ties to the Elm City, offered that it was vital to her practice that “New Haven is an accessible art community. It nourishes my visual artwork and my job.” Hall, who manages the Social Robotics Lab at Yale University and whose work is very data-driven, added “I’m inspired by the scientists and researchers that I work with.”
Not all questions led to points of agreement. Asked when they got their most productive work done, each panelist gave a different answer, ranging from between midnight and 4 a.m. to the early morning to Piwowar ‘s pointed “I’ll take whatever I can get.”
The artists also diverged when asked how much time they spend on business ventures – loosely defined as social media, blogging, grant writing and real-world networking – per week. O’Donnell voiced that “sometimes artists spend too much time thinking about those kinds of things. You almost need thirty things on your to-do list to get two of them done.” Hall agreed, chiming in: “I feel that I have no time for it.”
Louden, meanwhile, suggested that applying wasn’t quite the time suck others chalked it up to be. “For me as an artist I love it…I can get away from myself by talking about the work [in a grant application], and then it gets back into the work.”
Where they agreed definitively?
Taking a second, non-artistic job to pay the bills – and inform practice in unorthodox ways – is no sign of failure. Or as Butler put it, quoting a friend: “You must do things that are good for every part of your life.”
The discussion marked the 18th of a 45-stop book tour across the country, where Louden has unexpectedly found “time to pause” on her long drives across state lines. After completing the tour, she plans immerse herself in a new book project, collecting essays and testimonies from 75-80 artists practicing across the globe.
That is, when she’s not working on her art. Without a doubt it will be a delicate balance. Fortunately, she seems to know a thing…or forty…about it.
Find more about Living and Sustaining a Creative Life here.