An endless dilemma for working artists: How do you balance studio art and income-generation?
Are you a “second-shift” artist? Do you find your passion and then do it on nights and weekends on it for the rest of your life, as a recent Onion op-ed potently parodied?
Are you an “aerobic” artist? Do you break up your life into deadline-driven seasons? Like month-to-month tempo training, do you work in high-intensity intervals—at paces impossible to maintain longterm—interspersed with physical and financial recovery periods?
Are you both? Is the combination wise? Or combustible?
I’ve been a “second-shift” artist in the past. For some reason I find the idea of it slightly depressing, maybe because it implies a 9-to-5 type of job. (Also, a ridiculous phobia of clichés makes literally going to the studio to paint on Sundays especially painful.)
More recently, I’ve become an “aerobic” artist. I’ve found that residencies are fantastic for intense periods of production, but are only sustainable in modest bursts, say, 4–6 weeks at a time. Longer periods are too hard to maintain personally and financially. They take a toll on my relationships with my partner, family, and employers. Upon return from a residency, I usually have to focus on income generation to pay debts and regain financial stability. Then, working so much, I’m unable to pull a “second shift” as an artist. Indeed, in the past three weeks, I’ve worked some 11-, 12- and 16-hour days, partly out of loyalty to the institution or artist, partly just because it’s work. It was impossible to get enough sleep (so much so that I felt jetlagged days later)—much less ecke out time for in-depth studio experimentation.
I’m not complaining. Just observing the pros and cons of second shifts versus aerobic intervals. I’m very grateful for all the exhibition and residencies opportunities I’ve had. The goal, ultimately, is for me to convert more of the hours in my life towards making art, and right now, intervals seem more productive.
The Ethics of Overtime
I’ve had lots of opportunities to think about this in the past few weeks. I think institutions and employers should pay their hourly workers overtime, though art institutions sometimes are loose with rules. But labor unions fought for this right. And what exactly should workers be paid overtime for? For working harder to stay focused after eight hours? For the lingering aches and pains that a long day of physical work compounds onto tomorrow’s tasks? To incentivize businesses to better structure the work and respect workers’ schedules? For the higher risks of injuries or accidents when workers are tired? (And how is that even ethical to value in monetary terms?)
New Skills: Get Excited and Make Things
As psychologist Edward Deci found:
People find the most enjoyment when they learning new things and get to use those skills today.
I started assisting a sculptor recently, and it’s been a lot of fun. In three days I learned how to make foam molds, cast concrete, and, most excitingly, assist with sand-casting metal sculptures.
In school, casting sculptures didn’t appeal to me at all. The dust. The plaster mold-making. The possibility of bacterial mold in the plaster molds (yuck!). But mostly, the indirectness and the cost of maintaining such a studio never made the process seem realistic for me.
But this artist is scrappy and experimental. Most of the foam and concrete needed is available at Home Depot. Working with more common materials, and more loosely, the process seem not as far-fetched, and not nearly as academic as plaster usually seems.
Thinking Big: What Artists Make Happen
In recently assisting with the installation of another artist’s work, I thought about ambition. There was a lot of large-scale and site-specific work which had to be built on-site. It required a lot of problem-solving, flexibility, and those above-mentioned long hours. I came away from the experience very inspired. And though the show is a solo show—it is indeed one woman’s vision—it came to fruition with a lot of people’s help: artist’s assistants, art installers, interns, friends, fabricators, printers, and so on. I’ve never been to an old-fashioned house-raising, but I imagine that it felt something like that. That what artists make—what you see in the gallery come the opening reception—is a small part of what artists make happen—behind the scenes, in the studio, late nights installing in the gallery, or far away on site where the work first sparked as an idea.