There are days I love being an artist: those mornings when I disappear into my laundry room/studio and get lost in paint. I forget to eat and lose all track of time. My soul is renewed in a place of wonder and possibility, and it splashes over into renewed strength for the trials and challenges of “normal life.” When I talk to someone who enters the world I’ve created and tears spring to their eyes, my spirit leaps with renewed passion and energy to keep trying. They may or may not be able to verbalize what they are feeling, but their responsive emotion connects us in a place of wonder. Moments like those can carry me for months.
And there are days, stretches of days, when I hate being an artist. There are those times when I think about the cultural labels for success – monetary reward, goals reached and levels of accomplishment met; labels I will probably never claim. I’m a college-educated forty-something year old who has held “real jobs” in the past. I think I should be responsible and make a decent wage to help put my kids through college. And I feel ashamed.
I spin myself into nightmare circles with these thoughts more times than I care to admit. But in the end, I’ve reached the point in my life, where as much as I would love to not paint and to do something “productive,” I can’t survive unless I create. Fujimura, in his book, Refractions, advises a younger creative: if he can do anything else besides being an artist, he should. I can’t.
Yesterday, my husband and I picked up my art work from a show in the Denver Santa Fe Arts District after the show closed. Of course, as an artist, you always hope someone will value your heart’s expression to want to own it. It’s not about the money (at least for me), it’s about the value another person expresses through the symbol of money. But it wasn’t the fact that my art wasn’t purchased that stung the most. It was the fact that at least a thousand people passed through the gallery in the heart of one of Denver’s biggest art districts during Denver Arts Week, and only three pieces from the entire show sold.
After picking up my piece, we drove up to the Rino Art District, another of Denver’s biggest art areas, to scout out some galleries there. After four years of producing a steady stream of work, I’m trying to figure out next steps in my art “career” – if you can call it a “career” with a profit of around $1000 this year.
We stopped at the Helikon Gallery and Studios. As we talked with one of the owners, she mentioned that even though many Rino art galleries have closed, the Helikon is dedicated to integrating the arts into the development of the area. Since we were exploring Rino for the first time, we didn’t understand what she was talking about.
As we drove home, I tried to put into words yet again the perennial frustration I feel to work so hard at something that seems to hold little value, according to the world’s measurement and expression of value.
Then, this morning, I opened up the Denver Post’s Perspective page to an article entitled “Painted Into a Corner, ” by Ray Mark Rinaldi about the closing of a major artist center in Rino, the Rhinoceropolis: http://www.pressreader.com/usa/the-denver-post/20161218/282587377623736. And suddenly the comments by the Helikon Gallery owner, the fact that only three works sold from the show in the Santa Fe Arts district, and my own personal frustrations coalesced.
In the opening paragraph, Rinaldi writes: “We tend to think of artists as something other than regular people, sometimes super human because of their talent, and other times less than human and undeserving of the kind of wages that would let them afford a decent place to live, to raise their families and to make all that cool stuff. Artists are supposed to suffer, the thinking goes, and if they don’t like the bohemian lifestyle, they should get a real job. The two ideas are in conflict and so we go into a bit of denial, pretending we can have it both ways. We declare our passion for art, brag about how creative our city is and tout the cultural sector’s $500 million impact on the region’s economy each year. At the same time, we do little to provide individual artists with the resources needed to survive in a growing metropolis.”
Rinaldi goes on to describe the tension this conflict creates, including the horrific situation in Oakland where 36 creatives perished in a nightmare fire because they were meeting in a low-rent facility that was also terribly unsafe. The Oakland fire was the catalyst for the closing of the Rhinoceropolis.
I guess it helps to know I’m in a wider company of artist experience. I’m not alone, and my struggles and lack of “success” are not indicators that I’m not a real artist.
Sometimes, I really want to give up; and I beg God to give me something different to do.
But in the end, what keeps me going is simply that I’ve reached the irrevocable conclusion that this is what I was made and called to do;and through long dark nights or moments of illumination, I can’t not do it.
There are things I must say to the world that I can only say through paint; and if I don’t, they will burn me alive.