How far into your artist career did you start answering to the ever-present question, “What do you do?” with a smile and an assertive reply “I AM AN ARTIST”? This is a query I presented to all my mentors at the beginning of my artistic career some years ago after switching from Petroleum Engineering and International business fields.
I would like to revisit this question once more on behalf of all those people out there considering changing paths in life and crossing the bridge to becoming full-time artists. To the question above, some artists said they always responded with “I AM AN ARTIST” but most replied that they avoided the question, sidetracked it, redirected it or simply ignored it to avoid the obnoxious looks from friends and family expecting them to have grown up and taken a “serious track.” In the words of the artist Ben Shahn, “I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels most would choose none.”
Is an art career even worth pursuing? After all, only the most determined artists can sustain themselves with art-related income. Isn’t it true that many artists have been ignored all their lives only to be recognized for their vision, genius and creativity until much later after their deaths? We admire and revere the works of artists such as Brunelleschi, DaVinci, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Vermeer, El Greco, Rembrandt, Gaugin and other artistic geniuses. Weren’t they for many years the outcasts or had careers marred by debt. Some, nobody knew about until their works were found in dark monasteries, forgotten and uncared for, then studied, revived and given the value they deserved, decades or even centuries after the artists were deceased?
“Starving Artist” is a cliché that has been casted by well-intentioned people to deter us from being successful and happy. Art is, in my opinion, a very rewarding career, but it is not an easy tag to put on your head and display proudly to those close to you. Art in our society tends to be perceived as the choice of irresponsible, unreliable people and that of dreamers. Family pressure to stir you out of your path is often very painful and difficult to overcome.
Of all those artist-to-be, some who are strong and stubborn enough will pursue an art degree even at the cost of their family disapproval. Others, like myself, will take up a different career altogether, following the advice of elders and peers. Those who persisted and managed to go to art school enjoy tremendously the learning process and the exhilarating sense of creating out of simple thoughts what they perceive as a reality. However when school was over, and there were no projects to submit, no classes to attend, no teachers to please and no peers to offer support, many art graduates found the irreconcilable truth that their creativity was drained and creating was now a painful process. Many went into other fields just to avoid the risk of displeasing the world. Many denied they were artists choosing to wear a different hat and label.
On the other hand, those of us for whom the influence of our peers, siblings, parents, teachers, guides succeeded in rerouting our destiny, go through life carrying with ourselves mixed feelings of guilt, remorse, regret and a sense of an unlived life, questioning who we are and what we are supposed to become, where and why we strayed. In both cases, it is only by the tenacious and persistent tug of your “true call” that a trained but forgotten artist in the first scenario or the hidden artist in the second, becomes a real artist.
Many people in the engineering, medical, science fields are returning home to what they feel is their true path: doing art. Workshops, ateliers, art schools, continuing education classes are full of those lost artists, talented, determined, ready to shake the shame off and create. I did it several years ago, transferring from petroleum engineering to art, without any previous knowledge or experience and not knowing where to start, but being blindly guided by an intense desire to do what I came here to do. I applaud those people, who like me years ago, are jumping in now, because giving up a financially prosperous career, steady income, promotions, benefits, stability, in lieu of a profession where nothing is certain, requires a monumental leap of faith and an unfathomable amount of perseverance and courage.
I can assure you, having been through it, that once on the other side, you will never regret it. The happiness of living your true call is absolutely priceless, especially when you can experience the most exhilarating moments immersed in your own creations and the immense possibilities that your mind will open to you in a creative career such as in the arts.
The transition cannot be left unplanned though. There are several strategies that you can use to make the leap less strenuous. I am listing below the ABC’s that personally helped me with a swift and smooth shift.
- Art books and guidance books such as Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, The Artist Way by Julia Cameron and Accelerating on the Curves by Katharine T. Carter will boost your creativity and will help you find the courage and confidence needed for the switch.
- Be prepared. Prepare a financial plan that allows you to leave your current job without monetary distress. Assessing your resources, expenses and savings will reduce the pressure of meeting financial obligations on top of the transition.
- Connect. Find a mentor, willing to support you from the beginning. Look for artists whose art you admire and enquiry on mentorships. Contact art communities, Art Leagues, and colleges where you can associate with other artists. These groups will motivate you, and encourage you to improve and grow.
- Develop your skills by doing art daily and by registering for classes, workshops at art schools, art organizations or individual teachers near you. On this topic, I’ve heard this wise quote from Bart Lindstrom, “Step one is to get really good. Step two is to get out there. The better you do step one, the easier step two is.”
- Establish realistic goals both short and long term. Knowing where you want to go will help you see the opportunities available to reach your set objectives.
If you are in the midst of making the decision of crossing the bridge, I would recommend you to go ahead and do it. Start by proudly calling yourself AN ARTIST!
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “What lies behind us and what lies before us is tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
Martin Dimitrov says
Beautiful post! I can absolutely relate to it, because I am on a similar path. I am trying to switch from being an engineer to a full time artist. Currently – I am a part time engineer and a painter the rest of the time. I do stumble when answering the question ” What do you do”. I start explaining that I am a part time engineer, but …. I think I will try to keep it simple from now on: “I am an artist”
debra Keirce says
I get this. I was a biochemical design engineer, building pharmaceutical facilities for fifteen years, and I transitioned into a full time professional artist. If I was doing this career only for money, I would have stayed in engineering. I did the engineering in order to be privileged enough to become an artist without starving. I made sacrifices because I would be much more established had I gone into art first. So with every success in this art journey, I feel like I earned it. I was strategic about it. I feel no sense of guilt or regret, and am the happiest I have ever been. I agree. Everyone should be brave and pursue their dreams, but strategically.