Three years ago I quit my job to pursue art full-time. With $3,146 left in my bank account, paying rent and student loans seemed more daunting than ever. Each month felt like running past the neighbor's front lawn sprinkler. You have a certain amount of time to get down the sidewalk before the water drenches you. It felt like it was all or nothing.
Since that initial leap I’ve learned so much, and as I round the corner to my fourth year as a self-employed artist, there are two areas where I’m focused on learning more: making an honest painting, and balancing working and social involvement.
Early in my career I could switch between the modes of isolated studio work and social life fairly easily. I would negotiate numbers for a client or gallery, get coffee with a friend, answer emails, and stop by a local art opening before heading to the studio for an uninterrupted work session. This year, I can’t switch back and forth between modes as easily.
A part of riding the waves between isolated work and social involvement is switching back and forth between the verbal and nonverbal sides of my brain. As I discussed previously in my essay on dyslexia, there’s a huge difference between the two. The non-verbal side is related to making art, while the verbal side is more about community and connection. As my business has grown, so has the number of hours I’ve needed to spend alone in the studio. Over time, this really affected my relationships. Friends hesitated to reach out because they assumed I was busy. I started making excuses to skip social activities just to get back into the studio. Eventually I hit a breaking point. A close friend sat me down and told me she missed me and that I needed to work on being a better friend. It was an uncomfortable realization, but one I needed. Relationships are a privilege, and just like a creative practice, they require upkeep.
With this in mind, I’m now taking steps to spend more time interacting with my community. I recently hired several assistants to help with studio tasks like stretching canvases, sanding gesso and documenting new paintings. By delegating work, I’m able to split my energy more effectively between my creative practice, business and relationships. It’s made me focus on bettering myself as a person and as an artist.
In all facets of life I strive to be honest with myself. Lately I’ve been absorbed in making an honest painting—not that my work up until now has been inauthentic, I just want so badly for my paintings to represent me fully. Making art is how I document and process my experiences in life. A part of me thinks that if I draw fast enough, or maybe slow enough, I’ll get back to the moment that inspired me in the first place. If I’m successful I’ll take my viewer there with me.
Ultimately, each painting acts to coax out a sliver of the truth I’m seeking. As I move from canvas to canvas, taking what I’ve learned both in and outside the studio, I’m hoping to get even deeper. As my body of work grows, so does the larger image I’m uncovering. Each painting acts as a piece of that puzzle, fitting together to give me the answers I’m seeking—both on canvas and in real life.
A few months ago, I found myself in Joshua Tree, standing alone in the expanse of desert. I looked back on the past three years, thankful for the lessons I received, and I looked forward to the road ahead, reflecting on the changes I intend to make. Many of the goals I set for myself in the beginning have been achieved—I can comfortably pay my rent and my student loans. I have the ability to travel to beautiful places and seek inspiration outside of my immediate surroundings. But with growing success comes an increased responsibility to give back to the community that has supported me, and to be the best version of myself that I can be.
I don’t just want to recreate what's just in front of me; I want to paint layers of experiences, and I want to open myself to new relationships—wherever in the world they might be. So, if I see you out somewhere, let’s grab a coffee. I probably need a break, and I’d love to hear what you’re working on.
“An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where they think they’re AT somewhere. You have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming. And, as long as you can stay in that realm you’ll sort of be alright.”
Inspiration From Year Three and Moving Forward
- Interview with Agnes Martin Interview : Watch here.
- Gerhard Richter Painting / Documentary : Watch here.
- The Gift by Lewis Hyde: Purchase book here.
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed : Read, here.
- Issue Four of The Great Discontent, purchase here.
- Noah Purifoy : Junk Dada by Franklin Simons, purchase here.
- Netflix Series: Abstract. (Do yourself a favor and skip the first episode.)
- Must visit: Joshua Tree National Park, Glacier National Park, Lake Alberta, Zion National Park and Lands End here in San Francisco.
Special Thanks to Kate Holthouser for editing my essays for the past two years and for editing this essay in particular. Five drafts later, I think we got it. Kate and I have never met in person but we will be meeting for the first time in just a couple of weeks!
Thanks to so many friends and family for your support over the years. (Kate Collyer, Michelle Wei, Natasha Pecor, Chase McBride, Mary Valentin, Sharon Clark, Athen B Gallery, Hashimoto Contemporary, Uprise Art, Tappan Collective, Jen Kay, Lauren Hsia, Mckella Suter, and Heidi Stulber.)
Photos by Jen Kay.