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“But Crista,” they ask, “How can I make a living from my art?”
“I want to be wealthy! I want to live on a beach and be dripping in jewels! And I want my art to pay for it!”
Then I reply with something that artist Kiki Smith once told me:
Your art doesn’t have to support you. You have to support your art.
That’s right. Turn it around.
You weren’t given this talent so that you could take from it.
You were given this talent so that you could nurture it. You were given this talent so that you could share it. You were called to be an artist so that you could serve your work.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t live on a beach and make huge amounts of money. Maybe you can.
But it does mean that you’re looking at your gift the wrong way.
Instead of cursing it, instead of being angry that the collectors aren’t banging on your door clutching fistfuls of cash, try asking yourself this one simple question.
Are you supporting your art?
Are you continuing to learn those things that will make you a better artist? Are you contributing to your community? Are you leaning into those difficult tasks that get your work in front of a larger audience?
Imagine your artwork was your child, are you investing your resources into its future?
I challenge you to list 3 ways that you could support your creativity even better than you are now. And then take the steps to follow through.
Because the best way to make a living from your art? The best way to attract support from others? The best way to build a lucrative career?
Starts by investing in it yourself.
I don’t know about you, but I live at the mercy of an evil task-master.
I work and I slave and whenever I dare step away, it follows me. I feel guilty, anxious, because no matter how much I do, it always piles on more.
And its name is TO DO LIST.
Don’t get me wrong, TO DO LIST has gotten me where I am today.
It’s guided me through all sorts of challenges. From selling all of my belongings to start a new life in Europe, to crafting my workshop for artists, and TO DO LIST certainly helped me win my crowd-funding campaign to bring The Working Artist online.
People often look at the business that I’ve built and the international life I’ve created and they tell me that I’m “lucky.” Nothing makes me laugh harder.
Because all of those years that I spent head down, toiling until I felt absolutely wrung out, sure didn’t feel like luck. It felt like bloody hard work.
And my only friend during those lean times was TO DO LIST.
Now I’m setting my sights even higher. And I still believe that the key to success is TO DO LIST.
But somewhere along the way, we’ve fallen out of love.
TO DO LIST is too demanding. Yet when I complain, it threatens that I’ll never accomplish anything without it.
I’ve created a monster!
Has your TO DO LIST taken over your peace of mind?
It’s not that I don’t want us to be together anymore, it’s just that I’m no longer interested in working maniacally.
I want to work gracefully.
At the end of the day, I want to own what I’ve accomplished. I want to work at my best - rather than just work.
Unable to divorce, TO DO LIST and I are in need of some sort of couple’s counseling to learn how we can get along better.
So I turned to my community.
You’ve heard me talk about the importance of community in the past. I belong to a small group of art professionals who engage in the same sort of work I do, coaching artists. Many people might call them my competition, but we prefer to think of ourselves as colleagues.
Once each month we have a Skype meeting to discuss our professional challenges with one another.
“Help!” I cried out at our last meeting, “TO DO LIST is ruining my life!”
Their wisdom was right on point. And I think it may speak to you as well.
They said that when you engage with work you love, you’re engaging with the most authentic and important part of who you are.
How can you take time off from who you are? You can't.
But at the same time, when you work like a fiend, you’re cutting yourself off from your deepest source of creativity. It’s important to find ways to weave your work with your life.
My colleagues suggested that the heart of the problem is that old song that we all sing, “I’m not enough.”
Do you know that tune?
Well, it’s time to take the needle off the record and play some new music. “I am enough. I have enough. I’m doing enough.”
It’s time to change our beliefs that our dreams are out of our reach because it takes too much work, too much money, too much time.
I am enough. I have enough. I’m doing enough.
It’s time for you and I to celebrate how far we’ve come, all that we have, and all that we are.
I am enough. I have enough. I’m doing enough.
In fact, I’m going to put that mantra on my TO DO LIST!
I learned to do the work without expecting anything in return, and to concentrate on the things that I can do now and in the near future. This is how I made the “Jump” with The Working Artist. If one is doing the job, it will pay off soon. It’s hard work, but it does work! ~Tsvetomir IIiev, Artist.
Tsvetomir Iliev is a young self-taught artist from Bulgaria who ventured down the creative path by chance six years ago.
It all started when he was drawn to collect tiny pieces of fallen tree bark in the forests near his home. From that moment, Tsvetomir began experimenting with the bark’s rich, thick textures as the unlikely surface for his acrylic paintings.
This exploration of such an unusual painting surface gave rise to organic, nearly three-dimensional rippling landscapes, undulating seascapes and a feast of visual journeys with outstretched trees, pulsing moonlight and curling hills.
As Tsvetomir’s amassment of paintings on tree bark grew, so did his curiosity about the business side of art.
His first steps included visiting galleries in Bulgaria and abroad, as well as looking for information on-line. That’s when he discovered The Working Artist. “The information available left me without any hesitation,” Tsvetomir explained. “I was immediately compelled to try it and see what could happen.”
Initially, the course helped Tsvetomir better communicate about his art and organize his time. He also learned how to work through things that he didn’t necessarily enjoy doing, such as social media.
But after pushing himself, he realized that social media is likely one of the best available tools for an emerging artist such as himself.
Tsvetomir was eventually given a solo show in the Bulgarian town of Veliko Tarnovo. He took Crista’s lessons to heart: he practiced his presentation, prepared food & drinks, and even planned a give-away gift, but, still, nothing sold at the show.
“I continued with my efforts. I also decided to retake The Working Artist course again to go even deeper into what I’d already learned. That’s when I began to sell my work and attract my first true fans.”
Since then, Tsvetomir has been very busy.
More than seven artworks have sold, two more are reserved and one of his paintings was awarded Honorable Mention in an on-line contest.
Media accolades are rolling in and he recently made his first website sale too. Exhibition invitations and art fair opportunities are also on the rise, including participation in two upcoming Bulgarian fairs in August and September. And Tsvetomir’s work recently made second-round of judging for the prestigious Summer Exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts.
And this is just the beginning. More opportunities are sure to be on the horizon as Tsvetomir continues to grow as an artist and do the work.
But see for yourself! Learn more about Tsvetomir Iliev and his work at http://www.barkflower.net
An artist recently spoke with me about her work.
She tearfully admitted that she’d been too busy to create new work of any substance.
She was afraid.
Afraid she won’t be able to connect with the muse again. Afraid she’d made a choice to have a family, a proper job, and now that part of herself; that wonderful, wild artist is gone forever.
Being an artist was something she used to do. What right has she to go back now? It’s not possible to hit the rewind button on your life.
I understand. I spent many years nursing a career in the art business. Only I was promoting other people’s work, not my own. I’d pushed the pause button in my creativity.
When I heard the call to return to it, I succumbed to guilt and fear at first. “It’s too late now,” I told myself. It takes years to build a creative career. Why, I could be 50 years old before I saw any sort of success!
But then I went deeper, fast-forwarding into the future.
With any luck, someday I’d be 50 years old anyway. How did I want to spend my time getting there? What did I want to show for it?
That little voice that’s urging you to make new work or rededicate yourself to your creativity isn’t there to make you feel bad, or to shame you.
That little voice is your creativity inviting you out to play.
Work doesn’t work without play, you know. Especially art work.
So forget about having to create a masterpiece or undertake a big project when you’ve been away from your art for awhile. Forget about the fears and the questions. Take that pressure off, it’s not helpful.
Instead, play with your creativity and connect again with the joy that it brings. And then follow that.
It will lead you on a journey that will last all your days.
To restart your creativity, first press PLAY. And then dance to the sound of your own music.
As she wiped away the tears, the artist told me her story.
She’d applied for a project that was a perfect match for her work.
She had all the right qualifications. She was certain that she’d get it. She even started to make plans for moving forward.
But then she wasn’t chosen! It left her stunned, questioning herself and her talent.
It took all of two seconds for “no” to turn into shame, to wrong, to not good enough.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
But here’s another story.
One day, I knocked on a neighbor's door just as he was opening a bottle of expensive champagne.
“Come in and join me!” he cried out, obviously excited. “I’m celebrating! I’ve just received another rejection letter for my novel!”
This man understands the lesson that my own coach, Kate Schutt recently shared with me; “Yes” lives in the "Land of No."
In other words, you've got to get past your ego and fears of failure if you want to get to where you want to go. If you want someone to say "Yes," you cannot be afraid of "No."
I know that it hurts when doors close, when you're rejected. But it’s your choice as to how to respond. And how you respond determines how the universe plays its next card.
So choose gratitude and curiosity and faith. And keep doing the work.
Do it better, do it bigger. Do it with champagne!
And above all, don’t be afraid to play in the Land of No. Because this is where Yes will find you.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I first spent time in France. Nearly 20 years since I met a beautifully talented artist from Hawaii named Maria Lee.
Maria was teaching at a small art school for American students in a tiny Provençal village. I was there for the summer too. We both had a profound experience at that school, deeply exploring our creativity. It was really quite special.
Maria was a hiker. She’d take long walks down the mountain where our village was perched, across the long valley and climb up a neighboring mountain to the other village. They had really good almond croissants in that other village, and I was jealous of Maria’s independence.
I wanted to venture out beyond the confines of our small village too, but I was afraid of getting lost.
So Maria drew me a map. This map pictured here, as it turns out.
I’d try to follow it faithfully; down the old Roman road, through the oak grove, over the creek, past the vineyards and the grand house with the turrets…
But I always got lost at the same place. Where the pencil points in the picture is where I’d always find myself going in circles, unable to pick up the trail.
Each time I made it this far I’d have to return home, unsuccessful once again. Almond croissant-less.
Over the years, I’d return to the village for a week’s vacation here and there, whenever time and money allowed. I love this place. It’s full of artists and history and the air itself is thick with inspiration. I breathe it in.
And each time I’ve visited, I pack this old piece of paper that Maria drew for me and try to pick up the trail again.
But I never could. The trail split in so many different directions, I couldn’t find the right one. I always got lost.
When, 8 years ago now, I experienced my “mid-life correction,” it was to that tiny French village of artists that I ran. My intuition said that this was the place that held the answers for me.
When I first arrived, I cried. All the time. I couldn’t believe I’d left my career, my family and friends, sold my belongings to come to a place so remote. So foreign.
I was afraid I’d made a huge mistake. Afraid of the loneliness that was threatening to engulf me. Afraid I was lost.
And then one day, I followed the signs for an exhibition at the art school. And across the room I saw her, Maria Lee.
She too had followed a voice that urged her to return to the village of inspiration.
It had been 13 years since we’d been there together, yet we were both there again. We’d arrived within a week of each other. Our houses were so close that we were neighbors. And I was lonely no more.
The first thing I did was to pull out this old map that Maria had drawn for me all those years ago. “Take me!” I told her. “Show me the path to the other village. I want one of those almond croissants.”
That was 8 years ago. And we spent a wonderful season together, hiking the trails as we chased inspiration and carbohydrates.
I haven’t seen Maria since then. But two months ago, she happened to be coming through Phoenix while I was there. So we met for lunch.
I was at another crossroad in my life. Things were changing. I wasn’t sure which way to go? I was lost and it was scary.
Have you ever felt that way?
I weepily confessed to Maria that I wished I could return to our village once more. I needed to connect on a deeper level with my creativity, with my self. But I didn’t have the means, it just didn’t seem possible.
The next day, Maria received an email from a friend who lives outside our Provençal village in the valley. He'd had to leave France and needed someone to live in his house and look after it. Did she know anyone who could come to France right away?
Three weeks later I arrived.
Now I’m living in a rustic 500 year-old stone cottage in the French countryside. It’s given me refuge, clarity, a beautiful place to connect with my work, and a hearty dose of creative inspiration.
This house has given me everything I need. Thanks to a beautifully talented artist named Maria.
I don’t know why I still have this old map? I most certainly know the way to the almond croissants by now. But for some reason I’ve held on to this folded scrap of paper.
And looking at the map now, I realize that this old stone farmhouse is situated at exactly the point where I got lost all those years. Where the trails forked and I couldn’t find the way.
But now, thanks to an artist named Maria, I know exactly where I am.
Because getting lost is part of finding your way.
Every family has a story.
They called her "Grandma Ach" because of her habit of beginning each sentence with a guttural sound of disapproval. “Ach! What is this?”
But her name was Mary Anne.
She was the daughter of German immigrants. Farmers. But Mary Anne was an artist.
Bright, beautiful, and serious, the photos of my great-grandmother remind me of a young Georgia O’Keeffe.
And like Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Anne was devoted to painting. This is what she wanted to do with her life.
But times were very different for women then.
One day a man from a neighboring farm named Adam came to call. He was looking for a wife. His own wife, his beloved Elizabeth, had passed away and Adam needed a woman to raise his three kids and run the farm.
The daughters were called out and Mary Anne, being the most beautiful, was chosen.
She fought back. She didn’t want to get married. She didn’t want to raise children. She was an artist, it was her very soul.
But times were very different for women then.
Mary Anne would live in Elizabeth’s house, next door to Elizabeth’s parents. She raised Elizabeth’s children and each night she lay with a man who continued to mourn Elizabeth.
Over the years, she would give Adam 10 more children. Including my Grandfather.
I don’t know if there was a time that she ever liked kids. My Mom remembers Grandma Ach as hard and disinterested. I remember her too, with her long dark hair and piercing eyes. She fascinated me.
It wasn’t until she was already an old woman that she finally got all of the children out of the house and on their own paths. And the moment the last one left, Mary Anne marched to the store to buy herself canvas and paint.
She was an artist.
But then life played its cruelest joke of all. It took away her sight.
Mary Anne went blind.
Grandma Ach would live a long life, but not a happy one. Because she was never allowed to do the work she felt most called to do.
I look at the choices we have the privilege of making today; about how to spend our time, how to live our lives, what is worth fighting for and who we want to be. We forget how lucky we really are to have such freedom.
So when an artist now whines to me that he wants to make art but just can’t get into the studio, making one excuse or another, or she’s thinking of quitting the art business because it’s just too hard, I tell them “That’s your choice.”
History is full of too many stories like Mary Anne’s, of artists who literally had no opportunity to do what their soul demanded.
“Can’t they see?” I ask myself, as I think of my great-grandmother’s fruitless struggle to be her true self, “Who is really blind?”
Have you ever done something that scared the pants off you?
When I was new to writing, but determined to succeed, a prospective client asked, “Can you write copy for business websites?”
I really, really needed the job and was in no position to say that I’d never done it before. There was no way I could admit that I was a former art dealer who was just starting out as a writer, that I knew absolutely nothing about the traditional business world. Nothing at all!
But though I had no experience, I’m a firm proponent of the “fake it til you make it” philosophy. So I faked it.
Not only was I asked to write a whopping 27 text-heavy pages for a website, but they wanted me to begin the project by meeting with the CEO and CFO - and I was expected to lead the meeting!
I stood in front of that room, full of the company’s top people, and led a 30-minute presentation while having only the vaguest idea of what I was talking about.
I had to speak loudly to mask the sound of my pounding heart. And my knees shook so hard that the pants were almost scared right off me. But the meeting ended with no one discovering my secret.
I got the gig.
Looking back at my employment history, I’ve never taken a job that I felt comfortable accepting. I’ve always learned on my feet.
In fact, that’s how I broke into the art business too – pretending that I knew a lot more than I did, doing the work to learn what I needed to know, and then over-delivering, always exceeding expectations.
As one friend remarked, “You’re a liar, but not a thief.”
I’ve never put an untrue word on my resume and I don’t advise that anyone else does either. Ever. But I don’t believe in letting a little thing like knowledge stop me - because knowledge can always be attained.
The first time I ever taught The Working Artist, not one student suspected that they were my inaugural class. I’m no thief.
So if there’s something that you want to do but are afraid because you don’t have the relevant experience, I challenge you to do it anyway. And yes, I’m talking about being an artist too – so many artists never move forward because of fears about experience or degrees or pedigree.
Lack of self-confidence is the number-one ailment of artists. I constantly hear about challenges with confidence in the work, confidence in making professional connections, confidence in speaking to clients...
This does not serve you.
If you find yourself professionally paralyzed, this is what you do: You research thoroughly, you over-prepare, you practice, practice some more until you’re doing the very best you can. And then you fake it.
You can be a liar about your confidence, but never a thief with the goods you deliver.
It happened again.
An artist wrote to me about a project she was offered, excited by the opportunity.
She wasn’t going to be paid, mind you, but it would be “good exposure.”
Ah good exposure! The two words that make every artist cringe.
I get it. Trust me, I still do things for good exposure. And I find it just as difficult to pay my bills with exposure as you do.
Exposure is a tricky thing. We all want it, but we don’t want to give ourselves away in the process of getting it.
So should artists do things for exposure?
Well, it depends.
If you want to get eyes on work and the venue's appropriate, then why not? Just make sure that the work is going to be taken care of, that all of the relevant information is available, and that you have a clear understanding of terms should something sell.
And dare to look deeper than that. Is there anything else in that situation that might benefit you? Something other than money?
- Do you have books that could be sold or calendars or small prints?
- Could your bio be added to the business’ website with a link to your own?
- Could the organization promote you on their social media channels?
- Perhaps if it’s for an event, you can ask for the attendees’ names so that can build your mailing list? (with their permission, of course)
I’ve hung artists’ work at coffee shops, restaurants, and doctors’ offices a few times. I always made sure to go the extra mile.
- I formed relationships with the staff and educated them about the art. I even promised them a small private kickback should they make the sale.
- I held an Opening Party, and always made it a point to have my meetings at that location.
If the work was going to be more of a permanent display, or if I didn’t see a whole lot of art buyers going through the space, I suggested a trade instead. The venue could own the work and in exchange I received credit towards their goods and services. Win! Win!
But I digress.
Because this particular artist wrote that the exposure she was promised was lacking. She was given certain assurances that were not delivered.
How, she asked, could she complain without sounding difficult?
Ah! The fear of sounding difficult!
Funny thing about difficult.
I’ve worked with hundreds of artists in my career. And some of them were what you might call difficult.
But there’s two different types of difficult.
- There’s the egotistical, pain-in-the-ass difficult. This is the artist who leaves her good manners at home and acts as if everyone else is an indentured servant.
- And then there’s the artist who’s not afraid to be an advocate for her work. She respects herself and takes her job seriously, always maintaining the highest standards.
Do you see the difference?
I’ll tell you what I told the artist who wrote me with her quandary: when you speak up for yourself, when you push back, no matter how nicely you do it, there's always a chance you'll be labeled difficult.
Because for some reason, those who don't take their work seriously are easily threatened by those of us who do. It's easy for them to label us as "difficult."
But that’s the risk we take.
In my experience, the most successful artists are successful because they’re adamant about protecting their work. They bring 110% to the job and their standards are high.
So how do you protect yourself without getting a bad reputation?
It's like this:
- You're always professional and courteous, never angry nor defensive nor accusatory. You meet deadlines, budgets and you exceed expectations. You value what you do and value those who help you do it.
- You stop taking on projects where it’s not specified – in writing – exactly what you expect in return. And you advocate for your work when you feel it's in a compromising situation.
I wonder what would happen if we replaced the word difficult with the word strong?
Because when it comes to your work and your career, being strong will get you where you want to go every time.
And that is nothing to be afraid of.
Last weekend I learned an awful lot about the professional life of artists. I attended a conference that focused on arts graduates and how they’re faring in this changing economy.
What I learned may surprise you.
The conference itself was called 3 Million Stories, so titled for the 3 million art and design students in the USA. But the information itself extended well beyond art school graduates and spoke to all working artists.
I learned that work is purpose.
A job is just that, a job. A career comes with income and status.
But what about a calling? Artists feel called to do the work they do.
I learned that the point of attaining a fine arts degree doesn’t always have to be vocational. Education is a worthy goal in itself.
I learned to understand that the economy is not a morality play.
Artists, like teachers and nurses, may serve others with work that has impact, but that doesn’t mean they get paid a fair wage for their effort.
But though their salaries may be a challenge, I also learned that artists are happy.
In fact, of all the different professions that have been surveyed, ARTISTS report being happiest of all.
It seems there is no correlation between income and job satisfaction.
I was surprised to learn that a staggering 70% of Americans say they feel disengaged from their work – it’s just a job they do.
Yet 82% of arts graduates report feeling “very engaged” with their work. Because it’s a calling, they do it with a sense of purpose.
I learned that artists don’t realize how valuable their skills are in today’s world.
In survey after survey of the top CEO’s, it’s CREATIVITY that’s always ranked as the number one skill necessary for success.
But do you think they’re teaching creativity at business schools? No, I’m pretty sure they’re not.
SNAAP (Strategic National Arts Alumni Project) is the organization that’s been surveying art school graduates across the United States. This is the largest survey done of any profession and the results dispel the myths we’ve all been fed.
Art school graduates are not bitter, nor are they unemployed. They’re using their creativity thankyouverymuch, and are serving as today’s leaders of the Creative Class.
Out of 100,000 art graduates surveyed, a whopping 90% say they would make the same investment in art school again.
And get this - 74% of art school graduates work in their field today, compared to only 56% of graduates in other fields such as accounting and biology.
And this will make you happy: less than 1% of art school graduates become waiters.
Apparently, the stories we’ve been fed about our uncertain prospects are not true.
I’m not saying that you have to go to art school in order to succeed. But I know for a fact that if you want to work as an artist, the opportunities exist.
Filmmaker Spike Lee spoke one night at the conference. He said, “When you have a job that you love, it’s not a job anymore.”
However, he warned, “There’s no such thing as an overnight success. You gotta bust your ass.”
That’s the truth of it.
But the numbers don’t lie. This is a wonderful time to be an artist.
And yes, it’s scary. It’s hard work. And it’s sometimes challenging to make a decent wage.
But honestly, would you really choose anything else?