Enterprising Artist: Renowned Muralist and Entrepreneur Illia Barger Speaks to the Business of Art

Art spills from Illia Barger in numerous ways. She is the daughter of famed sculptor Raymond Barger and painter-musician mother, Lilias. Complimenting her own career in fine art, her numerous enterprises are grounded in color and creativity. Holding a B.F.A. from Cooper Union in New York, she has been the recipient of many foundation grants and her work has been exhibited in and around New York City and throughout the East Coast.

In the 80s, Barger became a master grainer to support herself while she developed a market for her mural painting and color consulting. Designing a line of up-cycled clothing became another way to apply her color sense and artistic resourcefulness. She has been featured in many publications including The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Jazz Times, and Philadelphia Magazine.

Steve Mariotti: You have been a self-sustaining artist for many years but what challenges did you face when you started out?

Illia Barger: I really like the word sustaining because it implies balance. The balance of being an artist, for me, is about knowing myself enough to stay in balance, everything else follows.

It’s a lot about faith: that pure form of belief that you will be supported. This belief really can't be underestimated. Aside from that, it's important to have confidence. That comes from knowledge and practice. In my case I wanted a full set of tools that I could use to assist my vision. Training your eye to see and analyze, and your hands (or feet or whatever) as an extension of your vision are foundational tools.

SM: Society doesn't necessarily think of artists as entrepreneurs but you have bills to pay like everyone. How do you manage the demands of business versus the demands of your creativity?

IB: One of the most creative things that artists can do is to live high-quality lives with very little resources. That's another balancing act. Generally, artists buy time with their money, time to make their art, so making money outside of art sales must only be a part-time thing.

My outside business ventures have always been ventures that would enhance my creative life. I don't really think of business and creativity as being separate because I make money with my creativity. I paint public murals and have a color consulting business. I even diversified into designing and making upcycled clothing.

SM: Those endeavors could be called “commercial” applications of your art. Are these extensions of your artistic vision?

IB: It's interesting that what is considered a commercial application of art generally refers to something that makes money. I would say that everything that I do is an extension of my artistic self-quest. That goes back to my original statement about artists creating quality lives for themselves. I've always felt that enjoying my life as an artist was the goal, so figuring out how much money I need to do that is part of understanding the equation.

The business end is more about being responsible and creating a great reputation for your work and your business practices. Integrity is a necessity of living with the faith that you will be supported materially and spiritually. Integrity and faith cannot be separated.

SM: The art world seems to shift tastes and trends almost overnight. What insights would you give to artists fresh from school or trying to establish themselves in the volatile world of art?

IB: Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness that is so unbearable that we are compelled to change it every six months”. The art “world” is similar. Really, there is no “art world” without artists making art. The commoditization of art is a product of success qualified by money which is not necessarily the case with artists. Many an artist never sell a piece until after their death. Chasing that validity can easily distract an artist from her or his path and progress.

SM: How would you advise a young artist on remaining true to his or her vision?

IB: I think remaining true to your vision and surviving or thriving financially will always be navigational challenges. Artists make thousands, if not millions, of decisions every day about the direction of their work and their vision. To respond to the whims of a critic or gallery owner would be to relinquish your vision to someone else which would sort of make you a banker with a brush.

Most artists won't give up their vision. That's what makes them artists. There is a certain belief that artists are born talented and what they do is magic. Truth is that even if you grew up surrounded by creative parents, you still must develop a skill set and an understanding of your own self and incorporate that into your life. It may look like magic when someone transcends the materials they are working with but I can assure you it's not. The magic comes from an alchemy of knowing yourself and being fluid in your medium which is a lifelong process.

Additional editing and research by E.E. Whiting.

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