As early as I can remember my father told me, "You can be whatever you want to be. Your gift is art and you should be an artist." He was a rare one for his time and did not follow the parenting playbook that I was sure hospitals passed out to new parents in the 1960s. I, like most young adults, did the opposite of what my father suggested and took a more practical approach to vocation. I earned my degree in education and became a teacher. Although I loved teaching, I found what most of us eventually discover about discarded parenting advice: it turned out my father knew what he was talking about. If there was such a thing as a "calling", for me it was art. No matter how much I enjoyed teaching, "the road not taken" was always there like a chirping bird sitting on my shoulder. It was a reminder that I wanted to be doing what I was truly passionate about. Family and financial obligations made it seem like a real long shot.
Eventually, I decided to do just one thing as a nod to this dream, an attempt to simply walk towards it. I was married with a small child and working as an elementary teacher while taking one night class at a time at a local art school. Four years down the road and three classes short of graduation the marriage ended and so did my art education. One very distraught and tearful, "Mommy, don't go." was all it took for me to send the babysitter away. As a newly single mother the world shifted drastically and I quickly realized I needed to supplement my teacher's salary. I was trained in design so I started doing freelance illustration. But the fast and firm deadlines for major projects proved difficult to manage with a full time teaching job and motherhood.
The saying, "necessity is the mother of invention" was never more true. One night I put some illustration board on the floor and painted two rose-filled still life paintings. I had no money for art in our new place and I could not bear to look at blank walls anymore. People seemed to like them, so I created more paintings. Another teacher purchased one for what felt like a lot of money which led to my first exhibition. Once, after school, I set the framed paintings up against the back of chairs and invited the staff. It was a successful day, which led my work being carried by a small art gallery. I started working larger and on canvas and watched my artwork become an actual source of badly needed income. Five days a week I rose at 4:30 am and painted until it was time to wake my son at 6:45 and then off to school for both of us. I kept up this pace for three years and stopped out of pure exhaustion but with a bit more confidence in my financial stability. This was the humble but exciting beginning to my new career.
There is no "Here's How It Goes 101" when you become a visual artist. From those first small steps it became a never ending balancing act between making artwork, sustaining an income and a maintaining a personal life. All three remained fluid over a span of many years with an ebb and flow which didn't always feel under my control. In reality, this journey hasn't been a smooth trajectory. It's one marked by starts and stops, doubts, grit, failures and successes. On many occasions life embedded itself in the most inconvenient ways. Life is life, its not personal and its what we do with whatever comes our way that matters. I learned that no matter what life brings, make peace with yourself and the situation, and move on.
When one of these significant crossroads appeared I developed the practice of asking the question, "How can I keep doing art?" I developed small rituals and routines related to my art which nurtured what was to become the one sure thing that survived through changes of people, circumstances and places. I learned I could build the momentum of a career in spite of teaching full time, teaching part time, experiencing the challenges of being a single mother, becoming a stepparent, the deployment of my soldier husband, taking care of a sick child, caring for a terminally ill parent, struggling with my own illness and all of the other small hindrances along the way. I learned to pack my studio up in a suitcase, take twenty minutes at the beginning and end of day to draw if larger blocks were not possible and I learned to write when I physically couldn't paint. Nothing heroic, just playing the cards no matter how the deck was cut and most importantly . . . to just to keep going.
If you are an artist its worth it because, on some level, it feels as if you don't really have a choice. Without art making life would just not be the same. I'm sure the same goes for any musician, actor, performance artist, writer, poet or filmmaker. You may work at another profession full or part time to pay the bills but your thoughts and dreams are propelled by the object of your true passion . Observing the circuitous route my career has taken I am only left with gratitude for how all of it, even the most difficult of days, taught me and enriched me. On this journey I am the lucky one, I am an artist.
Self Portrait Oil on board 2015 amy pleasant