When I graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a BFA in fine arts/photography a little over a year ago, I plunged into an existential crisis. Initially, I spent an entire week doing nothing. I was exhausted from the whirlwind of finals and commencement and my senior thesis exhibition. I sat on my couch, ate a lot of pierogies, and watched five seasons of 30 Rock.
But that didn't last long. I quickly realized that I needed money. And that meant I needed a job. Besides, that's what you're supposed to do after college, right?
I already had a job, sort of. In 2008, I started photographing weddings. I admit, I had no idea what I was doing. The frantic pace of the wedding day combined with my inexperience made me want to pee my pants. But I had a good camera and a good eye, and the couples I worked with seemed pretty pleased with their photos.
Then I discovered Tracy Turpen's photography. It wasn't even wedding photography, really. It was art. Every single image could have been in a gallery by itself. I was completely awestruck.
So I wrote Tracy a letter. I wrote a letter saying that I loved her work and that, for me, it redefined the possibilities of what wedding photography could be. I wanted to be her assistant, I wanted to learn everything she knew, I didn't care about getting paid or whatever, I just wanted to be around her and absorb as much as I possibly could from her. Please. Pretty, pretty, pretty please.
So in the summer of 2009, I packed my bags for Charleston, South Carolina, and learned almost everything I know about wedding photography from the great Tracy Turpen.
For me, balancing a full college schedule and a job as an independent wedding photographer was difficult, but not impossible. Fine arts students don't co-op; we didn't get entire terms off to gain work experience. Instead, we were expected to find time for internships between classes and homework and ramen-and-Red-Bull-fueled-all-nighters before final crits. Throughout my four years of college, I worked for a wedding photographer, a graduate student, two fine art photographers, two galleries, three restaurants, and was self-employed as a freelance photographer. I graduated with a 3.92 GPA. I didn't sleep much.
Graduation felt like an abrupt, awkward ending to Ravel's Boléro. I had been building and building and building, but for what? Wearing my modified-garbage-bag graduation gown, swaddled in multicolored cords, holding an empty 'placeholder' diploma case, what had I arrived at?
Pierogies and 30 Rock, it seemed.
After my week of lethargy and self-pity had run its course, I got down to business. I had four weddings scheduled that summer. Not a full plate, by a long shot; but not surprising, considering the senior year I'd had. And one cannot live off of four weddings.
Enter Amy. I've known Amy for 13 years. Amy graduated from Loyola University Chicago in May 2011. Double major in public relations and visual communication, double minor in English and fine arts, 3.5 GPA. Probably slept less than I did.
Amy and I made job-hunting our jobs. We met at the same coffee shop at the same time every morning, sat in the same seats, drank the same kind of tea, and looked for opportunities. Finding a job, as I quickly learned, is not easy for a new graduate. Suddenly, my website, resumé, and portfolio all looked flimsy and juvenile. I hadn't updated anything since my practicum class two years prior. I had a lot of work to do, and I dove into it ravenously.
But after a few months, I started getting discouraged. It seemed like all the jobs that actually looked somewhat interesting were seeking candidates with at least 3-5 years "real world" job experience. The jobs I qualified for -- "0-2 years real work experience" -- were all office lackeys and coffee slaves. I had been singlehandedly running a wedding photography business for four years. I had experience! I had talent! I had ambition! Why didn't any of this actually count?
By November, I was dragging my heels in the mud. Amy found a job as a graphic designer at F+W Media. Meanwhile, I was splitting my time between browsing the same job listings that hadn't panned out the first time around, editing the remaining wedding photos from the fall, and lurking in forums with depressing topics along the lines of "What the f*** do you do with an art degree?"
And then I got a job.
It was, unsurprisingly, through a connection. VogueVert, an upscale eco-friendly boutique based in Covington, KY, was looking for a new fashion photographer, as their current one was leaving. And my connection had recommended me for the position.
Fashion photography was, at first, new and exciting. The shoots were an adrenaline rush, whirlwinds of models and jewelry and high-end purses from designers like Fendi and Giovanna Torrico and Elvis & Kresse. It was glamorous, especially for a person who's been rocking the same haircut and the same pair of Gap jeans for the past seven years.
I loved my job; I loved the company's mission; I loved the people I worked with. So why did I feel so empty?
In February 2012, I unexpectedly heard back from an arts center in France that I had inquired to a few months prior. The director of the gallery, Michelle Anderson Binczak, sent me the application materials for their artist's residency program and encouraged me to apply. So I did. And, swarthy from the experience of a thousand rejections, thought nothing of it.
Until I got accepted.
This is when the existential crisis really hit. I had finally built up some stability of life and income, sort of. To take off for France to make art and work in a gallery would mean potentially shattering that stability. Dare I take this opportunity?
I came to France in June of 2012. The month leading up to my departure was a frenzied, stress-filled disaster. I had three million loose ends to tie up before I left. Every night, I went to bed at 4 a.m. worrying about all the things I had to do the next day, and woke up at 8 a.m. feeling like I hadn't slept at all. Case in point: new products came in at VogueVert and I had a last-minute fashion shoot three days before my flight. Three days. You get the idea.
La Porte Peinte Centre pour les Arts is located in Noyers-sur-Serein, a medieval cité in the heart of Bourgogne, France. I don't know how to describe it other than it's exactly like living in a fairytale. The town, tucked into a hairpin bend of the Serein River, is surrounded by fields of wheat and wildflowers. The ruins of a castle atop the hill loom over the walled village. Cobblestones line the streets and flowers cascade from the boxes outside every window. I befriended a little girl who took me to see her grandparents' secret garden a few weeks ago. In the mornings, you can smell croissants baking as the fog lifts. I spend a lot of time lying on the roof at night, once the moon comes up.
I mean, seriously. My view back home is a grocery store, a gas station, and a Dairy Queen.
It was difficult for me to accept two things at first. 1) To just make art, without fear of judgment or a specific reason or purpose in mind, and 2) To simplify my life down to only two things: art-making and gallery-watching. I had become so accustomed to doing everything to please my superiors or meet a specific client's needs. I'm the type of person that has seven different tasks going on at any given time, and barely manages to find the time to squeeze in a quick microwaveable dinner. So now I'm expected to do things in my.... free time? Like taking walks? Or long bike rides? Or going to explore the small ancient stone huts outside the village just because?
Yes, Laura. That is exactly what you do. You're an artist. You make art. And when you're not making art, you think. And breathe. And hike up to the castle ruins because the view is breathtaking and the air is fresh and you can hear the scouts playing flashlight tag in the field below.
The series of pieces I've been working on since I came to France is spectacular. I really surprised myself. I guess I needed to separate from everything that had been keeping me so occupied to realize that there was something inside me that I was smothering. And I've already sold some artwork for 700€, even though my solo exhibition doesn't open until the 17th of August.
I'm not a self-confident person by nature. Major character flaw? Probably. But at least I'm aware of it and can recognize my needs accordingly. And I needed someone to tell me that, yes, 'artist' is a viable career option. It'll take a lot of sweat and a lot of networking. But you have the gusto for it, Laura Fisher, if you really put your mind to it.
I also needed to realize what I'm capable of when I allow myself the proper time to make art. Before, I always had this feeling that I was wasting precious time by spending it on my own work. Time that I could be using to edit photos of brides and grooms and peoples' kids and very skinny women wearing shiny things. I'm not saying these photographs are somehow less important or that a career in fashion photography is a terrible thing; it's just not for me. Filling my days with this created a sort of complacent anemia, an in-between state -- busy and satisfied, but not fulfilled.
It's funny, post-college life thus far has been a chorus of people mostly telling me to find a good, steady job with a dependable company and a 401(k). And all it's really taken is one or two voices to drown out that chorus. I just hadn't heard those voices until now.
I know that selling a few pieces of art does not an artist's career make. I have a long, arduous way to go from here. But it's a start. And that's exactly what I needed, what I wasn't going to find back home, surrounded by the coiffed distractions of "real work experience."
I return to the States in September. What do I do next?
I make art.
Laura Fisher is an artist, photographer, trivia host, and maker of tiny things. You can view her work and learn more at www.Laura-Fisher.com.