"I am a lifelong self-taught artist who has been accepted into a number of fine arts programs, including a BFA program at a local university. I'm really happy about this, but I feel torn. I have done many mundane jobs in my life and always promised myself that I would leave it behind and seek something more creative as a means of living. Now that I have that chance, I feel hesitant. Part of me thinks I should do something more 'practical' and have something that will enable me to grow professionally no matter what happens to the economy, my geographical circumstances, etc. Another part of me says that I'm 35 now and I may as well seize the opportunity to do something creative and really invest in myself, and take this time to explore through my artistic practice what it is that interests me. What do I do?"
The prevailing piece of advice that I give to my students when they worry (which is all the time) about a career in fine arts is this: no matter what happens, don't live your life with a sense of regret.
One of my friends from art school did not pursue a career in fine arts, and instead chose early on to switch to an unrelated field. Over the many years since we graduated from art school, he has always had a full-time job with benefits and has not had to worry about the future. He goes on international vacations, his kids go to private school, and he eats out frequently at expensive restaurants. In our past and present conversations, I am the one talking about the constant state of anxiety I live in. I never know whether I will have job next year, I struggle to pay for childcare month to month, and vacations are just wishful thinking.
Last year, he had a crushing realization: sixteen years had passed since art school, and in all of those years, he hadn't made any art. Those years were gone, and the sense of regret he felt was devastating.
My friend and I are polar opposites, which raises the question about whether choosing a career in fine art really is that black and white. I really wish I could tell you that you can have it both ways and still be successful as a professional artist, but I can't. This profession is tough, insecure, and extremely unpredictable. All of the professional fine artists I know are so devoted to their studio practice that to reduce their commitment in any way would be a setback in their career. Professional artists breathe art daily. Their drive to create art is unstoppable. They have to have an iron-clad resilience and a fierce survival instinct. If hearing that sounds scary, and painting on Sunday afternoons for three hours can satisfy you creatively, then it's likely that a career in fine arts isn't the right fit for you. If this sounds exciting and inspiring, then seize this opportunity and don't look back.
I will admit that I can't help but be jealous all of the comforts my friend enjoys. I fantasize about having a full-time job with benefits, and I have fleeting moments where I question why I do this to myself. At the same time, I know that I will never look back and regret my decision to live life as an artist. For me, the impulse to create art is so great that if I didn't follow my aspirations, I would be signing on to live my life with a relentless itch. I know that it would be torture for me to take a job unrelated to art. I would be preoccupied with what my life could have been like as a professional artist. I would rather take the plunge and fall flat on my face, than live with that itch. When I think about it that way, all of the luxuries I envy in my friend become insignificant.
Ask the Art Professor is an advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com