You’re sitting on a plane or standing at a bar, let’s say, maybe meeting strangers at a friend’s wedding, and one of the first questions is usually “What do you do for a living?” It took me a long time before I was comfortable answering simply “I am an artist.” In part, there’s the fact that being an artist doesn’t always amount to much of a living; my answer usually includes all the other hats I wear in my professional life, too: writer, editor, graphic designer. Other artists might include teaching, working retail, waiting tables, modeling, curating…
But it’s not just dollars and cents. Being an artist simply doesn’t fit into what a lot of people think of as a "job." Every artist does it a little differently, not only creating artwork but crafting careers unique to each individual.
So I thought I’d put the question to four successful artists who themselves have put in the work in their own way:
What is your job as an artist?
I was curious about their day-to-day routines, their sense of responsibility to themselves and their audience, and what having an “art job” means to them, especially in a world that endlessly consumes the arts yet often treats them (and funds them) as frivolities.
Christopher E. Harrison, Artist & Arts Educator at the Walker Art Center
What is your job as an artist?
“I feel my job as an artist is to create experiences that speak our humanity through unique objects and ideas. By sharing these experiences, art to me makes our reality smaller in that we agree on our basic commonalities. Choosing to be an artist is not an easy task, in that it can be difficult to maintain an adequate lifestyle from solely making art. It is not impossible, but difficult without other means of support, be that working in another field, help from outside sources, etc. It's not hard to see that teachers and artists get compensated and respected the least considering how much they contribute to the advancement of our culture.
“I feel that being an artist is both a choice as well as an existence. It's not so much what I do, but what I am. Having the courage to live this creative life and be faithful to it with honesty no matter what the odds for me is a life well spent.”
A Monster Anthology, installation view, Soo VAC, 2018.
Dana Sikkila, Artist, Executive Director of the 410 Project, & Artistic Director of Project Bike
What is your job as an artist?
“A lot of people ask me this question, and I know I answer it different each time. My job as an artist is an ever changing daily hustle of juggling teaching, running a gallery, board meetings, exhibitions, grants, advocacy work, leading statewide projects, maybe having a personal life, and at the same time being in my studio focusing on my own creativity and art making. To me the word “job” is weird; people ask me what I “do,” and for a long time I felt uncomfortable telling them I'm an artist. It took me years to define that for myself, to where now I hold strength and integrity in who I am and how I've chosen to live my life as a creative professional. We need to understand that no two artists share the same role.
“I grew up in a small town and was never exposed to art, far less knowing you could be an adult, an artist, and still be able to pay your bills. You never saw “artist” listed in the help-wanted ads or at career fairs. I knew I was into art but the job of being an artist wasn't something that was being defined for me as a young creative. It wasn't until my 20s that I was exposed to positive and creative mentors and peers.
“After years of schooling and degrees, I've explored and learned how to push myself creatively, and that doesn't mean just within my visual work. My passion and purpose for creation comes in forms of art, film, advocacy, teaching, and mentoring. My job as an artist is not just to fill gallery walls, but also to use my creativity as a leadership tool. This means bringing my ideas to the table when it comes to everything from personal and professional growth, running a business, city development, and even economic sustainability.
“My ‘artjob’ is never one, but rather multiple things overlapping, where I may work early one day and may work late another. But no matter what I'm doing, it all stems from being an artist and staying true to my creative integrity, to use it as a way to lift up people and places, helping them recognize their own strengths and talents, no matter their age.”
Installation work at the 410 Project.
Hallie Bahn, Artist & MFA candidate at MCAD
What is your job as an artist?
“I think about this question pretty regularly, and it has come to inform my practice in a lot of ways. I believe that my job as an artist is to create visual experiences that are emotionally resonant and relevant to those both within and without the art world. It is my responsibility to make work that is inclusive and accessible, that doesn't require a learned visual language to ‘get it’ but instead relies on a language of shared human experiences. Whether it’s through humor, catharsis, or familiarity, I find that appeal is a powerful conduit for this and have allowed it to become my true north — I want to make things people like to look at. Things people want to spend time with. I see it as my job to create work that’s relevancy transcends the art world and enters people’s daily lives.
“As a narrative artist and animator, I am interested in showcasing stories that reflect day-to-day existence. Through focusing on the quotidian, I try to bring art and life as close together as possible, as a way of democratizing the subject. I am currently working on a series of narrative multi-media sculptures that highlight bureaucratic spaces and our behavior within them, specifically our behavior while at work. I wanted to examine parts of our day that are not fully ours, in the hope that by critically examining them, we might reclaim them. Time spent sitting in a waiting room, answering the phone at the office, commuting. These workday activities are so ubiquitous and relatable, but I find that the experiences and their implications rarely feature into our greater cultural discourse. I want to enter them into the conversation.
“In considering my job as an artist, I also think a lot about what it means to be an artist as one of my Jobs. To be honest, this idea is something I have struggled with and will probably always struggle with. As we see more and more artists embrace the interdisciplinary and experiential nature of their practices, we are also further subverting traditional capitalist modes of production, which is both scary and exciting. As a community, we are supported through public funding which further upholds our responsibility to make work that is accessible to the public.”
Good Girl; Single-channel 14 minute animation, balsa wood, fabric, clay, potting soil, plywood, plastic plant, paper; 2018.
Pete Driessen, Artist & Director of TuckUnder Projects
What is your job as an artist?
“The artist’s job is to be highly open to, vulnerable to, and accountable to your higher creative purpose. In certain respects, the higher purpose is my creative identity. Although intertwined, my creative higher purpose is separate from the traditional 9 to 5 construct and conservative ‘making a living.’
“To me, a purpose holds more meaning than the word ‘job’ or ‘occupation.’ The word ‘job’ as reflected by capitalistic structures and neoliberal definitions often waters down the meaning of art-making and covertly diminishes those who labor within the creative realms. More so, the job of the artist, creative producer, or cultural practitioner is being openly vulnerable to the purpose of a creative life — one that brings forth an artistic way of doing, thinking and being in gentle alignment with one’s life intention as a whole.
“My innate job as a visual culture producer is to bring forth creativity. Setting clearly nourished goals that cultivate results and dynamic outcomes enables an embodied creative process. For my creative livelihood to thrive, I need to structure in habitual work patterns and establish healthy routines. I consider potential opportunities and do not dwell on those lost opportunities. I love driving a different way to work, enjoy forging a new path, pioneering the unique trail, or maneuvering the higher road.
“In terms of the artist job as income provider, I wear hyphenated hats from interdisciplinary fields and multiple industries that make up the umbrella term ‘art job:’ Wearing selective hats and doing numerous creative tasks all add up to an ever-changing amount of creative income. By removing rigid corporate linear systems and reawakening innate, organic nonlinear networks of creative chores, artistic duties and inventive responsibilities one can self-cultivate a rhizomic work base. This may include a wide range of labor pie slicing: independent full- or part-time work, collegiate adjuncting, private or nonprofit grant allocations, artist commissions and fees, entrepreneurial risks, collaborative ventures, committee or board work, jurying shows, grant panels, teaching workshops, art lectures, and consulting work. On top of this is family and fatherhood, single parenting of two teens, and home ownership: I have included these home economics into my art job puzzle, as curator of a home/garage-based gallery.
“Formally, my job is to show up in the studio, whatever that means and wherever it is, with its ever shifting studio definitions, on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis, which in turn adds up to a successful artist life. It is important to me to produce any form whether the right mood is happening or not. One can harness the power of simply showing up — by allowing creativity in countless mundane and domestic ways, even on the scary, gray, and bad days.
“An ongoing part of the vulnerable art job is constantly writing applications and entering grants, fellowships, exhibitions, and residencies if only to be rejected. Though these continuous rejections sting, the best remedy is learning from them and reframing the rejection for the positive. One must accept failure as a primary part of the successful artist’s life/job. The persistent acceptance of our mistakes and misfortunes builds strong resilience and self-confidence. When possible, remove the physical clutter, emotional baggage, and psychological distractions to help encourage the doing and reaffirm the creating.
“A strong component of my art job is to create a clear connection with community. I aim to be generous to the community and to have non-competitive exchange and creative dialogue with others. It is imperative that one must give service to others prior to enabling success for self. A hidden part of the purposeful art job is to be a tireless advocate for the arts and freedom of expression. I have found arts advocacy, such as attending Arts Advocacy Day at the MN state capital, to be an effective networking ingredient for the long-term collective sustainability of the visual art job.
“To have an art job means to embody the creative life and to be willing to develop the creative habit. The purpose is to immerse in the doing. A creative person does creative things. A creative body in motion tends to stay in creative motion. One has to be self-motivated, self-editing, self-supporting, and yet on the other hand, set the high standard for one’s own art career success. Your artistic activity sends resonance waves to the rest of the art ecosystem. Be grateful. Thank others. Share with others your success and share in others’ success.”
Trestle, part of Trestle Support Systems, two site-specific installations at the Northern Pacific Rail Yard in Brainerd, MN; red pine & steel hardware; 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.
This is part of an ongoing series of articles, asking simple questions and getting complex answers from local artists, thinkers, and makers. You can read our first installment here: "What is the purpose of an art exhibition?"
Banner image: Hallie Bahn; Habitual (detail); Dual-channel projected animation, balsa wood, fabric, plywood, paper, glass jar, resistors, beads; 2018.