Is it really possible to survive and prosper as a visual artist?
This is a question that keeps raising its head, scratching for an answer.
One thing I have come to believe is it really helps when they love you at home!
Whistler's mom posed (well, she sat after she injured herself), and made him famous. Picasso's mom and the other women in the household spoiled little Pablo Ruiz like crazy. Kara Walker's dad, Larry Walker, is an artist and academician, Picasso's dad was also an artist and teacher.
My mom was always my best cheerleader, and preserver of my work!
At least some of us have that.
I went to an awards event at Columbia College on April 16, The Fischetti Awards, and watched political cartoonists showing and telling about their work. The top winner this night, Lee Judge, had won the first award given 27 years ago. He also recently lost his job for four days, but was re-instated when the readers of his paper complained loudly. He said, in his acceptance speech, that he realized he made enough money to pay his bills with $20.00 left over for the month which meant he had $5.00 a week to spend!
And he's not sure he will have a job next month!
That's the way it is for most artists.
And to make it even worse, a lot of the time family turns on you, too and say things like "get a teaching certificate", "become a cop or a probation officer", "make art your hobby and earn a living" or more to-the-point, "get a real job"!
For me, having a mother who was an amazing artist herself, singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Duke Ellington, The Playward Bus Company in Philadelphia, and Grand Songbird of the Elks (I.B.P.O.E. of W.) among other gigs, was a perfect (nearly) role model and mentor.
She prepared me for most of what I would later face as an artist. She was limited by her race; she continued a career while raising 3 kids, and she had the mother telling her that another career might be better for her than singing. My mother sang because she loved to and could not live without singing. She did work for the City of Philadelphia, too, so we could have health insurance and a home and she could provide for us in all ways. She simultaneously built her singing career, practiced and continuously took voice lessons and took care of her children, purchased our home, cooked many meals, shopped for our clothes, made sure we got to church, and made sure I went to college.
Her determination to practice her craft, despite obstacles set the bar for me. Her willingness to explain what she experienced to me was my best teacher. I did not translate it to an art career at first, but little by little I have.
I am reminded of when I invited her to lecture my music class at Yale, not thinking anything of it, except I knew she would contribute to the class. She blew everyone away! My professor, a professional musician, Willie Ruff, and all the students, many of whom were trained musicians, were amazed by her voice and knowledge about the history of American and African American music! She told me later that showing that I believed in her meant a lot. And although she was very nervous, and couldn't believe she was lecturing at this school, she did it anyway.
So through my mother's example I learned to do what I love and find a way to support myself. But I am still not convinced this is fair to artists. I am still not convinced that there is NO way for talented and committed artists to do their job and earn a living.
I wonder if what we need to do is define the job. What are the actual skills and talents an artist should have and what is each worth in dollars? If the job specifications are articulated will we discover that artists can make a living after all, maybe earning, minimally, a living wage?