Making a Living/Making a Life

Students of the School of Art and Design received a glimpse into the professional lives of 16 North Carolina-based artists at the Making a Living/Making a Life symposium on January 25 at the Jenkins Fine Arts Center. The all-day event featured keynote speakers, breakout sessions with individual artists, and a panel discussion.

Presenting artists represented a wide range of disciplines including painting, printmaking, sculpting, ceramics, woodworking, metalworking, photography, textiles, illustration, graphic design, and art education. The event was an opportunity for students to learn from successful, professional artists about the challenges one can face outside of theory and technique when one chooses a career making art.

“Our goal was to supplement our students’ education as they transition from student to professional, showing them many possibilities for how they might succeed as artists or teachers working within communities throughout the state,” said School of Art and Design professor Linda Darty, coordinator for much of the day’s events.

Local artist Michael Brown has made elegant Windsor chairs, completely by hand, for the past 14 years at his home near New Bern. Originally from England, Brown relocated to the region with his wife and began living the life of a working artist. He has experienced firsthand the trials and tribulations of that life, and is grateful for the opportunity to share his experiences with others and share information that he considers crucial for succeeding as an artist.

“It’s very important to know how to run a business,” Brown said. “It’s financially disastrous when you don’t know what is going on. And if you can’t weather that first disaster you might never get back to doing what you want to do.”

In Brown’s breakout session he offered students a crash course in running a business including advice on pricing, marketing, working with galleries, and finding one’s niche in an often-crowded marketplace.

The intricacies of running one’s own business was a common topic throughout the day. Discussions ranged from tax laws and strategies for competing in a global economy to advice on budgeting for expensive raw materials like gold. In each case the artists’ expertise and previous experiences helped those in attendance realize the breadth of skills required, in addition to talent, to have a successful career in art.

“It’s good to hear how people started up their businesses—how it was a struggle and they had to find their niche,” said Jennifer Ludewig, a metals major from High Point. “It scared me a little bit, but it inspired me so much.”

The business lessons were not solely directed toward those students who plan on working for themselves. Some students, whether painters, graphic designers, or illustrators, may choose to work as an artist for an established company. Presenter Mike Joosse, creative supervisor at Ogilvy Durham, enlightened students on what it’s like to be employed by a creative company.

Joosse’s presentation featured 50 pieces of wisdom for new graduates ranging from the practical (“always dress up nicely for interviews”) to the amusing (“your parents will still not understand what you do”) and to the sobering (“the best work you ever do may be rejected or destroyed”).

“[This is] a chance for other people to learn from my mistakes,” said Joosse.

But as important as it is to make a living as an artist, equally important is making a life as an artist. Many presenters offered advice on how to continue making art at a high level even after experiencing success.

Scott Avett, who earned a BS in communications and a BFA in art from East Carolina, shared examples of his paintings and printmaking while telling how he balances the pursuit of his visual art with a busy music career.

“Work is what I feel like I’m obligated to do,” he told his audience, adding that laziness can be a real obstacle in the creative process.

Others shared Avett’s concern over the power of losing focus. Leah Foushee, an art teacher, offered advice to those who work other jobs while pursuing a career making art. “It’s important to keep your head focused that when you get off of work, you go back to work.”

The reaction to the day was universally positive. Both students and presenters spoke about the value of the lessons being taught, and they commended ECU for offering students such valuable information.

“I’ve had experiences with several colleges, and I’ve never seen any of them do something like this where there is so much hands-on involvement with alumni and people in the profession who can go out and share this information with students,” said Joosse.

Brown expressed a longing for such an opportunity when he was a young student. “I wish I’d heard stuff before I found out through the school of hard knocks,” he said.

Only time will tell if the knowledge passed on at the Making a Living/Making a Life symposium will give students the inspiration to become working artists, but the opportunity to learn from such talented artists is sure to encourage students in their craft.

“There have been times where I’m like, ‘I’m not even good at this. I should make the switch to wood or ceramics,’” Ludewig said. “I might dabble in that, but I feel really strong about metals right now. [Today] helped me to push myself even further into my field.”