Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Quitting My Day Job

Last night, I put my paintbrush down at 3:30am and went to bed, and woke up this morning to light filtering in through the blinds, a soft breeze blowing through my window and tides of sunshine lapping at the edge of the floor. My morning commute wasn't a 70 mile per hour highway race, but a shuffle to the coffee maker and into my studio, the curtains waving softly and a belly-up tabby cat waiting for attention. 

An easel and canvas rather than a computer screen, a pallet and brushes for a keyboard and mouse. 

Where there was once the top of a cubicle wall and buzzing, fluorescent lights, now I am blessed with a 10 foot tall window overlooking Boston's rooftops and chimneys and a hint of city skyline, daylight illuminating a table of paints, pastels, ink, paper. 

For the last month I've been thinking about how I got to this point. The moment I decided to quit my job was scary. I felt nervous and uncertain, and most of all, ungrateful. 

(For those of you who don't know me as well, I was up until recently a research coordinator at a top medical school about an hour outside of Boston. I coordinated an NIH-funded study that recruited hospital patients in order to learn about the relationship between health events and behavioral changes in tobacco use. Painting took up the rest of my time.)

After graduating college, it was so hard to get a job-- when I was combing job listings, I would have done anything to have a cubicle and a dress code and a guaranteed paycheck every two weeks. (Ironically, the three months between interviewing and being hired into my day job were when my Etsy shop picked up the most momentum.) And I was grateful to be hired into a job that I did well, interested in what I was learning, and happy to get a fairly quick promotion and feel my work was appreciated. But something was so missing

What does it mean that so many of us spend the majority of our waking hours and energy on work we don’t really love? That we wake up to loud alarms, commute to cubicles and count down the hours until we leave for the day-- to go home for a few hours, sleep and do it again the next day. Sometimes it is an early sacrifice that eventually leads to what we really want to be doing. But, sometimes it doesn’t, and you know it won't. Every day I was torn between feeling grateful to have a paycheck in a time when so many people don’t, and being frustrated by the knowledge that no matter how hard I worked at this job or in this field, it would never put me where I really wanted to be and where I was beginning to realize I could be: making art, expressing myself, creating things that touched people and made them feel something special. There was no reward at the office, no employee evaluation that matched the feedback from people who were buying original, sometimes even commissioned, artwork. Nothing came close to how it felt to hear that something I created with my hands touched someone deeply, or was the perfect expression for something they felt too. My "day job" was a good one but not the right one.

I think we are all given chances and blessed in different ways throughout our lives. There are some talents and opportunities I have always had, some I have fallen into or made for myself, and some I will never have. But the more I thought about the mindset that it is somehow acceptable to give half of our lives to making money-- regardless of whether we enjoy or even tolerate our jobs-- the more I realized that the opportunity to make a living doing what I have always chosen to do for free was really special, and it wasn’t a gift I could pass up. Aside from being nervous about aging in general, I’m pretty scared of the idea of waking up in 20 years (or even in 1) and wondering where the time went, then realizing it was spent doing anything other than what fulfills me, when that option was there. Our lives are too short to be involved in things that are not meaningful to us.

Though it makes for some good pictures, not every part of leaving my day job to pursue art full-time has been easy or fun so far. In addition to an artist, I have to be my own accountant (ugh!), photographer, supply and shipping manager, PR guru and marketing strategist. My work day will never, ever end at 6pm and will never be something I can walk away from for a weekend (although it also doesn't start at 7am either and Wednesday can be a weekend if I choose, so it's worth it.) It is gratifying to know that my income is a direct result of how hard I work, but it's scary to know its not always guaranteed. I honestly don’t know if this is what I will do forever, but I do know that if I want it bad enough, if I work hard enough, I can be the one to decide how my days are spent. The peace of mind that brings right now is worth all of the unknown.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Home, a custom work in progress

For the last couple weeks I've been working on a large custom piece I was commissioned to do as a mother's day/birthday gift and just finished it last night. Creating custom artwork is so much different than creating art on my own... in commissioned artwork, I haven't hatched the idea myself or been inspired by something specific. I haven't had the idea working through my head, catching and intertwining with little colors and thoughts for however long it takes to form something that can be put down on a canvas. It's a challenge because there is so much to live up to in the expectations of the buyer. Because it is someone else's project in their mind's eye, either a whole painting or just a feeling, I need to ask enough questions and get enough answers in order to turn it into just the right combination of paint and paper. 

This process, and all art, is like a conversation in two languages. Much like how poetry is what can be felt versus what can be written, art is what we hope to see or feel, the answers that we look for, what we have to tell each other, versus what we can actually speak onto a canvas. Or maybe onto a board, or a piece of paper, or a chunk of metal, or a concrete wall, with paint, or pencil, or old letters or stamps or ink.

I think this is why I like working with mixed media... anything that we can use to create artwork is our vocabulary, and the wider it is, the more able we'll be to translate the things that create art-- hopes, fears, beliefs, needs, joy-- from our minds onto a waiting canvas. A single word doesn't make poetry or a song, but the right ones in the right order can deliver something meaningful and unforgettable... the right paint or paper or string or text in the right places can too.

I think that's why its such a challenge to create a custom piece of artwork for someone, and why I like it so much. There are emails, sketches, phone calls and photos back and forth, but I'll never know exactly what they want in the way my eyes and fingers and brushes know what I do. It's like conversing in a language I'm not fluent in, but trying anyway, and hoping that between the two of us enough can be conveyed that what is in their head can flow through my fingertips and into something beautiful-- and right.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


This is today, in the studio... We slept in, then had the maintenance man come in to fix stuff, then made lunch, then had some I-get-frustrated,-Mike-says-just-the-right-stuff-to-make-it-better time, then Mike went to school and I finally sat down to do some work. I put up some magnetic cables to hold my inspiration wire (not realizing that every one of the million exposed pipes is magnetic, duh) and got my table tidied up enough to do some work. Then, I did work, and tackled the end of a painting that had been beyond my grasp the last couple times I sat down to it.

The bad news is that I'll never be Martha Stewart, clean and organized even in the midst of creating. The good news is that I'm finally getting settled into my new studio and into a painting routine where I actually get things done instead of just making a mess, getting distracted by the cat, getting paint on the cat, checking out our neighborhood, daydreaming about possible artwork and then going back to staring at my mess.

It surprised me how much the transition from part-time to full-time artist threw me off... everything about my creative process is just a little different now that there is more time, but also more pressure, to make art. The freedom to paint in my own space at my own pace is almost overwhelming. I'm getting used to it and I know its just a matter of time before it clicks, but right now, man... what's a paintbrush?

(In spite of all that--- walking into an art studio every morning is infinitely more rewarding than walking into a cubicle in the basement of a hospital. I'm happy I took the plunge. More on that soon.)