"Hi, I'm Christopher. I'm an artist." Exhale, run my fingers through my hair. "What do I do? Oh, I paint. I'm a painter. Yeah, I'm an artist."
I tried it out every now and then, in front of the bathroom mirror. It sounded all right. But when I introduced myself as an artist outside my bathroom world of make-believe, I always felt false. I was like Magritte labeling a pipe. If I said I was an artist, I was an artist, right?
Not exactly. Since I dedicated forty-plus hours a week to my corporate graphic design job, I was lucky if I painted a couple of hours a week. I came to despise myself for this self-deceit, for my inability to embrace what I really wanted to be. I wanted to be an artist. So I committed myself to becoming one.
I started out like most people do, shifting my schedule around and finding time to do my work. I sketched on the subway during my hour-long commute from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan. (When I didn't get a seat, my sketches became really creative.) I started waking up half an hour earlier to pay my bills and do my laundry and get all my other daily chores out of the way so that I could paint at night. I multi-tasked until I looked like a one-man band, juggling six things at once. And it worked for a while. I could dedicate three or four hours to painting every night, plus more time on the weekends. I was getting stuff done. I was an artist.
But I was also getting worn out. With my new schedule, I was only getting five or six hours of sleep a night. I became lethargic and stopped giving one hundred percent at my job. My social life was nearly non-existent; I didn't have time for friends anymore. I was lonely. But artists are supposed to suffer, right?
There was one other problem as well. My work really wasn't very good. Sure, I was dedicating twenty or thirty hours a week, but those hours were after a full day at the office-hours when I should have been winding down or sleeping, not digging into inner creative sources. And everything else-shopping, cleaning, cooking, talking on the phone-was crammed into the few hours available in the morning. Basically, I was doing everything I wanted to. But I was doing it all rather poorly.
After pondering if I was meant to be an artist, I started reassessing my priorities. I was dedicating more than forty hours a week to my design job, a job that, ironically, I'd originally taken as a great way to pursue my artistic goals. I thought I'd make a lot of connections and get my foot in the industry door, but about all I was getting out of it was a bi-weekly paycheck. There were so many department heads and legal experts assessing my every project that I had no room for creativity at work, and no energy for creativity at home.
I began to scorn my job, and to dream of freedom. I dreamt of quitting, leaving the insufferable environment of that midtown skyscraper to live as a starving artist, painting ten, twenty, thirty hours a day. That dream soon consumed me and overpowered me until it drove me to do the seemingly impossible. One glorious day, I brazenly walked into my boss's office and gave notice. I simply did it.
Though the image of quitting my job on a whim in order to pursue my art might be a romantic one, it isn't exactly the reality of the situation. I gave a lot of consideration to the feasibility of such a move. I had a few thousand dollars saved up; I knew I'd be all right financially for a while. But not in infamously expensive New York. Since my apartment lease was about to expire, and I had no family, or really any solid link outside of simple cosmopolitan desire, binding me to expensive New York, I pushed my courage one step further and relocated to Philadelphia. For less than my New York City one-bedroom rent, I found an apartment big enough for real studio space.
Liberated and exhilarated, without dental care or a 401K plan, I set myself up as an artist in Philadelphia. It was a fantasy come true. I woke up every day to the sight of my paintings-in-progress. I spent my time painting, touring galleries and museums, and getting to know my new metropolis. I made new friends in this small city and e-mailed my old pals in New York, who congratulated me and envied me. I was living my dream.
But of course, the dream could not go on forever. My money was not rejuvenating itself and, after a couple of months, I had to accept that the time had come for me to downgrade my title to part-time artist. I'd have to start making some money again.
I was perspicacious in my job search: I would not take anything that hindered my dream. I decided that the right job for me would be a job that offered any of the following: lots of free time, great connections in the field, access to art and artists, or a 50% discount at an art supply store. The right job would also have to be something that I enjoyed doing and through which I would feel challenged and fulfilled.
After a few weeks scouring the market, I took a job at an art museum. Granted, it's only in the admissions department, but I do get to see bona fide and celebrated artworks every day.
And so my dream goes on. I work twenty to thirty hours a week for pay and thirty to forty hours a week for sheer pleasure. Of course I live meagerly, cutting coupons and foregoing luxuries like restaurants and movies. But I am living in a way that suits me, and which allows me to be an artist. As a result of my catalytic move, my painting is doing much better. I'm doing much better. I feel like I'm living life on my own terms now. I'm no longer simply calling myself an artist; I actually am one.
This article was originally created for TheArtBiz.com. It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library. It appears on mnartists.org courtesy of the New York Foundation for the Arts. For additional information about NYFA and its programs, please visit the NYFA Interactive website at www.nyfa.org. For information on NYFA Source, a national directory of programs for artists in all disciplines, go to www.nyfa.org/source, or call live technical assistance for the visual and performing arts at 1-800-232-2789, or email for firstname.lastname@example.org (visual arts), or email@example.com (performing arts).