First of all--studio? What studio? My "studio" is the kitchen table that I commandeer for as many days as I can before the guilt sets in about making my wife eat dinner on the floor at a coffee table. (Sue, God bless her, is 100% supportive of all this.) And I've spread a canvas drop cloth in the middle room (give and inch, take a mile.) When it's nice out, and the winds not blowing, I work on a table on the porch. And I ask you: How many artists work like this, making due with whatever space or materials they have? I would gander the majority of artists work like this everywhere.
I'm reading The Death Of The Artist: How Creators Are Struggling To Survive In The Age Of Billionaires And Big Tech by William Deresiewicz. Every artist should read it, but they should also be prepared to be mortally bummed out. I mean, halfway through the book you'll be asking yourself, what's the point? Why should I even bother being an artist because the deck is so tragically stacked against you. But in the end, the answer is everything every artist knows: It's what you were born to do. You can't do anything else.
It's the artist's life in the 21st century in a capitalistic country. To make money, I write and photograph stories for magazines. It's not a great way to make a living, though it used to be. Interesting and most times rewarding work if you picked and chose carefully. But just like everything thanks to the Internet and the economy in general, a story that used to pay, oh say, $2,000 or more (you'd get at least $125 for pictures, and now you're lucky to get $25), now will bring in $500 for a story and pictures before expenses with a helluva lot more work. That's what I just went through. A story that should have been finished weeks ago just kept going on and on and on. And I'll come out and say it: The reason this happened was because main source for the article assigned by the editor didn't know anything about the topic she was suppose to know about, even though it was about her own company. Amazing I know, that someone who is suppose to know enough so from an interview with her I would be able to write 2,000 words didn't give me enough for 75. So I had to find more sources because if I didn't there would be no story and I had to turn in something or I wouldn't get paid. And I had to contact these new sources. And I had to wait for them to get back to me...or not. All this takes a lot of time. (One guy, I'll call him Parker because that was his name, told me on the phone four times that he was busy but he'd get back to me. Four ... fucking ... times, and he never did. I don't understand how people can lie like that; or treat another person with such arrogance. Parker, I was just trying to make a living, just like you are.)
And all this kept me from making art for almost two weeks. And I'll admit it: I get resentful. I'm getting paid and the money will be nice, I agreed to take on this project, I'm responsible for the situation I'm in, but I still get resentful of people who keep me from making art. Childish, I know. They have no idea the affect their ineptitude has on another person's life. They probably wouldn't understand. I used to say when I was in corporate America that my job description was to make wealthy men wealthier. So now, if I can use my same skills to help promote a small (or in this case minuscule) business, I actually feel good about it. But in this case, you could see the person didn't see it that way. She didn't see it that the story I professionally wrote and the gorgeous photographs I made after four years earning a BFA as helping her. She saw it as she, out of the goodness of her heart, was helping me. With my story.
This was my life for years...decades...and it's all in the book. Holy Christ, this was/is my life I kept mumbling to myself. To make a living in these here capitalistic United States, artists either a) teach; or b) use their artistic talents in the business world as copywriters, journalists, graphic designers, videographers, events people who the business world still needs to promote itself. The pay is really good, or at least it used to be. But you're not working as an artist. In your spare time you're making work piecemeal. There's never a consistent flow to your work, to your growth. And academia's the same way. You work nine months so you can make art for three. It's the contract artists have made with America.
Today when I was finally able to set up my easel and brushes and concentrate, I started with a burst of energy, but suddenly I was floundering. I didn't know where to go with the piece shown above. I forgot how to talk in the visual language I'm developing. I usually start with an idea in words. The underlying visual structure is usually made of lines, like above, that I immediately disregard. It's how I see the world: there's a structure but we're where we are today because we disregard any structure or order. Then... then... the resentment sets in again.
It will come back, it always does. But if you read The Death Of The Artist you'll learn what just about every artist in America who isn't Jeff Koons intuitively knows: You're never going to be rich. You're never going to be famous. But none of that will stop you from making art. The resentment is the proof. The resentment is a byproduct of the love you have for what you, and only you, can do.
If you look at the post from March 25 when I just started this painting, and here you can see the work I did on it yesterday.
Especially because of social media, most of us only want to present our world, our art as achievements. But the truth is, making art is easily one of the most frustrating endeavors you can imagine taking on in your life. And if you're like me, self-defined as a writer (of plays and short stories), a photographer, and an artist, a term I use to catch all the other things I do when writer or photographer doesn't suffice, you're really setting yourself up for some hefty frustration and rejection. The successes I've had as an artist--and there have been some really good ones--pale so much in comparison to getting up every day and trying to make a piece of art, whether it's a written piece, visual, or a combination in the face of not just rejection or frustration, but actual failure as determined by me. I'm never going to be on Broadway, in the MOMA, or even some major literary press magazine. I'm an artist who every day uses creativity to make art or plant and maintain a garden because I simply don't know how to live any other way. Right now, the only person who I try to please is me, and many times that doesn't happen.
But griping or moaning, "whoa is me" is not why I'm writing this.
The picture above is a mixed-media piece I started working on this afternoon. I had an idea and I thought it was pretty clear-cut but things got out of hand and what I see above is something I would call a red-hot mess. You have to see where the painting wants to go, but you have to exert some control over it, too.
Last night a couple of writer friends were kind enough to give me feedback on a play I've written, and they pointed out what I feel is a pretty major flaw.
Later that night I laid awake in bed and thought about the play, and thought about three scenes that I can actually see as vertical ribbons, and I wondered if the solution didn't lie there. I know what I want to say in the play, and that's really what's important. I've been writing for so long and feel so comfortable doing it that I skip over frustration and go right into rolling up the sleeves and digging into the script.
Believe it or not, I will use the same process to try to "fix" this picture. When you hear a multidisciplinary artist say that everything is connected, believe them. I "see" a script exactly as I see this painting. Did you notice that I said there are three scenes that I can actually see as vertical ribbons. Those ribbons actually move, too, as if blown by the wind. And the same process of looking at elements and figuring our their role and how I can get them there is the same process for writing or for visual work. Weird, huh? Unless you've been seeing reality like this all your life.
But the language is different. Visual language is different from written or spoken language. (And for that reason is why I use text in my visual work: To give different meaning to words.)
All I know is right now I have to keep away from that painting. What I'll do is set it somewhere where I can see it, near me, for example, when I'm watching a movie. And we'll just take each other in. And I think something will come out that way.
John Greiner-Ferris is an artist in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.