Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists

Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists

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Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists by Sharon Louden

In this day and age, when art has become more of a commodity and art school graduates are convinced that they can only make a living from their work by attaining gallery representation, it is more important than ever to show the reality of how a professional, contemporary artist sustains a creative practice over time. The forty essays collected in Living and Sustaining a Creative Life are written in the artists’ own voices and take the form of narratives, statements, and interviews. Each story is different and unique, but the common thread is an ongoing commitment to creativity, inside and outside the studio. Both day-to-day and big picture details are revealed, showing how it is possible to sustain a creative practice that contributes to the ongoing dialogue in contemporary art. These stories will inform and inspire any student, young artist, and art enthusiast and will help redefine what "success" means to a professional artist.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783200122
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 639,733
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sharon Louden is a practicing, professional artist living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has been exhibited at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Birmingham Museum of Art, Neuberger Museum, and the Weisman Art Museum, among other venues, and it is held in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Weatherspoon Art Museum, and National Gallery of Art.

Read an Excerpt

Living and Sustaining a Creative Life

Essays by 40 Working Artists

By Sharon Louden, Ed Glendinning

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Louden and contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78320-135-8



AS A SOCIALLY engaged artist, I not only make work about social issues, I also write, curate and run programs for artists. This extended practice both financially sustains and creatively expands my work beyond the studio, which, after years of struggle, I now work in everyday.

When I graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I asked a trusted professor to lunch to get some ideas about what to do next. She recommended I get my MFA at SAIC. I didn't want to do that though because I knew the statistics stacked against artists making work outside of school. I wanted to know if I would keep it up with the pressure of daily life, so instead I delayed graduate school.

My first job after getting my BFA was a short-term position at SAIC where I placed students in internships. When that ended, I worked in the public relations office at the Art Institute of Chicago. Seeing so many smart people working for pennies in windowless cubicles prompted me to try my hand at the for-profit world. I applied for a job at a television station as an administrative assistant to the CEO. After the interviews and tour, the general manager asked if I wanted the job, to which I replied, "Yes – everyone here is smiling." In a few months they promoted me to business manager, and asked me to start testing for the news. A year later, I created an arts reporter position. I thought that if I could make contemporary art accessible then the public could better understand and appreciate it.

I transferred those skills to National Public Radio (NPR) a few years later. As the visual arts reporter for an NPR affiliate, I interviewed artists, critics, curators and people on the street about what art means and what it can achieve. My favorite experience was in Houston during Robert Rauschenberg's ROCI show. I was seated next to a lively, elegantly dressed, elderly man at the press conference. He was Billy Klüver! That weekend I got to talk to him, Julie Martin, Trisha Brown and Rauschenberg. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. In Chicago I talked with Andy Goldsworthy about the importance of failure when he realized his outdoor piece for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) wouldn't work due to temperature fluctuations. In Washington, D.C., I visited the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to talk with Bill Ivey. His thoughtfulness about the rise and fall of the NEA helped me realize a much bigger picture than the little oil painting. Each of these men and women had not only passion and intellect, but a real willingness to risk failure in pursuit of their vision.

I came to understand that with all the vagaries of the art world, financial stability was crucial to my ability to sustain not just being creative, which can range from how one dresses to how one thinks, but also to maintaining a career and an identity as a professional, working artist.

After two years of matching my public radio salary in art sales, my husband encouraged me to quit my full-time job. I listened and took the plunge. During those transition years of irregular paychecks, I made ends meet by freelancing. Realizing that artists did not have the ability to contact whomever they wished to speak to like an arts reporter did, I put together a website to connect artists with writers and curators. This project started my path in grant writing and cat-herding (ever tried to get a group of artists to both agree and act on something?).

In 2004 I earned my master's degree, and was invited to do a big museum show, for which they would publish an exhibition catalog. About a year before the opening, the museum lost a significant amount of funding, so I found and co-wrote a grant to fund the show and catalog. In 2006 I birthed my first child, a thousand-pound artwork and a catalog covering nine years of my participatory work. It was both exhilarating and debilitating, and I do not recommend this triple whammy to anyone.

I spent the next year fruitlessly trying to take my daughter to work (both the 36 sq. ft. rolling, carpeted playpen I built and the cadre of interns/babysitters I hired failed spectacularly, as my daughter wanted only me). I was exhausted and needed a break from the physical labor of the studio. The timing worked out well, as I foresaw the decline in the art market and knew I wouldn't be able to count on sales. Pregnant again, I knew we would be in Nashville for a while, and started thinking about how I could contribute to the city's creative capital. That year I started two ideas – one immediately realized and one that took time to cultivate.

After writing a couple of grants that didn't get funding, I eventually realized that successful grants required not just a good idea, but also a well-written narrative and a solid budget, sincere and enthusiastic support from partner organizations, no little amount of political lobbying, pointed feedback from a grant administrator, and a strong board of directors, all of which takes a heck of a lot of time. Being home with my daughter gave me space to formulate an idea worthy of such an investment.

In 2008, after securing significant funding from three sources, I launched "ART MAKES PLACE" (AMP), a year-long program that commissioned temporary, community and performance-based art for Nashville. Designed to encourage partnerships between artists and the public, we unveiled a work every two months, and continued its display for a year throughout the city. To culminate the project, we documented the work with a public exhibition and a catalog. It was amazing and humbling, and much harder than I anticipated. Organization was much more difficult than securing the funding. My worst moment occurred when an intern called from the middle of a busy intersection to say that a wheel had fallen off the large sculpture she was trying to move. My best moment was realizing that the seemingly disparate ways I had been trying to piece together a career are all part of the relatively new field called "socially engaged art."

As I was wrapping up AMP, I kept thinking about the space that I had built in my studio a few years earlier. I had built it to map out an installation that I wasn't able to travel for because I was then pregnant. I didn't want it to be a gallery or a storage space for my work. I couldn't work on large studio projects because I had a baby and a toddler. I needed to be in the studio. That year Ruby Green, a contemporary art center in Nashville, closed. I realized that with my relationship with the non-profit, I was well positioned to start a space. I knew I could do a lot more with funding, so I wrote some grants and launched Seed Space, a lab for artists, writers and curators. Two of the AMP interns stayed around to start it with me. One is now a paid curator.

We kept Seed Space underground for its first year. Our main goal was to bring outside critics/curators to see and review the work for our exhibition brochures. While I started Seed Space as a way to get critics/ curators to Nashville and my studio, it has grown important to the community, in part because of related programming. We do six exhibitions and two to three group shows a year, and are now planning to participate in international art fairs. We run the "Insight? Outta Site!" participatory pot luck forum, where artists meet nationally known critics and curators, and "Insight? Outta Site: Artist Engagement," whereby the Nashville community engages with visiting Seed Space artists. In order to support more locally-based, nationally exhibited artists and to raise funds for Seed Space, we launched "Community Supported Art," a program that sells limited edition works through a subscription service.

As a mother of two young children, I am now focusing on growing Seed Space and developing a new body of work addressing the health crisis, neither of which I could do without an extended and amazing network of supporters, ranging from friends and family to a slew of dedicated interns and assistants.



I THINK EVERY artist dreams of living off the sales of their work, but all too often this dream does not become a consistent reality, and alternatives need to be found. And yet creativity also applies to this search for a viable way to earn a living and still maintain enough time and energy to focus on making art. I have been a professional painter for over 20 years, and making a living as an artist has always presented something of a quandary to me, having not wanted to go to graduate school and so never having entered the realm of academia. Ever since college I have just kind of fallen into the unofficial "catch as catch can" mode of operating. As a quintessential non-planner, I have always just managed to get into a variety of part-time jobs, a lot of which happened to be in publishing – either writing, or editing, or proofreading; but I have also done other things, from waitressing, to modeling for figure-drawing classes, to working for artists, but still always trying to prioritize studio time.

Looking back at the way New York City was when I got back after college in the early 1980s, I am struck by what a completely different place it was; the art scene was mainly in the East Village, the Meatpacking District really was just that, and punk rock dominated the club scene. There were tons of great places to see music, very few of which still exist, and it was still possible to find an affordable place to live and/or work. My first studio was in a basement on East 11th Street that I shared with a good friend from school, and we paid next to nothing for this great space that we could fix up exactly the way we wanted it. I worked the lunch shift at a Midtown restaurant, and would ride my bike down to my studio afterward. At night I often went out to see punk bands. It wasn't until I started dating an artist who already had a viable career that I began to realize what being a professional artist entailed: primarily, to start anyway, meeting other artists, dealers, writers and curators, and inviting them for studio visits. Once I began doing this, it quickly became second nature and was actually kind of fun. I was and still am a very social creature that thrives on interacting with others. It's a great way to establish a community or connect with an existing one, and it creates an intrinsic support system that I believe is essential to life as an artist.

Because of the way I've set up my life so as to keep expenses low, part-time work has sufficed to date. But with the current state of the economy and the accompanying lay-offs, including loss of health insurance, etc., times have become somewhat tougher, and I have been scrambling to replace a great magazine position with a variety of freelance jobs. With the exception of a couple of really good years, painting sales have not generated sufficient income to live on. So now I have found some regular freelance clients, and I also write art criticism for a few major publications. Additionally, I started a small design business called Mandy Pants, which has been in existence for about two-and-a-half years. First came the moniker and then the concept: a line of beachwear (board shorts and bikinis) whose designs are based on my paintings. This has been an interesting and somewhat successful experience, but I have learned that there is really not enough time to be a painter and to also seriously run a business. Painting has, and will always, come first. Interestingly, I have noticed a recent trend among artists to design clothes, including T-shirts, sneakers and skateboards. But then the art-meets-fashion thing has been around for quite a while: back in 2003 I designed a Fendi bag for that year's New Museum benefit, and collaborations between artists and designers are now virtually everywhere in the fashion world.

My paintings have evolved over the years into a recognizable form of minimal Pop, incorporating various aspects of the body in landscape, landscape itself and, most recently, elements of hard-edge geometry derived in part from West Coast architecture. I've worked with various galleries in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, as well as in Europe, and recently had a solo exhibition in Louisville, Kentucky, at Land of Tomorrow, as well as a group show this summer at Kate Werble Gallery. At the moment, I am not affiliated with any New York gallery, and so have less to say about the relationship between artist and dealer, although my goal is, and always has been, to find a gallery that takes care of all business-related matters professionally, honestly and adeptly.

Because we as artists are so driven and committed to making our work, I believe that we will always find creative ways to overcome obstacles and support ourselves toward that end. That's what I see all around me, anyway, and I am proud to belong to such a dedicated, hard-working lot.



EACH DAY I wake, put my clothes on, drink my coffee, wake my kids, make breakfast, pack lunches, take them to school and then drive to the studio. When I walk through the door I am comforted by the smell of oil and turpentine, and scan the room to take note of how I left it the day before. I stand in the midst of paintings that are propped up on paint cans and leaning against the wall, reminding me of the successes and failures of the day before.

Every day I create a problem for myself to solve, a battle that within my four walls is the only battle in the world. How the image presses itself against the edge of the canvas, how the colored ground seeps through, how the characters interact or don't interact with one another, how it reveals to me the delicate balance between my insecurity and my confidence. And then in the end, the satisfaction of knowing that it couldn't be any other way.

I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be an artist. It was the only thing that interested me and I was always making something. Despite my parents' concern that I might live a life of poverty, they supported my every decision.

I received my BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1994, during which time I studied twice abroad in Italy, and afterwards decided to take a few years off before going to graduate school. I moved back to my home town of Birmingham, Alabama, to find that I couldn't find a studio that I could afford. One of my best friends was the stage manager of the historic downtown Alabama Theater, and as I sat complaining about my studio situation, he suggested I come to the theater and look at some raw spaces in their building. The manager of the non-profit organization that oversaw the Alabama was interested in what I did, and wanted to support me somehow. He offered me a studio in the building for $35 a month, enough to cover my light usage. I became a part of the Alabama Theater family, and in this space I spent three years developing the work that I applied to graduate programs with. During this time I taught four days a week at an art studio for high-risk youth, taught private lessons, and after leaving the studio, I assisted a painter during these three years creating murals and decorative finishes in private homes. I painted on Fridays and any other time I could get on the weekends.

After finishing my MFA at Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, in 1999, I moved back to Birmingham and resumed my work with the decorative painter until I found out I was pregnant and couldn't use the chemicals we were using on the job. I knew that I wanted to have kids and was concerned about how it would affect my career, but I'm a bit stubborn and determined and refused to believe that I should pick one over the other. I was going to do both; however, this decision played a large role in where I lived. My family was in Birmingham so it made sense to be there as they wanted to be an active part of my children's lives.

Where I live has been a large factor in how I survive as an artist. Living in an affordable city meant a less expensive house and studio, therefore leaving funds available to travel to see exhibitions, to visit with other artists, or for project opportunities. The amazing people at the Alabama Theater allowed me to keep my studio while I was away at Tyler, and I moved right back in after finishing my graduate degree. They raised my rent to $50 a month as I now had air-conditioning.

Living in a small town is made easier by having New York gallery representation at Jeff Bailey Gallery, with whom I have worked since 2004. Having this relationship relieves some of the feelings of isolation. I can participate in the larger art community while living outside of a major art city. We have a relationship that is both professional and personal, as he is my dealer but he is also my friend. We talk a couple of times a month to catch up on progress of new work, opportunities that have come up, consignments or life in general. Despite the distance, we have studio visits at least twice a year. Other than that, we exchange by sending digital images.


Excerpted from Living and Sustaining a Creative Life by Sharon Louden, Ed Glendinning. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Louden and contributors. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface  Sharon Louden

Introduction  Carter E. Foster


Adrienne Outlaw

Amanda Church

Amy Pleasant

Annette Lawrence

Austin Thomas

Beth Lipman

Blane De St. Croix

Brian Novatny

Brian Tolle

Carson Fox

David Humphrey

Ellen Harvey

Erik Hanson

George Stoll

Jay Davis             

Jennifer Dalton

Jenny Marketou

Julie Blackmon

Julie Heffernan

Julie Langsam

Justin Quinn

Karin Davie

Kate Shepherd

Laurie Hogin

Maggie Michael and Dan Steinhilber

Maureen Conner

Melissa Porter

Michael Waugh

Michelle Grabner

Peter Drake

Peter Newman

Richard Klein

Sean Mellyn

Sharon L. Butler

The Art Guys

Thomas Kilpper

Timothy Nolan

Tony Ingrisano

Will Cotton


Ed Winkleman and Bill Caroll


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