For anyone curious about what life looks like after graduating with an art degree, I'll summarize my years of experience for you here.
Lucky for me, soon after graduation, I came across the glamorous position of box office assistant at a live theater in my area. While I was hoping it would be my stepping stone into costume-making, props, set-design, or play writing, I mainly just gained customer service and office skills to add to my resume. However, even though it wasn't a huge step professionally, it was a step: my first full-time job. I was pretty proud of myself for being able to pay my own bills and enjoyed the other perks of working there, like learning more about the theater community and having the amazing privilege of seeing free plays for the two years I worked there. I also made incredible and inspiring friends--box office workers are basically the most fun breed of people out there! You had to have a sense of humor to deal with the "drama" (pun-intended). Lost tickets, picky patrons, cancelled shows, diva-like actors, and a bit of condescension from the other theater employees came with the title.
Meanwhile, during this first year out of college, I wasn't producing very much art. I was used to making large, messy installations at the MICA studios and didn't exactly know what kind of work to create in my one-bedroom apartment. One of my friends from MICA and I saw that there was a studio space available near my apartment, so we decided to lease it and try to get other studio mates as well. We had grand plans that we would profit from letting other artists rent the space, but to our surprise, not too many artists wanted to pay the price, or any price. We tried forming a "collective", hoping our studio would attract artists and we would host exhibitions, but the space really wasn't very large, and the best walls for hanging work were in the garage area, which was very difficult to heat, and even more difficult to pay for it.
Even though I had plenty of access to this studio space, I wasn't really able to make my art there. Instead of creating a thriving art hub, I was struggling and overwhelmed. Interactions with my friend became more tense, and eventually we decided to end our lease early. So, that was that.
Even though one might call it a failed venture, I learned a lot from that experience. One: going into business with a friend can be tricky--we haven't talked much since then. Two: don't take risks with money you don't have. At least I had enough money to make this mistake. And three: when it comes to making a profit or even breaking even on your own idea, it's harder than it looks. It's not impossible, but you do have to expect some setbacks and expenses, and put as much forethought in your decisions as possible. It's also true you have to know when to quit, and we did.
In 2009, I had no exhibitions to my name and was still working at the box office. I got married that year at age 23, so that was a bit pre-occupying. Life was fun and not too serious, but I knew I needed to be doing something with my art.
I started a little project, something that didn't cost me anything and that I could work on anywhere. I started hand-sewing scraps of paper together, thinking that it would eventually become a giant paper quilt. I just worked on it here and there, and hoped one day it would mean something.
In 2009, I did find out about the awesome art opportunity in Baltimore- the Baker Artists Awards. I used my senior thesis art pieces to apply for the prize since I didn't have any other new work. I didn't win, but I browsed the other artists and saw someone who was doing amazing large-scale installations with colorful tissue paper. I felt it related to my work, and left her a comment saying how I admired her projects. She ended up looking at my work online and suggested we apply for a textile show in Kansas City together. Though we never met or even talked on the phone, I sent her my images and information and she worked on the proposal. We didn't get the show, but from that experience, I learned that artists have to stick together. This artist turned out to be quite accomplished and just happened to have a collaborative and open-minded spirit. Even though I told her multiple times I was "just an emerging artist" and didn't know what I was doing, she extended a hand and gave me some hope. That meant a lot and encouraged me to keep going.
By 2010 I was ready to leave the box office. Having to deal with customers and sitting at a computer all day long wasn't satisfying anymore. My husband and I decided to by our first car and move into a bigger apartment in a more suburban area. I applied for jobs that seemed interesting to me. I had a short stint as a summer teacher for underprivileged middle-schoolers which went quite horribly, since I was called in as a replacement teacher for someone who quit, and I was extremely unprepared and untrained. I had at one point considered becoming a teacher, but that rough experience left me completely dumbfounded and not knowing what to do.
I began looking at job ads and found one for a small nonprofit that provided work-readiness training for low-income adults. Basically, they needed someone with entry-level office skills. Basically, I had those skills since I worked at the box office. I got the job and felt pretty good about it. At least this was more of a regular 9-5 type job where I didn't have to work nights and weekends.
Even though we had a bigger apartment with one room for my art, it was more of a storage room for art that hadn't been shown or sold. I continued to work on my sewing project little by little, but was starting to wonder, could I call myself an artist at this point? I had the degree and some finished work from the past, but who knew about me and what I have done lately? I was starting to have my doubts.
My job was going well at the nonprofit I was working for. I was learning how to write grants and seemed to be doing more than just regular clerical work. My husband's job was going well too, and in 2011 we bought a house. It was hard for me to part with our savings that went toward the down-payment. I guess I had never thought of that money going to something so permanent like a house in the suburbs. Perhaps some part of me thought that those savings may be a way for me to "become an artist", or a cushion for me to pursue my dreams if there was ever an opportunity someday?
But in reality, who was I kidding? I hadn't finished a substantial piece of art since I graduated from art school, and I hadn't had any exhibitions. Toward the end of 2011, I managed to find two calls for entry for art shows that I may be eligible for. I applied for both using the images from my senior thesis, but wasn't hopeful. In my mind I was telling myself that if these shows don't work out, I probably shouldn't think of myself as an artist anymore. I should find something else to focus on, like my nonprofit work or a "real job".
It turns out, I got accepted to participate in both of the shows I applied for in 2011! One was even a solo exhibition opportunity in Washington DC. I was never so surprised and elated in my life. I was even assigned an artist mentor who would help me prepare for that particular show.
2012 was amazing. My mentor put me in touch with some studio artists locally who gave me some awesome studio space. I had a house where I could spread out and work on new projects using recycled materials. I finally finished that hand-sewn paper piece and it did appear in one of the shows. I had two shows that went well and led to other opportunities. I created a website, something every artist should do as soon as they can. I finally felt like an artist! Of course, my full-time job was still necessary, rewarding, and interesting, but at least my art degree was getting some use.
Now that I had begun exhibiting and had finally made new work since graduating, I felt more inclined to seek opportunities. Once you start looking, they're easy to find, and once you start believing you're a real artist, you actually become a real artist. I added more shows to my resume and started branching out in new ways, even making an interactive outdoor piece.
But, life is not just about art. In 2013, I still had my full time job, had joined the board of a professional association, and became pregnant with my first child! I was being pulled in so many directions and was also especially low on energy. Even though I have always lived a busy life, my husband actually said I looked like a train wreck. While I enjoyed the success I was having in my "day job" and in other professional arenas, I knew I needed to scale back. I quit the board I was a part of and lightened my art load toward the end of the year. I reasoned it was OK to have a little time to rest and relax while I created a baby.
We're almost halfway through the year, and my baby is 3 months old! It has been quite an adjustment being a new mom, so I allowed myself to have a small hiatus from art. Luckily, though, I found some fun opportunities recently, so I am back in the saddle this weekend, collaborating with another artist on an upcoming performance piece and also working on a small project before the weekend is over.
As for my day job, being a mom and working full time in a demanding position just doesn't seem plausible right now. Beginning in July, I will begin working with my husband with his new business, Pest Czar, where I will once again use my customer service skills from the box office, along with the new marketing and high-level administration skills I gained from my job at the nonprofit.
In conclusion, having an art degree isn't so different from having any other kind of degree. In my experience, just possessing a bachelors degree in any major can get you in the door as far as "day jobs" are concerned, but life overall is not about degrees or moving up the career ladder. For me, life has been and always will be about improving myself and contributing to the community. It is and always will be about family, creativity, and nature. It is and always will be about happiness. I encourage anyone, especially recent graduates, to remember what truly motivates you and stay focused on your goals, but know there are many paths you can take to lead a fulfilling life. Sometimes you will be more motivated to work on your art, sometimes you will need a break. Sometimes you will need to focus on making money, and sometimes you might be able to take a break from that too. As long as you follow your heart, make smart choices, pay attention to your finances, and surround yourself with supportive people, you will be OK.