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What Happens to an Artist When You Don’t Support Their Work

SIDE NOTE FROM JOHN (I intentionally used the thumbnail photo cause it shows a creative in her happy place and with many late night conversations about the difficulty of our chosen professions and the “Almost done given up” sentiments that happen naturally with lack of support… I wanted the reader to know that although the things enclosed sound sad and a little grim.. WE STILL continue to muscle through and create beautiful things and make the world a better and more glorious place until the last breath and all the while we find moments of joy.  CREATION > DESTRUCTION in this day and age of tragedy and loss. The videos enclosed were all made by Joey… These are the people/organizations that need support, keep in mind as you watch them that 95% of the people you see in these videos are getting paid little or nothing for the creativity they are putting out in the world.)

by Joey Phoenix

In all things I can only speak from personal experience. Some of the things I experience may be universal, because it seems that the paths of many artists seem to intersect from time to time. To be a creative person is to understand a range of emotions and a depth of reality that a lot of people never get a chance to feel firsthand. Artists have this ability because we’ve been gifted with the opportunity to make the world more beautiful, to call out the world on its bullsh*t, to tell stories in dynamic and vibrant fashions, and to bring attention to the human condition in ways that are both remarkable and unforgettable. 

Writers, painters, poets, photographers, musicians, dancers, videographers, fibre artists, and creators of every medium play such a significant role in crafting a better world. Our ability to create is what separates us as a species, and although everyone on the planet has the capacity to create art, it takes a special kind of person to be a creative, or even more so, a creative professional. 

Creative professionals cannot survive without an audience that supports their work financially. It’s one thing to care about the creators among us, but unless these gifted individuals can pay rent or buy food (living off ramen and $3 wine from Trader Joe’s doesn’t count), they will be forced to do the inevitable. 

Stop making art. 

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Or, in most cases, work a day job that will pigeonhole their art making capacities into the corners, the in-between times, and the wee hours of morning. Either way, they will make less of it. Many will just give it up altogether, considering it a pointless endeavor. Others will persist, all the while feeling worthless, like they just don’t have what it takes, despite the nagging urge to create which never seems to go away. 

For the latter, it’s often worse. 

(If you want to skip this intermittent bit where I ramble about past experiences and get on with the article, feel free to skip ahead a few sections. I won’t be offended. Also, for those of you who think “the reward of having made something” is enough to keep artists going, this article may not be for you.) 

Down the Rabbit Hole of Personal Experience

When I was a little girl, I would draw monsters and three legged dogs and green flowers with blue petals. My mother would take all of my tiny masterpieces, put them on the fridge and coo “You are so talented,” and kiss me on the forehead. 

The refrigerator was an homage to me, my tiny genius, and although I know now that everything I gave her wasn’t worth anything, her acknowledgment and appreciation that I had made something was enough to get me to make more of it. 

I’m sure many others had similar experiences. For many people, the first artist/audience experience is with a creative person and their parents, and that interaction can shape their artistic future in unexpected ways. 

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When I was 11, I became a freshman in high school. No, that’s no typo, I took an entrance exam and the Florida school system said “yes, let’s put a prepubescent adolescent in with the unruly teenagers.” Because, apparently, mental abilities are superior to social/developmental skills when it comes to placement tests. 

I wrote my first poem that year. It started, “Shadows in the night/dance upon the wall/pass the doorway’s threshold/with every breath they rise and fall.” I was immensely proud of it at the time, although now I find it laughable. My teacher gave me an A and said she “appreciated my use of metaphor” and encouraged me to keep writing. 

I’ve been writing ever since, although I usually hide all of the poems in drawers if they can’t be transformed into song lyrics or smarmy instagram posts. 

Two years later, at 13, I was an emotional and physical wreck. I had retreated into myself, ferreting away all my thoughts into a series of journals and refusing to share them with anyone. Sharing my art? What a dumb idea that seemed to be. 

High school was nothing short of hell. Daily harassment of every kind imaginable was my penance for being as young as I was and not being able to pass for older. I wasn’t allowed to have a voice. Phrases scrawled on the blackboard such as “J, Where’s your sippee cup,” were among the more mild punishments, being shoved up against lockers by passing male sophomores a more common occurrence. 

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My parents bought me a guitar that Christmas in what I now see as an apology and an effective attempt to rescue me from the dark hole I was tumbling down. When I wasn’t on the tennis court (which is a story for another day) I alternated between strumming badly and tucking ideas into notebooks, my door always closed, my correspondence with people my age nonexistent. 

They pulled me out of school soon after. I would finish my Junior year of high school online. 

The next few years were my personal dark ages, and although I was making music periodically, I slipped into an existentialist coma devoid of art and enlightenment. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault, although my mother blames herself for not steering me in any creative direction. 

“If I’d had it my way,” she’d begin, “you’d have ended up in Juilliard.” Sure mom. You can think that if you want. 

I picked up photography my first year of Grad School. My parents, always supportive of my creative endeavors as long as I was taking the time for “more serious work” bought me my first DSLR. I was working on a degree in Political Science, super serious stuff. 

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Little did they know that they would be helping to steer my life away from anything resembling a normal work experience. Little did they know that they would eventually agree that this world was the best one for me. Funny how these things work out. 

When I moved to Salem in 2013, Master’s degree in hand and no real idea of how to be a creative professional. I had a handful of gigs under my belt, a fairly weak portfolio, and no real training. I had spent the last year writing for anyone who would buy my articles and pay for content, but the work was drying up and I didn’t know where to work or who to turn to. I had no idea how to find clients who would actually pay me for photography. 

So I started working at a bakery. 

Instead of making art I would stand behind a counter 30-40 hours a week making lattes, asking people how their days were going, trying not to be snippy when someone was being snippy with me. I received a regular paycheck and every so often I took out my camera. I remember always being exhausted and generally unmotivated. 

Then, one day, I had more than $40 in the bank (I’m rich I’m rich!) and decided it was time to take the dive again and make art full time. I had several clients lined up for several month-long contracts, and off I went towards the world of fragile instability. Hooray! Break out the champagne. 

The Creative Salem Intervention

When I met John Andrews in October of 2014, we had both shown up to photograph the ribbon cutting of Wicked Good Books, most of my options were running dry. The contracts were ending, late fall was approaching and the Boston photography season was nearly over (yay northeastern winter!), and I couldn’t figure out what to do next. 

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous. 

You see, John has this absurd idea that artists who have taken the path towards becoming a creative professional deserved to be treated fairly. If their work has merit, then they deserve to be respected by the community and paid for their work. 

Revolutionary, right? 

It’s one thing having a mom who puts your childlike artwork on the fridge because she’s proud of your potential, it’s another thing entirely to have a community of likeminded individuals who value your abilities as an artist and strive to put you in places where your work can be valued for what it’s worth. 

That’s what Creative Salem does for the creative professionals of the Massachusetts North Shore, it’s what it’s done for me. 

Still, it’s an uphill battle to get people to believe in the world where creative professionals can be given the respect and recognition they deserve. When the only currency most people often have to offer is exposure, the fight can be exhausting. 

The Isolation of Striving Alone

Support for an artist has to come from two different angles for them to thrive. First, they need to feel a part of the artistic community: the makers, the creators, the inventors, the people who are also, as Brené Brown puts it, in the arena visible to everyone getting bloody by the day to day work of making things happen. Second, they need to have an audience of people who are willing to compensate them for their talent, time, and energy. 

If one of the other of these factors is missing, then disappointment ultimately lies ahead. This is because being a creative professional is an isolating vocation. They spend countless hours striving in the darkness to give birth to something brilliant so they can release it into the light. The moment they release their work into the light they are opening themselves up to the most gruesome of vulnerability. 

The questions begin:

What if they hate it? 

What if they love it but then that’s the best thing I ever do? 

What if they think I’m a fraud, a sell out, or a hack? 

And then the doubt and insecurity can cause the creative person to leave their work in the darkness because what’s the point anyways? 

At the moment, as I am most days, I live on the fence between throwing in the towel and sticking with this crazed fever dream. I think, what would happen if I stopped putting guinea pigs in tea cups or transforming humans into deities to pursue a career in politics (I have this degree right? It must be worth something…) The reason I’m enduring this thought process is that although I have many people who appreciate my work, I often feel like what I’m doing is adding to the noise rather than being actually beneficial. 

Then I look around me.

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    Disclaimer: I’m not so self-centered as to think that my work is particularly world             changing or that in 100 years, hell, 20 years from now, anyone will care about what I made or what I said. So, I’m going to say this right now, this isn’t a plea on my own behalf, I’m speaking to the environment that we currently live in. I am not the only artist (duh!), but I’m also not the only artist who feels this way about the current state of art culture in our beloved country either. End disclaimer. 

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Thousands of creatives around the country, let alone the hundreds of thousands around the world, also struggle to find an audience for their work. They are also questioning daily the merit of their art and the merit of continuing in an environment where only a select few are appreciated, and even fewer are able to make a living in the profession that they love. 

How many great artists have we lost thus far to this line of reasoning? We will never know. So many have given up before they fulfilled their potential. 

Everyone worships the Van Goghs, the Vivian Maiers, the Schuberts, and the many others of our world whose work changed countless lives but who died penniless and unrecognized. We honor their memories, but the reality they faced was tragic. At least I suppose so, I never knew them personally. Maybe they enjoyed their relative obscurity?

I doubt it. 

Adopt an Artist

Sure, we should recognize and remember the heroes who died long ago and allow them to live on through our continued celebration of their posthumous achievement. But I beg of you, at least consider doing what you can to keep people of their caliber who are alive now from facing the same fate. 

So, I encourage you, pick someone whose art you absolutely love and do what you can to give them a leg up. You could be the person that keeps them from quitting (no pressure really, but you have no idea who’s about to topple off that fence). Buy their work, hire them for a commission, share their creations on the social media outlet of your choice, get your friends to become believers…

For the love of Michaelangelo, give them a chance. 

Ars gratia artis for some may be enough, but for most, not even close. 

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Joey Phoenix is a Salem-based photographer and videographer and proud member of the Creative Salem team. You can follow her on Twitter and IG @jphoenixmedia 

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