Behind the Scene: Reading “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life”

I regret I am a partial reader of books. I peruse and use them but often fail to turn myself over to the full authorial plan. It’s not something I like. I would like to be a reader who surrenders to it, who doesn’t think of something else more urgent and leave early.

But, I did read “Living” from cover to cover, while thinking of other things in countless pauses along the way. Initially eavesdropping on the essays of artists whose work I knew, then heading to the the conclusion, and finally determinedly hiking back to the trail head, essay by essay, willfully in reverse because I did not like this book.

Reading "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life"
I read this book on the train, on the way to my studio. “Being an artist is not a normal career. You don’t walk out the front door into it.” offers Michael Waugh.

I did not like this book because it put me face to face with daily issues too close to my own. And these were other peoples’ solutions. Other peoples’ lives. Don’t concern yourself, I hear my dandy streak announce in chartreuse whispers. But I persevere. You really need this. You really need to pay attention to this. Keep trekking.

The essays in “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life” are concerned with the details of forty successful visual artists’ working lives. The level of success here might be called mid-level. These people aren’t blockbuster Koonses or DeKoonings, but artists whose earnings come from a motley combination of exhibiting, public programming, sales and teaching; and who through sturdy professional practice, manage to weather the ups and downs.

How do they do it? Each artist seems to have found their own system and a personal equation of time, infrastructure, outlet and returns that enable continued productivity.

A number of general points crystallize. I caught these:

1) There are as many ways to “make it” as an artist, as there are artists. (So don’t fret if you haven’t followed Mister ABC’s advice to the T.)

2) Keep your overhead low because your circumstances can change on a dime. Nearly every artist contributor mentions this.

3) Passion. Stick-to-it-ness. A-okay. Just, whatever, do it. Yes.

“It takes a village for an artist to really sustain their creative practice,” says the editor of “Living”, artist Sharon Louden, in a discussion of the book with Hyperallergic. Indeed, familial and societal connections open doors, buttress and cast light left and right. Louden’s use of the “takes a village” phrase also nudges at possibilities of governmental or institutionalized support programs. It’s good to remind ourselves that art, in complexity and diversity, enlarges culture and enriches the village, and to consider how we put a value on it.

To summarize, I’d like to reflect on the rather radical aspect of “Living”, which struck me some time after I arrived back at the book’s first pages, and this was its unified impact. In the remarkably ordinary intimacy of their contributions, these artist-writers carry our attention away from art market glamorizing to the actual spaces of studio lives, and as a group they do this forty times.

So mundane becomes mantra for the book’s ultimate take-home: sustaining an artistic career through ebbs, flows and winds of change requires planning, discipline, endurance and tending relationships. The artist as free wheeling rock star do-as-you-please? In your dreams. In case your personal experience hasn’t done so already, “Living” erodes some old effigies. “Living” grows us up.