NYC artist Michael Burk breaks down how to stay true to your creative self and make a living, too.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with NYC artist, art director, photographer and overall creative guru Michael Burk. I’ve always turned to Michael for inspiration because he has an enviable knack for turning something mundane into something disgustingly beautiful. Most importantly, he has always been honest about his identity in his work.
Now more than ever is a time when people can feel proud of who they are and, as artists, what their work represents. Michael provides his personal take on maintaining a sense of self all while trying to survive as a NYC artist.
What do you feel has changed from when you first started making work for money until now? Pitfalls, success stories, etc.
I’ve made some mistakes, the biggest of which is undervaluing myself and my work. It’s hard just starting out in such a nebulous industry because there’s no real guide. Most creatives’ rates are based on perceived value, so the numbers are all over the place. I’ve found that when you charge too little for your work (or work for free), you’re respected less and all it gets you is more low-paying gigs. However, I’m grateful for all the work experiences I’ve had, the good and the bad, because I’ve learned a lot from it (and I’m still learning how to navigate new situations every day).
How do you approach clients with your portfolio? Do you feel like you have to find certain organizations with specific values/aesthetic flexibilities? Like, do you have to seek out clients who won’t find your portfolio “weird”? Do you make a specific choice to find brands who can identify with your style?
In the past I definitely sought out smaller brands that would be open to my ideas. I have been very fortunate to work with brands that allowed me almost complete artistic freedom. That’s something very rare and really valuable to a creative professional. Having built a portfolio of work that really speaks to my aesthetic, I’m starting to get more and more larger companies and agencies reaching out to me to work with them. I think they’re intrigued because they can see my vision in my work, rather than just a long list of internships. So I’m able now to bring my ideas to projects with bigger budgets and more resources, which is really exciting, even if that does come with some compromise.
Courtesy of Michael Burk
Are you able to make a creative project of your own and sell the concept to a company? Does that even exist? What are your goals right now?
At this point in my career I’m happy to take direction on commercial projects. Most of the time when I’m contracted to work on something, the client or agency has already laid the groundwork for the project, and I get to massage myself into it. I’m fine with working this way, and sometimes it actually helps my creativity to be given a prompt and parameters to work within. My main goal right now is to build a body of work that highlights my creativity and ingenuity in the commercial realm so that someday I can really direct projects from start to finish.
What have you been working on?
Lately I have been working almost exclusively as an art director. I’ve found that it really encompasses everything I like to do, from coming up with concepts, to building mood boards, to doing design work.
Courtesy of Michael Burk
Let’s get into the good stuff. Can you speak to any queer artist who’s trying to make a living in the world: Where do you find the balance between passion and professionalism? Can the two mix easily enough when your work can be provocative?
Being queer is truly a valuable asset. Your point of view, just by virtue of being an “outsider,” gives you the edge to approach creative challenges with a new and different strategy and to turn things upside down. I say, cultivate your passions and your vision and worry about the rest later. If you really work on homing in on what makes you special, people will see that and want to be a part of it. That goes for anyone, really. We’re all a product of our experiences, so why not highlight what makes you you? That alone is provocative.
What about the world of drag and what it speaks to — how does it influence your work?
I think I’ve always been interested in drag because it highlights the absurdity of so much of our culture, and I’m a rather cynical person. I’m also really interested in things being taken to their logical extremes, and that’s a big part of drag in many ways. Since moving to NYC and being around the queer Brooklyn scene, I’ve met so many amazing performers and artists that have taken drag and gender performance even further, who are really elevating the conversation at large and going beyond the typical gags. I think even since the huge rise in popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race over recent years, audiences are asking for something more — a man in a dress and wig just isn’t provocative anymore. Everyone likes to talk about “the future of drag,” but I don’t know that it will really continue to exist. I think it will morph into something else entirely.
Tell me about being an NYC artist and how you survive, what you deal with, what others can do to “make it.”
New York will kick your ass. It’s a challenge every single day to live here (unless you or your parents are rich). Really the biggest issue is that everything has become so expensive that it’s no longer hospitable to young creatives or the creative process in general. Even the simplest project can cost you a small fortune to do here, because space and resources are so limited and greed has taken over. I don’t think New York is the place for young “bohemian” types anymore. You can be an artist here, but you also have to be extremely hardworking and willing to do what you need to do to stay afloat. You definitely have to get past any sense of entitlement, because here you are not special until you prove it.
What is the moral at the end of your artistic story? Is it “Be yourself forever” or is it “Be yourself, but make money too”?
Well, I’m not sure what the end of my story is yet, but “Be yourself” really is the “moral” to every story, I think, even when it comes to making money. If money isn’t your priority, find a way of living with less of it. If you want money, find a way to make it while being true to yourself. And in the meantime if you have to do shit that doesn’t feel genuine, it’s fine as long as you don’t lose yourself in the process.