I was the classic starving artist, but I walked away from my childhood dream. That was just the beginning of my artistic journey.
At the age of 19, I packed up all my belongings and left my sleepy Midwestern suburb for New York City and art school. Six months later I would find myself back home, broke and distraught, exhausted by both my choice of education and the city. However, I returned home with only a slight shift in focus: I was still every bit the classic starving artist. “So maybe New York isn’t for me,” I thought, “but I’m still an artist. I’m still a painter.” I reasoned that no degree or certificate could help me achieve my real goal, the life of an accomplished studio artist. So I would find a cheaper city, someplace I could actually feel at home, and there I would toil away, teaching myself my craft. And then, as my favorite painting teacher had said, eventually my good work would get recognition. It’s hard to believe that was a decade ago. It’s even harder to believe that, despite devoting the majority of my life to fine art, it’s no longer a world I feel I’m part of.
I decided I wanted to be a painter when I was four years old. It’s a sweeping story of self-discovery, one I’ve let define me for most of my life. I conveyed this story in my admissions essays when I was applying for art school, imagining my dedication would sway the reader. One day I drew on something I wasn’t supposed to. It’s a pretty typical event in the life of a young child, but as I was being scolded and placed in timeout, I was so overcome with the joy of creating my masterpiece (a Sharpie drawing of witches and princesses) I couldn’t focus. I kept saying, “I’m going to be an artist!” as though it were a massive revelation that would change the course of my life. And I suppose it did.
If you made good work, people would notice; you wouldn’t be a starving artist forever.
For the next couple of decades, if anyone asked me about myself, I was first and foremost an artist.
In my early twenties, I moved to Detroit, Michigan, and rented a tiny studio apartment that I divided in half: half studio, half apartment. With an orange kitten at my heels, I painted giant canvases in aggressive colors. I convinced friends and crushes alike to sit for portraits, plopping the kitten into the bath when he ended up covered in phthalo blue. I submitted pieces for local shows. To pay the bills I sold art supplies at the local store, which catered heavily to university art students. By day I explained the difference between cadmium red light and cadmium red light hue, and by night I did my real work. For fun, I went to art openings at nearby galleries. In many ways, it was a starving artist’s dream. For a while I did a little artist modeling on the side, and for a time I also ran a small gallery for a nonprofit.
Then slowly something changed. I started to notice things.
Living in Detroit and attending gallery openings, I couldn’t help but notice the glaring difference between the demographics of the city and the demographics of the art scene. I’m a white woman and in no way an expert on racial issues, but the prevalence of whiteness at the gallery openings in a predominantly Black city made me start to ask questions.
The world of fine art would like very much to see itself as a meritocracy. That painting instructor had told me nothing else mattered: If you made good work, people would notice; you wouldn’t be a starving artist forever. As a hungry young painter, I wanted to believe that too. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a very different story. In the contemporary art world, it would appear that, much like in the rest of the world, success is easier to come by for cisgender white men.
It wasn’t only inequality among artists that bothered me, though. There was the fine art world’s marriage to capitalism to contend with. Plenty of artists have opposed capitalism and still created great work, but for me it wasn’t working. It didn’t make sense, as a working-class person, to complain about structural inequality while also praying some rich collector would notice me. And with the ways the arts are often tied to gentrification, I began to feel like the parts of myself that loved justice and the parts of myself that loved art were at war.
As my mind slowly shifted, at first it felt like an identity crisis. I stopped submitting work to galleries. If I wasn’t a broke artist wearing jeans covered in paint, who was I? It started as a change in how I saw the external world, but quickly it became a huge internal shift as well. It was scary and confusing, and I suspect many friends thought that by distancing myself from my art work I wasn’t being true to myself. Our culture doesn’t really have language to talk about people with changing and evolving identities in their late twenties and early thirties. Any deviation from the path I’d set myself on at the age of four was “giving up on myself.”
But then something else happened. When I gave myself permission to stop defining myself the way I always had, I realized I could do almost anything. For years I’d strived to be focused, devoting all my energy to one thing and one thing only. When I stopped doing that, it created a space in my life, and that space was painful at first! But it made room for so much more. It turned out I wasn’t just a painter, just an artist. It turned out I was a full person with a pretty wide variety of interests and passions. Once I let myself be my complicated self, it stopped feeling like I had lost anything at all.
For a very long time, I didn’t paint. It felt strange, but it was also necessary to give myself room to grow. I started writing seriously. I became a mom. I took up new identities where previously there had only been a girl holding a paintbrush. I stopped defining myself as a starving artist eager to “make it” and started seeing myself as I truly was: just a person with a variety of skills and interests.
And then something very strange happened… My visual artwork, my first true love, started to improve and grow. Once I was free to go down whatever path made sense for me in the moment, instead of the path that made sense when I was a child who desperately wanted to be Picasso, everything opened up. I started doing work that wasn’t strictly “fine art” in the sense that I had been taught, but was (for me) a million times more satisfying. It was a totally organic and natural change, but it also felt a little bit like flipping a switch.