“I studied art while I was in school. I loved it. Of course, I don’t do it anymore.”
I’m an itinerant art teacher. I’m in and out of several schools several times a week. At least once a month I have the same conversation with someone new: they used to love making art, but stopped. It’s usually followed by the laundry list of reasons why they can no longer do something they loved so much.
“Do you miss it?” I ask.
I have this conversation at every other exhibition as well, every time someone finds out that I’m an artist.
“I couldn’t ever justify it as a career.”
“So it’s your hobby now?”
I see students I’ve taught, and went to school with, slowly stop producing new works. I prod them for reasons why. The reasons are always solid. Every one of their reasons for quitting has run through my head at least once. Especially when things get hard. Like when I get more rejection letters than acceptances, when there are more bills than paychecks, or when the transmission in the car goes out. Sometimes it’s just exhaustion. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to end an exhausting day with four more hours of studio work and five hours of sleep.
During a critique in my first painting class, my professor asked “Why do you all want to make art?” Mr. Hunter tried to warn us of the difficulties it would bring our love-life and finances. “You better have a day job, and marry well.”
Bleak, I know, but to this day I appreciate his honesty. A couple of weeks later, I read this in an interview with Harry Chapin:
“My grandfather was a painter. He died at age eighty-eight, he illustrated Robert Frost’s first two books of poetry and he was looking at me and he said, ‘Harry, there are two kinds of tired: there’s good-tired, and there’s bad-tired.’ He said, ‘Ironically enough, bad-tired can be a day that you won. But you won other people’s battles, you lived other people’s days, other peoples agendas, other people’s dreams and when it was all over there was very little “you” in there, and when you hit the hay at night, somehow you toss and turn–you don’t settle easy.’ He said, ‘Good-tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you don’t have to tell yourself, ’cause you knew you fought your battles, you chased your dreams, you lived your days, and when you hit the hay at night, you settle easy–you sleep the sleep of the just, and you can say “take me away.”‘ He said, ‘Harry, all my life I’ve painted. God, I would’ve loved to be more successful, but I painted and I painted, and I am good-tired and they can take me away.’ Now, if there is a process in your and my lives in the insecurity that we have about a prior life or an afterlife and God–I hope there is a God. If He is– if He does exist He’s got a rather weird sense of humor, however. But let’s just– But if there’s a process that will allow us to live our days and will allow us that degree of equanimity towards the end, looking at that black, implacable wall of death, to allow us that degree of peace, that degree of non-fear, I want in.”
A week before school let out for Christmas, a gym teacher and I had the conversation that started this blog. He walked away, and I continued to prepare for class. It’s been nagging at me all week. I’ve come to a realization: I’m lucky. I have parents that, although they haven’t always agreed with my career choices, try their best to be supportive. I have in-laws who aren’t embarrassed that their daughter married an artist. I have a wife who truly is a partner in life. She sees the importance of the arts, and does wonderful things through the arts councils she’s directed. Without reservation she gives up a room in the house (and sometimes more) so I can have a studio space. She goes without a lot. She trudges through all the emotional shit that comes along with an artist. She makes sure I don’t quit. I realize that I work hard. I also acknowledge that I’m lucky. It’s because of her that I can “settle easy” at night.
Mr. Hunter, I married well.