Saturday, August 4, 2012
We are always processing what we see and hear in life’s experiences and developing those things into works of art.
Artists in America have split up personalities. No, I don’t mean split personalities. I mean split up like one of Picasso’s famous portraits. We always have one foot in the studio and one foot on a banana peel. We are constantly slipping and sliding from our work as artists, which is demanding and unforgiving, to our work as grocery clerks, taxi drivers, teachers, college professors, sales clerks and singing waiters.
Civilians – those people who are not involved in the arts – seem to have dreamed up some super glamorous bohemian lifestyle for us. They have strange ideas about who artists are and what we do. They think artists live on champagne and chocolates while sleeping until noon after dancing about in garrets all night.
Me? I don’t exactly know what a garret is. Wikipedia says it’s some kind of an attic, and if Wiki says it, you know it has to be true. I promise, I have never danced in one. Maybe in the third floor apartment where I once lived, but that was a long time ago on an island far away.
Stage actors probably do sleep until the sun is high. That’s because you can’t act on a full stomach, so actors can’t eat dinner until after the play shuts down. If curtain is at eight, and the play runs two hours, it takes time to climb out of character and take off makeup. You do the math. Musicians? They are quite another story altogether. Nobody knows if or when they ever sleep.
Artists cannot afford to burn daylight. We might be up late working, writing, painting, or practicing. But when morning comes around, we have to punch a time clock just like everybody else. We are obliged to lead two lives. We are artists first. We are always figuring out how to make art out of the things we see, or we are always figuring out how to make music out of the sounds we hear. We are always processing what we see and hear in life’s experiences and developing those things into works of art. However, while we are doing all that seeing, hearing and expressing, the grocery bills are adding up. It has been my experience that rent checks do not grow on trees.
Many creative people, particularly younger artists, are obliged to take “pick up” jobs to help keep body and soul together. Willem de Kooning once worked as a house painter in Hoboken, N.J. Van Morrison immortalized his old job as a window cleaner in his song “Cleaning Windows.” Composer John Cage supported himself by washing walls at the Brooklyn YWCA. Actor Lawrence Kletter worked as a New York City doorman. Singer Rod Stewart once worked as a grave digger. Pop artist Larry Rivers occasionally worked as a jazz saxophone player. Composer Philip Glass worked as a plumber and a taxi driver. Franz Kline’s mural at the Cedar Tavern in New York City has become a thing of legend. Andy Warhol worked as a commercial illustrator until he hit the big time. Closer to home, Longview artist Velox Ward Sr. owned a shoe repair shop.
As for me, I was a grown up married lady before I realized that sometimes a cab driver is just a cab driver. Not everybody is a concert pianist. Sometimes a gym instructor is just a gym instructor. Not everybody is waiting for that big break that will let her dance on the New York stage. Sometimes a waiter is just a waiter. All of them are not necessarily actors. Sometimes the front desk clerk at a hotel is just a desk clerk. Sometimes a longshoreman is just a longshoreman. All longshoremen don’t turn out to be Studs Terkel.
Of course, a serious day job means artists spend the majority of their waking hours doing something that is not the thing they love best. Still, all the jobs artists take to support themselves are not always low budget pick up work. Because it is the nature of an artist to be dedicated, many artists bring the same commitment and enthusiasm to their day jobs that they bring to their art. Even though the other work an artist does may start out as nothing more serious than a way to put soup in the bowl, it often becomes a serious second career.
In ideal situations, artists are able to find jobs or second careers that complement their art and help them develop creatively. Some believe that being out in the public and doing something totally different makes it possible to bring a deeper understanding and perspective to their art.
So, there they stand with two careers. When that happens, the second career turns out to be as demanding as the original career of creating art. Art happens at all hours of the day and night. The second career has inflexible hours. It takes on a life of its own, which requires as much concentrated energy as art. Successful and respected artists have been equally successful and respected in their second careers. Artist John Graham worked in Paris, France, as a buyer of African sculpture for a variety of New York dealers. Composer Charles Ives was a reputable insurance executive. My father, Saul Berliner, who was an artist, was also the Deputy Director of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, which was New York City’s first interracial hospital.
We all know that an excellent education for everyone is absolutely essential to the life of a civilization. Because of this, many masters of American art have taken up important second careers as teachers. This denies the nasty old adage that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It simply is not true. Hans Hoffman, Richard Lippold, Robert Motherwell, and a whole host of dazzling and famous artists worked as college art professors. Brilliant younger masters continue to do so. Some work as art teachers in schools. Others teach in after-school programs or adult education programs. Still, others give private art lessons.
We no longer have royal princes and wealthy patrons who once subsidized the arts by encouraging artists and supporting them for life. Still, I am always shocked by the people who somehow think artists should not be paid for what we do because we enjoy our work. It is always a surprise to find otherwise smart people who have not figured out that they can actually buy fine art and fill their own homes with beauty. Because of the strange cutoff between artists and their audiences, being an artist means living with financial risk and sacrifice. Managing energy and time and balancing them in proportion with creativity and insight is a constant juggling act.
And yes, it definitely is worth it.
Although she is best known as an award-winning visual artist whose work is owned by collections across the USA, Jan Statman is author of three published books. She has written columns and features for the Dallas Morning News, the Longview News and the Longview Post.