10 Local Lessons for Making Your Art Work
Originally published on MinnesotaPlaylist.com, this piece I wrote summarizes so many of the flexible, creative approaches I've observed to making art.
After completing a major project in the Spring of 2011, I found myself in a complicated place of artistic exhaustion and uncertainty. Somehow creating performance had become more of a burden than a joy, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue making work. So I took a break. Instead of making my own work, I started asking the many local artists I admired about theirs. In the process of interviewing these individuals and looking at what they make, I’ve been inspired to think differently about my own art. Here are some of the lessons I hope to implement when it comes to growing an artistic career with at least a smidgen of sanity.
Treat your art like a business
“Freelancing is not a hobby,” tweeted Kate O’Reilly one day. I agree. And in this similar vein: befriend money skills; document your work professionally for easy grant-writing and website crafting; invest in yourself like you would a business; stop taking your work so personally. Some of the work we have to do as artists is creative, and some of it is business-related. Both types of work are essential if we want our careers to flourish.
Connect your art to your community
It wasn’t until I attended the Stranger Stranger Supper Series that I discovered Ngon Bistro just a mile from my house, complete with delicious Pho and a killer beer list. The night at Ngon was part of a series of performative meals developed by artist Rachel Jendrzejewski with support from Irrigate (an artist-led placemaking initiative). The project aimed to build community and business around the area of light rail construction. I discovered Ngon, so it worked! Using our art to serve the needs of our greater communities broadens our audience base, allows us to use our creative thinking in new ways, and serves as a reminder that artists are essential in more ways than one.
Think creatively about options for creating
My husband Ben McGinley’s videography business started with a short film series he made when he didn’t get cast in a play. He is one of many who have thought broadly about ways of putting creative energy to use. Levi Weinhagen found connection with other creative parents by making a podcast for them; Mo Perry took her wit and writing finesse and channeled it into a magazine column. There are so many ways to be creative.
Make your work deliberately
If you’re going to spend the time and money to make a performance, why not make it a production you can easily remount on tour? Put together a split-bill performance (just like musicians and comedians often do) and you get to share an audience, publicity, and production costs. Invest in making one great full-length show a year rather than pushing your energy and budget with four.
Teach your expertise
Teaching creates both the opportunity to hone your artistic skills, and to spread the message of why your work is important. In the case of Open Eye Figure Theatre, their teaching and mentorship program gives them a way to continue their legacy and connect to their community. And equally important: teaching generates income.
Find your signature style
In the Twin Cities we’re lucky to have an abundance of artists of every discipline. The only downside is that a lot of us share an audience. Michael Sommers spoke with me about the importance of isolating “what you are and what you aren’t” as a way of building an audience base. Fans of your work continue support because they know what you provide and they know that they like it. For instance, physical theater groupTransatlantic Love Affair makes story-driven performance as an ensemble using just their bodies and voices (no props or set). Trio MadKingThomas delivers humor-driven postmodern dance that digs into themes of consumerism and pop culture. I know what these artists are and aren’t – they have a consistent voice.
Create conversation around your art
Laurie Van Wieren’s 9 x 22 Dance Laboratory takes place at the Bryant Lake Bowl on the fourth Wednesday of every month. It’s a space for both new and seasoned choreographers to share their dance choreography and discuss it with audiences, and almost every month there are a handful of audience members attending for the first time. 9x22 gives choreographers an opportunity to present fresh work, but just as importantly it cultivates conversation around art-viewing. Talking about what we make gives us the opportunity to strengthen the connection to our audiences.
It’s not all about you
Focusing my energy on the art that others make has meant broadening my artistic lens to include more than plays, musicals and modern dance. Recently I learned about printmaking, got really excited about puppetry and was introduced to slam poetry! And, in turn, I’ve forged new relationships and heard about all kinds of artistic experiences. I’ve been reminded that the Twin Cities artistic community is vast, supportive, and amazingly talented.
Have other things in your life that you’re enthusiastic about
I used to joke that I needed a hobby. You know, one besides dance class, rehearsal, seeing shows and reading about creative process. So I planned more traveling adventures, started writing a blog, and got excited about cooking spices, serial television, and BOOKS JUST FOR FUN! Balance is healthy. When the grant or opportunity doesn’t work out, I don’t feel like my life has ended. Art is a part of my life.
Do the work
The best advice I received about art-making isn’t a solution as much as a call to action: Do. The. Work. By acting [no pun intended], you create potential for a whole host of opportunities that simply won’t happen if you sit and think too hard before moving forward. Creating is a downright vulnerable and terrifying process, and leads to all kinds of run-ins with jealousy, insecurity and doubt. These feelings are universal, so find another artist and get honest – you’ll feel better. Making a living as a creative person is damn challenging. But then, other things are too. My peers have reminded me that the flip side of that challenge is greater – that making art is also a privilege, a joy, and a necessity.
[Many thanks for the lessons, which come from the following people and organizations: Giant Steps, Springboard for the Arts, Irrigate, Kate O’Reilly, Shannon Forney, Rachel Jendrzejewski, Girl Friday Productions, Alan Berks, Transatlantic Love Affair, Jen Scott, Mo Perry, Tara King, Candy Simmons, Laura Brown, Laurie Van Wieren, Levi Weinhagen, Toussaint Morrison, Emma Freeman, and Open Eye Figure Theatre.]