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Inside Out: My Studio Isn’t A Magical Place, Except When It Is

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We’re hustlin’ to finish the semester out here at UMass, so apologies for being scarce. I’ve managed to write a bunch and take loads of pictures, but not much is postable just yet. So for this week’s post, I’m going to take a cue from a great pal's inquiry about what it’s been like to be an artist in Boston.

I spent the first few years out of school in Boston scratching out dollars wherever I could like some hungry old hen. Working at 4, sometimes even 5 part-time jobs simultaneously was not unusual. There was a stretch where my schedule would look something like this:

Monday to Friday
6am: Studio
9am-12pm: Office job
12:30pm-6pm: Artist Assistant (we’ll call him Artist #1)
7pm-10pm: Teach

Saturday and Sunday:
8am-6pm: Repair exhibits (stealthily make drawings for Artist #2 in the boiler room)
7pm-10pm: Studio

In grad school at Virginia Commonwealth, I spent long, luxurious days in the studio working away at my art goods and services. As soon as the ink dried on that MFA however, it was a very different story. Gainful employment was the number one priority. I did find the employment part, but that whole gainful bit remained elusive. I once received a polite rejection letter from a local art institution noting they found someone more qualified to vacuum sculptures for five hours a week. Gigs were contract, or temporary, or part-time. Concentrating on the job at hand was tough because I’d be preoccupied with worry about what was next. I was a long-distance artist assistant, regular artist assistant, caterer, art handler, exhibition repairman at the Children’s Museum, secretary, teaching assistant, regular teacher (at one university, two adult education schools, and three elementary school summer programs). Oh, did I mention I was a tour guide for groups of angsty Catelan teenagers? It was amazing and totally terrifying that working for 60 hours a week was barely enough to keep me alive. I would see parents hanging out with their kids and just wonder how on earth they paid for it all.

The job insecurity isn’t the only stress on art making. Boston and all of its environs are populated by these turn-of-the century three-family homes. A single floor can cost many thousands of dollars a month. The rare one-bedroom can set you back a staggering amount. So, as many of us do, you split a floor with roommates. Your roommates take off, well, then it’s time to start shopping for another apartment. Since moving to Boston, five years ago, I’ve lived in 4 different apartments. Five if you include the brief spell I spent sleeping on my studio floor.

The constant moving around and dependance on roommate rent contribution has been a persistent distraction from working.

Thing is, I don’t think my situation is unique. I don’t think it’s unique for many Americans, and certainly not for artists. A long time ago, I was very critical of artwork, and I thought I would get even more critical as I got older. Surprisingly, it's been the exact opposite. Knowing now what it takes to keep your art going, my first thought when I see an artists work is "wow, you made time to make that thing." And just that fact is nothing short of spectacular. And when the work is good, hey, all the better.

It can be really hard to work on art when there’s no dough. When working hourly wage jobs in an expensive town going to the studio isn’t an option often enough. You skimp on material. When I was in my studio, the threat of no-money was always there, making it very difficult to concentrate. The incessant chaos of moving and job changes wears you down. It can be so hard to get motivated in the face of so much responsibility.

Now, I’ve got the job I’ve been working so hard to land. I’ve got the resources to put time and materials into my art. I’m safe and secure in New England, where I want to stay. Trouble is, school’s out in two weeks, and it’s going to be time to start looking for another job all over again.

This month has been pretty good. When one of my 82 darling students isn’t tugging on my sleeve asking how to make something, I get a few moments to think about my own work. On the weekends I spend time in the studio not worrying about what’s next.

To be sure, things are looking up. I probably won’t have to answer phones for dollars anytime soon. Every crummy job has led to something better. I’m getting more time in the studio, where I’m not afraid of the old noisy phantoms. My work is maturing and is stronger than ever, and my ideas for cIasses are going like gangbusters. I live with a bunch of wildly hilarious artists who make incredible stuff. We’ve got two porches populated with adirondack chairs. I never had any illusions that being an artist was going to be easy, but I’ll be damned, it’s sure getting less hard.

I’ll end this week’s post with a picture of something I did this week. Toby certainly appreciated the haircut.

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AJ Liberto is April's artist-in-residence on Big Red & Shiny's blog series, Inside Out.

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