What is it like to be an artist? Essential.

Artist BZTAT in 1985 at Marshall University
Artist BZTAT in 1985 at Marshall University

I graduated from Marshall University in 1984 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting and Printmaking. I received a Master of Arts degree in Painting and Printmaking a year and a half later. (Yep, I had big hair back then.)

I took off into the world with lofty ideas of  being an “Art for Art’ Sake” kind of artist in the hopes of being on the cover of Art in America someday.

fail whaleAnd I flopped. Big time.

We didn’t have the Fail Whale image or Twitter back then, but the image would have worked for me.

At the time as I was miserable, but it was probably one of the most important experiences of my life.

I quickly realized that I was not cut out to be a full time artist – at that time, anyway.

I had no experience or know-how in marketing or making business decisions for making art my career then. In fact, my art professors had strongly discouraged me from developing any such skills. To do so would have disrupted the purity of my artistic intent, I was told.

There were other reasons for my failure, though.

I believe that I failed because I was not prepared to do something for a career that seemed self-indulgent to me. Although I firmly believed then, and still do now, that art is essential and important to our world, it did not seem essential enough to me to build a career around – at that time anyway.

I felt a sense of responsibility to contribute to my community and my world in a way that was more essential in the sense of life saving and world changing, and creating abstract paintings as I was doing at the time just did not cut it for me.

Neither did working minimum wage low-skill jobs when I had 2 degrees.

I went back to school and received a Masters degree in Counseling in 1991.  I then embarked on a 20 year career as counselor for families and children. I continued to create artwork, but it was not my career.

Counseling families and children facing trauma and other forms of emotional pain seemed more essential and important in the grand scheme of things. Although counseling was never a high paying job, it did allow me to live sufficiently, and I felt that I was contributing in an important way.

Over time, I grew to be disenchanted with the social services field, however. I found that organizations established to “help” people often were challenged with making decisions based more on their own survival than on the needs of their clients. I railed against it, and ended up changing jobs a lot.

I was always looking for a place with a consistent emphasis on both  integrity and high quality services. I never found it.

I began to put more energy into my artwork around 1999, and by 2009, It was becoming more of a career for me.

After September 11, 2001, art began to feel more essential to me, as I felt a strong compulsion to contribute to my world through expression. I had always been a philosophical sort of person, and 9/11 brought out that side of me in a new way.

I now focus primarily on painting portraits of pets, and have found that surprisingly healing and, yes, essential, for those who commission me to paint their animals.

I recently was commissioned to paint a portrait of a cat that had been hit by a car a week earlier. The distraught pet owner told me in an email, “I really think the painting is going to give me a lot of comfort. Talking with you and thinking about the painting has given me comfort already.”

What is more essential than that?

I think that I had to live a life of essential experiences before painting as a career felt right to me.

Although I look forward to a continued life of  essential experiences, I think that it is a life that fits me now.