How do you get started as an [insert art-adjacent job title here]?
In response to this question from fellow artist and instagram bud Callum, I found myself running through the relevant jobs I've worked but it was getting too messy in my head and now I've written them down.
For anyone who is curious about what exactly you do with a degree in fine art, and especially the people who are asked that question by well meaning but infuriating relatives.
This is a strange informal resume of my career path from the beginning of my first undergrad program (2012) to 2020. As of 2021 I am self employed (woohoo! read about it here) I There are a lot of things and they all overlap and I even omitted a couple of blips. Some of my key takeaways for you before you are:
- when you're working multiple jobs, even if your tracked hours only add up to 40, the work of organizing them to not overlap with one another feels like another whole job on top of everything.
- Also, make a good impression. I very clearly got 3 or 4 jobs out of this list purely by reference. Those aren't "I applied and they asked for a reference" references, they're "they were asking around about qualified persons and someone gave them my name" references. (UPDATE: remember Callum, from two paragraphs ago? They asked me how to get started in custom framing, and when I was ready to quit my framing job and be a full time artist, I recommended them AND THEY GOT THE JOB. Tell people your goals and they may make it happen!)
Keeping that in mind, there are two main options for an emerging artist who needs to make a paycheck:
- monetize your joy (try to hang onto it)
- work an unrelated job (save your joy for yourself)
My first year of university was in Fashion Design at Ryerson. During what may have been the first month of school, I was assigned a group project to interview an established fashion business in Toronto. We interviewed a milliner. After the interview, I went back, (possibly without a resume? All it would have had was a restaurant job and babysitting) and asked if they would take me on as an unpaid intern. I worked there every Saturday for a year (6 months unpaid, 6 months paid). Now I know how to block felt and straw hats with steam, rope, and nails... wonder when that will come in handy ever again?
While I worked at the millinery shop I went with them to the One of a Kind Show where our neighbouring booth was a painter I got to chatting with. I must have been interested in trying to learn framing even back then because he said he was upgrading his mat cutter to get one that could handle thicker mats and I could have his old one. He ended up giving me a bunch of these leftover 4-ply mats (standard thickness) to start practising on and gave me a mini lesson. Thanks Jon.
I abandoned my fashion design degree at 1/4 completion because I realized that the fashion industry isn't "easier" or "more practical" than the visual arts, and it wasn't for me. I applied and started at OCADU in drawing and painting, then switched to Printmaking (got there eventually).
I worked a summer at my hometown art gallery, running their children's art camp. (somehow for less than minimum wage?) From this I learned that I do not want to teach children professionally, even if it's art.
I worked at an art supply store for a year and a half. I was the paper, printmaking, and drawing supplies gal. We all had our areas of expertise. It was a pretty good job but I moved apartments into another area of the city and the commute got a bit crazy. So I applied and started to work at a different art supply store (2016?) that included a framing department. This was strategic for more than just shortening my commute. I told the manager in the interview for that job that I was eager to learn framing and had picked up some related skills. He told me to work as a salesperson for a year and then they'd maybe put me in framing training. I made friends with the framer and she started teaching me the basics 3 months in. (Wow, I'm so pushy!) A year into that job they moved me to a different branch to work exclusively in framing because they had a gap and I was already mostly trained.
I worked there until I graduated from OCADU. (I supplemented my weekend framing shifts with evenings as a portrait model at Toronto's school for traditional art. That means the poses were 3 months long and I got to keep my clothes on.) When I graduated a few things converged: I was working on my first book project (Joyce Jodie Kim's Caterpillar Portraits) and I needed time for it. I had acquired a work-exchange position at Open Studio (<3) where I did two 5-hour shifts a week cleaning and filling orders in exchange for free studio access. AND, one of my thesis advisors (Hi Jennie!) had an art practice where she hired studio assistants and I had just started working for her sporadically. I had graduated without debt (thanks mom and dad!) and I had the priviledge of taking a risk. I quit the framing job to juggle everything else.
After a month or so I picked up a weekend job at a vintage furniture shop because I needed more paying hours. It was the first place I was ever given a key and the alarm code on my first day. It was the. most. boring. job. I have EVER worked. A 6 hour shift with a few customers a day felt like a century. I only worked there till the end of the summer.
After the furniture place a friend who I worked with at the first art supply store recommended me for a basic job at the sweater-recycling fashion brand she worked at. I spot-cleaned, de-pilled, and ironed old sweaters during my shifts. I think I only worked 3 days a week there. I have always worked the absolute minimum I could to pay rent and buy groceries, and devoted the rest of my time to art making. That job was a bit of a terror. I have worked for a number of female-run small businesses and some of my bosses I have deeply admired (Anna, Jennie, Michelle, Carol, you are badass role models), but some of them have set a beautiful example of who I do not want to become. That's all I will say on that.
Sweater Place Selfie of Workplace Dissatisfaction
I could only do the work exhange at Open Studio for about 6 months before it became financially untenable but it was a wonderful entry into the Toronto printmaking community. OS has an emerging artist residency that I did not get but doing the work exchange seemed like almost an equivalent in that I had access without paying for it right out of school, I got to know everyone really quickly, and I felt nurtured. Even after I left the position, I was an active community member and I started getting the occasional custom printing, or letterpress teaching gigs within the studio, increasing until I moved to Alberta.
I was also continuing to work as an artist assistant for Jennie, which to-date is my favourite job I have ever worked. My role was to adapt, and make things out of paper. I designed patterns and did math, sewed occasionally and contributed small ideas to the whole. Jennie is amazing at discovering the particular skills of her assistants (most of us were once her students) and incorporating them into whatever master vision she has going on. Also, it was really a job/mentorship. During the work day we would be designing, cutting, gluing, assembling components, while listening to murder podcasts and/or discussing our own creative endeavours. 11/10
My 26th birthday celebrated while I was working for Jennie. None of us had a lighter at the studio. (blowtorch skills acquired via making creme brulle at the restaurant job pre-uni, and implemented in the job mentioned next)
I finally left the sweater place after about a year and a half. My boss tried to promote me to full time and I realized I had to get out. I was able to get a couple days a week as an assistant to another artist in Toronto pouring resin glazes over his artworks. This one had previously employed students and when I started there he asked me if he could pay me the student minimum to which I replied "Well, since I'm not a student, no?" I can't rememember when exactly but at some point before this I decided I would never again work for free (or less than minimum). I have had the priviledge to do so a couple of times in order to benefit from a learning environment but I generally disapprove of the practise. Volunteering is still on the horizon for me but internships are not. Anyways, I worked for this resin-guy for about 6 months. During that time he repeatedly told me how efficient I was an how impressed he was with my work. So after 6 months I asked for a $1 raise (from minimum wage) and he ghosted me.
Almost serendipitously as soon as I was down on paid hours, my other thesis advisor Shannon, recommended me to a screenprinting position at a boutique embroidery business. I worked in that sunlit, peaceful, friendly studio for only 6 months but I would have stayed much longer if we hadn't been moving across the country. The business owner Michelle, I will always recall as amazingly calm and cool under pressure, especially considering she was running one small business, starting another one, and very pregnant with her first child at the time. Wow.
When I moved to Edmonton I was lucky enough to find a job as a custom framer right out of the gate. I worked there for about a year and a half until I quit to be a full time artist. I had a boss I respected (and who closed things down on a reasonable timeline at the start of covid, which I think is going to be the new standard for acceptable employers, right?) and who happily gave me a small raise after 6 months when I asked for it.
During this whole saga I picked up some freelance work as a bookbinder. Shannon also brought me on as a second teacher/arts facilitator for one week each year (times two years) of camping, papermaking, newspaper publishing, sample collecting goodness.
I've been working to get Penrose Press off the ground. It's happening slowly but surely and the lessons I learned through my many forms of employment have contributed significantly to my progress (and sometimes to my motivation). Someone said to my mom recently that they want their kids to be self-employed because that's the best way to make money. She and I agreed that if you have the personality to work a regular day job that you can grow within and that will take taxes automatically off of your paychecks (an underrated quality of regular employers), then do that. Only try to start a small business if you can't imagine doing anything else for the rest of your life.
I am the kind of person who wants to se the big picture and how my piece fits into the whole. I am constantly asking "why?" to understand how a system works and considering what a better system might look like. This can get me in trouble (or merely dissatisfied) in conventional employment. While I'm executing manual tasks for my job I'm simultaneously planning creative projects of my own, structuring business models in my head, thinking about how I'm furthering someone else's goals when I could be furthering my own. This is how I know I'm meant to be a small business owner.
One last tip: One way I talk about transferrable skills that has helped me land these varied employments is by using the (made-up) term "smart hands". As in: I have learned so many niche manual skills that I pick up on new ones quickly and easily. Stretching hats translates to stretching canvases, eliminating dust is key in framing and resin pouring (my brother is an interior photographer and it's also integral to his job). Holding an extended pose for a portraiture class translates to gluing tiny pieces of intricately cut paper to a wall end-on. Managing the rhythm of screenprinting (not letting your ink dry between passes, adjusting how you flood to achieve a different print density) is similar to managing the rhythm of a small introductory class of letterpress printers. You have more skills than you realize and they are more universal than you can imagine!
I will answer all kinds of questions in the comments but I won't name names or businesses that I haven't already :)