What’s the most important thing to teach a young artist? It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but the answer for many artists is not simply art, rather, it’s how to be a professional.
Thursday evening, the Southwest School of Art (SSA) hosted a panel discussion, “How to Be A Working Artist,” that aimed to shed light on different ways for artists to fulfill their creative, artistic desires while working in a manner that’s practical and sustainable for everyday life. In a word: profitable.
That’s also exactly the mission of SSA‘s new bachelor of fine arts (BFA) program. Pending application review, the curriculum will launch in the fall of 2014 and will feature courses on professionalism, teaching basic skills that are critical to an artist’s success. Concentrations within the program will be offered in photography, metals, painting, print-making, sculpture or integrated media. The program’s highly anticipated commencement was delayed one year due to a procedural issue with their application to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Many are under the impression that those who work in a creative field are able to avoid the trappings of a “real” profession, but this panel of local artists didn’t fit that stereotype – they are constantly working.
Edward Dupuy, SSA dean, moderated the panel of four artists, including Justin Boyd, chair of SSA’s new Department of Sculpture and Integrated Media; SSA President Paula Owen; artist Dario Robleto, and Ethel Shipton, chief art preparator at the McNay Art Museum. Reflecting the passion and professionalism of the panelists, Dupuy succinctly said, “Artists often explore what others are often too content to leave alone.”
Each artist on the panel expressed in various ways their affection for the art community in San Antonio. As compared to the cutthroat environment of New York or Los Angeles – which very few artists thrive in – San Antonio not only offers a supportive community, but its low cost of living enables artists to have additional amenities, such as affordable studio space.
Shipton pointed out the importance of determining the best location for an artist to be psychologically healthy in order to produce strong work. To her, community is very important and that’s why she chose San Antonio. She attended school at The University of Texas at Austin and has lived in Mexico City, but chose San Antonio for its medium ground of culture and community. Within her first weeks here, she started a gallery space as a way to network. Her advice to artists: “In San Antonio, if you wanna do something, you just do it. It’s that easy.”
Often colleges and universities don’t address applicable skills for art students, leaving them unprepared for entering the professional world.
However, there are professors who recognize the importance of teaching not only strong artistic skills, but also basic business skills, such as marketing and accounting, that are essential to an emerging artist. This is what SSA aims to provide each student obtaining a BFA from their program.
When confronted with parents who are reckoning with the value of sending their children to art school, Boyd assures them, “What other degree will give you the ability to make all of your own dishes and clothes; learn to weld; shoot and edit photos, video, and sound; become a skilled draftsman and painter; gain computer skills that will be indispensable; learn how to problem solve; be improvisational, creative, and a critical thinker; and ultimately become passionate about ideas?”
Boyd also pointed out that if you’re not a self-starter, the arts may not be the right field for you.
The panelists themselves are examples of artists that have created a sustainable existence based on their artistic abilities and passions.
Dario Robleto is the picture of a successful artist – he’s been working as a full-time artist for 15 years and makes no distinction between his personal and professional selves. His work appears in galleries in both New York and Los Angeles, and continues to travel throughout the U.S. holding solo exhibitions of his own work in which he employs a variety of media. Though he currently lives in Houston, he will always consider San Antonio his hometown, he said.
As a biology major and captain of his football team, Robleto did not follow the typical path to becoming an artist. However, he believes his strength going into the arts came from having so many passions in other fields. A long-time friend of Justin Boyd, the two artists bonded over their mutual interest in music and physics rather than critiquing art styles.
Robleto emphasized the importance of research in his artistic practice and sees intensive periods of research as critical to his success as an artist. He often questions: “How do I find a sculptural solution for something in another field?”
Instead of finding influence in other artists, Robleto looks to his favorite authors, musicians and historians, valuing a cross-pollination of subjects in his work. He also emphasized that a huge part of his day-to-day work is administrative – again pointing out the importance of a holistic education for artists, often as basic as responding to emails in a timely manner. Robleto shared this hard truth: “If nobody cared tomorrow, would you still do it? You have to be all in.”
Boyd, a San Antonio artist who uses sound as his medium, has a preference for balancing multiple jobs in addition to his artistic practice. He teaches at UTSA, manages a restaurant and works on local radio.
Interrupting the stereotypical image of the lazy and disheveled artist, Boyd feels “the more I have going, the more energy I have to give to all of it.”
At a young age, Boyd had no idea that he wanted to be an artist. It wasn’t until his undergraduate years at UTSA that he found his own artistic skills and began to explore the power of ideas.
Steve Reynolds, Boyd’s professor of sculpture at UTSA, helped guide him on his path to becoming an artist. After attending graduate school in the arts hub of Los Angeles, he returned to San Antonio for its tight-knit, supportive art community, he said.
His work was included in the recent Texas Biennial “New and Greatest Hits” exhibition, along with the late San Antonio artist, collector and founder of Artpace, Linda Pace.
In 2012, Boyd exhibited work that captured the sounds and sights of the San Antonio River Walk. He was also a speaker at the first Pecha Kucha night in San Antonio. To support his continued work as an artist, Boyd has held jobs as an art consultant, gallery assistant, art installer at Artpace and has taught English in Japan.
SSA President and CEO Paula Owen introduced herself by first recounting all the jobs she’s held throughout her career in the arts.
Owen has had an array of job titles, from calligrapher, children’s portrait artist, and needle pointer, to illustrator, art teacher, co-op gallery manager and framer.
She currently serves as the arts administrator at SSA.
During her time at each position, Owen managed to always keep her studio practice going, finding that it provided a much-needed contrast to the stresses of her day job.
She admitted, however, to feeling that she’s not creating her best work because of the time and energy constraints of managing a full schedule – a reality for many artists.
Reflected in her calm and thoughtful demeanor, Owen tries to practice Buddhist principles, helping to curb the anxieties that accompany heavy administrative tasks associated with growing the Southwest School of Art into a thriving art institution.
Owen said she also finds parallels in her work as an artist and arts administrator; she is interested in the way systems work and finds dynamism in their complexity.
Ethel Shipton grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border, which helped teach her about problem solving, having to constantly shift between two worlds.
Shipton sees this as the foundation to her life as an artist: she gained the ability to put seemingly unrelated things together to see differently and how to take something and change it.
Shipton’s day job also incorporates these skills. Her work at the McNay as an art preparator means she hangs and installs many of the works you see at the museum. She finds pleasure in the problem solving associated with the details of hands-on museum work and in her artistic practice.
When people ask, “How’s that ‘art thing’ going?” Shipton replies, “You mean my life?”
Everything she does is art – every day, whether working her day job or in helping support the growth of the San Antonio art community. Poised with both seriousness and lightheartedness, she pointed out that a challenge of her artistic path is knowing time is short and still trying to find joy in the middle of it all.
All professionals, not just artists, need to find a balance between what brings them joy and what pays the bills.
Arts education, in the past, has perhaps been lacking in terms of equipping artists with the professional tools they need to sustain their career.
However, as more and more art programs nationwide begin to include business, marketing and strategy classes, emerging artists will feel confident in navigating the professional world, while maintaining what makes them truly creative – a healthy curiosity and willingness to break the rules.
Taylor Browning is an artist and art educator passionate about building community through the arts. She has recently returned to her hometown San Antonio and is thrilled to be working at Artpace as Assistant Curator of Education for Teen and University Programs. Follow her work at taylorbrowning.com.