News Commentary: Unemployment and The Artist’s Studio

Hard economic times hit artists in many different ways. One of the least remarked upon is when there is no longer enough cash for the studio. A local artist, who would prefer to remain anonymous, contemplates, with sadness and humor, the end of having a space where creativity and independence can thrive.

by “Annie Regrets”

The Time Has Come — Farewell Studio, Farewell Guilt-free Mess

I have now been officially out of work for 48 weeks, and the end of my unemployment benefits is looming large in my imagined, and mostly broke, future. The good folks at the UI bureaucracy won’t tell you when this day might come; it feels like I’m waiting to participate in a debilitating traffic accident. In preparation for The Big Day Sometime In My Future, though, I’ve worked up a fearsome budget that takes my husband’s income, the income I receive from my rental property, and some miscellaneous cash I expect to earn from my two occasional consulting gigs and then demonstrates how to spend it all and then some in the course of a month. The budget is extremely lean, does not take into account significant expenses such as car repairs and the annual termite contract renewal, and will almost certainly not be followed. But it gives me a (false) sense of security that, at least on paper, we can weather this financial storm for awhile.

One of my current expenses that did not make it into this new, ugly budget is the rent on my artist studio. Renting a separate space to make art is a luxury, especially when I make some money from my artwork but nothing close to recouping my monthly investment. But back when I had a full time job and was climbing up the managerial ladder, I was seized by a profound need to save my inner artist/rebel/whack job shuttered out of my professional life. I’m not really this middle manager, I would tell myself. I just play one in my daily life.

I initially rented a large, windowless space in an artist community in Somerville for $400 a month. I didn’t share the space with anyone else; I wanted the privilege of being able to leave a guilt-free mess at the end of the day. I told myself that at that price, I would surely force myself to make my way there a couple of times of week and work twice as hard to make it worth the expense. Funny how it didn’t work out that way; the cost of the space made me feel like every little thing I did had to be worthy, “art” of the highest order. Which, as any artist learns, is a surefire recipe for killing off the joy of creation.

I spent a year or so in exile before I moved into my current digs, a 500-square-foot, ground floor room I shared with a jeweler and a printmaker at less than half the price of my earlier studio. The jeweler worked in the space during weekdays, I would stop by after work and on the weekends, and I don’t think I saw the printmaker there, ever. I confined my huge messes to my corner of the studio; no one blinked an eye, not even the rats who darted across my works in progress, leaving small brown droppings in their wake (everyone’s a critic). The best part of having a studio was that I could be alone there. At the studio, I was the person I imagined I was and not whoever that person was interpreted through the lenses of bosses, friends, coworkers, family, and neighbors.

Farewell Studio — There I was the person I imagined I was and not whoever that person was interpreted through the lenses of others.

That is, until I heard the news last spring that I’d been laid off. But I was determined to stay at my studio for as long as I could financially handle it, and—at least at the beginning of my job search—I was confident that I would be employed in a few months’ time. (No, I do not live in a cave and no, I am not on medication, though perhaps I should be.) Then I was sure I would be celebrating a new position along with New Years. Then, Easter. Now as I approach the same season as when I initially started my job search, I no longer harbor such expectations. After close to 200 job applications, dozens of in-person networking meetings, and approximately 20 phone and in-person interviews, I’m still standing where I started, jobless, as if I’ve been frantically running in place for 48 weeks.

I stopped by the place yesterday to start packing up my materials—the crayons and pens, the paints (so much paint!) and canvases, the brushes and paper. When I returned home, I spent the afternoon cleaning out a corner of the basement for my new, abbreviated studio space. I hung up a piece of fabric, bright blue with sequins, to hide the shelves thick with tape and caulk, boxes of nails and screws, and fretted about how to squeeze the contents of a bookshelf, three tables, and everything I’d managed to shove underneath it all into a small, triangular wedge of storage space and a workbench. This type of small-potatoes fretting is a nice vacation from worrying about selling the house, and I embrace it with gratitude.

My former studio mate Eliza, the jeweler, sent me this email: “Don’t stop making that awesome artwork. Use your basement or your yard or anything. You do fantastic work.” Now that I’m no longer performing the traditional kabuki rituals of the middle manager—stoop, defer, placate, smile behind gritted teeth, say something other than what you mean, rinse, repeat—the need to rent studio space to prove that I still harbor a modicum of independent thought is less urgent. But I realized I am not leaving behind the artist in my studio space; she accompanies me whenever I happen to be heading. I am, however, leaving behind the rat poison.

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  1. Linda Pilgrim on July 4, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Great piece. If I were you, I would be proud to publish my name with it. At the same time, of course, your reluctance to do so is understandable. One can only deal with so many “losses” or drastic changes at once without ending up feeling raw and in need of a protective layer of “skin.”
    I love your insight and what sounds like a painful but successful process of accepting reality (so you can just keep moving forward).
    I particularly admire the following sentence: “There I was the person I imagined I was and not whoever that person was interpreted through the lenses of others.” You’ve articulated a complicated, universal truth, yet stated it directly and succinctly. Thank you. This is a keeper–to read again.

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