By Dominique Hunter
There is a pervasive myth that has dogged every creative practitioner at some point, or worse, throughout their entire career. Like a long afternoon shadow, it has stalked us all, leaving absolutely no exception to the rule in the history of art making or any creative output for that matter. And it’s usually triggered by a series of questions that go something like this:
John Public: “So, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I’m an artist.”
John Public: “No really, what’s your job?”
Me (annoyed at this point): “I make art.”
John Public: “Oh. Well that’s, um, interesting…”
Now, in my experience, at this point one of two things usually happens. Most times the awkward silence that follows their line of questioning is enough to discourage any further conversation. The topic is changed and everyone pretends it never happened.
But there are other times when you encounter someone who is truly detached from any understanding of the term “quit while you’re ahead.” In fact, they are so determined to understand the how’s and why’s of your career choice, that they press on asking questions that are, more often than not, inappropriate and offensive.
And while their queries of sustainability and marketability could be considered legitimate, they are often overshadowed by a slew of ignorant comments and questions that reinforce baseless stereotypes about creative practitioners.
“Wuh yuh gon do with an art degree?” “Yuh just throwing ‘way yuh money.” “Why yuh don’t just get a real job?” “How yuh mekking money from this?” “Wuh yuh parents saying?” “They mussy vex bad.” “I can’t believe you went to university to study art. Anybody could mek art.” “The only reason she doing art is ‘cuz she head hard.” “Everybody ain’t cut out fuh de the real world.” “When yuh ain’t got book sense then yuh gotta learn a trade.”
I could go on to list all of the ignorant things I’ve heard since I first started studying art in 2004, but I’m positive that I would run out of column inches. In the twelve years of my art practice, I am tempted to say that I have heard it all, sexist and racist comments alike, but I don’t want to tempt fate.
There is a belief that artists aren’t real people. We live in the la-la land we’ve constructed inside our head, so it’s okay to make disparaging remarks. It’s not as though we have feelings like regular people. We’re just the weirdos who dwell in the outskirts of society, away from the real citizens who pay taxes and contribute to the betterment of the country (in case you missed it, those sentences are laced with sarcasm and, if they could, my eyes would literally roll all the way to the back of my head for a good five minutes).
While most artists worldwide are generally treated like second-class citizens, there is a greater appreciation for them everywhere else except Guyana. We have been at rock bottom for so long that we have managed to fashion a shovel out of nothing (in the spirit of true Guyanese ingenuity, of course), and dig ourselves into an even deeper hole. In fact, so much time has passed that we’ve even gone so far as to carve furniture including, but not limited to, rock chairs, rock pillows, rock bunk beds for persons to “small up” themselves and make room for others. Who needs change when we’re comfortable, right?
Now this might seem like a harsh critique, and it probably is, but this is what happens when you give a frustrated artist a weekly page to fill. I’ve been earnestly trying to be the “kumbaya,” “goosfraba” type since the year started but being subjected to these conversations time and again gets a bit overwhelming. One would imagine that in 2016 we wouldn’t still be dispelling the myth of the lazy artist. But here we are, defending our careers and work ethic to persons who can’t tell the difference between oils and acrylics.
The truth is you would be hard pressed to find another career that continuously demands so much from the individual. While I don’t wish to get into the debate of which career is most demanding or who has to work harder, I will say that artists are the only persons who are required to work to a stump while simultaneously defending the legitimacy of their career every single day.
Artists don’t have the security of a pension plan, insurance, health benefits, paid vacation, over time, gratuity, days off or fixed hours. No artist aspires to one day retire from art making. We are constantly thinking of ways to sustain our practice since there is absolutely no infrastructure in place to ensure our survival. They cut you loose at the end of art school, basically saying “Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Yet there is this persistent widespread belief that we spend our days chasing rainbows from home. And it’s so bad that most persons don’t even see the need to afford us basic etiquette, for example, giving us adequate notice before stopping by. We spend our days lounging around, so of course we have the luxury of dropping everything to accommodate your unreasonable deadline.
John Public: “Don’t lie, you weren’t doing anything. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I need (insert impossible task) done yesterday.”
Me: “So what about my deposit?”
John Public: “Don’t worry about that. Check me when yuh done.”
It often escapes the public just how much work is involved in creative careers and how crazy our schedules get simply because everyone assumes we’re never busy. How is it possible to get the wrap for being lazy when we are expected to jump whenever someone instructs us to? Added to that, the very nature of our work forces us to be our own labourer, porter, craftsman/woman, carpenter, framer, photographer, designer, marketing manager, website builder, spokesperson, salesperson, networking guru, writer, agent, organizer, event planner, coordinator, researcher, location scout, student, teacher, accountant and financial planner. These roles often overlap forcing us to multitask in ways that guarantee very little sleep or anything even remotely close to a social life.
The process of actually making a creative body of work is an entire task by itself and is usually separate from all of the activities that must happen outside of the studio in order to achieve a sustainable and profitable practice over time. Artists switch back and forth between roles so quickly that I’m genuinely surprised we don’t have more whiplash cases. Even then, I doubt anyone would notice. But what do I know? I’m just an artsy bum looking to freeload my way through life.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).