Art is Agency
“I’m glad you came to this decision yourself. I know you put a lot of time into this, but I believe this is probably best for all involved.”
In this scene, there are no tear-streaked cheeks, no promises to do better, no begging for a second chance. Thirteen-year-old me stares the middle-aged, ruddy cheeked Mr. Polk straight in the eye, trying to decipher if I feel relief or offense that this man is letting me go so easily.
No ‘Sad to see you go’? No ‘You’re making a mistake—please reconsider’?
I give a small smile and nod. “Thanks for signing this,” I say and grab the fluorescent pink slip from my band director. I take this class drop form to the front office and break up with the clarinet once and for all.
Committing to an artistic practice requires tenacity and dedication, which unfortunately was in scant supply when I was thirteen. There wasn't much at stake; my parents bought my instrument, and I had two hours from each school day carved out for practicing. But was a passive practice. Committing to an artistic endeavor as an adult requires a greater investment. For one thing, time is more sacred, and carrying the cost is probably on you. I spoke with two creatives who faced the challenge of exploring artistic ventures in adulthood.
Encouraged by his parents, visual artist Eddie Botha drew throughout his childhood and did so with such skill, his teachers refused to believe he was responsible for his own creations.
“I ended up drawing Illustrations for the school newspaper at the age of six. It’s always been in my blood. I never as a child thought of art as work or a job,” said Eddie.
Despite the praise he received, Eddie didn’t consider creating art professionally. He graduated college, traveled the globe, and committed to a career as a landscape architect for eighteen years. In 2010, Eddie elevated his status from art hobbyist to part-time professional. Over the course of the next four years, Eddie continued his transition into a full-time artist, which had its challenges.
“You have to be a master of all aspects, from people skills, business skills, time management, marketing, and of course to be absolutely skilled and original in what you do,” said Eddie, “and even then, there is no formula or guarantees. One thing leads to the next. An artistic style develops and stabilizes over years, not days, not hours. I do miss knowing exactly what to do, and what I would get in return. With art, it’s just not clear and perhaps never will be.”
Eddie’s drive to create comes in part from his inclination to truthfully represent his reality.
“I do not trust the mainstream media much after growing up in South Africa where it was used to manipulate us to believe that Apartheid was right,” said Eddie. “That whole process was very revealing to me as a teenager. My art is an expression of life around me and what I observe. Being an artist has made me observe society from an almost outsider perspective. I don’t watch TV or many movies, read newspapers or listen to commercial radio.”
The risk Eddie took by switching careers and devoting his life to his passion paid off. Since he left landscaping, Eddie has been featured in shows worldwide, including solo shows in New York City, Singapore, and his current home of Melbourne.
While the decision to pursue a creative outlet can arise from a longing to inform, it can also emerge from a desire to heal. Theater director and creator Mimi Barcomi moved to New York City at age eighteen to experience the metropolitan life and study theater. After earning her degree and working a series of odd jobs, Mimi achieved her goal of making theater direction her full-time career. While everything appeared in place on the surface, Mimi grappled with inner demons.
“I was struggling with a period of depression where I saw myself turning to substances to escape,” said Mimi. “When I saw how much money I was spending at the bar, I got really angry; I felt like I was throwing money away and hiding from my emotions. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve always wanted to learn the violin. Go blow your money on something that will be a gift to yourself.’”
Making the decision to invest the time and cash into a new creative undertaking can be intimidating, but if you get crafty (no pun intended), you don’t have to break the bank. After purchasing a used violin on Craigslist, Mimi set out on a quest to find a teacher.
“As a person who makes their living as an artist I am broke as hell, but also understand the importance of compensating people who work in the creative fields for their time, skill, and labor,” said Mimi, “so I thought that a work study would be a great option. I knew I wanted weekly violin lessons—repetition and rigor are crucial if you want to develop a skill and stick with it. I typed up a page offering to trade anything I can do which might be considered a skill: bleaching and dyeing hair, mending clothes, writing cover letters, baking some awesome desserts…I posted this list on every Facebook group I could find for classical musicians in New York City.”
Mimi’s posting frenzy paid off when she found Aimèe Niemann, an experimental violinist with a Master’s degree in violin who is one half of the violin duo du.0 (pronounced do-point-oh).
“She was excited about bartering and had a ton of clothes she didn’t have time to mend, so there you go! We’re friends now and are collaborating on new projects since we’re both really interested in multidisciplinary performances,” said Mimi.
Dedicating time to something that brings joy or comforts us keeps us from turning into cogs in the machine. It’s a chance to find self-fulfillment: you don’t have to beat yourself up if you’re not instantly Yo-Yo Ma or Rembrandt.
“I think about the YEARS I spent going ‘Oh, I should have started when I was younger, I’d be so much better by now…’Fuck that!” said Mimi. “If you’re doing it because you love it or are just curious then skill level doesn’t have anything to do with it. A theater artist told me recently—I’m paraphrasing—that it’s important to remember the etymology of the word amateur comes from the Latin word for ‘love,’ so being an amateur is not a bad thing. It means you’re doing something because you love it, and what’s a better reason than that?”
Turning a passion project into a full-time career might not be your aim, but if you do discover you want to pursue it as a career, Eddie offers the following advice: “Do it gradually. It takes time to develop your style and skills. But be sure to make art if you are in any way inclined to do so. Art is for everyone, every day, everywhere. It’s the most wonderful thing you can do with your time. Don’t be hard on yourself about not being good enough, practice. Even if you do two or three hours on a weekend, just start. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle, an emotional outlet that can enrich your life beyond your wildest dreams.”
It’s so easy to get caught up in the pedantic drudgery of everyday life and choose the unchallenging, well-worn path of least resistance, but there is so much joy to be found when we leave our comfort zones and exercise agency over our own lives. I think both of these guys are cool as hell for having the courage to take risks and chase their happiness. Maybe having a more developed brain and more on the line is the push needed to revisit the clarinet...just don’t tell my roommates.