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On Working and Not Working 

by Suzy Kopf

I recently finished up my MFA and I’m trying to find a work life balance. So far I have not been particularly successful. I’m alive and I work all the time, so does that count? Is that enough?

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been quoted as having said the secret to a life well lived is “Work worth doing”. My problem is that I have trouble prioritizing which work is worth doing RIGHT NOW— the work that feeds me creatively or the work that feeds me literally. 

I am not alone with this problem. Beloved author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” Don’t try to do everything, the visionaries tell us. Try to do one or two things well and you will have achieved life’s purpose.

The concept of that is so pure that perhaps it reveals itself as completely unrealistic immediately. As nice as it would be to be devoted only to one thing, that is basically impossible as a modern day creative. Part of the reason I work constantly is that I have at least five jobs at any given time. This is by design and by necessity. Artists tend to take whatever jobs come our way and as many as possible. To do otherwise would not only seem unwise, it would feel downright fiscally reckless. 

I was raised to believe that there is honor in working hard. In art school I was taught to say yes. Over and over again. And that is generally what I do when presented with employment opportunities. I say yes. 

In the life of the average creative person in 2016, I believe there is no particular moment where you realize “I have made it and everything will be (financially) easier now.” Certainly, having one path and staying on it might help. I have friends who want to teach and have a singular goal of getting tenure. I know others that want to work in galleries or museums and are able to move slowly up a faithful chain of command to higher and higher income brackets. But for those of us who want to ideally be making every day and are not offended by the idea of selling that work, there are no shortcuts to stability, no obvious order or sequence. 

As a result, I feel at times like I am taking one step forward and several others backward. Like succeeding at my other jobs is somehow a betrayal of my artistic life. Especially on afternoons like this one where I am sitting in my studio, afternoon painstakingly cleared of all other work and mind utterly blocked.

After climbing what seemed like a mountain of other work Monday through Thursday, I can find myself in my studio on Friday morning, light pouring through my Southern exposure, and the work or making art is suddenly impossible. When this happens, the despair I feel is unparalleled. I can hear the blood rushing in my ears, the minutes ticking by. I feel like a fake, like everything I tell people about myself isn’t true because creative and important and relevant work isn’t pouring out of me the minute I sit down. I feel an urgent need to organize my supplies, to research a more comfortable chair to sit on, to eat my lunch at 10AM.

How do we press on these mornings? It is so essential that we do.

There is the unrelenting cliché of the carefree artist, sleeping in, to rise late and day drink, then sloshing about the studio coated in material while hard working folk slave away at nine-to-fives. When I tell people at parties what I do, they often say, “Oh, I used to paint too, I loved it”, like it’s something they outgrew or got bored of. But I know the truth— it was too hard for them to visualize making this a life. They chose stability and I chose this.

Right now, I teach at a university, I work at a commercial gallery, I write for an arts magazine, I make and sell my own work (primarily watercolor, oil paintings and collages), and because none of those things really pays enough to cover my expenses in the affordable mid-sized city where I live, I walk dogs and design databases. In another city, at another time, I also bartended, waited tables, was a personal assistant, a studio assistant, an archivist— the list goes on. I have fetched coffee and swept the floor but I’ve also sold $50,000 pieces, taken business trips and won international grants and residencies. 

Dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote, “Creativity is an act of defiance,” and on afternoons like this one, I try to remember that, and to enjoy the sunlight and breathe.  

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