No One Does Anything Alone
Words and pictures: Sarah Firth.
No doubt you’ve heard how important it is to strike a work-life balance and manage stress. There must be people out there with straight forward lifestyles where framing life with this career-leisure dichotomy is useful. But for me, and the professional artists, carers and parents I know, life feels more like this:
During the Comic Art Workshop residency I was at last year, we had a group discussion on this very topic – because so many of us as professional artists were consistently struggling with the fullness of our lives – with working, trying to create some kind of financial stability, look after our health, raise children, nurture family and friends, take commissions, meet deadlines, sleep, learn, and still have time to write, research and make amazing art.
SAW Comic School husband and wife team (director Tom Hart and educator Leela Corman) were asked how they balance being parents with comic commissions, their own creative projects, while also running a school. Leela, who, I might add is also a professional dancer on top of that list, sensibly said, “there is no balance. Just a constant process of navigation – involving perseverance, giving up, trying again, luck and asking for things. You need to value yourself and your time, and stand up for what you need.” Tom chimed in with, “the trick is to find a way to spin the plates without getting stressed.”
In a spot-on post continuing the topic, Leela wrote:
“Something is bothering me and I think it bears mentioning, because I bet it’s bothering some other people I know, too: I am really sick of the myth of the workaholic artist, and the lack of understanding of what the life of an adult professional artist is like, specifically a female adult professional artist with a family. I’m tired of the young single male artist being held up as the model for how we should all work.
I want to talk about what it is like to have an actual life, where others depend on you, and still make art that burns people, and still be devoted to your career AND to your family, and what that is really like, in all its contours. I don’t hear that out there. I hear other things, things I find unfair and incorrect. The myth of the young self-made artist is toxic in so many ways.”
Margaret Hodge follows this thread in her article – how to stop wasting women’s talents: overcome our fixation with youth – we women are often “mothers or carers, but we also want to succeed in our jobs. Yet in a society that promotes the cult of youth, that is hard. In so many fields of work, people are always on the lookout for the next generation of talent, the emerging youthful stars, the new and ever younger people whom they want to place on the top of a pedestal.
So people who want to succeed in their paid jobs feel that they can’t take time out for other things (like being an artist). The obsession with youth means too many believe that if they haven’t made it in their career by the time they are 35, they have failed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. At a time when we are living longer than ever, we are being written off earlier. Of course we should promote young flair and new ideas but we should also value experience – and delight in talent and innovation at all ages.”
This cult of youth has a HUGE impact on the art world and in particular women (see more on this in the excellent CoUNTess report put together by Elvis Richardson). There are a range of mentoring and financial support opportunities for artists that are emerging (five years out of art school) or under 35. However once you hit the mid to late-career phase, there is a scary drop off of opportunities.
This leads to many professional artists stopping their practice, because of a lack of financial returns from their creative work and a lack of time to make due to other pressures and responsibilities. In this mid-career phase, the standards of living can be stark. While a lucky few are able to sustain their careers with a hodgepodge of commercial work, commissions, grants and prizes, for most it’s a struggle of trying to practice while working a day job, or dealing with the welfare system in order to try and afford time to make artwork. And that doesn’t involve the additional responsibilities that come with parenting, being a carer or supporting a family.
How can we improve this situation? Obviously creating more mid to late-career funding opportunities, exposing and smashing gender inequality, and creating a living wage for creatives would make a huge difference. But what else can we do at a community and relationship level? What informal support helps artists to flourish?
More thoughts from Leela on this, “a key issue I have with holding up this ideal of the Great Solitary Genius Artist is that, come on, no one does anything alone. People ask me, how do I manage my life? How can I work so much? Because I have a partner, who is also an artist mind you, who sacrifices his own time for me sometimes, and will make me dinner when I teach late, and took care of me when I was a new mom. Ask yourself, who is in your life, easing your path for you? And give them thanks. And then look at the artists you love, and ask yourself, who is in their life, making their coffee, taking care of their kid or doing their laundry or just being there for them?”
This is so important to think about and recognise. Who eases my path and helps enable me? Like Leela, my partner does. He supports me emotionally, technologically, strategically, domestically all while cheering me on, especially when my business or art projects ask 200%. Similarly, I step up for him when he’s under the pump. Of course sometimes we are both giving 200% at the same time – so we get takeaway and have a very messy house. He also contributes to our mortgage, which helps create some financial consistency and lessen the stress that comes with the peaks and troughs that come with freelancing, running a small business and making time for art.
My friends and family are also very important, who so generously give me their time, love and care. My comics community friends, with their wisdom, emotional support, project feedback, and for helping me develop as an artist. The wonderful network of clients I have who promote my graphic recording business via word of mouth. My business mentor, who gives me strategic tools, helps me grow emotionally and develop professionally. My graphic recording community peers, with their tips, tools, wisdom and sharing. My massage therapist, psychologist and other body work therapists for helping to ground and nourish my mind and body. I could go on and on.
So, who eases your path for you? Give them thanks.
No one does ANYTHING alone.
Sarah Firth’s Bio
Sarah Firth is an award winning artist, writer and thinker who draws words and writes pictures. In the ten years since graduating from art school, she has racked up numerous commissions, awards, residencies and a fellowship with her prolific body of work – including comics, animations, community art projects, films, essays and thought pieces.
Firth is also a creative entrepreneur and has run a small business – offering film and graphic recording services across industries – for the past seven years. She is currently working on her debut graphic novel, exploring personal narratives woven together with philosophy, psychology, science and theory. It’s a humorous and idiosyncratic exploration of multiple narratives, cognitive dissonance and everyday life.
(This article was previously published on Sarah Firth’s website.)