Blog / 2019 / My Non-artist Résumé

May 16, 2019

I’m contributing to a book about collective bargaining and how it can be used by more than just labor unions. I’m painting portraits of the workers whose stories are featured in the book, and I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to meet these workers—to West Virginia and DC and Mississippi and Missouri as well as Philadelphia, North Carolina and Georgia, and the island that’s right next to the one I live on.

All of these adventures have taught me plenty about things outside of me and my little artist life, but they’ve also demanded that I take a better look at where I am coming from. At the beginning of the month, I talked about a union for American visual artists, and today I want to share about my non-art résumé.

work in process by Gwenn Seemel
photo by Gwenn Seemel

I am almost 38 years old, and I have not worked as anything other than an independent artist since my early 20s:

  • The last time I had to navigate workplace politics, I was interning at the art museum associated with my college.
  • The last time no one was interested in my design ideas for a thing I was helping to build, I was working in the theater shop at my university.
  • The last time I had to get my output approved by a boss, I was painting signs for that theater. (Unless you count unsatisfied portrait clients, cowardly magazine editors, or venues that don’t quite understand their role in society, but those aren’t really the same as having a boss.)
  • The last time I did work that wasn’t art or art-adjacent, I was tutoring French students at my college.

Looking at this whole situation, I’m left with two conclusions:

I AM SO LUCKY.

      and

I AM IN SO MUCH TROUBLE.

The first part is easy. I am fortunate that my parents were able to pay for my education (the portion that wasn’t covered by scholarships). My mother encouraged my love of art and my father set a valuable example as a freelancer. I am lucky that I work for myself especially since my chronic illness would make it difficult to be employed by anyone else. I still sometimes can’t believe that I get to do exactly what I want all day, every day.

All that said, if I ever wanted/needed to get another kind of job, it would be difficult. I’d be in the same boat as mothers returning to work after taking time off to raise children: my experience dismissed, my value denied.

The fact is that “I am so lucky” and “I am in so much trouble” are what motivate me every day.

When people are surprised by how prolific I am both in my artwork and my art marketing, I am always a little surprised by their surprise. I am like every independent artist I know—and here I’m talking about the ones who are completely independent and without another source of income. We all hustle like this. We are driven by a combination of all-consuming terror and utter delight at our circumstances.

Actually, let me correct that. “I am so lucky” and “I am in so much trouble” definitely take up lots of space in our psyches, but so does “THANK YOU.” Every independent artist I know has a community supporting them. You make us the artists we are.

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