Help Desk

Help Desk: No Such Thing as a Dumb Question

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

Long story short, I finished my MFA and moved back home to deal with some of my debt before I move to a bigger city with galleries and opportunities, etc. I only plan to be here for a year or so. I’m trying to remain active so that there aren’t bare spots on my CV—doing shows in cafes and bookstores, lobby galleries, things like that. My family and friends seem generally supportive, but they still ask skeptical or frustrating questions like, “Are you still painting?” “How long did it take you to paint that?” “What does that mean?” “Do sell your work?” How do I answer?

Julie Mehretu. Untitled (Skybox), 1999; ink and watercolor on three overlayed vellum sheets pinned on board; 18 x 24 in.

Julie Mehretu. Untitled (Skybox), 1999; ink and watercolor on three overlaid vellum sheets pinned on board; 18 x 24 in.

There’s no shame—or at least there oughtn’t be—in exercising some sober options to get your financial house in order. In the long run, you may be setting yourself up for more stability than a graduating MFA who ends up further in debt by heading straight to the Big City in an attempt to fast-track a career. However, it sounds like you’re a bit isolated, and anyone in your position might be tempted to make biased, self-denigrating comparisons. If your peers have taken other routes that currently seem more advantageous, then you might have the sense of being overlooked or delayed in your progress. And after the rush and rigor of an academic program, many newly graduated artists initially feel estranged from their own practices. Taken in aggregate, all this might be enough to make an artist feel defensive, and it’s possible that you are hearing questions like, “Are you still painting?” through the lens of some insecurities. Perhaps these questions aren’t skeptical; maybe the questioners just don’t understand how an art practice or a career in the arts work.

In any case, the easiest way to answer these sorts of questions is to answer the questions. “Are you still painting?” “Yes.” “How long did it take you to paint that?” “I don’t know.” “Do you sell your work?” “Yes, thank you. I take cash, checks, and PayPal.” And surely, when asked what an artwork or a motif means, your MFA crit-group training will aid you in making something up on the spot.

Endeavor to reserve a little compassion for yourself, and some empathy for others. Remember that the MFA is a specialist degree that has endowed you with a technical vocabulary. Imagine yourself talking to someone with an equally specific body of knowledge that’s foreign to you, like a linguist or a plumber or a key grip. Imagine that, despite your genuine interest, your conversation might be awkward or stilted because you understand only the broadest outlines of what they actually do all day: “So, uh, do you get to hang out with famous actors on set?” Our key grip could now roll her eyes and sigh, or she could meet your enthusiasm with patience and kindness: “Not often, because I work directly with the lighting. But sometimes I help with the blocking, which is lining up the actors with the best audience sight lines.” Though they may occasionally frustrate you, try to assume that your questioners have good intentions, and do what you can to enlighten them about an artist’s practice and career.

The best counterbalance to your frustration is to have a community that you can talk to. If you aren’t already doing it, line up studio visits (or laptop studio visits) with other artists, critics, and art professors in your area. Use Skype to keep in touch with your MFA colleagues. If occasional trips to a city nearby won’t break the bank, consider going a few times to visit galleries and museums, and to meet with people who share both your interests and your specialist insights. If you can make a trip to the place you’d like to eventually live, you could work strategically to make contacts well in advance of moving. The important thing is to focus on the activities that support your practice: making your work, talking with your peers, and looking at what’s happening in the art world(s). If you concentrate your attention on the things that bolster your efforts, you won’t have time to get annoyed. Good luck!