Making art

Making a living

David Todoran, musician and songwriter, photography by Neal Bruns
Dale White, contemporary abstract artist, photography by Neal Bruns
Derek Devine, co-founder and president of Punch Films, photography by Neal Bruns
Sarah Thompson of Sarahmics, photography by Neal Bruns

ARTISTS WORK HERE

Art. Fine art. Creative arts. Sounds rarified and special, but people get up and go to work every day to do art in all its different forms. People right here in Fort Wayne. People everywhere. I’m one of them.

Some things are different about artists’ jobs, and some things are the same as everyone’s job. Fort Wayne has successful artists just like it has successful real estate brokers, teachers, physical therapists and any other occupation you can name.

Like everyone else, we earn our living through our work, some, including the writer-artist who is the author of this article, as an employee, some as entrepreneurs, some as solo practitioners, some as members of teams. Some become heads of corporations, some moonlight as artists while holding other jobs and some are self-employed, finding all the creative, business and marketplace skills in their own selves and making it work.

Paying the bills every month means finding enough people – customers – to pay for the art, day in and day out. Over and over again. That happens different ways for different art forms, presenting a variety of challenges to the artists.

ART IN THE MOMENT

Performers of all kinds and the people who create works meant to be performed need customers who will pay for art in the moment. They include musicians, singers, composers, choreographers, dancers, writers, filmmakers, actors, poets, playwrights and conductors. Even when customers are experiencing recorded versions of the art, it’s in the moment.

Musician and songwriter David Todoran is an artist-in-the-moment. His long career has included a fair degree of fame in Germany (he still receives occasional, small royalty checks from his songs being played on independent European radio, he said). He’s now the American literature teacher at Canterbury High School who also leads his band The Mobile Homewreckers onstage once every month or so, plus the occasional solo gig.

He wants to be clear that the arts world in Fort Wayne is pretty good right now with lots of live music venues, plus his visual artist friends are selling as well as he has ever seen. Plus technological changes have made being an independent performing and recording artist easier than when he was starting out.

“But making money playing live is pretty tough,” he said. He’s no longer doing it full time because he doesn’t want to be on the road all the time. He’s married and a parent.

“It has come down to whether you can fill a club with people,” he said. “It’s about creating that sort of buzz.”

And there’s one of the challenges. Artists like David Todoran may not be motivated primarily by creating buzz.

“I can get any number of jobs performing music, but it’s not necessarily going to be what I do as an artist,” he said. He’s a songwriter, too. The importance, the artistic gravity of a song is as much to a songwriter as a painting is to a visual artist. A CD of 12 songs is an artistic effort equal to a gallery show of 12 paintings, he said.

Beyond this point, music is different from painting. The same paintings can remain on display without additional effort by their creator until time for the next exhibit. The musician needs to keep performing the songs to make money, given the tiny returns usually earned from recorded music by most musicians, Todoran said.

He sees possible parallels between the tension he feels between being paid to entertain versus being paid for his art and the tension a visual artist might feel between being paid for his or her art and being paid for something like, he hazards a guess, face painting or making balloon animals. So it must be with deep satisfaction that he teaches literature and takes the stage with The Mobile Homewreckers, whose sets currently include a relatively new collection of songs that he wrote.

ART IN THE SPACE

A second category of artists needs customers who will pay for art that inhabits space and is experienced in that space. The customers usually come to this art or bring the art into their homes, workplaces, churches or other places they inhabit. These artists draw, paint, print, throw clay and sculpt, and they include all the mixed media and techniques that create works that are displayed in places.

Contemporary abstract artist Dale White creates mixed media collages formal enough for any corporate environment but so intimate and spiritual that they would reward daily contemplation in a home environment, too. White has been a full-time artist since his and wife Cindy’s children have grown up and been on their own, a good five years, and his business plan right now has him working with two mentors, Dr. Daryl Yost of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center on the business side and John Hrehov on the artistic side, as he creates a major new exhibit, “Black Box Logic,” to open in 2015.

His sales are to individual and corporate collections, by commission and mostly in this market. He is looking to sell more widely. He partners with Sharon Eisbart of Sharon Eisbart Corporate Art and Charley Shirmeyer of Northside Galleries and lists these companies on his website as owning his work: Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, Parkview Field, OmniSource, Steel Dynamics, Parkview Hospital, Eddie Merlot’s, Centier Bank, 3 Rivers Credit Union, O’Daniel Auto Mart and ONE Orthopaedics Northeast.

White’s art business and art life is going strong these days.

“I am a member of a team,” he said. “I am the creative lead on the team.” His website lists the in-studio and management tasks his family members handle. His wife is key.

“She is the reason it all happens,” he said. “She is the champion of what is going on, the team leader. She makes it all happen by allowing me to remain creative, independent and able to work in the studio. When times get tough, she finds a way to make ends meet.

“She champions the cause of art.”

White also counts as part of the team the business people who help him sell his art and his collectors.

“It’s a team effort. I’m just the creative end,” he said. “I do my job.”

He sees his job as a long-term responsibility.

“The biggest misunderstanding is that I do not have a boss,” he said. “I have a boatload of bosses. Every collector that seeks me out is my boss, and then I have an obligation to people who purchase me to maintain the standard so what they have purchased does not falter. My commitment to them is to continue to do well and to add value to my work at all times.”

He has set himself a big goal. It’s not easy to stay here and increase the value of your art. White is not the only Fort Wayne area artist to experience the “it’s worth more if you buy it someplace else” effect that tempers local collectors’ willingness to buy original art. He does appreciate how people enjoy attaching additional meaning to an art purchase by bringing it home from a special trip. But he also wishes more people would buy his and other local artists’ work here.

For that reason and others, having your art be your job isn’t always easy or pleasant. He says the percentage of his family’s room and board provided by his art has varied from 0 to 50 percent over the years. So an obvious question is whether it ever just seems too hard.

“About once a year you hit the wall,” he said. “I just simply call it the wall. You either dig deep or go home. On every occasion I just dug in deeper.  … I dug in deeper.”

He stares up at the ceiling.

“Thank God I am surrounded by a family who understands my reluctance to give up.”

He has come to terms with the realities of selling his art, as every artist must in every locality except the few most prestigious art centers.

“I possess talent, skill, knowledge and education about my art-making abilities. I am a professional working artist complete with a studio. I have a history, a known style and the ability to complete commissioned art on time (and on budget!). And yet I must rely on luck whenever a sale is made,” he said.

ART AS A TOOL

Artists of both categories achieve a breakthrough when they find a way to present their art to customers as a tool, useful to fill a need important enough to justify the expense of buying the art. Breakthrough artists are the ones most likely to become entrepreneurs, found corporations and support employees.

Derek Devine, co-founder and president of Punch Films, not only reinvented himself from classical musician to filmmaker but followed up with the breakthrough to found a company that now supports a staff of eight, including co-founder John Cuneo and first-employee-hired Heather Smith (now director of production). Punch creates all kinds of videos and films for ad agencies, public relations and marketing firms, corporations and nonprofits, winning shelves full of Addy Awards and an Emmy since its 2005 founding.

Devine sees the theme of reinvention running throughout the company.

“When I think about it, reinventing is really a big part of the story of Punch,” he said.

“It’s interesting to think about how past jobs and bosses helped me in my career, but as time goes on the Punch team contributes more and more to the story.

“Punch is very much a shared vision, and every member of the team has experienced tremendous personal growth and change while working here. Every one of us has experienced to some degree personal re-invention. The desire to learn, create and solve is hardwired into the culture of the company, and it’s contagious. It’s exciting to look back and see example after example of how each team member stepped into a new role or expanded their creative toolset or saved the day for a client.”

Devine knows he has brought the best of his previous career as a classical musician (he played the oboe) with him to his new career as his continuing insistence on practice, study and always learning, always pursuing perfection. He also finds a musician’s aesthetics similar enough to a filmmaker’s aesthetics to be useful as he and his team create and edit their work.

Make no mistake, though. It was a big leap of faith to found Punch Films. A storyteller to the core, Devine sees the process as one of organic growth, and he can point out the turning points and where the confidence was built and where it all came together and how he knew Punch was a good idea.

“John and I agreed to keep the overhead really, really low at first,” he said. “I worked out of my home at first.” An early, big, good project gave them a good start, the organic growth idea worked out and two years later he felt comfortable taking on the expense of a business space.

He’s very glad he decided to locate downtown.

“That’s one of the best decisions I ever made. We’re very visible and close to a lot of our clients,” he said.

His biggest concern as a business owner has played in counterpoint to his organic growth/stay under the radar strategy. He was long concerned that the company name wasn’t sufficiently well known, he said. He feels fine about that now, after investments like the company name on the Parkview Field wall and hiring Director of Marketing Amber Recker a year ago.

Other artists in breakthrough businesses have very different stories. Sarah Thompson of Sarahmics, a potter by trade, seems born to the life.

Self-employment is familiar to her because members of her family and her boyfriend are self-employed, though without the retail licensing and aspects she has needed to learn, but Thompson has been selling art since high school.

Her professional challenge now is to balance and direct all her creative and personal energy and focus it on the twin goals of better ceramics and a better business.

“The overall energy of ‘let’s go, let’s get out, let’s do this, let’s make it happen’ that’s there. That can and does totally influence me,” she said, from her family circle. But she has worn herself down.

Most of her income is from summer art fairs. She also does a spring and a fall studio sale, plus some teaching and wholesale sales, in addition to her website sales and her Etsy shop. She’s busy. Two winters ago she also sold monthly at a farmers market, but she decided against that last year.

“I was making pots just to sell them, and that weighed heavy on my heart,” she said. “When you do something for your passion, you have to keep that in check. You have to enjoy it, too. This winter, I took that off, and it worked. My work has improved, and my heart is happy again.”

She has new designs, new colors and some lovely pieces for sale this summer.

“That taught me it’s OK to take creative time off,” she said. “I have one of these personalities that I’ll do it all and think about it later.”

But she’s also methodical and willing to do the work to do things right. When she found out she needed a retail merchant’s certificate for a show, she called the IRS to find out what that was and what she needed to do to get one.

“The IRS isn’t as scary as people say,” she said.

She credits her Wawasee High School art teacher as also teaching her about the business of art. Her teacher did commissioned portraits, and that’s what Thompson was
going to do until she took the required ceramics class at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“I really liked it. It really stuck with me,” she said. “In the class you only run the wheel for maybe two weeks, but my boyfriend and I found one on Craigslist and it ran pretty well and we bought it. I’ve run it pretty much every day since.” That was six years ago.

She only had that one class, and she has not finished the fine arts degree. The problem with the class was that it did not teach things like glazes and firing, she admitted.

“Thank God we have the Internet, and I could teach myself all those things,” she said.

She stopped working other jobs when she realized she had to sell the equivalent of five mugs a day to make it work. She knew she could do that. Of course, given that the sales are not spread evenly throughout the year, she also has to be a good manager of her money, in addition to being a good accountant, financial planner, tax preparer, buyer of supplies, designer and builder of displays and marketer of her own work. And she manages her own websites and shipping.

“There’s so much more to it than just the pottery. That’s probably why so many artists aren’t successful,” she said. She admits that during the hours of doing all the other parts of her artist’s work, a small part of her is complaining it’s not fair.

“But it’s just being disciplined, like you are disciplined in your craft,” she said. “You have to be disciplined and have good craftsmanship. That has to relate back to your life as well. When those two are aligned and it jells, you feel balanced and content and it works really well.”

She is teaching a class at Artlink on how to be successful on Etsy. The money line: “It’s a job. You have to treat it like a job, or it’s not going to work. You have to be self-disciplined to be successful on Etsy.”

ABOUT WORKING ARTISTS

From the Indiana Arts Commission Biennial Report for 2011-2012:
• 30,396 Indiana full-time artists, as reported in January 2013

From “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Arts-Based Careers and Creative Work” in Work and Occupations, October, 2013
“Artists are increasingly seen as key economic drivers for cities and nations. In the post-industrial, global economy, many have argued that intellectual property – specifically art, culture, entertainment, media – will increasingly represent a growing portion of the gross national product.”
• For artists, “success increasingly requires meta-competencies such as broad creative skills, commercial acumen, and the ability to work across multiple media platforms.”
• New research says artists work everywhere, with a majority living in second- and third-tier cities and rural areas, where they enjoy the quality of life and lower cost of living and often find work related to industries there. They often stay near where they were educated. Many artists move back and forth from their home cities and the big art centers, developing identities at both levels.
“Business and management skills are the number one area that graduates of arts programs wish they had been more exposed to in college.”
• More arts graduates end up in education than any other occupation, but a growing trend is toward social practice art.
• How artists physically and personally interact with each other, with customers and with gallery and institutional intermediaries is changing due to technological changes, so new arts-related businesses to facilitate those connections are springing up, some run by artists themselves.
• Another growing trend sees artists hiring services themselves to take creative projects from concept to market.

TO LEARN MORE

David Todoran & the Mobile Homewreckers on Facebook
Dale White at whytehorsestudios.com
Derek Devine at punchfilms.com
Sarah Thompson at sarahmics.weebly.com

First appeared in the August 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.

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