A life in art

I remember a train trip when I was in my twenties. The man sitting across from me was about my age, and we had both studied art. We talked about what we planned to do with our lives.

“I’m going to go into business,” he said, “and make a lot of money, and then when I’m in my forties I’ll retire and do art.”

I found the idea shocking; how could one not do art for twenty years? How could you sleep at night? I didn’t mean that a guilty conscience would keep you awake; it was the little art demons. They whisper stuff into your brain and wake you up at three in the morning to work out the idea.

I know that for an artist, or at least for me, not doing art has physical repercussions. I suffer withdrawal; I’m sad and anxious, my hands shake, I can’t settle, and I eat way too much. It’s just so much easier to give in and take another hit of the drug. I once wrote a piece called “Artists Anonymous” in which I discussed art as though it were any other addiction.

Many years ago a friend of mine mentioned that she knew of three times when I had made sacrifices for my art. I never thought to ask her what those three times were. I am, however, pretty sure that I wouldn’t see them as sacrifices. Given a choice between almost anything else and art, I choose art.

Okay, I’ll give up an evening’s writing for a movie, especially if it’s got Jet Li in it and there’s the possibility of popcorn. Even the art demons like a little eye candy now and then. But for long-term commitment, nothing beats art. As another artist recently said to me, “Oh, you’re a lifer. Me, too.”

I sometimes think back to that train trip. I wonder what happened to the young man who was going to make his fortune and then do art. Did he find that money is as addictive as art is? Did he marry and have a family and find that it took two reliable incomes to raise children? Did he start, in his forties, to do the art he’d laid aside? He’d be starting over – unpracticed skills get rusty.

I’m grateful that I held to my course. It’s not that I don’t love other things, my husband, my pets, my friends and family, my books and possessions. I do. Maybe that’s why art is a hard life – it can make it difficult to have those other things. It doesn’t usually make you rich, and sometimes it doesn’t pay the bills, either. But even if you can’t make a living with art, you can always make a life.

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