Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Making a Decision

I've recently made a big decision about my life, and thought since I have this outlet I'd like to write about my decision making process and everything that I've been thinking about for the past 9 months or so. It's long, so bear with me...or don't. I really wrote this to get things off my chest and not for other people.

I've been involved with art pretty much all of my life, and one of the first jobs I was interested in as a kid (besides being a rock star) was being an artist. After many different career ideas, some serious and some not so much, I came back to art officially in the middle of my sophomore year. I never thought that I could make it as a full time artist because that plan sounded so vague, and I didn't have much faith in my artwork at that time, so I planned on becoming an art teacher instead. I figured that I could still be involved with art, but through a steady 9-5 (or 7:30-3:30) job with benefits and summers off to pursue my own artwork on the side. I discovered that I liked teaching, and was good at it. I loved putting together craft lessons for the kids at KidSpirit, and volunteering in the schools. Hell, most of the time I even liked teaching random subjects from a script in Korea. However, things started to change during grad school.

I loved the high school I was teaching at, I loved my mentor teacher there, and I loved the kids, but I hated the system that we were working in. I hated the overcrowded classrooms, lack of supplies (and we had a lot more supplies than other schools), pressure of time constraints, the grading (seriously! art can be really objective!) and the complete lack of a personal life that I had because I was constantly running myself ragged trying to keep up with the amount of work. Now I know that grad school isn't what real teaching is like, but I saw what the schedule was doing to the other teachers there, and they were all tired and stressed. My migraines got so bad that year that I would have to turn off the lights in my classroom and teach in semi-dark, and on more than one occasion I would come home and throw up because the pain had gotten so bad during the day. Still I liked the kids and I wanted to do right by them so I kept it up. Things got really bad after I went to the middle school. It wasn't only my mentor teacher there (who made me cry all the time), it was everything. There was NO TIME to do anything in, and the little time we had the kids mostly spent cleaning, I had to account for every single pencil and eraser I gave them because there were no supplies, they had redone the schedule so that I barely had a chance to learn their names before they were out of my class, and many of the kids were downright mean and nasty to me as my thanks for everything that I was doing.

I graduated with my Master of Arts in Teaching and my teaching license, still determined to teach and hoping desperately that my classes wouldn't be as bad as what I had experienced at the end of the year. I went to the Oregon educators fair with my newly printed resumes expecting to find some lead on a job only to leave feeling defeated and rejected. Everyone I talked to there basically gave a me "good luck with that..." when I told them I was there for art positions. Undaunted I watched EdZapp, the Portland public schools site, and Craigslist for teaching positions. By the end of the summer I had applied for 14 teaching positions and only had one interview for a part time job in an after school art program, during which the lady took one look at my resume and before I even sat down announced that I was over qualified. When the first week of school came and my husband and all our teaching friends went back to school I was devastated. I think I moped around the house for a week feeling sorry for myself until I made the decision to put together a studio and start making art.

Once I had a purpose again I started to feel better, but things still moved very slowly. I was starting from scratch with no supplies and no real plan or experience. Little by little I've put together a workable studio in my basement, got the supplies I need, figured out a system for making my art, bought myself a website, and have started getting my work out there in shows and galleries. I'm still not good about keeping a strict schedule, but I have a timeline mapped out that I try to stick with and I'm slowly getting better about being my own boss. I feel excited about the prospect of being a full time artist in a way I haven't felt excited about anything, including teaching, for a while.

However, now it's spring and the teaching positions are starting to open up again. People keep asking me if I'm going to look for a teaching job for next year, or they ask how the job search is going and offer suggestions. The first piece of advice they usually offer me is that I should substitute. Of course! Substituting! Why didn't I even think about that?! Newsflash: I know I could substitute, I just don't want to. I didn't get into teaching to be called randomly at 5 in the morning to teach a subject I'm not familiar with to a group of kids I don't know who will probably give me a hard time just because I'm a sub. Besides, the work isn't that good for people who are not already in the public school system. From what I've discovered the sub job are going to retired teachers who the principals already know and who are coming out of retirement and entering the sub pool because the economy sucks. The one sub list that I had a chance of getting on was closed. I'm not going to substitute. The other suggestion is usually that I should get any job, work as a waitress, work as a barista, work in an office, didn't I hear that the grocery store down the street is looking for bag girls?! Well...if you think I'm the only one looking for work right now you apparently don't turn on the TV, radio, or walk outside and see the shops being boarded up. I've scoured Craigslist, searched the Multnomah county employment website, and applied to tons of jobs I'm qualified for. Everyone right now is looking for work and the only thing I'm really qualified for anymore is to teach (which I can't get into), but my masters degree makes me over qualified for everything else. Besides, I've done those jobs before. I've been the barista, the janitor, the warehouse worker, burger flipper, day camp instructor, office assistant, store clerk, English tutor, and camp counselor. I feel like I've put in my time doing jobs I don't like, I've gotten my higher education, and I'm ready for a career. I want something that I can do for the rest of my life. I'm tired of waiting for my "adult life" to start. I feel like the people in my generation were lied to. We were always told: "Study in school, get good grades and you'll get a good job". I got a f*#$%ing 4 point in grad school! Where is my good job?! I drop thousands in my education for people to tell me I should apply for the part time job at the coffee shop? I don't think so.

Everytime I do apply for one of those jobs my art suffers. Everytime I spend the day filling out online applications for some job I don't really want just to satisfy other people's expectations of what I should be doing I can't paint the next day. Everytime I look for other jobs I'm telling myself that my art is just a hobby, that nothing will come of it and that it's not a "real" job to be an artist. I can't keep straddling the fence like this, making art and creating plans for what I want to do with it while simultaneously telling myself it's just temporary. I need to make a choice, but it's been hard and I have a lot of questions. If I pursue art full time and it ends up being successful then will I ever get to teach? Did I waste all this time in college and grad school learning to be a teacher instead of concentrating more on my art? What about my masters degree? Did I just put myself into debt for a degree and a license I'll never use? Should I continue to pursue teaching even though the thought of teaching in a formal school setting fills me with anxiety and dread now? Will other people think I'm just being lazy and am avoiding work? What if nothing ever comes from my art? I've been asking myself all these questions and have been driving myself crazy for months, knowing that soon I'd have to make a decision by spring.

I have finally made a decision that makes my happy, keeps me sane and that works for both Mike and myself. I've decided not to apply for any more jobs, teaching or otherwise, and to pursue art full time for at least another year or so. Ever since I graduated from Western I feel like my future and my career has been in other people's hands and has been out of my control. Making art and being my own boss gives me that control back. I know that galleries and customers still determine if I make any money, but they don't determine if I'm working or not. I can get up everyday and work without needing to beg and plead for a job, and if I don't make money in one venue I can try something else. I waited 9 months for someone else to give me a job, but now I'm tired of waiting and am creating my own business instead. I don't have to give up on teaching entirely either. Many artists who I admire teach workshops out of their studios, and I've always wanted to teach art to kids after school on a weekly basis as well. When things are more stable and I'm able to buy extra supplies I can start teaching art the way I want to, without the pressure of grading, with whatever supplies I want to provide, for as long as I want the class to last, and with people who are choosing actively to learn about art. Eventually I hope to find a balance doing both, but in the beginning I know I'll need to concentrate on just my art. Mike supports my choice 100% and in fact has been my biggest cheerleader in all of this. He really believes that I can do something awesome with my art and I don't want to let him down. We will be fine living off of his income though things will be tight and certain things like cars, houses, and kids might be delayed a little. I can still afford my supplies because I do data entry for my mom about once a week for some extra cash and therefore am not putting us into debt to get my business started. If we weren't able to make ends meet I wouldn't be pursuing this, but now is really the perfect time to take a chance.

So that's my decision. No more searching or applying for jobs. If you don't take what I'm doing seriously I really don't care anymore. I already have a job; I'm an artist.


  1. good for you, chantel...i don't think your education is a waste...who knows...once you have your portfolio beefed up with a couple of years of artwork, you'll be the next PNCA instructor teaching encaustics to people that really want to learn ...or you'll give lessons on a freelance basis in your basement studio because you have the skills to do so, the experience as a full-time artist and the flexibilty to do that when you want.
    Good for you for soul searching and taking a risk! Good for Mike for supporting you and believing in you! He's a good guy!

  2. I admire your moxy and self-confidence to take charge of your career in this way. And I admire Mike for supporting you wholeheartedly - you picked the right partner.

    One of our neighbors growing up was a female artist who taught after school and summer classes out of her home, and she seemed very successful and happy. I can definitely see you being that kind of local icon someday.

  3. By the balls! Sorry to be crass, but good on you for making (and ostensibly sticking with) a firm decision. You can't spend your life waiting for someone to give you a boost or a handout, and you're doing the hardest, but potentially most rewarding, thing possible: giving the world the proverbial finger, battening down the also-proverbial hatches, and setting your sights on long-term happiness.

    Best of luck. :) When you succeed, you'll look back on these fledging days as a fond memory. And then you'll book a flight to Paris and forget, again, that days such as these ever troubled you.