It’s Hard Out There For A Bitch: In Which I Complain Too Much About My Life As An Art Worker

callieAn unfortunate introduction: This will be a slightly rambling love and hate letter. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and even as I’m jotting it all down, I’m not entirely sure how it all connects. This is highly unusual for my practice these days, but whereas I suspect it might all turn out to be important, I hope you’ll stick with me and trust that more concrete ideas are to come.

I am an Art Worker. This is like a town hall meeting where you stand up, introduce yourself and your “problem”. Here’s my soap box. But, let me amend my first statement. My name is Callie and I am a white, fat, queer, cis woman Art Worker. That’s a slightly better pictures of the privileges I do, and don’t have. I understand that I am one of the lucky people who has earned a college and a graduate degree. I am married to a strong, smart woman who supports me every single day in my career as a Maker. My wife earns enough money to pay most of the bills, and through her work now gets great medical, dental and even eye insurance (which means that for the first time in my life, including most of my childhood, I am a fully insured person. I have asthma, fibromyalgia, tmj and endometriosis, so this is literally a life changing thing). We live in a modest rented home, with our three cats, two of which were rescued, while we save enough money to buy a house and dream of starting our family (and getting a dog – can you sense that we’re animal people yet?)

I am one of the lucky ones. Even before I had graduated college I started this website as a personal art blog, understanding that I would need some commitment to something if I was going to get through the year between college and graduate school.  Through some serious sweat equity, and an intense dedication to staying connected to the arts despite a couple traumatic events that year and severe depression, my blog and my art practice I’d started grew into something more meaningful than I had anticipated.

I’ve been mulling over the challenges of the art worlds ever since I started this blog, now a platform for a bunch of people to share their thoughts on intersectional feminism and art, and so it seems fitting that I throw down how I feel about some of my own. 

 

People Are Always Frequently Asking Me To Do Things For Free.

Now, look this is an issue both for makers and creators in general and for women, and I think female makers might have a really interesting niche in this market of “free” work. Let’s look at the basics. Women are expected to do more, and for less. And of course, this is increasingly impacted by double and triple minority identification. A black woman is paid less than a white woman and even less than a white man for the same job. (Read about all that here). Women statistically perform more unpaid labors, like housework and childcare both for their own children and the children of others. (Read this fascinating article). I’m curious how double and triple minority identification impacts the frequency of housework and nurturer.

Recently, an old friend who I hadn’t talked to in years reached out over social media to ask me to illustrate an entire children’s book for them, as part of their career plan. This person, who would undoubtedly be paid royalties by their publisher, wanted me to do all the illustrations within a month if possible, please, and for free.

Artists get asked all the time to do these sorts of things. Take photos for friends, do drawings, paint a mural. Sometimes it’s for an important cause, sometimes it’s not. I’m not calling into question the social/financial pull of the particular reason behind the asking, but right now I just want to point at the frequency at which it happens.

Is it because people have bought into the idea that creative people (artists, makers, musicians, writers) are doing what they love, and love what they do, so therefore it isn’t work?

Is it because when creative people are seen doing their work for free it isn’t acknowledged as generosity or charity?

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Donation Requests.

I get a million lot of them. In undergrad I was the president of a student organization, a staff member at an LGBT+ equity center, and also coordinated more than a few fundraisers. In graduate school I focused in on the process of becoming a non profit, how they work, and frankly how they don’t work, at least in this country and in this economy. I understand with some nuance the extreme limitations that are placed on organizations working to do good to raise the money they need to serve their communities. Non profits are expected to run lean organizations, to function more an more like for profit corporations than charitable entities. They are required to work on largely unpaid labor, free materials and donations.

From the earlier description, I think you can understand that I am running a business, which I am striving every single day to grow so that I can continue to make intersectional feminist illustrations, and can continue to run this website. I am responsible to my wife for earning a living. I am responsible to myself for making enough money to live the life I want (which includes a house, a kid or two, health care, and a retirement fund).

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These are not bad things, either.

In activist circles and artist circles, there is this pervasive idea that people need to not only be first and foremost committed to their activism, and/or to their art practice, but to ONLY be committed to this practice. I watched on social media as so many peers graduated and sheepishly mentioned their new jobs, while emphatically pointing out their continued dedication to their art/activism. Look, I get it! You have to pay the bills! You need to take basic care of yourself now and plan for your future. You got a job? In this city? In this economy? Good for you!!

HOMEWORK: The harmful myth of the starving artist.

This is where I will get back to Me. I thought long and hard about the various art, activist and frankly economical options I had available to me. I’ve got problems with higher education, so my thoughts of working as a professor went up in smoke. (Read about those problems here, here, here & here). I’m not sold on the art market – driven by mega galleries and art fairs and rich, straight, white men – either, so I was pretty sure that wasn’t a viable option for now either.

 

So, I figured that if what I’m so passionate about is social justice and social practice, then the best thing I could do for myself is to make work that is accessible to the communities that need it, and to continue to engage in a practice that discusses activism and art on an increasingly equitable level. This is a super simplification of all my thoughts on what is essentially my creative life outlook. But for the sake of this article, it will have to do. This means that my practice would have to make enough money that I can afford to live (nodding back to the issues of health insurance, retirement, paying MASSIVE student loans, buying a house etc) as well as give back to the issues I care about.

A note: I am about to name some names here. This isn’t because I want to draw undue attention to these organizations or individuals, but because I want to be clear in the examples I’m giving. I don’t want there to be any unnecessary smoke and mirrors. These are real interactions I have had with real people, and this is how it’s made me feel, and what it’s made me think about. 

This is where I get back to donation requests. I had barely opened my Etsy shop in 2013 when I got my first donation request. It was a fundraiser for Bitch Magazine, a publication which I really supported, by the way. At the time I was making individually relief-printed stickers on sexual assault in my apartment outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. (If you look back through the archives of this website, you can see this was not a happy time in my life). Anyway, this representative from Bitch was like, “We love your stuff and if you donate to our fundraiser we will promote the heck out of you and your work!” Well, I was flattered, and hey, this was a cause I really cared about! So, despite having extremely limited resources, I got to work making a ton of stickers – every single 5×7″ sticker printed by hand in my make-shift studio, hung up to dry and assembled into a cute package. I was dirt.broke. at the time, so this was a big deal. I need you to understand how poor I was. No health insurance to speak of, scraping together pennies to pay for grad school applications, and driving 25 minutes one way to a horrible job teaching painting classes at Michaels. I remember paying for the shipping of that box of stickers was painful. Painful.

All of this would be worth it, right? Well, maybe some people got my stickers and loved them, and maybe that made a difference in their lives, but I would never know about it. Bitch didn’t post a single picture of the package on their social media, or mention me as one of their donors. Now, look, I don’t want to be petty and at the time I tried really hard to shrug it off. But, I am really sick and tired of getting the message, “Your work does good for people, and so you should be happy with that!”

It’s really hard to be happy with not getting paid time and time again.

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Several donations later, I started thinking about what it meant to be paid. Being a poor person and the child of perpetually poor parents who still wanted to have things and still had valuable things to offer, I was no stranger to the idea (and importance!) of bartering. Caroline Woolard’s project OurGoods would become an important idea to me later on.

That’s when I came up with the idea that while these institutions might not have lots of money to give in exchange for my hard work, they had their experience and their expertise, and I now had an audience and a readership that wanted to know more. So, I decided I would set up exchanges! (I thought this was brilliant!) I would give a donation, and in exchange a representative from the organization would answer 10 simple questions to be published here as a feature on the work their non profit was doing. This worked ok… because there are some organizations that value the work of independent artist activists, really want to spread the word about the work they are doing, and understand the importance of outreach through various networks.

As an aside, here are just some of the organizations I have personally featured on Fabulously Feminist (not all of these organizations have requested or received donations):

But, it’s also been a complete failure as well. Identical in many ways to my experience with Bitch, I donated to Cascades, a new abortion access organization in Portland, Oregon. We set up the exchange: I’d send them the goods in time for their gala fundraiser and they’d do the interview with me within a couple weeks. This turned into a frustrating show of email dodging until the founder finally told me she had no intention of doing an interview with me, because she was focusing on more important, local connections and resources. I’d done my part – sent a donation of goods to help them raise money, and now she told me holding up her part of the arrangement was not important to her.

This, this was the message I was getting over and over again. People wanted my work. Actually, a lot of people want my work. I feel pretty secure in this based on the many requests I get from people asking to get it free, or for cheaper. (Yes, I have people email me just to let me know they think it’s crazy that I have the audacity to charge “too much” for my art). But, they didn’t want to have to do anything in order to get my art, and furthermore didn’t think that they should.

The same exact thing happened a month later with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. They agreed to an interview, then said they wouldn’t do it. Interestingly, they asked for another donation just a couple months ago. I stared at the email in shock. Then, I wrote to them, saying that we had agreed to an exchange last year which they never fulfilled, but I would gladly send them a donation this year if they would do a simple 10 question interview in advance of sending in my donation. No response.

I was so angry when all of this happened! But, I didn’t know what to do with this anger, because I do strongly advocate for the ideas these organizations are working towards! Reproductive justice is important to me! Ending sexual violence and supporting victims of sexual violence is important to me! I wavered back and forth – was talking about the problem of devaluing female, feminist art workers more important than talking about the hard work these organizations were doing?

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This brings up a whole host of other questions for me, of course. Like, what is the value structure between art and activism? Do I owe people working in the non profit sector something, because I too am working with socially-based issues?

Should I be doing this all for free anyway? (That’s the easiest question to answer, for me: Absolutely fucking NOT.)

 

Making The Mistake That I am So Hard Up For Cash That I Will Let Anything Fly.

 Another thing that happens with more frequency than I care to admit is that people can be downright rude. I get that it’s the anonymous internet of things, but I am a real person here, with ethics and values and limitations to what I can and will accept. This was actually the impetus for the entire writing of this article (which I have been thinking about writing since that Bitch incident of 2013, so you know this had to be good).

People make the mistake of thinking that makers and creators are somehow similar to Walmart or some other box store. Everything is expected to be fast, to have bunches of options, and as mentioned above and at length to be cheap if not entirely free.

Unlike box stores, however, makers and creators are also often expected to go through some sort of performative song and dance, where they bend over backwards in miraculous backflips to make their patrons (customers/consumers) happy. A talented artist friend told me about being commissioned for a painting by a very … demanding man. It seemed her every brush stroke was micromanaged, with constant changes: “Add a hawk here, because a hawk symbolizes this and I want the painting to have meaning! And a deer, but just half it’s head – must be right here!”

On the whole, I have to say that I absolutely love the community of people who support my work both on this site and in my Etsy shop. I have met some amazing people through my work this way and I am grateful to them every.single.day. Without their support, I couldn’t afford to continue to do any of this, and I am hopeful that the service I provide as an artist and an activist earns that support.

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Yet, I occasionally get some painful, and painfully rude messages. And they bother me so much. Maybe it’s because as a woman I was brought up with the socially ingrained need to please people. Maybe I care too much about what other people think of me.

Recently, a customer who later identified themselves as the Executive Director of NARAL Arizona (in an attempt to reveal to me what a ‘huge business mistake’ I had made in making them unhappy) was dissatisfied with a $28.86 organic cotton shirt they’d ordered and received exactly as described, and there seemed to be nothing I could do to make them happy. Two weeks of stringing along curt and eventually downright insulting messages, and yet they couldn’t even respond to the various options I offered this person to create a shirt that would make them happy, with the resources I have available to me (including exchanging it for a completely customized tee or returning it altogether).

It was a bizarre exchange, which got me thinking about all the ways in which I interact with this strange inequitable structure of art, activism, craft and economy as a queer, woman artist.

I don’t think I can slide these problems under the rug of my practice any more.

Some concluding thoughts, though admittedly I’m all awash with thoughts & feelings and don’t have too much by way of concrete solutions here:

No organization can be equitable if they cannot commit to fair exchanges.

Artists are people too.

 


Founder/Director Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from  Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.

Also By Callie:


 

 

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