Monday, July 06, 2015

These Things I Know: How to Make it in a Small Town

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First things first: "MAKING IT" is totally subjective. Do I think I've made it? Sure, but that kinda varies from week to week. Sometimes the art is flowing and selling and it's all coming up roses, and other days inspiration alludes me and I just can't seem to get my projects done. But I think that's all part of the life as an artist, and if you're fortunate enough to live it, then you learn to roll with the punches.

Thomaston is located in middle Georgia, about an hour away from bigger cites like Atlanta, Macon, and Columbus. There's a little over 9,000 people living in the city, and about 27,000 living in the county. Of course, "small town" is also subjective but after some casual Internet research I've decided for the sake of my story that small towns hold less than 15,000 people.

Currently, I have a storefront studio near the town square. I'm able to pay my own bills with the money brought in from hosting art classes and selling art. Now, full disclosure: I would not have been able to do anything without the support of my husband. He took on the responsibility of general living expenses while I slowly built up my art career, so I'm extremely fortunate to have a supportive partner. I've also recently started working part-time at a restaurant (a story to be shared at a later time). But I think the advice I typed below can be used whether you're married or completely on your own.

Here are five things I know about trying to make it as an artist in a small town: 

Join Everything! Make Friends Everywhere!
Moving to Thomaston after my daughter was born was probably one of the most significant changes in my life. Not only was I a new mother, but I was in a new town where I didn't have a friend to call my own. With social media being in it's infancy (Hello, Friendster!), I had no idea how to make friends that weren't a. co-workers or b. former classmates. I mean, how do grownups make friends anyway?

Thank goodness for the Internet, really. I spent a lot of time searching for art galleries and art stores in the nearby area. Only one thing popped up: The Thomaston Upson Arts Council (TUAC), a local non-profit that promotes the arts in the community. Perfect, right? Right!

I read everything I could about TUAC: their programs, their plays, their gallery space, etc. Of course, the gallery space was what held my interest. I composed a quick email, attached a few photos of my work, and anxiously awaited a response.

Thankfully, TUAC is always looking for more local artists to display so all I had to do was meet with the Visual Arts Chairperson, show off a few paintings, and I had a gallery showing fourteen months after moving to Thomaston. Little did I know, that show would be the first step in a long journey to having my own storefront studio.

Here's a quick run-through of the next few years:
- Participated in Crazy for You as a showgirl (2004)
- Became the Administrative Assistant for TUAC (2005-2013)
- Taught an art class for TUAC's Summer Art Camp (2007-2008)
- Started attending meetings for the West Central Georgia Shutterbugs (a new photography club) and eventually was voted in as Vice-President (2006-2009)
- Started volunteering for SlowExposures, a photography exhibit (2010ish-to present)
- Helped curate a feline photography show at a nearby book store (2011-2012)
- Opened up my first art studio (2012).

Every single one of those opportunites put me in touch with new people who had an interest in the arts and my circle grew and grew.
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Give It Away for Free (Barter & Share!)
We all know the old saying:

And I wholeheartedly agree! But... if we're talking about the me from a few years ago, I would gladly do projects for free just for the credit...BUT (and it's a big but!) only if it was a project I felt good about. I'd make sure that the project, painting, whatever lined up with what I wanted to accomplish within my community. Non-profit art project? Yep! Decor for a program that benefited the youth? Yep! 

I would even work within people's budgets just for the experience. Say, someone wanted a wall painted but they only had X amount of dollars...I'd agree to it, especially if I had nothing else going on and if I had final say in the design. I currently have a freebie project that I do yearly just because it's fun and I can paint whatever I want (as long as it fits the business' theme). If it fits in my schedule, why not? 

Bartering is fun too! I've done projects for anything from boxes of fresh veggies and homemade pies, to hair services. You have to have a strong set of boundries and make sure that you're not being taken advantage of. Make sure that it's an even trade and it's stuff that you can really, really use.  

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Promote, Promote, Promote
It's so easy to just sit here and type DON'T BE AFRAID! If you're anything like me, you're painfully shy and modest. Just talking about yourself makes you ill. I mean, c'mon, I'm introverted as all get-out so it was a HUGE challenge to get out of my comfort zone. It gets easier as I get older, mostly because I believe that in the end, no one really pays that much attention. I've done some majorly embarassing things (just recently: stuttering through a thank you speech in front of hundreds of people), but life goes on, y'know?

Stack of Promo Postcards
Promo postcards from 2007
I used to hand out business cards that just had my name, email, and website. Facebook wasn't a thing so people had to actually go to my website to check out my artwork. But now there's Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, you name it...people have it on their phones. Amazing right? Have a card with a photo of your artwork on it and list ALL of the social media links you have. Share all of your stuff on Facebook! Post daily on Instagram! Social media can be amazing for introverts like me. I have a hard time really "bragging" about stuff in everyday conversation, but if you look on my FB it'll show what I've been up to every day. People really enjoy looking at what artists are up to. Posting progress pictures piques interest and gives your audience a chance to ask questions.

It's also helpful to promote your artist friends stuff too. Lift each other up into the spotlight. Share and share alike, right?

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From a trip to Baltimore in December 2011.

Get Out of There
Yes, get out of town everyonce in awhile. Personally, I get antsy if I haven't traveled outside of the county lines in a few weeks. Thankfully, I live inbetween several cities that offers different artistic experiences. I can almost always count on Atlanta (about an hour's drive) to have a really neat artsy event. Getting out of town helps shake it up a bit, check out what's going on in other communities, and you might even get inspired to bring it back to your town.

Seriously, some of my best ideas are ones I've "borrowed" from other events. Why did I make a street puppet? Because I was at an out of town festival and saw a friend with her puppet. Why did I want to even open up my own studio? Because I saw some other artists spaces while I was on vacation and wanted a space of my own. Even some of my fundraiser ideas came from events I attended from out of town.

Even if you can't get out of town due to finances, car troubles, what-have-you, try to "escape" through Netflix or any other streaming service. If I need a little inspiration I watch Beauty is Embarassing, Beautiful Losers, or Exit Through the Gift Shop. The list could go on, actually, but these are the first three that popped up in my head.

It doesn't even have to be an artistic adventure. Sometimes just getting outside your small town and outside your own head does wonders for the artistic soul!

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The artist and her gallery wall, Spring 2014.
Keep at It!
Oh man, yes, keep at it! My journey is at least 12 years long so far. It takes a long, long time to become "an artist".  There are days where I just pout and wish I lived somewhere else (I call them my "Boo-Hoo Days") but someone pointed out that I would just have to start over in that town too. And it would be even harder if there's an already well organized and established art community. That's a whole different set of challenges to take on.

I'll close this out with a quote from Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
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If you're a small town artist, do you have any advice for other artists trying to make it? 
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