Maple Syrup Art: Becoming an Artist

Jason Arkell-Boles // Columnist

I’m about to finish my art degree, so naturally, I’m lost. As an artist, trying to plan for the future can be daunting. So to give myself a little more confidence, I researched how past and contemporary Canadian artists worked towards achieving successful careers, copied their stories, noted some trends, and applied them to me: a soon-to-be art school graduate.

However, it’s also important to understand that there is no guaranteed path to success—that’s not what this is. Instead, I wrote out all these ideas to give myself something to do after I finish school, or at least to have some semi-impressive sounding goals to tell my parents at Christmas. So if you’re a Canadian artist trying to figure out your next steps in life, take some of these ideas into consideration—hopefully the future will start feeling a little better.

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Start a gang (of artists)!

Having a solid group of pals to make work with, exhibit with, or just to hang out with is probably the best way to stay consistently creative. Finding a group like this was hands-down one of the greatest benefits of going to film school. 

If you’re new to the city or don’t know that many creatives, finding a group could be as simple as frequenting local music venues, small galleries, or creative groups like CineWorks. Having a group to support you artistically can do wonders for your creative process, so find some artsy pals and keep them close, you’ll need them.

SHOW. YOUR. WORK!

I can’t stress this enough! Yes, putting together an exhibition is intimidating. Yes, you probably feel like your work isn’t good enough yet. Just remember that everyone has these thoughts and you’re not alone! 

In the small art ecosystem within Canada, it can be, at times, very easy to get your art out into the world. If you’ve got a good group of artist friends, putting together a group exhibition and touring small galleries can be a fantastic way to become established. If you don’t have a group at hand, submitting your work to arts and culture magazines or to small community exhibitions can be just as effective. There are plenty of ways to get your art out there, so do it! No excuses.

Get smart.

This is your chance to become a hot professor! If you’re interested in expanding your artistic practice, connecting with fellow artists and academics, or teaching, why not consider working towards an MA, MFA, or a PhD?

This route is common for Canadian artists. Jeff Wall, Dana Claxton, and Brett Story all became professors as a means of sustaining their artistic careers. Not all of us know what we want to make right out of school, and that’s okay! Take your time, learn the histories, and gain a supportive academic community along the way.

Write, alright?

This could mean picking up articles for independent magazines, submitting essays to scholarly journals, writing gallery reviews, or maybe even some amateur journalism. I personally love the experience of writing; essays, reviews, journaling—I can’t get enough of it. Writing gives me an outlet to make sense of the world around me, and it gives me a platform to contextualize my artistic thoughts; that’s why I decided to take a shot at doing it semi-professionally.

It’s also important to note that Canadians get an edge on this front. Being a smaller country, there are many local magazines that don’t get a lot of submissions; Discorder, Sad, and Montecristo are a few magazines in Vancouver. So if you like to write, give it a shot, you might find yourself a career.

Pick up a side-gig!

With Vancouver prices being, well, Vancouver prices, working full-time as an artist is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain—so try working a side gig! While you won’t be living lavishly, a part-time job is a good way to stay afloat while you work on your art. Try something easy-going—think coffee shop, art supply store, or if you’re lucky, artist’s assistant.

Of course, artists working in coffee shops are a huge cliche, but I feel like it gets a bad rep for what it is. I’ve been a barista twice, and I loved the job. Sure, it doesn’t pay great, but it’s a peaceful and relaxing position to keep up, and I always end the day with energy to work on something productive. So give it a try, live cheap, and take your time building your portfolio—it could pay off.

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We all know you can’t magically manifest a successful career as a visual artist, writer or film director—you have to work up to it. Still, it’s a confusing thing for me to comprehend, ‘working up’ to a career as an artist. There’s no ladder to becoming an artist, no surefire route one can take, it’s entirely ambiguous. And as artists in Canada, we don’t have a lot of role models to look up to, but that’s okay.

What we have as a small country is the ability to create community. All of the recommendations I’ve listed above have one similarity, and that’s working with, collaborating with, or just spending time around other people in the art community. So just remember that while the art scene in Canada may feel scarce, you’re not alone. 

The ideas I’ve laid out here are just a few of the infinite number of routes one can take to become a successful artist. You can try working in an artistic industry, seeking artistic grants, partnering with institutions, or designing products for sale—the possibilities are endless. What’s most important is that you take your time, explore different possibilities, meet as many artists as you can, and ultimately, try to form a better artistic community in Canada—you might end up finding success along the way.

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