My Artist Life
Karen's story of her life as an artist.
I see the world around me as a series of patterns – colour, light and dark, shapes, lines…all the elements of any artwork. I use to think that’s how everyone sees what’s around them, but I’m reliably informed that it makes me quite different to most people I know. The urge to capture something of my surroundings, of objects, is driven by something fundamental in me that makes me HAVE to pick up a pencil, a pen, a paintbrush, a camera, modelling tools and clay. It doesn’t really matter what the medium is. I just need to use what I have to hand to try and interpret what it is I’m seeing in some way that makes sense to me. People may or may not enjoy the results, but that’s not the be all and end all for me. What really matters to me is the process of making.
I am a writer and an artist. I’ve also worked as a professional musician – singing opera and other genres, and have done teaching. My children as they were growing up, often struggled to find a simple answer to the query, “What does your mum do?” The older one eventually started telling people that I was an artist that did ‘everything!’
Later in life, while on an art history course at the British Institute in Florence, Italy, the young American students in the group began calling me the Renaissance Woman, a reference to Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance Man – denoting his multi-disciplinary capacities as an artist, draftsman, writer, etc.
I don’t do ‘everything’…far from it. However, what I do is governed by a drive to make things, and explore media – be that clay, words, paint, sound, pencils, film, textiles, and anything else I can get my hands on.
I spent a great deal of my working life layering concurrent jobs. As is the case for many women, my working life was interrupted by having children, and often tailored to being able to support a working partner. I haven't had a career, per se.
By the end of secondary school I wanted to pursue both music and visual art, which didn't happen, largely due to too many people pushing me to just focus on music. In the wake of the breakdown of my marriage, I decided it was my time to do what I wanted to do. I distinctly recall an accountant friend suggesting that achieving being added to the core chorus of the local opera company and commencing a visual arts degree were perhaps not the most sensible choices when I had two children to support on my own. But at the time, I also recall feeling that the things I'd wanted to do had so often been sidelined by other people making decisions for me, and I'd had enough of that.
Additionally, I’d been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an incurable, degenerative autoimmune disease, a year after the birth of my second child. Getting sick was a major contributing factor in the disintegration of my marriage – my then husband didn’t ‘do’ illness. He didn’t cope well with my struggles to deal with the physical and emotional impact of the diagnosis. His solution was to distance himself to the point that we were no longer together, although we were still living as a family. Things continued to deteriorate, and inevitably, he left.
I got the degree and followed it up with an academic Master’s degree in art history and curatorial studies. Most frustratingly, I never managed to land a full-time job in my field. It's intensely competitive, as there are too many courses turning out wannabee curators for far too few institutions in this country. So I continued to lurch from contract job to contract job in sort of related areas, building up a CV that is anything but orthodox, because it was always a matter of taking what presented itself, because there were always bills to pay, and I didn't have the luxury of funds to enable me to hold out for the perfect job.
Twenty years after diagnosis, shortly before I turned 50, the RA went berserk with no warning. I was working full time in a marketing job – something that took full advantage of my music, art and writing skills. Over a six-month period, my health deteriorated increasingly quickly until I found myself an inpatient in a medical ward of one of our major hospitals. I continued to work remotely during that time, and after I was discharged, being physically unable to make the commute, but eventually, my position was terminated. Suddenly I had a massive road block to any full-time employment.
Ironically, with my RA now being classified as severe, and being the direct cause of quite variable levels of disability depending on the levels of disease activity at any time, I have something I lacked – time to decide what I want to do.
Not being able to work full time, while frustrating on all kinds of levels, and financially difficult – particularly at the present time, has gifted me with the opportunity to focus on my writing and art.
My Master’s thesis supervisor was responsible for me getting into writing professionally when she hand-balled me an exhibition review for a craft journal. That lead to more writing within the arts, which I loved. Sadly, with the global financial crisis and general downward trend of funding in the arts, that work has all but disappeared and I miss it.
However, I was lucky enough to discover an Australian ghost-writing company that was seeking more writers, and I've been doing contract work for them for many years now. It varies in type, quantity and subject matter quite a bit, but the bulk of it, over the years, has been blog posts for business websites. So that's been there in the background in various amounts for about ten years now.
For years I'd tinkered with different art activities in between work and children. When my father died and I received a small inheritance from his estate, I made the decision to invest in myself and spent a year as part of a ceramics collective. No longer – due to the deterioration of my hands – able to use a potting wheel, I hand built mostly decorative objects. I had access to studio space, equipment, and people. It was a happy and productive period. I got gallery representation and sold lots of work through that gallery. I also did some commission pieces as well as selling privately. Then the money ran out, and I could no longer afford the subscription to the studio.
I'd not done much with my drawing, painting and mixed media work since art school, but it's something I can do from home, unlike ceramics. I joined Instagram after being hassled by artist friends online who told me that, as an artist, I SHOULD be on Instagram. Within a couple of weeks those same people were hassling me about the #100DayProject – a creative project hosted on Instagram where participants commit to a daily practice of something creative for 100 days. I didn't have much money and I didn't want to over-face myself, so I decided to do pencil drawings each day. It was a turning point with my art, getting back to that daily practice, and I ended up selling a few pieces from that series.
Last year, my partner gave me watercolours for my birthday. I eyed them with some fear for a month – they're a medium I've avoided most of my creative life, because they're HARD! I’d been tinkering with photography – with my iPhone camera – having joined a Facebook group with daily photo prompts. Each year one month is known as ‘rainbow month’, with each day’s prompts being a colour, so I decided to bite the bullet and paint the prompts. My theory was that if all I had to really focus on each day was the colour, I should be able to manage the paint.
Well, famous last words. It was a hell of a month. Every day I was finding subject matter that would fit the colour, then painting, then thinking about the next day, and painting again – painting, painting, painting... Then the unexpected happened. I started, about ten days in, to get messages asking if I was selling the paintings. So, I sold one, then another, and by the end of the month, I'd sold more than half of them. Not only that, I started getting asked if I could paint specific things – commissioned pieces. Then, messages started coming in asking if I could draw things as well, and I found myself working on something every day, and have been since.
Consequently, I've revamped my Facebook art page (Karen Finch Art) and made my art and photography a focus of my Instagram account (@madartchick), and my practice has continued to grow organically. Money is still tight, so I’ve yet to use the marketing tools available on both forums. However, both of them work best if users are interacting regularly, and they both have solid data that supports the use of good quality images being strong drivers to attract followers, so I post images of my work as frequently as I can without spamming – finished pieces and in progress shots.
In addition to my watercolour work, I’ve had a flurry of requests for portraits of people's pets. I'd done a few drawings of our two Siamese cats during last year's #100DayProject, and one watercolour of the little one, and a number of those sold. Then the breeder of our Siamese requested a graphite drawing of her old Siamese boy despite me having said to her that my preference wasn’t to work from photos. She was persistent, and they’ve been so good to us, so I went ahead with the project, documenting it on both my social media accounts.
Following that, the requests flooded in - sometimes for animals people still have, but often in memoriam, after they've lost them. Inevitably, as I post each completed drawing – after some scary trial and error with the watercolours, I now offer this work in a choice of plain graphite or coloured pencils – it’s not long before another request comes in. I currently have two ahead of me, and a couple more in discussion.
Did I ever envisage myself as a pet portraitist? Well, no. At art school though, supporting myself and two children as a sole parent on a patchwork of part-time work, I found ways to follow instinctive pathways to my ‘real’ work – i.e., the work that comes from my inherent creativity that drives me to make things – the clay, life drawing, big mixed media work. But also, I had to make money, so alongside that important – to me – work, I’ve always looked for opportunities to create more quickly saleable pieces.
At art school, rather than making the usual small squares of flat clay to test glazes – that would subsequently be disposed of – I made small slab-built treasure boxes with flat lids and tested the glazes on the lids. I couldn’t make those fast enough to keep up with demand after the first batch came out of the kiln. I recycled big drawings that hadn’t made the cut to be framed and exhibited, carving them up and making small collages that became gift cards that I sold in packs at the annual art school markets. I need to get back to doing that again.
Working to demand, which is where I see the pet portraits sitting in my current practice, makes sound business sense. I find I have a knack for capturing the specific likeness in animal faces – which I don’t have with human faces! So, I often hear from my clients that I didn’t just draw any Siamese/Poodle/Boxer – I drew THEIR pet. While people may have many photos of their pets, there’s something intensely personal about a hand drawn image that’s quite different.
This layering of the work – having different streams of activity that appeal to a broad range of potential customers – is critical to building up a practice that can, hopefully, generate a reasonably consistent income. I’ve recently added another activity, which got off to a fine start, but was impeded by me falling and breaking my arm, which sidelined a lot of my art making for some months.
The thing with original art is that each piece is unique. That allows me to put a premium price on each one, of course, but then once it’s sold, that’s it. I need to make another one, and another, and another. Eventually, I’d like to be in a position to be able to do limited edition print runs, but that’s something for the future. However, what I have done is join Society6, a platform for artists and designers, and opened my first online shop, Karen Finch Art and Design.
For the shop, using mostly mixed media, I’m focusing on pattern making and uploading large format digital images to the site where they’re used to create various merchandise. This means that each piece can continue to earn for me long after the original has been sold. Via the shop, customers can purchase a variety of goods, ranging from quality art prints to furniture and backpacks, all of which is handled by the site. I receive a small percentage from each sale.
Right now, it’s growing slowly. As I create more pieces to use as the basis for more goods, the sales will hopefully increase – as will my income from that venture. Long term, being able to handle the manufacture here, locally, and have better margins would be ideal, but for now, using Society6 is enabling me to see which items have the greatest appeal, and the best potential as earners.
It's always going to be unpredictable, as far as earnings go, being a full-time writer and artist. That's always been the case, even when I was able bodied. Now, I also have my health and varying disability to contend with – but, as I said at the beginning of this essay, I have time. And I have flexibility. On a bad day, I can, and do, work more slowly – in my pyjamas, from the couch. On better days, I’m up and getting messy at the end of our dining room table with larger scale work, and the writing chugs along in the background.
In an odd way, I have RA to thank for this opportunity. Had it not got so bad; I’d still be taking the next expedient job to pay the bills. Life might be a little less stressful financially if that’s what I was doing, but I don’t know that it would be as rich.
Facebook Art page (external link)
Karen Finch Art and Design (external link)