Artistic Discipline: We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. –Oscar Wilde
Emily Davis ’95 was excited to be cast right out of college in a traveling company that was producing Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night.” Her starting salary? Fifty dollars a week. “My contract came with an application for food stamps,” she says. “They were like, ‘We’re not paying enough, so here you go. Most of our actors go on food stamps.’ And most of us did.” For Benjamin Blackburn ’86, post-SLC reality was equally stark: “The day I graduated, I had four hundred and thirty-six dollars in the Bank of New York. Art was not part of the picture. It was about surviving.”
Very few SLC students choose a career in the arts to get rich. What draws most of them to their disciplines is art’s role as a spiritual haven in a crude and ignorant world. Hanna Andrews ’04 clearly remembers when she made her choice.
I was in a workshop with Jeff McDaniel and he said, ‘If you’re going to do poetry, it’s not something you just do on the side.’ Sometimes you need to give up everything for it. When he put that ultimatum before us, I realized that I’d reached the point where I couldn’t give poetry up. It had become the way that I would put whatever I had to say into the world.
Unfortunately, as with other religions, in the arts poverty is usually a part of the deal. Unless you’re blessed with a generous trust fund, the struggle for an artist is finding time to make work while making a living.
As much as she loved Shakespeare, Emily Davis realized that, “As a woman in Shakespeare, my options were going to continue to be pretty small. And driving from place to place all the time, I really didn’t have a life.” So after nearly five years of touring and repertory theatre, she moved to New York City, where she began teaching theatre in schools. “The program served as a replacement for all the arts funding that was cut,” she says. “Rather than students having an arts class, we came in and did ten workshops on ‘Hamlet,’ and they’d had their drama for the year.”
With his $436 in savings as a spur, Benjamin Blackburn went in search of a job: “One was for $38,000, one was for $39,000, then oh, there was this other at $42,500. So I said, ‘I’ll take that one.’ I really put the art aside for quite a while.” “A while” is a bit of an understatement: Blackburn ended up working on Wall Street for 20 years. “I had a good career,” he says. “But I can tell you this: I never want to take the 4:58 a.m. train from New Canaan, Connecticut, again.”
Just out of graduate school—for poetry, of course—Hanna Andrews is learning that to make a career as a poet, it helps to be a workaholic. Besides teaching two classes at Columbia College Chicago, she works full time in the graduate admissions office. She has also started her own small press, Switchback Books, which publishes women poets exclusively and has put out three books so far. “It’s many, many hours per week, and we do not get paid, and we can barely pay to publish the books—but we do.” Next semester she will be teaching another class during what is supposed to be her lunch break. “It’s going to require a lot of coffee,” she says. “To say I get burned out is putting it mildly.”
As artists wrestle with adult life—bills, families, jobs—they find the time to develop new material in short supply. Yet disciplined and resourceful artists are able to use those very things that diverted them to support their creative efforts. Starting near point zero at age 40, without a gallery, connections, or an artistic resume, Benjamin Blackburn used the skills he’d acquired on Wall Street to push ahead.
The first art show that I did was in a senior center. A friend of mine was like, ‘You’re not going to do that. Your art is so much better than that.’ And I said, ‘Listen, if people want to see my art, I’m happy to show it to them.’ A lot of artists have this unconscious narrative that says, ‘I’m not supposed to be good at business.’ Yet your business skills play a big role in whether or not you’re ‘successful.’ Being in the corporate world taught me to look at my art as a small business.
Similarly, teaching theatre in public schools changed the way Emily Davis saw her craft. Instead of being the one on the stage, she was trying to instill her ideas and feelings about theatre to the world’s most fickle consumers: high school kids. “You have to go deep into whatever the art is,” she says. “In order to explain it, you have to be able to understand it yourself. That process deepened my own theatre practice. As I was teaching, I was honing my skills as a director and as a writer.” Teaching led her to start the Messenger Theatre Company to produce and direct works of her own. If Shakespeare wasn’t going to get it done for her, she would do it herself.
The long hours Hanna Andrews spends on her press constantly pull her away from her own poetry. At times she has to remind herself that she’s an editor because she’s a poet, and not the other way around. Yet being a publisher can bring karmic rewards. In New York this summer to do a reading before an unfamiliar audience, Andrews found her labor of love as a publisher had not gone unnoticed. “No one knew who I was,” she says. “But as soon as I said, ‘Oh, I run this small press, Switchback Books,’ everyone knew who we were. It was actually shocking and mind-blowing and totally unexpected. So it feels nice that we’re accomplishing that goal of creating a larger literary community for women.”
Although Benjamin Blackburn has only been devoting himself to his baseball-themed artwork for a short time, his career is well underway. Art pays his bills, and he has a piece in the permanent collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I knew that I would come back to my art eventually,” Blackburn says, “I didn’t know how, but you have to have a little faith.”
Not one of these artists has been blessed by sudden fame, the lightning strike that can blast a random 25-year-old into the limelight. For most artists, that’s not the way it happens. A grumpy old writer I know—who has published 13 books—has always told me that the single most important quality for a career in the arts is persistence. “At the end of the day,” he would say, “It’s about being the last man standing.”
For Blackburn, Andrews, and Davis, Sarah Lawrence played a central role in giving them the confidence and mental flexibility to keep making work. “I learned discipline in college,” Blackburn says. “The fact that I was entrusted with my own education helped me to grow up in a way that I don’t think would have happened somewhere else. At SLC, I took responsibility for myself as an adult for the first time.”
It might sound romantic, but choosing a career in the arts is gambling with the highest stakes: your life. A Sarah Lawrence education is one thing that can help tilt the odds in your favor.