Excerpt from Your Art Will Save Your Life

Dear Artist,
You are holding my love letter to artists. Artists are the most important people in my life and I need you to stay active and creatively engaged through this and future political swings. Your art will help you navigate your world and it will light the way for others.

I have dedicated my professional and volunteer life to artists, especially those who are marginalized in the dominant art worlds: women, queer and transgender artists, artists of color, low income artists, emerging artists, drop outs, artists who never sell anything, and brilliant weirdoes who make work that defies commercial support and understanding. I want to live in a world where artists are reflecting it back to me, interpreting it, and creating new worlds for me to imagine.

After the 2016 election, many of my artist clients said things like “maybe I should quit making art” and “it’s kind of selfish for me to focus on my art now” and “I should help people in a more effective way.” These are expected grief responses to the shock and horror of our times but I beseech you: DO NOT STOP MAKING ART. I need it profoundly. We all do.

Anytime you feel overwhelmed by humanity’s impact on people, animals, and the planet, anytime you think you cannot leave the house because the world is too hard, I want you to think about the art, performance, music, books, and films that have made you want to be alive. Think of how those artists, like you, probably felt overwhelmed by their life and times but they made the thing anyway. Your future audiences need your work so you need to make it.

I focus on history for perspective; this helps me take strategic next steps. I read about artists making work during war, in violence, and despite systemic neglect. For example, I like to look toward artists during the AIDS pandemic era. I read a lot about the role artists and activists played in changing science, research, policy, and culture; the movement was largely orchestrated by artists and activists, many of whom were young and watching their friends die.

Today we are in a different time and place. Depending on who you are, the current administration may not impact you drastically or you may encounter devastating, life-changing experiences. We don’t know what will happen but, historically, during oppressive regimes and fascist governments, it is the brave and creative ones who lead, who solve problems, incite, inspire, organize, comfort, satirize, and reflect.

You are not alone. You have what you need for your life, for art, and for justice. 

You're an Artist, Keep Making Art.

My first understanding that art could first save and then expand my life came when I was a teenager growing up in a troubled home. Life with my mentally ill mom and my alcoholic dad near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before the Internet was difficult. A smart, queer feminist without language to talk about any of it – let alone identify with lineages - I was profoundly depressed and mostly miserable. I ached for art and counterculture (remember that word?) but it was really hard to come by in the 90s in small Rust Belt towns. I read books, made zines, bought 45s, and ordered catalogs for Sub Pop Records out of the back of SPIN magazine, which at the time was a wonderland filled with mysterious ads for things like The Anarchist Cookbook.

Then, in 1994, The Andy Warhol Museum opened in downtown Pittsburgh. I was 15 and fortunate to be present for the Museum’s midnight opening thanks to my neighbor Carol, an artist and public school art teacher who saw in me a deep need for connection to something beyond what was available in my sad town and busted school. Something new was born in me that night, as I wandered the Museum from top to bottom, looking at Warhol’s iconic and more obscure works, obsessively combing through the gift shop, gawking at the drag queens and kindred freaks clamoring to explore this unfathomable building. That museum opening uncovered an instinct stifled by my surroundings: there would be places I belonged filled and there were communities I must find.

Back then I could barely understand, let alone articulate, what was so important to me about the Museum but now I know it clearly- it was a queer artist history and lineage. Andy Warhol made an exciting life for himself despite his impoverished Pittsburgh upbringings. I saw color and humor and possibility for a better future. I saw strange people who made their own world and it looked wild and limitless. I saw political discourse and tongue-in-cheek paintings, sculptures, and drawings. The music, art, The Factory, the women, style, humor, sex and the outrageous drugs – I just had to turn 18 and move away! That became reason enough to live through my remaining teen years in high school.

It’s been more than 20 years since that night at The Andy Warhol Museum and since then I have consistently, heavily relied on artists to make me want to be in the world at its worst and to embody a deeper experience of life at its best.

My early career background was in professional feminist activism and higher education – I cut my teeth in a university Women’s Center where I learned a lot about how to be a person, a feminist, and a friend. I decided I should be a therapist so I earned a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. In 2007, after a decade in the Midwest, I moved to San Francisco to live in a queer community filled with artists. There, I began working exclusively in the arts and with queer artists, learning how to raise money for artists and for non-profit arts organizations.

From 2009 – 2013, I helped organize a queer writers retreat through San Francisco literary nonprofit, RADAR Productions. Along with the writers Michelle Tea, Ali Liebegott, I hosted dozens of LGBTQ writers and artists each year, providing them weeks of quiet working space, delicious group dinners, and creative community in the Yucatan. A passion project, we worked hard to raise the money to make this free retreat experience for the artists and writers we adored, many of whom had little to no access to other colonies and residencies. We knew so many gay geniuses and wanted to support them.

That first year, I heard the writers talking at dinner about the fears and anxieties that impacted their work. I noticed that the same problems and questions came up again and again. Making ceviche for dinner one day during that inaugural retreat in 2009, it occurred to me that many artists encounter similar issues and stumbling blocks but do not know that they are not alone and that there are paths out of those woods. I heard artists talk about feeling like they weren’t ‘real’ enough, fear about the future, confusion about how to make money and have time to write, concerns that there weren’t enough resources to go around, bewilderment at the world of grants, and panic that they would never reach a level of success that made them understand they had made it, whatever it was.

In that moment, steeped in lime juice, I had the profound realization that I could integrate my fundraising skills with my counseling background to provide specialized consulting services and focus specifically on artists. I launched my one-on-one consultation with artists in 2009 and my practice has grown ever since.

Now I live in Los Angeles and I have written at least a thousand grants. I write grants year-round and have raised nearly $4M for artists and arts non-profits, largely comprised of relatively small grants, in the $10,000 range. I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours talking to artists about their lives, careers, fears, hopes, dread, problems, projects, and dreams. I help my clients get funding, get into residencies, find career-launching opportunities, and build strategic partnerships. I also help my clients dig into their trauma and fear, develop new habits, grow their communities, heal relationships to themselves, and shift their perspective on success and happiness.

In reality, I have very limited time to work one on one with artists. When an artist is referred to me and requests consultation, I frequently have to tell them I don’t have the time and put them on a waiting list. I thought, ‘This waitlist is endless. I should write a book.’ After the 2016 election, the urgency to write it all down skyrocketed; I wanted something concrete to give every artist whose ongoing struggles are heightened by the current administration.

You cannot possibly know right now how much your work is going to impact someone, someday. A single work can change and save a life, you know that. Likely, you’ve been on the receiving end throughout your life. Your work - the work you’re making right now and the work you haven’t dreamt of yet - is going to impact the people who need to experience it. First, you have to make it and then get the work out of you and into the world!

Your career – like social change - is a marathon, not a sprint. I want you to be in it for the long haul so that the work you’re eventually going to make has a chance to be in the world. But you must get out of your own way. The world you have grown up in – regardless of your identities and experiences – has taught you limiting ideas about being an artist. You and I both know that you need to make your work in order to be alive. Artists have to make art.

I want you re-think how to engage your practice during these political times, grow some new skills, and learn some support strategies that will ensure you can keep going, upward and outward.

The following sections are designed as a working book for artists - especially artists deeply affected by our political reality i.e. practically everybody! I focus on both the internal work and external work that will strengthen your practice, your wellbeing, and your ability to take steps toward the kinds of success you want. You will find concrete assignments that will help you build core skills that will support your practice for years. The skills and techniques will have a cumulative effect; the more you use them, the better they work and easier they get.