As an Artist, How Do I Survive and Thrive?
By Skip Schiel
September 10, 2002
© All text copyright Skip Schiel, 2002 and earlier
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever they become brethern in the best sense of the expression.
John Woolman (1761)
For my entire adult life Ive been making visual art, first films for some 15 years, then, when that pursuit became untenable because of lack of audience and money, I turned to photography, a childhood passion. Since the early 1980s Ive been able to follow this particular muse, at times taking part-time jobs for income and health benefits. Finding these jobs gnawingly restrictive, I sought another way, one that would provide the economic envelope for my various photographic projects. Thanks to family, friends, mentors, and ancestors, Ive been able to derive sufficient support for my life in art.
One key: community. For years I followed the conventional dictate that pronounced art-making as singular, one brilliant individual making things that perhaps no one understood. Until after death. Virtually no support. The model of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, or Charles Ives. Vincent lived and died destitute, yet his paintings now fetch millions of dollars. Charles Ives, writing music ahead of his time, rarely found an audience, but was wily enough to never rely on music-derived income: he sold insurance. Both men illustrate the image of an individual amassing great works in a world ignorant of their worth.
For my first two decades, I tried this, I fell flat. Painfully Ive since discovered an ancient wisdom refuse to be isolated, participate in community in most everything you do.
My communities are manifold:
The Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as Quakers, since 1980, one of my core communities, providing support in the forms of prayer, guidance, equipment, love, audience, incentive, ideas, and services;
Other artists, thru the Fellowship of Friends in the Arts and a Boston-based gallery concentrating on political and social art, both offering exhibit venues, examples of other forms of art, forums, and opportunities for informal meetings with other artists;
A Japanese Buddhist community, Nipponzan Myohoji, which constructs peace pagodas and conducts walks and pilgrimages, these pilgrimages the subject of many of my recent projects;
A lay Catholic nonviolence community in western Massachusetts, Agape, priests, nuns, friends, other lay people, all united in pursuing justice thru nonviolent means, helping me with funding, insights, a retreat center, and connection with my Catholic roots;
Family, especially my partner, Louise Dunlap, pairing with me on many projects, offering editorial and financial assistance, grounding my work in her strong Buddhist walking practice, and my two daughters, Katy and Joey, both artists, maybe not sharing totally my perspectives, but respectful and loving;
And where I teach photography, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, a rich source of students who teach me, other photographers, and work associates, especially people helping me with computer applications to photography.
The second key: a modest life style is sufficient. Unlike J.D. Rockefeller who when asked "How much money do you need to be happy?" answered "just a little more." I reply, about what I have. I have enough. I live on between seven and ten thousand dollars annually. Much of what I need is in the form of bartered services A Quaker friend and colleague lends me his darkroomno charge. The Cambridge Center offers me its darkroom and computer centerno charge. Upwards of six individuals have volunteered their darkroom skillsno charge. My daughter and partner take care of my apartment when Im on long tripspart of the family. I pay back with photographs or friendship or volunteered time or familial reciprocity.
And the third: finding reliable means of earning income. I generate a sufficient amount of money thru teaching and grants, along with occasional sales, fees, and bartering with my photographs.
And a true surprise: An important source of financial support, aiding me in keeping my economic needs slim, is the state. Oddly enough, the Statein the form of national, state and local governmenthas been generous in providing subsidies for my necessities: housing, food, health care. However, should a catastrophic event occur in my life, like a major accident, a serious illness, or debilitating infirmity from old age, I, like my wealthier peers no doubt, am vulnerable. My position is precarious, but I remain confident that if I maintain my course, I will find the support needed to live and work.
Thats the survive portion of my experience. How do I thrive?
Let me use two of my photo projects for illustration.
Since the mid 1980s Ive been photographing a reservoir and adjoining land in central Massachusetts, Quabbin. In the late 1980s I helped two friends find land near the watershed on which they could construct a nonviolence center, the Agape Community I referred to earlier. They asked me to join the steering committee. We meet four times each year, timed with the change of seasons. This schedule brings me to Quabbin regularly. My photo project continued, bumpingly.
In late August 2001, they allowed me to use their small cabin, The Hermitage, for a week-long retreat. Every day I walked or biked along the shores and forests of Quabbin, extending my project considerably. I felt I was making rapid progress discovering color, reflection, mood, outline, and the spirit of Quabbin itself, deep and abiding.
One week laterSeptember 11th, 2001, the attack on the United StatesQuabbin was sealed shut. I renamed my Quabbin project, Not Forever, Quabbin Reservoir. Not Forever depends heavily on my association with Agape. I thrive thru my participation in its community.
The second project stems from a pilgrimage I made thru the Mississippi Delta in late 1999 as part of a grander effort retracing the trans-Atlantic slave route with many other pilgrims, the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage. Raised in Chicago, fleeing the approach of black people by moving to the suburbs in 1955, I was dimly aware of the Great Migration and its effect on the city and me. Finding myself in New Orleans, the terminus of the US portion of the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, I decided to drive slowly north to my homeland. I explored the history of black resistance to Jim Crow Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Freedom Riders. At the same time I dove into a more personal, less public past that black friends in Chicago had told me about.
Twelve years earlier, while photographing the Chicago Fellowship of Friends in Cabrini Green, a notoriously violent public housing complex, I met Bernice Thomas. Shed been raised on a cotton plantation, she escaped the south in the late 1950s, and she told me stories of her pained experience, her flight north, her vow to never raise her children in the South. She described where shed lived and sufferedthe plantation, the movie house in Clarksdale, her last home where shed birthed her first daughter. I found them all, photographed them, visited her with the pictures and further stories. Shed never returned home. I had, for her, and discovered an eerie connection: I was her, I had come home, thus, "Delta Passage, a Journey Home" is my slide show about that experience.
How could I have traveled that course, depicted that experience without the friendship of Bernice Thomas, without the active participation of Friends in Chicago, without my Quaker connection? Would I have found this rich trove of insights without the mentoring of some of my meetings elders, without the many meetings with the various clearness committees that formed for me?
To conclude, prayer is full attention. To the inner voice, the still small voice within; to the light without, revealing and enabling photographs; to the spirits of history, those sometimes fleeting, sometimes compelling accretions of memory; to destiny, who we are yet to become, our successors, our lineage; and to the interconnectedness of all creation. By being still, I tune to these tiny signs, build on them. Thru my photography I attempt to practice this prayer, this full attention, with enduring hope that I as an artist and human being will be sustained, and will contribute to the endless flow of life.
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Cambridge Massachusetts 02138-1843