Stumbling For The Line, The Way – Building the Blueprint for An Artistic Career
Part One: Who Am I?
There was no blueprint for me to follow when I became an artist. Coming from a background with a Black immigrant mother and white working class father, no one held out much expectation for my future. Survival formed the tapestry of my life.
Art was a distant luxury to me, the province of the privileged few. During those rare instances I did experience art, I never saw myself represented or the concerns of my communities expressed through art.
I began my artistic career as a spoken word poet after sharing my experiences of heartbreak at open mic nights. I kept getting on the mic over and over again until people took notice. Every stage was an opportunity to say something meaningful.
I pursued photography to express my experiences and appreciation of Black womanhood, showcasing myself and other Black women in our own voices through my own lens. I had no plan as to how I’d achieve this; I reached out to other artists and community members and made it happen.
I became a burlesque performer because I longed for an artistic discipline that is embodied and got me out of my head. I wanted a practice that was the polar opposite of my spoken word practice. I reached out to performer friends and we created our own opportunities to learn and showcase our work.
How else would I have made my way as an artist but to stumble into it and keep pushing forward when I didn’t see the way paved out ahead of me? When you don’t see yourself represented or there is active hostility to your presence within these spaces, you are forced out of necessity to carve out your own way.
I want to give you the blueprint for achieving your artistic career goals that simply didn’t exist for me when I needed it. In this four part series of short essays, I’ll break down the blueprint of how I became an artist on my own terms and how you can apply it to your own practice.
“How else would I have made my way as an artist but to stumble into it and keep pushing forward when I didn’t see the way paved out ahead of me? When you don’t see yourself represented or there is active hostility to your presence within these spaces, you are forced out of necessity to carve out your own way.”
Part Two: Your ‘Why’
In a traditional blueprint there are three main views: the top, front and side views. These views are specifically selected because it can be impossible to visualize how an object will look without these three crucial views. Similarly, not having a way to guide your artistic career can make it impossible for you to plan out your own path and see what is possible.
The ‘why’ constitutes the top view of your artistic blueprint. The ‘why’ is crucial in providing the overview that will guide the rest of your practice. You are essentially looking at your artistic practice from above to get an understanding of how your path can unfold from there.
Think first about why you want to pursue your artistic passion. For me, my ‘why’ is the ability to tell my own story from my own perspective. This is my guiding principle, especially as a Black, queer, neurodivergent woman. Our stories have been dismissed, diminished and demeaned. It is through the arts that I’ve crafted and reclaimed narratives that uplift me and my communities.
It was working in community where I had to reflect on why I was committing to this path. When other people are relying on you for support, you have to clarify your purpose so that you can be clear in your work. It wasn’t until I ran an award recognizing artists of colour through Uproot YYC (a now defunct collective for artists of colour in Mohkinstsis, colonially known as Calgary) that I realized it’s not a given we will identify as artists, even when we are actively engaged in the arts.
I had to reflect on why this might be the case. It occurred to me in my work with racialized artists that the lasting effects of having our work diminished and dismissed on a regular basis is that we may fail to even identify as artists at all. How can we effectively create our work as artists if we don’t feel empowered to identify as such? If I didn’t have this experience working with racialized artists, I would have missed a crucial part of my own ‘why’.
What if you don’t have your ‘why’ figured out yet? It took me a couple of years into my artistic practice to think about why I’m pursuing the arts as a career. It may not be clear to you right away and that’s why it’s so vital to reflect on it now.
Although your ‘why’ does not need to be something convoluted, you should note it down somewhere – draw it, write it, sing it, dance it. Whatever practice you engage in should incorporate your ‘why’ unapologetically. This is a statement for you to carry in your practice and in your heart; to guide you when conflicting priorities arise. When you know why you are engaging in your chosen artistic pursuit, you can more easily say no to ‘opportunities’ that don’t align with your ‘why’. This is essentially an expression of your values.
Then think about how your ‘why’ drives you forward in your artistic practice.
Your ‘why’ is what you turn to when you feel stuck or overwhelmed with your practice. As artists, we tend to be value driven people yet it’s incredible how we can miss the vital step of asking ourselves why we are doing what we do.
Your ‘why’ can also form the basis for mission and vision statements, how you talk about your practice to others and part of your marketing and networking efforts. The more clearly we can express why we are making the work we do, the more advocates we have in our communities.
Determining our ‘why’ is vital to understanding our career path as artists. Reflecting on the values that drive us forward in our practice allow us to prioritize our time as artists and to recognize opportunities that align with those values.
Part Three: Your ‘How’
The ‘how’ is the side view of your blueprint – the various angles you will need to see and plan for in order to showcase your work in a way that reflects you and your practice authentically.
Decide on how you will share your work. Do not get bogged down in what others think is possible. Especially for those of us from marginalized and historically oppressed communities, we often don’t see ourselves represented as artists. This is no accident. Art, in the Western context, is often viewed as a luxury to be pursued by the chosen few. There may never be a blueprint for you to follow precisely because too many have never imagined someone like you as an artist.
Don’t rely on others to point out the ‘how’ for you. When you belong to communities which have faced historic barriers to entry, you may be seeking the same avenues that were meant to keep you out.
“Don’t rely on others to point out the ‘how’ for you. When you belong to communities which have faced historic barriers to entry, you may be seeking the same avenues that were meant to keep you out.”
My first photographic exhibit, titled ‘De Mule ah De World,’ was a multimedia exploration of Black woman/personhood through spoken word, photography and music. I interviewed six Black women about their experiences navigating the world. It was an unadulterated view into our triumphs and joys, how we come into our identity and ourselves amidst hostility, white supremacy, misogynoir and a plethora of barriers.
As this was my first exhibit, I had no idea how I was going to pull this off. I knew I had to tell this story and at the time I didn’t give any thought to the logistics. I pulled together a team of volunteers from my friends so that I could focus on the event. In order to learn basic photographic skills, I had an impromptu session with a community member who appreciated my work and wanted to support me in this project. She also assisted me in creating an outline for a small microgrant, which I received to financially support the project. Friends and community members will be some of your biggest advocates and supporters as you pursue your artistic path.
When you think about your ‘how,’ look to inspiration from the community. Who has already done similar work to what you are envisioning? Can you draw on them for support, directly or indirectly? Who can advocate for you in the community and rally support for your projects and visions?
Planning and thinking about your how in advance frees you up to focus on your work and less on the logistics of showcasing. From your ‘how’, you’ll be able to create processes which you work from that will guide your career in the future.
Part Four: Your ‘What’
The final piece of your blueprint is the what. The what is the front view of your blueprint – the actual building blocks of your practice and the things you will need to ensure happen in order to create a practice that is worthy of you.
Creating your own opportunities, collectives, spaces and events is one of the most powerful ways to build the ‘what’ of your blueprint. Creating your own opportunities is necessary when you have been systematically barred from accessing artistic spaces. The spaces you need may not exist, making it all the more urgent to create those opportunities yourself.
I have spent my artistic career creating and curating spaces that center marginalized voices because I did not see myself represented and I knew intuitively the only way to change that was to do it myself.
Over three years ago, I wrote a grant for a program called Black Kid Joy. Black Kid Joy was a three week summer program dedicated to uplifting Black youth through the arts. I didn’t honestly believe my proposal would be selected. It was my first grant and I submitted it a few minutes before the deadline.
The inspiration for Black Kid Joy was to create the program I needed in the world when I was young. I wanted a program for young Black artists to see and express themselves in an environment with people who share their experiences. No program like it existed in my city at the time and to me that was unacceptable.
Given that no program existed like it before, the ‘what’ of the project was daunting. When you create a program that didn’t exist before, you cannot rely on the work of other people to guide your planning.
With Black Kid Joy, one of the logistical challenges I realized early on was that I had no experience in curriculum building aside from workshops I facilitated in the past. So I reached out to the community and was connected with a teacher who worked diligently with me to create the curriculum. We pushed through uncertainty and other barriers, namely the beginning of the pandemic, to create a curriculum that centered Black joy, experience and history. Working with a team of four professional artist facilitators, we held the program online over the summer for three weeks, with no loss of participants and engagement throughout the entire time. Given the pandemic circumstances, it was the best outcome I could have hoped for.
Creating your own opportunities may need to be done with little to no resources. This can be frustrating and daunting, considering that we should already have access to appropriate funding and resources, if it weren’t for systemic barriers getting in the way. You’ll need to demand support from your communities, allies and accomplices to create spaces that will ultimately benefit and enrich us all. Seek support from arts organizations and collectives if you need to, as they have access to resources you’re not aware of. Your physical survival is of the utmost importance in all of this.
“I won’t sugar-coat the truth: it can be exhausting and demoralizing. But the skills you’ll build on your own terms will give you leveraging power should you choose to pursue opportunities in established spaces in the future.”
Creating spaces yourself gives you professional experience that you may not be able to, or are interested in, accessing through established art institutions. This is how I built my artistic legacy. I won’t sugar-coat the truth: it can be exhausting and demoralizing. But the skills you’ll build on your own terms will give you leveraging power should you choose to pursue opportunities in established spaces in the future.
So how do you create your own opportunities? You think about gaps in services or programs currently and how you would ideally address them. Think about what you need currently to thrive, why that’s not being offered and what barriers are in your way. Design opportunities with yourself and your communities in mind. What do you need to feel whole in artistic spaces? What is significant to you and your communities? How can you creatively respond to these needs in a way that’s uplifting and honours your lived experience?
You are already the artist and human you need to be in order to succeed. Ground yourself in your passion for your art. Be stubborn in your commitment to yourself. Be confident that your practice will thrive and sustain you. While limits do exist, you are not defined by them. The art world needs your practice and your voice, as only you can offer it.