Making It as an Artist: Real-World Advice for College Students

Think becoming an artist sounds like a pipe dream? Think again. Take it from someone who's made her artistic dreams a reality.

Kyla Toomey is a ceramic artist and teacher. (You can see examples of her work in the image above!) She studied her art as an undergrad and in grad school, and she’s made a living with it ever since. Wait a minute. Being an artist? As a career? What madness is this?!?! Turns out, choosing art as your college major and profession is not so crazy.

When I think about the number of times people have questioned my being an artist and how I make a living...it’s a little ridiculous.

Parents have asked me to talk to their children about being a professional artist—or, rather, to talk them out of it. Their undertone is always “please tell them it’s a bad idea.” Often when I meet people and tell them I am an artist, they say things like “I thought about being an artist, but I wanted to make a real living.” And as a professor, students tell me all the time that their families don’t want them to be art majors.

All of these questions and comments are tied to the notion of the “starving artist.” And while there are unique and challenging realities to choosing art as a career, I find most people aren’t aware of how realistic it can be. You learn skills as an artist that can transfer into the career of your choosing. And “making it” as an artist doesn’t have to be becoming the next Picasso.

So the next time someone questions your interest in becoming an artist or majoring in art in college, you can tell them...

Art teaches you invaluable skills

Making art is often about problem solving and critical thinking, which are among the most important—and employable—skills you can possess. Just ask any hiring manager.

And whether you’re learning your art in a traditional college setting, apprenticeship, or internship, or you're creating work on your own, you’ll also gain an ability to communicate clearly about what is in front of you. You will inevitably have to talk or write about your art (especially as a college student in the arts). And strong communication skills are also incredibly important in life and work. 

There are plenty of statistics about how many people with art degrees are making a living in the field, but they don’t really take into account those people with more "traditional" careers that still directly benefit from their art background and experience as a maker of art.

I know a lot of artists. Many of them are directors, technicians, coordinators, grant writers, designers, teachers, and others who are all artists by trade, and they use what they learned as an artist to support these other positions. So even if you decide not to become a full-time artist, you can still benefit from studying art in college. And get a job when you graduate. 

Related: Visual Arts and Design Majors and Potential Careers

Being an artist is like owning a small business

Let's say you do decide to become a professional artist. It's true that making a living with your art can mean some sacrifices that others may not understand or find acceptable.

You might work crazy, long, and/or unpredictable hours. There is often a sense of instability. Not to mention the emotional aspect of putting this piece of yourself out there for the world to judge. But being an artist becomes a part of everything you do. It all becomes normalized after a while (though it still might seem unconventional when you talk to your friends with “traditional” jobs).

To get to where I am in my career, I had to work hard. For me, a normal week might mean spending 80 hours in the ceramic studio making work, and this doesn’t include the time I spend outside the studio doing things to promote and manage my work. But if that sounds crazy, keep in mind that being an artist in our society is not so different than any other small business owner; the costs and benefits are complicated. Ultimately what I get from this career is the ability to work for myself, to be in control of my life, doing something I love. That’s worth it to me.

So to all those who question a career in the arts or getting an art degree in college, my answer is this: I learned about myself and how to succeed professionally by being an artist. And isn’t that the point?

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About Kyla Toomey

Kyla received her B.F.A. in ceramics from Alfred University and her M.F.A. in ceramics from The Ohio State University. She has been awarded artist residencies at a number of clay programs and has teaching experience at every level, from colleges and universities to children’s clay camps. She has exhibited her work extensively since 2004.

 

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