Parents often ask me if it’s “worth” sending their kids to art school. I cleverly read between the lines and realize they’re actually wondering if their child — and his/her paint brushes, pottery wheels, tripods and assortment of laptops — will ever move out of the house and be able to make a living as an artist.
The answer is yes, IF. And this particular IF is non-negotiable. But before I explain, I should give my tepid qualifications to respond in the first place.
I assume these parents consider writing an art or they’d never ask me in the first place. And while I’m not likely to get rich off my first book, my writing skills are valuable far beyond the tiny bubble of memoir. Every job I’ve had – from newspapers to broadcast, public relations and freelance video – I got because I can write.
I moved up the management ranks at Ogilvy PR Worldwide because I can write. And in that capacity, I hired art-school grads. So I know they can be employable.
So the question isn’t really where an artist gets his/her degree, it’s IF that program also emphasizes writing. Check SCAD’s course descriptions. Beyond the actual degrees they offer in writing, SCAD students can choose from almost 100 courses with the words writing in the title.
SCAD administrators don’t offer all those classes out of some sense of liberal arts legacy. They do it because most artists also work in other fields. In the waking hours when artists are not creating art they teach, they promote, they design, they code, they raise money, they publicize, they report, they research. That part isn’t new.
What has changed is that all artists today have to be entrepreneurs, even those in the purest, classic art forms. You want to paint landscapes for a living? You’re going to have to describe that work in order to sell it. Want to teach studio arts? You’re going to have to write a fabulous application essay for grad school. Want to exhibit your work? Try getting a grant without solid writing skills. Want to open your own photography studio? Someone’s got to post blogs and write press releases to submit to local media. Fancy yourself a gallery owner one day? You’ll be writing everything from content for your website to articles about openings. Want crowd source funding for your aboriginal sculpture research? Those clever You-Tube documentaries have scripts. With words that somebody wrote. Want to collaborate with other artists on a big project? You’ll have to write a creative brief and project summaries.
No one will know your work better than you. No one will be able to convey your passion more articulately than you. No one is going to do your marketing and messaging for you (at least not for free). The key is realizing that all working artists are their own brands. And you can’t build a brand if you can’t write.
So my advice to parents (and students) considering a degree in the arts is yes, IF. Do take the plunge IF the program also teaches you practical writing. As an artist, writing skills will give you the self-sufficiency to build an audience, reach investors and communicate your vision. And even if you end up choosing not to make a living as an artist, you’ll have a skill set that transfers to almost every field connected to the arts.
A sixteen-year-old girl from Beaufort High School bought a copy of “The Other Mother: a rememoir” on the night of it’s launch. Here’s why that makes my heart do a grand jete. It isn’t a YA book about young love, vampires or zombies. It isn’t about a celebrity or anyone her friends tweet about. It will never be made into an app or video game. So why did she part with hard-earned babysitting money to buy a 417-page book about my relationship with a former burlesque dancer named Byrne Miller?
“I danced for Ms. Miller in the Nutcracker when I was four,” she told me. “And I never knew she was so amazing until tonight.”
Almost five years of research, writing, rewriting and planning this book’s introduction to the world was worth it in that instant. Byrne was Other Mother to me and many other former dancers in the audience of the USCB Center for the Arts. We were all drawn to her exuberant positivity and consider ourselves lucky to be her collected children. One of the best parts of writing “The Other Mother” was the reuniting with many of them, telling and retelling the stories Byrne planted in each of our hearts.
But I wrote the book so that the next generation of young women would have the chance to know Byrne Miller too. I told the unbelievably big crowd of book and Byrne lovers that all young women deserve the wit and wisdom of an Other Mother.
I’m a first-timer. I have no other book launches or signings to compare to Byrne’s kickoff celebration. All I knew was that I wanted it to be an event worthy of the woman with a whim of iron who introduced modern dance to the Deep South. I also wanted it to be an homage to my adopted hometown – the place Byrne and Duncan Miller chose, as I did, to live and create. Beaufort is more than a setting in this work. It is a central character.
After sharing some crowd-pleasing passages from “The Other Mother,” I watched from the back of the auditorium as two groups of dancers performed modern and contemporary pieces choreographed in Byrne’s honor. I confess when the idea for making the launch more than a typical book signing first occurred to me, I was worried that the dancers I’d invited would wear the kinds of costumes you see at recitals or that their moves would mirror what you see on music videos. Byrne was an unrepentant dance snob and even twelve years after her death I’m certain she could still summon lightning bolts of judgment.
But the moment the music started I felt my muscles lengthen, my posture correct itself and tears roll down my cheeks. These Beaufort Middle School and High School dancers are the living, breathing legacy of what Byrne Miller started decades ago. On the night of the worldwide debut of a book in her honor, they were lyrical, expressive and as committed as any modern dance company the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre ever brought to Beaufort. And if even one of them loves reading “The Other Mother: a Rememoir” I will be as proud as Byrne surely is.
Some days I feel like an expat in my own country, especially during primary season in South Carolina. I weary of defending my choice to put down roots here, in the face of our governors and statistics. It’s tiring, remaining faithful. And then something comes along that lifts the burden of explanation.
It happened once before, when Joggling Board Press published “Transfer of Grace: Images of the Lowcountry.” Until that moment I was never sure that my husband could ever love this place as much as I do. I had dragged Gary, a Midwesterner, to meet Byrne Miller while he still could. The fact that a Jewish modern dance pioneer from Manhattan could survive in the Deep South helped, but didn’t convince him. When strangers on spring garden tours asked him what church we attend, I sensed his commitment wavering. That this town is still so divided: black and white, young and retired, uber-wealthy and just-scraping-by – didn’t sit well. But in the photographs on the pages of our first book together, I saw that he could put all that aside. I saw that it is possible to love a place in spite of itself. There is incomparable beauty in the Lowcountry, a value in any grace we leave behind.
If you go to the opening of “Organics: the Art of Nature” tomorrow night at USCB’s Center for the Arts Galley you will see even more evidence of my relief. It’s not just Gary’s work on display; he is showing with the fiber artist Kim Keats for the first time since they started collecting each other’s work. It makes sense – both artists use painstakingly intricate, even archaic techniques to make their one-of-a-kind creations. But the show is a continuum more than collaboration – on one end Kim constructs works of art from natural elements and on the other, Gary deconstructs nature into elemental shapes, tone and texture.
She calls her work salvaging nature; he calls his scavenging and simplifying. Together they elevate elements we normally overlook into objects to reconsider, and celebrate. It’s astonishing, the strength and resilience expressed in some of nature’s most delicate, even fragile parts – a robin’s egg in a tiny but protective nest, peels of bark lashed into sturdy crossings.
I take partial credit – after all I am the one who dragged him here. And I tolerate all the dead and decaying things he now drags into Byrne Miller’s house to photograph. It is proof, to me, that the Lowcountry is finally under his skin.