Hey you. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an artist. (Or you are, you just haven’t been convinced of it yet.) But you’ve been tempted by the belief that artists must starve. As one of my twitter friends so eloquently put it, “Sure, I’ll photograph your wedding for free! Because you really need $800 cupcakes and artists love being poor!” It’s the joke, right? Go to law school if you want to make money. Oh that’s cute that you like to paint pictures but it’s time to get a real job. Heck, just earlier today I was introducing myself in an email and backspaced the “I’m a photographer” to replace it with “My husband and I run a portrait studio…” because it feels like we artists are constantly having to go against the tide and prove ourselves. We “starve” not just financially, but relationally, artistically, and spiritually. We mope and blame and hang our heads because no one will kick down our door with a parade that alleviates our insecurities. But you know what I think? I think that to take on the “starving artist” mentality is a choice. I think it’s harmful, selfish, and (you may hate this but please don’t stop reading) a big fat excuse. If you’re an artist and you’re starving, I am willing to bet that your belief system is the root of the problem. (No, not the shoot and burner next door, the economy, the time of year, or whatever else. We are not living in the Great Depression or a war-torn country. 43 million iPhones have been sold this year alone.)
1. THE STARVING ARTIST IS UNWORTHY One time, I met a cool person. We had so much in common, and I thought she was just so COOL. (Ever meet someone like that? Someone you instantly aspire to be?) And we had so many mutual friends and liked so many of the same things. But I never asked her to hang out. I didn’t even introduce myself. Here was a person I could tell I could instantly be great friends with. But I didn’t move forward. We never ended up speaking. Why? Was she stuck up or busy? Did she ignore me or blow me off or act like a snob? No. I could have blamed her, but it would have been ridiculous. I never introduced myself. I didn’t think she would like me. I believed deep down that she wouldn’t want to be my friend… so I saved myself the potential embarrassment. I walked away because I felt unworthy. I think that as artists, we believe ourselves to be unworthy long before anyone tells us we are. (It’s easier that way, isn’t it?) I was a full-time professional photographer for an entire year before I even started referring to myself as an artist. Why is this? Well, because the best way to guard yourself from potential pain is to inflict it upon yourself first. Also, we admire great art and feel that we don’t measure up. We can’t be perfect, so we give up before we try. Okay, I lied. I said, “One time, I met a cool person.” What I really meant was, “Most people I met from my adolescence until about a year ago…” You probably understand the metaphor here. (I love things like metaphors because I was an English major in college. Why? I felt so unworthy of my art that I didn’t pursue it seriously until after college. Once again: I believed I was unworthy and it was my own fault.) The starving artist “starves” because she feels unworthy. She does not allow herself to be fed and actively prevents this from happening through her own belief system.
2. THE STARVING ARTIST IS JUDGMENTAL We’ve all been there. Judging - I mean scrolling - our way through Facebook and, whether we leave snarky comments or not, focusing on everyone else and deciding where they rank on the ladder of success. Are they above us? How dare them. Below us? Well we saw it coming! Did they used to be below us and now they’re catching up? That copy-cat! How dare they. They’re stealing our clients! Well, we’ll just have to find some more. We didn’t need those cheapskates anyway. And why are we so judgmental? Why do we feel the need to compare and rank and condemn and make fun of? I’ll answer the question with another question. What do we say to third graders that get bullied at school? “That person only said those mean things to you because they are insecure about who they are.” We think mean things when we aren’t happy with ourselves. Whatever annoys you most in someone else is probably the thing you can’t stand about yourself. If someone else’s success bothers you, it means you’re not reaching your own potential. And it’s like nails on a chalkboard. When we are preoccupied with being the best (whatever that means? It’s art, people), we certainly are not preoccupied with our creativity, our craft, or our clients who are paying for it.
3. THE STARVING ARTIST IS STARVE-Y Starvy? Starvey? Starve-y? Anyway, here’s what I mean: We reap what we sow. We attract what we give off. Want to attract other starve-y people? Easy! Be so focused on starvation and lack and scarcity and “never enough” and make sure to always blame outside sources! Be cheap. Cut corners. Buy cheap gear and cheap backdrops and nickel and dime every minute a client gets to spend in your presence and then get upset when they don’t seem eager to pay a premium price for it. I’m normally not such a sarcastic person. I just write like this because it’s the beliefs I struggle with too. I’ve struggled with this for years and while I’m shifting the belief, it still creeps in! “Well sure I’m booked this month but who’s to say I’ll have a single client next month! I’ll use them all up! There will be no one left!” If you want to be an artist who thrives, help others thrive. If you want to be a successful business owner, help other business owners be more successful. If you want your clients to give to you with their whole hearts, give to them! It’s not a trick or a stunt or a clever phrase - it’s genuine giving. It’s beautiful when you allow it to happen. Artist, you’ve been invited to a dinner to share and feed and be fed. And if you’re too busy locking yourself in your room with 2 crackers because you don’t want to risk losing them, that’s on you.
4. THE STARVING ARTIST IS ISOLATED I’m an introvert, so sometimes I really like being alone. I think most artists do from time to time, and it can be a great thing. But have you ever gotten lost in your own head? (Raises hand desperately.) Yeah, things can get crazy in there. Have you ever started thinking about one little doubt about your abilities, your work, your craft, your skill, your client, your *anything,* and ended up convincing yourself it’s time to sell the camera gear and get a job at Target? (Hopefully I’m not the only one who has this crisis like every Thursday?) But seriously, when we isolate ourselves we start to believe untrue things. Just like some folks think their art is REALLY GOOD when it’s really not, I think more often great artists give up or lose hope because they never let anyone critique their work or simply tell them, “Shut up dude you’re really good at this.” Welcome critique. Challenge yourself. Ask people you respect for their feedback. Be willing to learn and change. It can be hard, but the more you do it the more you realize it’s the only way to grow.
5. THE STARVING ARTIST IS AFRAID Well, I don’t have much to say here because it’s a daily struggle. Ever worry you’ll create a portrait and pour your life blood into it and then present it wholeheartedly and the client will hate it? And is that possible? Yes. If you do photography for a living, something like this will probably happen at some point. BUT, is it just as (if not more) possible that one day you’ll create a photograph that will change someone’s life for the better? That their grandchild will find it in a shed or drawer and they’ll pick it up with both hands, sit cross legged on the floor, and stare at it in wonder? Is it possible, artist, that you will change the course of someone’s entire life because of lifegiving domino effect of real art and the joy it brings? Yes. But not if you’re too afraid to try. A common exercise to overcome fear is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I’ve started asking myself this question, “What’s the best that could happen?” I don’t want to be a person who makes decisions (and ultimately lives a life) based on fear. I have art to give to the world that only I can give, and if I hide it because I’m afraid, what good will that do? The same goes for you, artist. You do not have to starve. You may be comfortable in that place because it’s what you know, but I promise that with risk and responsibility and vulnerability comes great, beautiful rewards. When you believe your art is valuable, you’ll charge for it. And when you believe that you’re worth a living wage, you’ll earn it. If you settle for less, I hope you’ll start by shifting these beliefs. I hope you’ll be humble enough to stop blaming your outside surroundings (again, I’m saying this to myself too) and take ownership of the starvation habits we all so easily form. Artist, the only way to stop starving is to choose to feast. (There’s plenty of food, I promise!) I believe you’re worth that, and I hope you will too.
Mitzi Starkweather is an Portrait Artist and MOPPA member based in Joplin, MO. She specializes in women's portraiture and has been honored many times over for her work and study of her art. Feel free to check her out at Mitzi Starkweather Photography