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Affording to be an Artist

March 21, 2016

When I was a little kid I was told I was going to be an artist. Paintbrushes, pencils and drawing pads were thrust my way. By the time I was in grade school I was known as the class artist. I drew Snoopy for other kids and, at home, drew copies of nude women from art books. The embers of my father’s burning desire to be an artist, something he too felt as a child, were reignited in the possibility that I would pursue the career he sidetracked to become an architect, a more practical choice.


So, I went to art school. First, to New Paltz State, and then, after dismissing the lack of seriousness in my partying classmates, on to a real art school: The Maine College of Art. My parents were legally bankrupt; I paid for school entirely myself by working summers as a billboard painter. After getting my BFA, I went to Cornell for my MFA, working as teaching assistant and a house painter to pay the bills. Although some of my classmates and friends came from incredibly wealthy families, none of that rubbed off on me. In fact, I usually paid the bar tab. After school I continued to work in the trades doing blue collar work: ornamental plaster, house painting and carpentry, until I got a part time teaching gig at Ithaca College. But that didn’t pay very much either. After 12 years, my position was dissolved in an acidic dispute over equality and pay, so, I went back to the trades where I still work today.


During this entire period I have kept up my studio practice: I’ve had shows, won awards and residencies and been invited to speak. I am continuously making new work that explores how art is essential to sifting out meaning in this complex and chaotic world. Now, more than ever I feel my work is on the verge of something, that my sifting is producing more nuggets of gold and less dross. Although my practice has dramatically shifted, I am getting to the core of what I have been searching for my whole life. It’s not drawing Snoopy, but, then again, I’m sure Charles Schultz was an early influence .


I’m writing this as I should be writing yet another statement of intent for yet another grant application. This, at a time when I should be heading towards bed to be rested for yet another day of hard work. It goes on like this, month after month , year after year, trying to get recognition, a few crumbs of funding, or a foot in the door so that maybe, one day, I won’t have to lift my hammer to pay the bills. So that I won’t have juggle art and survival.


I keep track of who wins grants, or gets major shows or opportunities and increasingly I’ve become wearily aware that most are people with the means to be an artist- people with money, support and connections. Artist who don’t have to work full time to survive, who have the time and money to not only make art, but to go places, see things, and meet the right people. I start to wonder: “can I afford to be an artist? or, should I just throw in the towel?”


Unfortunately, this digression will not meet the requirements for the letter of intent I need to write tonight. Nor, is it 2500 characters or less. If do I get this $3,000 grant, it may buy me a few weeks of blissful creativity- but, not if I don’t apply.

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One Comment
  1. Your honesty and hard work have been an inspiration to me since I met you in art school those 33 years ago. You were already great. GREAT GREAT GREAT

    And, you are getting greater all the time. Thank you for being Rob Licht!!!!

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