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Kris Kerzman, Variety contributor, Published October 06 2013

Professional artists find balance between making quality work and making a living

FARGO – On an early Tuesday afternoon, McCal Johnson serves a table of three eating lunch at the HoDo Lounge.

After handing them their check, she finds a moment to talk about being a server to help support her career as an artist. She likes the flexibility of hours most of all.

“It’s a cliché for a reason,” she says.

The Fargo-Moorhead area boasts plenty of people who consider themselves working or professional artists, but what, exactly, does that entail?

In contrast to the typical 9-to-5 work life and to outward perceptions of their careers, artists grapple with uncertainties similar to those in running a small business. They fill income gaps with related work or teaching if they can, or work day jobs if they can’t.

But artists balance the financial burdens with the joys of mastering a craft and the opportunity to reach an audience and enliven the world.

Karen Bakke has considered herself a professional artist for 37 years. After starting her career in graphic design, Bakke began a full-time fine art practice in 1995. Today, she enjoys a high demand for her paintings, and works almost entirely on commission. That level of professionalism, however, comes with a lot of tasks that have nothing to do with a canvas and paintbrush.

“I do everything myself. I spend a good chunk of time on bookkeeping, filing, organizing, preparing for the next day’s work, packing and framing,” Bakke said. “You’re doing all the dirty work along with all the good stuff. My husband comes home from work, and I’m still working and cleaning until 10 p.m.”

Johnson said the term “artist” isn’t really sufficient to describe the job.

“That’s maybe a twentieth of what an artist does. If I could sit in a studio and just paint, that would be lovely,” said Johnson, a recent Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate. In lieu of art shows, she tries to move her work through websites like Etsy and Society6.

Ultimately, Johnson said, she’d like to be able to supplement her career through education, a route that Brad Bachmeier took when starting out about 20 years ago.

Now an assistant professor of art at MSUM, Bachmeier’s early career was marked by an urgency to turn his pottery into a second income to support his family, and he learned quickly how to separate fact from fiction when creating a sustainable practice.

“The truth of the matter is, you’re running a small business. That’s one of the biggest misunderstandings artists have,” Bachmeier said. “What dooms a lot of great artists is that they think they’ll be discovered and start making big money, but they have to have some business sense.”

Bachmeier recognized early on that teaching would offer a regular paycheck and access to health benefits, which works better for his family. But teaching also keeps him fresh, challenging him with new ideas and feeding back into his own work.

“I feel a responsibility to keep creating art and be a working artist. How could I encourage kids to go on to art school or look their parents in the eye if I didn’t think it could be a career?” he said.

Some of the difficulty in attaining a career as an artist could stem from a difficulty in defining what that career is and how it can be deemed successful.

James Wolberg manages the ceramics studio for the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity at the Plains Art Museum and the Roberts Street Studios, both in downtown Fargo. He works out of the Roberts Street space, which includes the studios of seven other artists. He also practices as a ceramicist specializing in architectural installations.

Wolberg said it’s difficult to define success as an artist. Income from sales is part of it, but ultimately artists also gauge themselves by the quality of their work and how it connects with an audience.

“Part of your success is when you can speak to a group of people and have this level of communication where people are understanding what you are trying to get across in your work,” he said.

The drive to create meaningful work frames the goals of any artist, even an artist like Bakke, who still has unmet creative ambitions despite meeting many of her professional objectives. She intends to keep honing her craft and creating better work by learning from master artists around the world.

“I feel like I am successful now, but I still need to be better,” Bakke said.


This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit www.theartspartnership.net/artspulse.