A Letter from A Starving Artist

We’re all grieving a collectively imagined future that’s no longer guaranteed. Self-care is collectively critical. But maybe once the dust settles and everyone goes back in search of what passes for a new normal, maybe remember us artists then too. 

Artists_COVID sign
‘Please Believe These Days Will Pass – Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK.’ Photo credit: Tim Dennell, CC BY-NC 2.0

Okay. The world has gone tits up. Noted.

Allow me to clarify.

Many of us may feel as though our tiny pocket of the universe has just been shaken like a snow globe.

We’ve lost our jobs, some of us have lost our health, our loved ones, our sense of security, the future we’d counted on. 

Now, this isn’t the case for all of us. I’ve been particularly paying attention to folks in my network for whom this pandemic has made…well….not a lot of difference. 

My friend Terence is one of these outliers. I’ve long seen Terence every morning en route to my local drive thru Starbucks. Don’t judge, it’s my crutch of normalcy in a viral maelstrom. Terence is my friend that sits at the entrance to a bridge I take every day over the mighty Willamette River. Thursday, I noticed that Terence had a new mask. One of those hand sewn ones. Purple, with little green flowers on it. Very cute.

I pulled over to wish Terence a good morning, as I often do, and asked if there was anything else he needed or wanted. It was almost lunchtime and that’s where my mind had already wandered. Terence and I went back and forth deciding on lunch, settling finally on baked chicken, properly seasoned but not too salty, (we’ve both got to watch our hypertension).

Terence totally blew my mind when he said he wanted Squirt. I was like “Man, what do you know from Squirt?” That’s when I learned that while Terence grew up here in Portland, his daddy is from the south, hence, Squirt. Besides the new purple mask, Terence’s life hasn’t changed much these past few weeks. I think it’s just that a lot more of us are getting nervous that we’re living closer to Terence’s life than we are to the lives that used to pass for our own. 

ArtPlace wants me to tell you about what I’ve been up to since the pandemic. They wanted to re-release a keynote I presented one summit about “being well before we do the work of the people.” You can see the slides of that keynote here

Well, it turns out “being well” is a little harder these days.

Like many artists, I’m just this side of Van Gogh mad and the isolation is proving difficult. I’m taking lots of baths. Dancing and lip syncing into my hairbrush. Listening to Mario Lanza on vinyl. Going for walks in empty parking lots. Sharing wrenchingly accurate and on point in car video diaries. Virtually visiting with my village friends. Watching living room drag shows. Stress baking. Sharing chicken and Squirt with Terence. 

I’m not going to lie. I’m worried.

Worried that things will suddenly get “back to normal” and the attention you all are paying to the artists will disappear again, or at the very least, go back to “normal” where our work is peripheral to your work. 

Don’t look at me like that. You forget about us all. the. time. 

My artist friends and I are ripe for crisis exploitation and you, of all people, know this. We’re suckers for good causes, for Hail Mary passes and Hollywood endings. We’ll work for free, or come cheap because many of us are simply addicted to our work. And “infrastructure specialists” like you take advantage, simply because we let you. Let’s face it.

Artists have been starving for so long we even pair ourselves with the adjective as a job description. I’m not saying shy away from our work. By all means, use everything of ours that’s useful to you right now. We’re all grieving a collectively imagined future that’s no longer guaranteed. Self-care is collectively critical. But maybe once the dust settles and everyone goes back in search of what passes for a new normal, maybe remember us artists then too. 

And please, PLEASE, stop taking our stuff without giving us something in return. Does that sound too harsh? I mean, much like Terence, it’s not like much has changed in my own life since the pandemic. My bank account is still circling the drain. I have less than $800 to my name, over $100,000 in student loans, an idle elementary school teaching license and I’m now in charge of a lot of newly freaking out parents demanding I teach them, right now, how to homeschool their children.

I do all of this, every day, without retirement benefits or access to health insurance. I post my Venmo (@leslie_kimiko) to try to hustle a few tips. I stream my own living room variety show over Facebook Live. So far, I haven’t made much. I’m still deciding which bill I’m going pay with the money ArtPlace is paying me to write this article. It’s not enough for rent, but it’s getting warm enough that I can let the electric lapse and keep working with candles. 

To my fellow artists: Just please, PLEASE, stick around on the planet. I know. It’s getting tougher. For me too. You’re not alone.

If you can, reach out: to me, to the folks around you, to crisis lines. If you can’t reach out, then just hang on.

Inhale………..Exhale…………..One more breath.

And then take one more. Keep taking enough breaths until you are able to stay with us for one more hour. Enough hours and we’ll get one more day. Do not despair. My friends and I are currently looking for you, and we will. not. stop. until we find you and get you the support you deserve. 

Help is on the way.  Maybe some of it will come from the fine folks reading this article. 

Be well, everyone.

Wash your hands. Take care of your elders. Wear a mask and do something kind for someone every day.

A version of this originally appeared on the ArtPlace blog.

Leslie Kimiko Ward
Leslie Kimiko Ward is a social entrepreneur and shepherd based out of Portland, Oregon. Ward is the founder of 1000 Cranes for Alaska, a multi-disciplinary, arts-based suicide prevention project, and she works in partnership with indigenous, rural, and culturally responsive individuals and organizations to catalyze community healing.

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