Portrait of an Artist as a Young Advocate

(1-26-10) This is a personal New Year’s Eve story that has to do with connecting the dots. At a party in Los Angeles, I was introduced to a young couple who are both visual effect artists in the film industry. They were around 30. Both had undergraduate degrees in visual art from the Savannah School of Art and Design.

When I asked them if they were making a living at their art, they laughed and confirmed they were doing just fine. Both are currently working on Tim Burton’s new film “Alice in Wonderland” with Johnny Depp. (Fine, indeed.) They described the very technical and specific work each of them did in the film making process. I got a little lost in the technology but I got the picture. They were good at their jobs, they were proud of themselves as artists and this wasn’t their first movie job. We talked about how their training as “fine artists,” taking coursework in drawing, painting, sculpture and design, was the foundation for their work in computerized special effects.

We started discussing the state of the arts in America and the lack of connection between the jobs they do today and their ambitions when they were younger to become professional artists. He was particularly verbal about this. He grew up in a small city in Ohio. He complained that his community, school and state were not supportive of someone becoming a professional artist. (You can pretty much put this scenario in any city that is not one of America’s largest top 20 or so.) Not being able to contain the arts advocate within me, I said, “So as a successful artist, what are you doing about this?”

He looked at me like I was a crazy old woman (which I am) and said, “What do you mean?” I replied that as a successful artist, growing up in his community and inspired to a life of creativity, he had an obligation to be a role model in his high school and his community. What was he doing about that? Then I saw the light go on. He said, “I could visit my high school and talk to students about the jobs available and the life I’ve created here.” I said “YES! That’s exactly what you can do.” And maybe that kind of enthusiasm can inspire other students, teachers, parents and school boards and chamber of commerce members and city councilmen and women.

Advocacy starts with one conversation. Successful artists often see their roots as a place to escape from rather than return to even if it’s only to tell their stories. I witnessed an arts advocate being born. I don’t know if he’ll follow through but I do know that his enthusiasm and our conversation made me believe that he saw his role differently. Not as an artist who was lucky enough to be making a living but rather as an example of what others might do if they had the encouragement and courage to do it. It may not have been the most likely New Year’s Eve party conversation but it felt great. I sensed these young people graciously embracing the idea that through their own advocacy they could change reality for future aspiring artists. It was a great party.