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Seacoast artists divided: prospects of living off original art work

By Olivia Marple, Contributing Writer

Courtesy photo Beaudoin crafted this display box for an antique sewing machine.
Courtesy photo
Beaudoin crafted this display box for an antique sewing machine.

It was an antique sewing machine. The object that Tyler Beaudoin recalled inspired him to make his favorite piece of wooden furniture. The word SINGER was legible across the horizontal part of the machine’s frame, although some of the paint on the “R” had been chipped off from years of use. Gold-painted decorations in the style of art nouveau weaved themselves around the machine’s black surface, a gleaming facade of curlicues, flower buds and labyrinthine geometric patterns.

Beaudoin was making a display case for a customer who had come to his small woodworking business, Against the Grain Woodworking, with the sewing machine in mind. The customer wanted something that could both house the machine and accent its beauty. After a flurry of ideas between the two, various consultation sessions and weeks of cutting, carving and finishing, Beaudoin unveiled a dark brown display case, which mirrored the geometric lines on the machine with a rectangular pattern wrapping around the case’s base.

For Beaudoin, even more so than the beautiful inspiration with which this customer came to him, this display case is his favorite piece because of the connection he was able to make with the machine’s owner. The free flow of ideas between them fostered his enthusiasm about the project.

This positive experience and others like it are what keep Beaudoin confident about his work in a field in which a reliable cash flow can be a dubious prospect. Beaudoin is fresh out of college with a studio art degree from the University of New Hampshire, and, like many other young craft artists in the Seacoast area trying to make a living off selling their art, he ended up getting another job in addition to his small business to support himself.

This question of whether creating art for a living is a sustainable job choice in and of itself has the community of young art majors in the Durham and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, area divided. Some are doing everything they can to live off of what they create alone and others going into occupations unassociated with selling arts and crafts.

Beaudoin considers himself lucky, though, because, while he now only sells his wooden furniture pieces on the side, he is able to use his skills in his new job as a technology education teacher at a middle school in Hudson, New Hampshire.

“I never would have guessed that I would be teaching when I was a kid, and now I love it,” Beaudoin said. “But, I would definitely say that making furniture on the side outside of school and over the summer is really an important part of keeping the passion going.”

Creating the display case for the Singer sewing machine was one instance in particular that fueled his passion, but Beaudoin’s decision to get a job teaching illustrates the uncertainties around choosing craft and fine arts as one’s occupation.

On a national level, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website says the employment of craft and fine artists will grow 3 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is slower than the average growth of 11 percent for all occupations, and this employment growth generally depends on the “overall state of the economy,” as art purchases are considered optional. It also notes that for self-employed artists, who make up about half of all craft and fine artists, earnings vary widely, and many “find it difficult to rely solely on income earned from selling paintings or other works of art.”

This certainly is true for Beaudoin and for another recently graduated artist, Allison Kiphuth. In addition to creating three-dimensional box dioramas at her studio in York, Maine and selling this work through the Nahcotta gallery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Kiphuth works as a gallery manager at Nahcotta and at a bakery in Portsmouth to augment her income.

Despite her own necessity to keep several jobs, Kiphuth believes one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding art communities centers around the idea of “the starving artist.” Indeed, she said there are many successful artists in the area who are able to make a good living off their work.

“I think for some artists that stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Kiphuth said, while working at Nahcotta one weekend. On one of the walls of the gallery hung a few of her paper-cutout dioramas, one featuring a seagull in a boat attempting to catch miniature fish with a rod and another a spaceship blasting off into a starry sky. “But for many, that is just not the case and they are able to make money because their goal is to succeed.”

On the other hand, Brianna Smith, another young artist in the area, decided against making a living off the art she created because of the ideas Kiphuth says are misconceptions of the community.

“I think it’s very difficult to just make art and expect that to be your income,” Smith said. “I don’t know anybody who really does that and lives comfortably.”

Smith graduated from UNH last year with a degree in studio art and now works as an academic student services assistant in the Department of Communication at the university. She paints in her free time and does so for herself and not for the purposes of selling. She said an experience in her sophomore seminar art class made her realize she did not desire the lifestyle that she believed painting for a living would offer her.

“One of the things we would do is we would go around and talk to artists,” Smith said of the class, “and one of the artists we met with lived in a studio in the Button Factory [in Portsmouth, New Hampshire]. He lived this really minimalized life, and, you know, I don’t want to sponge bathe everyday.”

She thinks the decision to live off one’s art “depends on if you’re willing to make those types of sacrifices.”

Amanda Roseberry, another studio art graduate from UNH who has been out of the university a little longer than the others, about 10 years, adds that the expense of living in the Seacoast area can deter some young artists from settling here.

“Rents are expensive for both housing and studios, so it’s a lot to maintain,” Roseberry said. “And I know a lot of other artists can’t find studio spaces or have trouble getting enough space to do their craft, and they have to take a second job to pay their bills.”

Roseberry works out of her own studio space in Kittery, Maine, and makes leather craft items in addition to a waitressing job. She said that her biggest challenge is paying her bills.

“There are a lot of people who support what I do, which is great,” Roseberry said. “But my items are everything from a $50 wallet to a $400 bag, and the smaller things go faster, so there are a lot of smaller money increments.”

She said it is hard for artists like herself to find the balance between having sufficient time to focus on their art and trying to get to a point where they can sustain themselves, all the while doing other work on the side.

A typical day for Roseberry includes bouncing back and forth between working on the computer, updating her Etsy account entitled Nomad Leatherwork, ordering leather, overseeing the two women who sew for her, managing her calendar and marketing herself through various events. This idea of networking is especially important for young artists attempting to get started, according to Roseberry.

The need to be constantly marketing oneself and completely dedicated to becoming financially independent is a reason why another artist and recent graduate of UNH, Molly Thunberg, has decided to change her career from woodworking to cooking.

“[Dedication] is something I feel I didn’t have, which is why I’m not pursuing woodworking today as a means to make a living,” Thunberg said. “I am currently looking for a job in the food industry, but in the meantime I’ve been working on a couple commissioned pet-portrait paintings. It’s not exactly what I’d like to be doing, but people pay top dollar when it comes to their pets.”

Smith believes in addition to dedication to their craft, an artist looking to make a living off their art must be personable and very confident in order to make connections. However, she thinks these qualities that allow someone to be financially successful as an artist do not necessarily make that person more thoughtful or creative. 

“If you happen to be successful [in making money], you have to try to not let that interfere with your artistic process,” Smith said. “If something starts to sell, at what point do you get into a mechanical process instead of being artistic and creative?”

Although Roseberry has been forced to grapple with these same questions, she is able to obtain 75 percent of her income from selling her leather craft items and would not chose any other profession in which to work.

“My love of art goes way back,” Roseberry said. “In school I loved kindergarten because we got to finger paint, and I was definitely more interested in that than the other aspects of school. Academically, I’ve always lived for the creative outlets that were offered.”

In high school she had a few art teachers that inspired her sense of creativity and later made friends with working artists who helped her realize that living off the art she made was a possibility.

Beaudoin also enjoyed making art since he was a kid, and although he currently cannot run his small business fulltime, he continues to create commissioned furniture because of the rewarding feeling he gets when working with a customer and creating exactly what they wanted, as he did for the customer with the Singer sewing machine. Indeed, rather than stressing over the tension between being creative and making money, when he was running his business fulltime he looked forward to the challenges it presented.

“I really like a challenge,” Beaudoin said, “and I think that’s a big part of why I do woodworking. It’s a challenge everyday.”

And despite the constraints his customers present to him, he still feels that his job affords him certain freedoms.

“What I love most about it is being free to create,” Beaudoin said, “and getting dirty and using raw materials to actually create something that’s never been done before.”

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