I decided early on that becoming a full time artist was my goal in life. I was 19 and a painting student at Bennington College, where the life of an artist was presented to me as almost a beautiful dream: a messy loft in New York City, ramen noodles for dinner, and the sudden discovery by a Chelsea gallery that would solidify my place in the art world… and would allow me to spend my life painting and traveling and in general just be cool.
I got an internship at Art in General gallery in 1994 (I was 20 years old), and I got my chance to live that fantasy. I slept on a couch in an apartment in Soho with people I barely knew, existed on pita bread and coffee for sustenance, and did embarrassing things like load all of the slides in the carousel backwards for a presentation at the gallery without realizing it. I was hungry and tired.
And I loved every minute of it.
After graduating from college the harsh truth set in: I wasn’t from a wealthy family or have a trust fund to fall back on, so I need to make money- not only to live, but to pay back the $30,000 I had to borrow to go to art school. I worked as a barista, a teacher, a waitress, a telemarketer, a medical secretary, and pretty much everything in between. I was broke but happy, and carved out time to make art between jobs in my bedroom. But I was tired- not only physically, but tired of people asking me when I would get a real job, tired of nervous calls from my family asking me what the heck I was doing, tired everyone asking me when I would get married and have children. Around that time I had the very good fortune to get to live and travel in Europe for two years. One night I was in Paris at a party and I told another guest, who was French, that I was an artist. Their face immediately lit up, and they proceeded to ask me all about my work and life like it was a CAREER. It had never happened to me before.
And it was all the motivation I needed to keep going.
My work progressed. I had always loved working with collage material and it finally started to make sense in my work. I applied to grad school year after year and was rejected. When I finally got into the School of Visual Arts in New York, I thought it was all coming together (btw it took me NINE years to get into grad school). I figured I’d get an MFA which would lead to a great teaching job, which would lead to financial security… which would lead to me getting to just make art.
But it didn’t work that way at all.
I moved to NYC and immediately went into a downward spiral. The relationship I was in at the time came to a dramatic end. I found myself in New York with nowhere to live and and it was too late in the school year to quit. I had to borrow $50,000 to live and pay for school, work 4 part time jobs, and was almost laughed out of my classes for showing an interest in “paper ephemera.” I got sadder and more tired. I abused alcohol to almost a life threatening degree (which was thankfully a short lived phase). I felt I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I was now EIGHTY thousand dollars in debt with no plum spot in a gallery, or really much to show from my time at school but a piece of paper.
But something kept me going.
I wanted to survive and make art.
I moved back to Boston to be by friends and figure out my next move. By then I had discovered that no one really cared that I had an MFA or had lived in New York. Unable to find any decent paying job in the art field, I took an office job that had nothing to do with art. Art was relegated to nights and weekends. Other artists I knew told me I was a sell out for taking a job in the corporate world. People in the corporate world didn’t take me seriously because they assumed I was a flake and not committed to my day job. I felt like I couldn’t win. But I kept showing up. Slowly but surely, I had a little money in my pocket and the confidence to keep working on my collages. And slowly they got better. Life was quiet and studious.
A few years later I met my husband and moved to Providence, RI with him. Not only did my husband truly believe in my work, but in Providence I found artists and friends and galleries did too. I got out of my comfort zone and started sharing my work on social media, and found another incredible community of artists and colleagues online, many whom I now call real life friends. I made the wholehearted decision to make my flowered-sea-creature-alien collages and be just happy with having the chance to make them.
Right now, I am proud to say I work with 5 different art vendors and galleries. Some months, I make great money on my art and make almost as much as I do at my day job. Sometimes I go for months without even selling a print. And people still feel really inclined to share their feelings about my lifestyle, whether it be too corporate or too artsy in their view.
I think the real point of this story is to tell people that being an artist is really about committing to a whole life of art: the uncertainties, the doubt, the financial stress, the sudden successes. Someone recently said to me, “isn’t it WEIRD to really want to be an artist but spend all day in an office?” Another said, “don’t you wish you had never gone to school and didn’t have any loans so you could do whatever you want?” I honestly believe that all of these experiences, even the painful ones have taught me that I am TRULY committed to being an artist. Because some of the experiences really are painful. And yet I keep going towards my goal.
I am proud to live a life of non-conformity, complete with all the criticisms that come with it. I see people everyday who are unhappy and anxious and feel stuck and sometimes even tell me they wish they had been brave enough to pursue what they love, rather than be behind a desk all day. I hope they find the courage to take a step in that direction of what they love, even if it’s a little one.
I can’t promise them it will be easy, but I can 100% promise them it is worth it.
Jenny Brown is visual artist living and working in Providence, Rhode Island, whose primary mediums are drawing, collage, and works on paper. Her work brings to life a mythical world of sea creatures and celestial beings, realized through her love of paper ephemera.
Her recent collage works focus on a dream of representing harmony amongst different elements of the natural world (flora, fauna, the moon, the sea). An abundance of flowers in the work represent the hearts and souls of these fantastic creatures. Branches and tentacles share their yearning to be connected to the most basic elements of life which created them…water, mineral, and the stars.
Jenny studied art at Bennington College and received her MFA from School of Visual Arts in New York. She is a featured artist in Issue 3 of Create Magazine, as well as part of the recently released “Craft Companion,” published by Thames & Hudson. She has also been featured at recent pop-up shops at West Elm & Anthropologie in Providence, RI, as well as Kate Spade in Pasadena, CA. Her work is currently available at Collier West in Brooklyn, NY and Good Eye Gallery in Los Angeles, CA.