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Friday, November 22, 2013

The trials of a young art-school graduate

Meeting of Fronts, from Jeff Swartout's senior show went to New York and was sold. Heady success for a young kid.

One of the groups affected disproportionally by the 2008-13 economic malaise has been recent college graduates. About half of them scrape by either unemployed or marginally employed. It’s always taken time for kids to find their niche, but it appears to have gotten tougher in the last five years.

Art students, however, have always expected to cobble a living together after graduation. Sadly, many of them leave their field, since it’s an unreceptive world that pretty much leaves the young artist to flounder without mentoring.

A cat, drawn in multiple poses by Jeff Swartout. Hard to take on big projects without the structure of a studio, but one can always draw.
I’ve watched the career of one young artist with considerable interest. Jeff Swartout is a 2012 graduate of Alfred University and a talented young painter.

When Jeff’s painting, top, went on to New York and sold in May of 2012, I was optimistic about his chances of success. “It was a hugely validating experience,” he said. In a normal market it would have opened the door to more opportunities, but that didn’t happen. “In the back of my mind I knew I wasn't experienced enough to live on my own or make a living as an artist.”

Jeff has great painting chops, but he can’t really see a clear path forward. When I asked him where he wanted to be in twenty years, he answered, “I don’t know."

“I could do anything and be happy as long as I'm learning something. The more I think about it, and look back on my past work, the more I think I want to pursue illustration/animation,” he said.

That confusion is common enough at that age, but it’s made more difficult because in our society, artists get almost no help in establishing careers.  However, even without a clear goal, Jeff knows the first step is to get out of Binghamton and move to a vibrant regional art market. His choice is Asheville, NC. “I just want to marinate in a different culture for a while,” he said. “I fell in love with North Carolina, felt inspired, and loved being so close to the deep outdoors. Plus, Asheville is such a cool and progressive city.”

And figure studies, done this year, by Jeff Swartout.
To that end, he’s working nights at Kohl’s and looking for a second job. It's a good plan. Although we New Yorkers have been trained to think of Manhattan as the Center of the Known Universe, a good regional market actually makes more sense for an emerging artist.

Almost every college student expresses doubts about career choices, but the art major has the added burden of having spent his or her formative years hearing from almost everyone how an art major is a dumb idea. “Before college I had so many aspirations, and somewhere between my sophomore and senior years my motives changed. I'm still figuring out what the root of that is and if it's ultimately helpful or harmful.”

But I’ve observed that most young people actually like what they’ve chosen once they actually start working. For one thing, work is a structured activity. Your job assignments take the place of your school assignments.

That’s a luxury artists don’t have. “Without a studio, peer review, or advisors to discuss my work with, I found after college that I didn't know what to do with myself,” Jeff told me. “The motivations I had to draw before and after college were completely different because I got so caught up in assignments and projects that when I no longer had a prompts, I floundered.”

Jeff’s path may never involve a conventional job, but he may be getting to the recharge point all the same. ”I've recently inhaled a gust of inspiration, so perhaps that will change as I practice.”

Stick with it, kid. The world needs what you’re selling.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

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