Ela Shah column “From the Easel” asks: Can an artist make a living?

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The past two years have been especially challenging for artists. Museums, galleries, and art fairs have been shuttered, their hours significantly curtailed or canceled.  With more time at home on their computers, curious art buyers have become familiar with new artists from every corner of the globe. But what skills must artists have to navigate the growing on-line marketplace? For those seeking to make a living from their art, can they survive?

Ela Shah

In this edition of “From the Easel,” we spoke with award-winning contemporary artist Ela Shah whose decades-long career has been a journey of discovery. Like many fine artists, the past two years have been a time of challenge and, especially for Shah, a time of continuous learning.

Sandy Levine, freelance journalist, spoke with Shah about the challenges of choosing art as a career.

This is my first quilt. I digitized my artwork, printed them on fabric and then stitched on quilt. I have always enjoyed the challenge of learning new techniques and combining them with age-old ways and traditional materials. Photo: courtesy Ela Shah
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SL: “Let’s start with this; what would you say to a young person who told you ‘I want to have a career in art?’”

ES: “I would say ‘follow your heart. Be honest with yourself. Do what makes you content in your life…what makes you happy. The art world looks glorious, but it can be as hard as chewing metal chickpeas.”

SL: Art has become an important element in everything we do or buy. Computer pioneer Steve Jobs and groundbreaking architect I.M. Pei produced works that are both functional and artistic.  Do you think of them artists?

ES: “Of course! There are so many artists working in careers that haven’t been traditionally thought of as art… commercial artists, graphic designers, animators, industrial designers, set designers, clothing designers, photographers…The definition of art has exploded in so many new directions during my lifetime. And that’s expanded opportunities for artists.”

SL: Can you talk more about that?

ES: “Think about the computer and the internet. Every website you click on has been designed by someone who is a visual artist. There are artists who specialize in computer generated artwork or the design of video games…and the computer is their tool…When I began to do art in India, I only used paper, canvases, brushes, and paints.  I still use them, but I also like to use new materials and learn new techniques to help me tell my stories and express my feelings.”

SL: How have you been able to integrate so many new techniques in your work?

ES: “I always loved to learn…especially what is new. …I would advise a young artist to do the same, to research and practice all the time. Make the effort to learn the craft of new techniques and apply that to your art so you can reach out to more people with technologies that they can relate to…. Attend seminars, webinars, read art magazines and be current. You don’t have to be the best at all things, but you should always try. (see illustration.)”

SL: Was it difficult to get attention for your work when you were first starting out?

ES: “It was very difficult! We had moved and were living in a new culture; my husband was busy building his practice, my kids were young, and I was taking care of my ill mother-in-law without any help. Whenever I could, I made art in my basement, on the dining table or the floor, and when we traveled, I hung canvases in the hotel room. With all that I didn’t have any time to promote myself and get attention for my work…Later, I joined groups and became the Foreign Chairperson of the National Association of Women Artists in New York and so many people got to know me and my work.”

SL: Did you sell from your home?

ES: “Not very often. One day a wealthy couple who admired my work came to my home to buy art. They looked in my studio and all around my house. They finally asked me ‘where is your easel?’ I told them ‘I don’t work in a traditional way. I work wherever I can with whatever materials I find’ and they left disappointed and empty-handed.”

SL: How has the internet changing the selling side of art?

ES: “On one hand it’s much easier for an artist to share their work.  You can create a website to tell your story (https://www.elashah.com) but you need to know how to get people to visit your site. You must be active on social media like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram…but you still must do the traditional things, too…like approaching commercial and non-profit galleries and entering juried shows, going to openings, showing at art fairs and being a part of open studio tours… You want to do whatever you can do to encourage people to come and see what you are up to…and all of this take time away from doing your art.”

SL: If a beginning artist is hoping to earn a living, all that sounds like a lot to learn beyond what I’d consider art. Is there anything else?

ES: “Learn about the business side of art. If you want to make a living, you should know how to manage your finances and how to invest. It’s important to know how to budget, where to buy supplies and how much to charge for your work. For me, one of the hardest things to learn was how to put a fair price on my work… and negotiate with buyers. That was very difficult.”

SL: Why was negotiating so hard for you to learn?

ES: “Because of my cultural upbringing…I always thought art was for decoration and I should share with everybody…The thought of making money did not come into my mind. In those days making money was a man’s job. My job was to take care of the family… I’m not so naïve anymore.  I’ve learned the hard way not to get cheated, to take deposits and have a written contract if you are creating something unique for someone.”

SL: To sum it up, do you think an artist can make a living with their art?

ES: “If art is your passion and if you are compelled to create, then you can make a living, but it may not be from your art alone. You will probably need to get a more traditional job to make money…If you want money, to be rich and famous, If you want prestige or to impress people, I don’t think art is right for you. But if you need to express yourself in a creative way, if you need to feed your soul and be true to your heart, then follow your art. “

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