An Artist’s Economy

So, what’s it like to be an artist in Rhode Island? I had the great fortune to speak with four artists who have taken the plunge and made their craft a livelihood, and it was eye-opening and inspiring to hear their stories. I set out to discuss economics with them, but found the resounding theme in an artist’s life has little to do with money.

Richard McCaffrey, photographer, is a legend who’s worked with legends. As a teenager he built his own darkroom, and the shots he fired at war were shot from a camera. He started with weddings and commercial photography, but “once I got into music, that was it.” He moved to California and worked his way up to being the chief photographer of BAM (Bay Area Music) magazine, freelancing for Rolling Stone and Billboard. Eventually, he returned to Rhode Island, worked for The Phoenix (RIP), opened his own studio, and continues to produce new work, some for Motif. Today his photographs are found across the globe, thanks to representation with Getty Images and the 21st century, “when the internet got serious.” Rich with experience, he has “made it” as far as the industry is concerned.

When I asked if he ever had to have a second job, he laughs. “I always had a second job,” he said. “Today, there are no more labs,” addressing the digital age, “but part-time or full-time, I always worked in a photo lab.” When he was working for The Phoenix and it was almost enough to be sustainable, “2001 happened — the bottom fell out in print.” But his side jobs were always photography-related, and as far as steady paychecks go, he considers working in a lab “more fun than a lot of other jobs.” I asked if he ever thought about giving up, and it was a quick, assured answer: “No. Never.”

Christopher Johnson, poet, actor, producer, and a man who says “multidisciplined is the way to go,” thrives in hybrid creative projects. “It’s all about telling stories, whether it’s choreographing moves to fit the work, making sure the music sounds good, acting, writing. If you don’t do it, you die — that’s an artist.”

In order to support his daughter, he’s cooked and waited tables, worked at 7-11 and taught youth programs, but teaching is a job he feels comes with the territory: “The artist who doesn’t teach, sucks.” He loves the crossover between performing and impacting young people. One of his great life questions is, “What can we do to be better humans?” He wants to answer this question in both his craft and with action.

Then he got real with me (with positively no mention of rainbows and unicorns — okay, maybe one, but I won’t say where). “I said to myself from the beginning that my resume needs to climb the Superman Tower and scream, ‘Christopher Johnson is the shit!’ and people have to believe it. Nine out of 10 times, I’m the only person of color in the room. I have to know people wherever I go if I want to make it as an artist. I have friends in every group. It’s part of my job as a human.”

He admits it took effort to get where he is, and he quotes Biz Stone, saying, “’It took me 10 years to become an overnight success.’ That’s how I feel.” But he’s modest. “My rent is due on the 1st of month. How can I be that successful?” He recently started a new part-time job, “the first job in years unrelated to art,” but when I asked what he does, he said not even his daughter knows. “Secrets are what make people interesting,” he says slyly, but I’m pretty sure he set that bar even without acquiring the second job.

Jennifer Gillooly Cahoon, painter, considers herself an emerging artist, pursuing painting full-time after 19 years of teaching high school art. She knew at age 17 she would be a teacher, and she loves it, but five years ago the political climate of the classroom changed.  She started painting, completely self-taught, as a type of therapy, never intending to turn a profit. But organically through social media, her popularity grew. People wanted to buy her work, so she started making prints, and now she’s supplying paintings for gallery shows and selling her artwork nationwide and overseas.

It wasn’t an easy decision, however, to give up teaching. “I’ve been working for a paycheck since I was 13. Thankfully, I have my husband’s support — not just financially, but emotionally. He was the one who told me, ‘This is what you need to be doing,’ when I hadn’t really considered it. Once I made the choice and wasn’t afraid of it — to become a full-time artist — opportunities I never would have had opened themselves up.”

I loved hearing Cahoon talk about her need to create: “I call it a ‘Creative Compulsive Disorder.’” She reiterates that if art were merely a business, she would never be able to sustain it. Her ultimate purpose is providing healing through art, reaching people to fill a void, to speak to them emotionally. Someday she wants to teach again, too, but she’s waiting to see what that will look like. Painting, which “is about the process, not the product,” is much like her current journey, and I’m excited to see where the road will take her.

Nicholas Kole, concept artist and illustrator, is a graduate of RISD and had the opposite experience of most “struggling artists”: Straight after graduation he landed a high profile, well-paying job with a big company. That company, unfortunately, was 38 Studios, and when it collapsed, he had to make serious decisions: Stay in New England or move across the country? “Emotionally, spiritually, I wanted to make decisions based on something other than career: my family, my friends, my church — I wanted to stay here. Providence has a lot of charm.” Even though he moved back home to his parents’ house for a spell, he quickly found freelance work, began managing his own contracts, including work with Hasboro and Disney, and now he supports himself solely by his craft. I told him he’s living the dream.

After agreeing that, “Yeah…my 13-year-old self would be really psyched to see where I am now,” he added something I hadn’t considered: “If you run fast enough at a dream, and you catch it, you may realize there’s not much to it. You’ll have to decide what’s next.”

Unlike some artists who are always chasing after the carrot, he’s only ever been able to imagine life without art. “I imagine it would be hard,” he said. But he believes life should be defined by more than what a person does. “If I lost my right hand, then what? There’s so many other ways to be creative and tell stories.” It’s clear that exiting the realm of creativity altogether is not on the spectrum of possibility.

Under duress, he did admit, “If art were closed to me professionally, I would become a very avid hobbyist.”

As a writer, or an “aspiring writer” as I usually identify myself, I find the words of these artists so encouraging. They may not always have a smooth or straightforward career path, but none of them are starving. More importantly, satisfying their creative compulsion is where they find fulfillment. Money is necessary, but art is vital. It’s an overflow of who they are. Payment is just the bonus.