Astrid Bowlby

Astrid Bowlby
Visiting Critic at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Senior Lecturer, University of the Arts

A funny conversation I have sometimes concerning my installations goes something like this:

“How do you sell this?”

“I would work with an interested party to make a work specifically for their place. It would be like this, but not exactly this. It would be specific to a particular place. What is important to the work is a specificity…” (usually get interrupted here).

“Have you tried making your work out of Sintra, wood, or sheet metal instead of paper?”

“No, that the installation is made out of paper is part of its meaning. There are important reasons why it is paper. Would you…” (usually get interrupted again).

“If it were made out of something else less prone to damage and easier to deal with, you might be able to sell it.”

It does not occur to me that the installations are saleable in the first place. It does not occur to me that there is a problem. However, I am not against selling one of my installations. I am against changing them in order to sell them.

What is a career for an artist?

I am an almost 52 year old artist who lives in Philadelphia. I have a BFA and an MFA. I make drawings, sculpture, installations, and prints. I sometimes sell my work, receive grants or honorariums, and teach part time. I also do bookkeeping for my husband’s woodworking business.

I have continued to make art because I am never bored by it. There is always another question to ask; another thing to make visible. I do not make art because I sell it. I do not stop making art because I don’t sell it. One can make art using the back of a paper bag and a pencil.

I always try to imagine things I might do to steady my pocketbook. I do not even teach to make money. It is inspiring, interesting work and I teach in order to teach and to give back to my art community. Adjunct teaching does not pay much, but any pay is nice.

Once in awhile I have a banner year or I am fortunate enough to receive a grant. Some years sales are very quiet. I have no retirement account and no savings. I do pay for health insurance, or right now, mostly my husband does. He is the sole proprietor of a small business and our health insurance bill is over $10,000 per year. Even with paying that we each have a yearly deductible of $3,000 and both of us owe our deductible for this year to various hospitals because of illness and injury. So next year, the plan is to up the insurance coverage and omit the deductible. Currently I owe on both student loans and credit cards.

I am perfectly clear on the fact that these are personal choices that I have made in order to have time in my studio. I consider myself fortunate that I can conduct such a balancing act. But my next goal is to be completely debt-free and I will be working on that for the next few years and it means I will have to forgo making installations.

On a good year I earn about fifty percent of the money I need from selling my work. This works out to about $18,000, before expenses or taxes. That is not too much money especially after income and BPT taxes and the cost of having a studio. I am lucky that I was in the right neighborhood at the right time in order to buy a decent garage. It is my studio and I consider it a savings account as it builds equity. It has running water, so I could live in it if I had to.

I always imagine that I will put my nose to the grindstone of the “career” of selling my work. It makes a lot of sense and I am not against it at all. It is just such a different thing, a job in itself, really. I apply for things, try to connect with others in the art world and exhibit my work, but the problem I come up against every time is time. Making something that is actually good takes a lot of time. This is very important to me. I, and likely most artists, have been trained to make attractive, perhaps interesting looking things. Hopefully, that is the lowest common denominator of one’s training to be an artist. But to make something actually really good? Well, that is certainly another matter altogether.

Once I think about selling my work or presenting myself outside the studio as an artist, I think about buyers, sellers, donors, curators, viewers, and their needs. This has the potential to change my work in either positive or negative ways, but there is no doubt about the influence. When I am inside the studio, I do not think about these other people.

My best days start and end with quiet. I crave solitude, thinking, quiet, and making. On these days I do a little bit of all the things that go into making work as opposed to selling work and I mix in daily living things such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, eating lunch with my husband, and petting the cats.

My goal, more and more, is to live simply and keep my expenses as low as possible so that I can have more time. I used to commit to too many exhibitions, too many projects, thinking somehow that part of having a career is being over-booked, anxiety-ridden, and in demand (and still broke, by the way). I pulled it off for about fifteen years or so, too. But my work and I suffered greatly in ways that are so internal they are hard to explain. Some of the damage is unknowable and I try not to feel too badly about this.

Instead, I try to say “no, thank you, perhaps later” more often.”
Published 10/2013

Astrid at Gallery Joe