Dispelling the myth of the starving artist


When someone mentions the word “artist,” what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Do they contain images of a person in ragged clothing, dining on Ramen soup and trying to sell artwork on the street? Or are they of someone who is successful at producing and selling his or her creative works?

The term “starving artist” comes from the historic Romanticism period during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The art created was based on life’s experiences and the darker side of the psyche, especially moods and extreme emotions. “Suffering artists” from the era emerged as souls dedicated to their muses and nonconformist lifestyles with little material gain. Although our culture carried this stereotype into the 21st century, there is hope for a brighter future for artists.

Wauwatosa resident, featured artist and 42-year veteran of the 43rd Mount Mary College Alumnae Association’s Starving Artist Show, Barbara Fernekes Hughes, has been a successful fine artist since graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1960. Her work features woodcuts and serigraphs in images of children, animals and story themes. Her first works were sold by her parents when they took a few of her pieces to an art show in 1960. “I was off and running after that,” she said.

When asked about the starving artist stereotype, Hughes said that it was a psychological one. She explained that an artist needed to remain dedicated to his or her art, to enjoy the creative process, and find ways to get the artwork out into the world. These would help to put the artist on the track to success.

Lisa Williams, a silversmith who exhibited her jewelry for the third time at the 43rd Mount Mary College Alumnae Association’s Starving Artist Show, has a degree in metalworking. After school, she worked in the corporate world for 10 years while pursuing her art and shows part-time. She has earned her living as a full-time jewelry maker for the last 10 years and considers herself a successful artist.

When asked if she questioned her ability to earn a living from her art, she said, “I always made jewelry though. And yes, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make a living at it. That is why I kept my paying job part-time to maintain a paycheck.”

Jordan Acker Anderson, MFA and assistant professor of fine arts at Mount Mary, said there are two myths about artists. “The starving artist is one and the other is the cultural myth of perceiving artists to be individuals with uncontrollable behaviors and impulses that can only be expressed through art,” Anderson said. “Artists are as intellectual as they are expressive. Artists have to consider their career with care, as any business person would, spending time networking, developing sales relationships and researching exhibition opportunities.”

According to Anderson, there are different levels to the fine art industry. “An artist can reach for the gallery circuit of New York, LA and Chicago, commonly referred to as the blue-chip galleries, or they can work on a more commercial level in local galleries and art fairs. It is rare that an artist can live solely on the sales of the artwork, especially at the beginning of their career, so it is important that the young artist have employment to meet their basic needs as they develop the sales of the artwork.”

Opportunities are available for creative individuals. If an artist is having problems getting work sold, the best way to make positive changes is to get informed. No starving required.

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