How Being An Artist & Dealing With Financial Devastation Prepared Me For Living With Uncertainty

“I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life — and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” - Georgia O'Keeffe
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Painting by Melanie Biehle

Painting by Melanie Biehle

We asked for honest accounts of life right now, and our friend Melanie delivered. Melanie Biehle is an artist who has also experienced a grave period of financial discomfort. She shares her story and illuminates how life as an artist and creative risk taker helped her prepare for uncertainty in hopes of helping us as we grapple with what comes next.

I was in my 40s before I realized that the way I lived my life was great practice for being an artist. I’d spent much of my adult time on earth rolling the dice right next to uncertainty. Always willing to take a chance. The risks that I took made my friends cringe with their own fears or insist that I was “so brave.” I moved across the country to Seattle sight unseen because it seemed a cool place to live, and tried my hand at screenwriting in Los Angeles before pivoting my career to abstract painting.

These diversions didn’t feel brave to me — they felt necessary. In my gut, I didn’t feel like I was making a true choice. I was compelled to explore the unknown of what’s next. Sure, my anxiety levels rose during each of the interstate moves I made without a job waiting for me on the other side. And I was more than a little freaked out when I left a secure full-time job to pursue the unsteady life of a freelance creative. But I felt like it was worth it. Taking those risks changed my life in huge ways for the better, but it hasn’t been easy.

Three years ago my husband and I had to file for bankruptcy. After a couple of years spent scraping by through layoffs, hourly paid jobs, and self-employment highs and (low) lows, the minimum payments on our Visa/Mastercard “emergency fund” bills were higher than our rent.

We just couldn’t keep up. We were permanent residents in the house of uncertainty, and it was terrifying. My family relied on government assistance for food, health insurance, and reduced bus fares. Luckily, our parents were able to help us out with some of our living expenses while we continued to dig ourselves out of a humiliating hole.

As you might imagine, creating and selling art during this type of life stressor is close to impossible. The energy of the artist comes through in the work. At times I could feel and see the desperate, agitated energy as I overworked painting after painting. But things got better. Slowly. Uncertainty began to reveal some of its treasures.

My husband’s employment research led to the discovery of a (paid!) computer programming “apprenticeship” program. My Instagram account led to more art commissions and sales. We had a steady income for another year before it was time for my husband’s next job search. That next hurdle took longer than we expected — eight months longer. By then my experiences had helped me cobble together an emotional toolbox, so I knew what helped me live in the liminal space.

Creating under strict deadlines and pressure didn’t work. Giving myself a mental vacation and freedom to discover solutions through my own creative practice worked. Attempting to think my way through the business of being an artist didn’t work. Going within and reaching my core being through meditation and painting, and putting myself out there in ways that felt authentic and open worked. Trying to control the outcome didn’t work. Letting go of expectations worked. 

We found ourselves in a similar place to where we were a couple of years prior, but it felt a little easier this time. My husband had unemployment income during the job search. I had art commissions coming in and paintings leaving my “studio” — which then was also our living room, kitchen, dining room, where-everyone-was-all-the-time room. And more importantly, I think, the practice of living in uncertainty made it easier to live in uncertainty. We still experienced plenty of panic, but we also believed that things would get better. Eventually.

Even though my husband is working from home now and my kid isn't in school, quarantine hasn't really affected me too much. We moved in November and I now have an entire room (with a door!) that is devoted to my art practice. 

Artists require solitude, and I like being alone. I crave quiet and space. I know that my normal “quarantine” artist life existence is weird for a lot of others, especially extroverts. I guess quarantine is giving them a taste of the discomfort I feel when I overstimulated from socializing or loud, crowded environments.

I’m extremely grateful to be in a more stable financial position right now and at the same time, I know that can change. And even though it was difficult, the tough years that we went through recently are part of what helps me feel calmer now. I’m optimistic. I’ve seen my own life events move through dark places time and time again. But I also acutely remember what it feels like to have to put some of the groceries back on the shelf and not be able to pay rent without help.

In some ways, artists are uniquely suited to weather our current storm. We often don’t know when the next painting will sell. While we may hate it, we’ve grown accustomed to periods in our business where nothing seems to be happening. Creating the work itself is an exercise in trust and finding our own way. The bravery of putting paint on canvas and letting the emotional energy that lives inside us spill out into the world as color and form.

Choosing the life of a working artist means learning to live with and accept uncertainty. And, in some ways, we may come to love it. We’ve experienced the beauty and unexpected opportunities that uncertainty can bestow upon us, rather than what it takes away.

Be as kind to yourself, your family, your neighbors, and strangers as you can right now. Everyone is moving through this time in their own way. And if you aren’t one already, you can try pretending to be a working artist moving through a rough patch. Take time to pause and go within. Ask yourself big questions about your life. Learn what you truly value and what’s just noise. Get more comfortable living with uncertainty. It’s always there – even when masquerading as security.

Through her artwork, Melanie Biehle explores the inner workings of the mind, mysteries of the universe, and the often opposing energy of the city and the sea.

The artist studied psychology in college and began her creative career first as a writer. After working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter and film marketer, Melanie returned to Seattle, started a family, and fell in love with painting. She studied abstract painting and composition at Gage Academy of Art and further honed her eye through freelance graphic design and photography assignments.

Today she creates large and small scale abstract paintings for private collectors, art consultants, and interior designers. Each piece is painted with the intention to calm or energize a space through the use of shape, color, and form.

Along with creating art for residential and commercial spaces around the world, the artist often partners with companies who want to elevate their events, products, and marketing by commissioning unique original artwork. Melanie’s work has been commissioned, purchased, and licensed for photography backgrounds, digital art installations, apparel, and stationery.

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