Refusal of the Call

Welcome to Part 2 in the series of “The Artist’s Journey” where I am applying Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth formula to my individual journey as an artist. For an outline of the Monomyth see The Artist’s Journey.

At the beginning of “The Hobbit”, Bilbo Baggins is invited to go on an adventure and initially refuses, preferring to stay safely in his hole in the ground with his creature comforts and easy familiarity.  He later changes his mind, facing a fear of the unknown and runs down the road “without his pocket handkerchief”.  This initial refusal is one born of fear and doubt. Becoming an artist is plagued with fear and doubt.  Historically the myth of the artist is wildly illustrated with stories of struggle, starvation, madness, substance abuse and even death.  Creating art is a very personal and challenging thing. You may need to go down the rabbit hole, as it were, to do some serious internal work. The thought of this is unpleasant and I can tell you it is not an unfounded fear!  There are also practical fears like how you are going to earn an income, doubts about how your work will be received, “stage” fright and artist’s block. These are all major deterrents for pursuing the life of an artist and if you are facing this, in addition to the prospect of giving up something valuable, like a comfortable career or lifestyle, it can be quite an agonising decision.

I’m going to talk about my decision to pursue fine art because, even though I have been working as a professional artist for nearly 30 years, commercial art is quite different to what I do now.

So back to the Monty Python foot.  As I mentioned in my previous post The Call to Adventure, it came down in 2008 as a result of the Global Financial Crisis.  The video games industry was rapidly expanding in Brisbane, and I was there for 10+ years with it as it grew.  Companies I worked for started out as garage outfits and expanded to 100+ specialist staff from all over the world.  With the almighty crash on the stock market and the Australian dollar reaching parity with the US,  it was all over for several major games companies (US owned public companies) overnight.

The day I left was a pivotal moment in my life.  I had experienced all manner of uncertainty and volatility in the various art industries I’d worked in over the years and I was no stranger to abrupt massive staff cuts, funding cuts, project terminations and even retrenchment, but nothing prepared me for this day.  I knew it was coming but the experience will live with me forever as one of the most appalling moments of my life. We were called one by one into an office and handed a folder.  Depending on which folder you got, you were either selected for a small team of developers attempting a last-ditch pitch for a project and a very uncertain possibility of future work, or you were given the redundancy folder.  We had to wait for “the call” to go up the stairs to a room where your future fate was decided.  I waited all day late into the afternoon to be called in, silently watching the humiliation of my fellow workmates as they came down the stairs to collect their things.  During my 7 years at this company, I had risen to the position of art director and had been instrumental in creating some great successes for the company watching it grow from about 15 to 100 staff.  As a female in a male dominated industry, it wasn’t the easiest thing to have achieved.

I was given the redundancy folder because I was part-time at the time, looking after a baby at home.  I remember walking down the stairs with everyone watching to see what the verdict was and then packing up my things to leave that afternoon.  Driving home I knew without a doubt my career was over. The A team they had selected ended up not succeeding at pitching a project and disbanded soon after, while not long after that the US parent company failed and shut down as well.  About 300 staff altogether lost their jobs.  One by one all the major game studios in Brisbane shut down as well.  A once thriving “Silicon Valley” was now completely gone along with my prospects for future work in that industry.

I had spent a great deal of my time invested in this industry – over 10 years of long hours crunching for deadlines, working all-nighters, building specialist skills in 3D modelling software, digital illustration, concept art, animation, art direction etc, etc and pretty much all of it was useless to any other industry.  I also missed the very good salary.  Although I had been considering leaving the industry prior to this crash because of its impact on family life, it seemed far too comfortable a career to leave of my own accord and I think I would still be there had I not been forced out. This was a pretty clear Refusal.  The Refusal of the Call was a very real thing for me and it actually took the Giant Foot to give me the “motivation” to move on.

Certainly, it was not as subtle as Gandalf arriving, smoking his pipe and singing songs with a bunch of dwarves about going on an adventure.  This was not a gentle nudge or an invitation to something better.  And unless Gandalf was attached to the other end of that foot, he never turned up a all to point me in the right direction.  I was pretty devastated about being unemployed for the first time in my life. I tried a few projects here and there but all of them were dead ends in one way or another.  I was a full-time mum with two young kids as well and my former identity of career woman seemed to shrink every day to be replaced with Stay-at-Home-Mom and General Dogsbody.  I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that and I grieved a LOT for the loss of my former Self.  In fact, it taught me quite painfully how much of myself I had given over to my work role and how much it defined me, a lesson which can only be learned the hard way.

To console myself and keep busy, I baked a lot of cakes and made a lot of costumes and props for school plays and events.  I started painting for something to do because I wasn’t used to having so much spare time without deadlines and not having any creative outlet was starting to drive me slightly mad!

I never considered “fine” art as a serious pursuit.  I looked at what was going on in that field with a kind of dismay.  It seemed to me that art had become a sort of sensationalist sport where artists competed with each other to create the most offensive, shocking, vulgar, self-absorbed content where bodily functions and fringe topics like pornography, violence and mental illness featured most prominently.  Pushing the boundaries of “what is art” was big in the Dada era, but while contemporary art still obsesses over this question decades later, the role of art has deteriorated significantly in my view.

Art, like science, used to be at the forefront of human innovation, expanding higher thought and pursuing noble truths at the edge of human endeavor.  Now it seems to have regressed into an unhealthy preoccupation with the ignoble impulses of Man.  The idea of entering this realm filled me with a sort of revulsion and standing at the edge of the highway trying to go in the opposite direction seemed even less appealing.  So, you can say, this was also part of my Refusal of the Call.  That and the fact that after spending 25 years earning a decent income from commercial art, the thought of starving at the edge of a highway was even more discouraging.

I was also suffering from an identity crisis. When people ask you what you do and you say “I’m an artist”, people usually reply with “Oh that’s nice, I have a niece that’s an artist, she does some great drawings of kittens”.  Oh God!  In my former industry, if you didn’t measure up as an artist – not good enough, fast enough, technical enough or versatile enough – you were fired.  Simple as that. I knew things were very different in the “fine” art industry.  There are no rules and no obvious path for success.

I entered the foreign realm of “fine” art almost under duress and with much trepidation.

Stay tuned for Part 3 “Supernatural Aid”.





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