The Working Artist

By Grace Z. Li
By Grace Z. Li

It was like stepping off the edge of the world, to be an artist,” Pauline B. Lim ’88 said. We were in her home at the Brickbottom Artists Association in Somerville, Massachusetts. The first thing you might have noticed about her place was that there was no free space on her walls. They were decked out in the mixed-media paintings she sells, from the floor to the ceiling.

“Right after graduation I spent several years in a state of terror,” Lim said. “What was going to happen to me? How am I going to make money? Am I going to have to be a prostitute?”

Three decades later and Lim is living in a very different picture. She sustains herself through her paintings and a day job, and lives in an artist’s space with dozens of creators.

But when Lim graduated in 1988 with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies, there seemed to be a myriad of voices telling her that she was on the wrong path: negative stereotypes about artists from popular culture, the ever-heightening standard of being a Harvard student, and disapproving parents.

It was like stepping off the edge of the world—to be an artist.

“My dad was a doctor, and my mom’s father was a doctor, and my mom was an RN [registered nurse],” Lim said. “And they were refugees from Korea after the Korean War. And they were constantly telling me I had to be a doctor in order to survive.”

“Everyone at Harvard was going on to be a consultant or going to law school or medical school or business school,” she added. “And I felt so alone.”

In the past four years, around 5 percent of each Harvard graduating class has gone on to pursue a career in the arts according to The Crimson’s annual senior survey. Some alumni go on to make it big—take Matt P. Damon ’92, Damien S. Chazelle ’07, or Rashida L. Jones ’97. Others, who may not achieve international fame, still find their own places within their respective fields.

The term “artist” is broad. For this piece, I interviewed dancers, writers, a theater set designer, a painter, musicians, comedians, and an actor. And while there is no “one path,” as many have mentioned, there are a few common threads that appear throughout this massive, ever-expanding network of Harvard’s artists.

Choosing Arts?

It’s not always an easy decision to make. And for Soman S. Chainani ’01, it wasn’t much of a decision at all. Chainani is the author of the children's book trilogy “The School for Good and Evil” and currently has a film deal with Universal Pictures for the novels. But after graduating with an English degree, Chainani didn’t head straight into an arts career. He went into consulting instead.

“I got fired after 18 months,” Chainani said. “Just for being so useless because I hated the job so much.”

Getting fired was a sign for Chainani to change career paths—he went on to earn his MFA in film at Columbia University, worked in film-writing, and eventually took up the work of a novelist.

“I think sometimes that’s important for artists to realize that you think you have a backup plan which is ‘Oh I’m just gonna go and make a ton of money the usual way.’ And then there are some of us who just can’t,” Chainani said. “We are going to get found out.”

Do I have something that people will want, and that's filling a void?

That’s what happened with the consulting job, Chainani said. “They figured out I didn’t belong there.”

But the idea of “belonging” in the arts industry raises a question of ideology. Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Forrest O’Connor ’10 said you have to ask yourself, “Do I have something that people will want, and that’s filling a void?”

He also said that with the advent of social media, the industry may be becoming overpopulated with people pursuing nontraditional ways to artistic popularity.

“It’s a competitive landscape. In any job or in any industry it will be, but especially with the arts,” O’Connor said. “It’s so flooded and the money really isn’t.”

Where your family stands financially may also complicate the picture. In a 2016 interview, Robin E. Kelsey—the Dean of the Arts and Humanities Division of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—said that students who come from economically insecure families may feel the pressure to pursue studies that have clearer professional paths. Suzannah E. Clark—chair of the Music Department—agreed in another 2016 interview.

“No matter what one’s race or identity, [if one is] either a first-generation college student or economically disadvantaged or on financial aid, there can be pressures to think about how one can use one’s degree later for employment,” Clark said. “Sometimes people worry that the arts and humanities don’t necessarily lead to the most obvious jobs afterwards.”

Robin Mount—the director of Career, Research, and International Opportunities Office of Career Services—said her own experiences advising students reflects Clark’s statement.

“There are students who come in, and despite what they would really love to do, they say ‘It’s my turn now to support my siblings or my family and that’s my obligation, and that needs to be my number one priority,’” she said. “And that’s totally fine.”

Some students can still take the plunge despite financial concerns, which is what actor Meagan A. Michelson ’10 did. Michelson said she was on substantial financial aid when she arrived at Harvard.

“Is it harder to go into arts when you don’t come from money? Yeah—if you don’t have a trust fund, and you’re the one primarily paying your rent,” Michelson said. “But you make it work.”

In 2016—according to The Crimson’s annual senior survey—only 4 percent of the graduating class indicated that they would be going into the arts after graduation. But the number nearly triples when students are asked what career they see themselves in after ten years. While daunting, these years could be the perfect time to establish oneself in an industry.

“Those first couple of years are the toughest,” Mount said. “But they’re also the time when you don’t have any dependence, you don’t have a mortgage, you don’t have kids.”

How Harvard Helps

There are certain advantages that going to Harvard offers: grants, fellowships, alumni connections, and the numerous advisers willing to help. I met with three advisors at OCS: Mount, Gail E. Gilmore, Assistant Director of Arts Management, and Deb Carroll, Associate Director of Employer Relations and Operations. They immediately peppered me with questions about what I’m doing next summer, eager to assist me even outside of our interview. After sitting down, the three handed me flyers and booklets with lists of programmings and resources offered by both the OCS and the Office for the Arts.

“I think a myth is that some careers are easy and some careers are hard,” Mount said. “They’re all hard.”

There are arts-specific fellowships and grants that can encourage Harvard students to pursue the arts—like the Artist Development Fellowships or the Dmitri Hadzi Visual Arts Grant.

By Grace Z. Li

There’s also Harvardwood: a nonprofit organization that offers a job board, a Wintersession entertainment industry boot-camp in Los Angeles, and an alumni network to Harvard students interested in the arts. OCS pays the annual $45 membership to Harvardwood for Faculty of Arts and Sciences students, regardless of financial need. Mount, Gilmore, and Carroll also emphasize that networking can be a valuable resource.

“I think that sometimes students don’t like the networking idea because they think it’s all about getting people to do things for them,” Carroll said. “But really, it’s a mutual relationship…. People want to give, especially when they know how their sector or industry works. They want to help.”

“Ben Franklin talked a lot about paying it forward,” Mount added.

Alumni connections can be useful in unexpected ways. In Lim’s first years after graduation, she wound up moving into an unsafe building, something she described as a “drug house” in retrospect. She didn’t know what to do until she saw a billboard advertising Brickbottom, called their number, and found herself talking to a fellow Harvard alumnus, who immediately helped her get settled into her future home.

Devon M. Guinn ’17 found his connection to Harvard useful for supplementing his income that would otherwise consist of holding beatboxing workshops and private lessons.

“This summer I had a fellowship to make a text-adventure about one of the libraries at Harvard,” he said. “From the fellowship, I’m now an outreach person for the library.”

But not everyone finds these resources helpful. While Karen Chee ’17 participated in Harvardwood 101’s winter break program, she found her own research and Harvard’s liberal arts education to be more useful when thinking about her career in comedy.

“Because it was a liberal arts education, I got to take a journalism class with Jill Abramson,” Chee said. She added that because the course taught her how to be a more economical writer, it helped her strengthen her comedy skills as well. “... I would honestly say my journalism class helped me with writing jokes.”

Michelson said that her English concentration allowed her to think in a more “unusual and creative perspective,” something that fed into her approach with writing cabaret scripts.

Mount described another incident, in which a student was deciding between Harvard and a performing arts school.

“The faculty told her ‘Absolutely not. Go to Harvard,’” Mount said. “... You’ll never have that experience to grow your mind and learn about so many things that you’ll need to call on when you play different roles.”

“So many actors and writers too have said that to me—that they’re really glad they came here for that exact reason,” Gilmore added.

The Double Lives of Harvard's Artists

Not all working artists will have the same challenges or benefits. Musicians may find that they have to travel and tour extensively. Dancers may find that their work requires physical preparedness. But a common theme with jobs in the arts is that finances can be tricky; this is when a second job can come in handy.

“Get an easy-going, stable job, at the institutions that give you benefits,” Lim said. “The more routine the job, the better. It is so relaxing.”

There’s also a certain Harvard privilege that helps out when trying to find second jobs, Michelson said. Once, while Michelson was on tour, her castmate found her editing a college essay as part of her second job.

“You’re so lucky that that’s your part-time work. Actors that didn’t go to Harvard have to wait tables,” the castmate said. “You get to do editing work on your computer. You just have so much more flexibility because people trust you with that kind of work.”

Aside from second jobs, there are other tips and tricks that alumni have shared with me on ways to save. Devi K. Lockwood ’14 is a poet, storyteller, and avid cyclist who travels around the country collecting recordings of people’s experiences with water and climate change. She relies on applying to numerous grants or fellowships to fund her work. In fact, it was a Gardner & Shaw Postgraduate Traveling Fellowship from Harvard that gave Lockwood her start. She used the $22,000 to fund a year of travels to places like Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia.

“Sometimes it’s 99 no’s for every yes,” Lockwood said about grant applications.

Devi K. Lockwood ’14 is a poet, storyteller, and avid cyclist.
Devi K. Lockwood ’14 is a poet, storyteller, and avid cyclist. By Grace Z. Li

Rossi L. Walter ’14, who used to dance while living in San Francisco, remembered the food habits he developed in response to his times as a ‘poor’ dance student in an expensive city. He recommended constantly having a lunch box to avoid spending too much money on food—especially if you’re hungry in between practice. “I’m constantly carrying food around in my bag: nuts, carrots, fruit, little sandwiches that I make.”

He also recommended removing other counterproductive habits like buying expensive coffee or cigarettes. “Really just try to crack down on those habits, at least for a short period of time,” Walter said. “Make your own damn coffee.”

‘Earth-Shattering and World-Changing’

Lim’s growing worries about living as an artist eventually pushed her to see a therapist. In her sessions, Lim said she kept repeating a particular phrase: “I have to be a great artist. I have to be a great artist.”

“Why can’t you just say ‘I want to be an artist?’” her therapist asked.

But this didn’t seem like an option. To Lim, at the time, it seemed like a waste of a Harvard degree if she didn’t achieve some high level of fame and success. “Why bother?” she thought.

“No wonder why I was such a mess.” Lim laughs about the situation now. “There’s such a thing as being a ‘moderate, mediocre artist’ or whatever. It doesn’t matter. I don’t think it’s healthy going around thinking ‘I have to be a genius! I have to be a genius!’”

Elizabeth Mak ’12, a freelance theater designer, found that the irregular schedule of her profession contributed to dropping self-esteem.

“There are periods of intense work, and then there are periods of no work,” Mak said. “So you go from being tired all the time to feeling really insecure and really useless in the span of a week.”

“Its hard, because your friends are all making a lot of money,” Chainani said. “They’re all rising, and you’re still getting your project off the ground.”

“When you go to Harvard, there’s so much expectation that you be earth-shattering and world-changing,” Lim said. But sometimes it’s better to live a quiet, comfortable life, she said. Looking back, Lim realized that she was never going to be happy in a life of international fame or wild success.

There are other ways to be wealthy.

“There are other ways to be wealthy,” Lim said.

An artist’s life isn’t always glamorous, as Lim pointed out. O’Connor found this to be especially true during open mics, when he was trying to gain publicity as a musician.

“Especially during the winter, it’s a lot of slogging through deep snow, trying to warm up… waiting three hours and going on for two songs. Half the crowd is drunk,” O’Connor said. But a love for the art is his reason for staying.

“It’s sort of in my head all the time. I love moving people with [music]. I love the inspiration I receive from my favorite musicians and players. I know that these are some of the most important moments in my life.”

“You have to just really want to do what you’re doing,” says Mount. “That’s what gets you through those days that are terrible.”

‘Be Fearless’

Lim took me on a tour of Brickbottom after our interview. “This building is full of older and mid-career artists who have had productive lives,” she said. We said hello to the artists who passed by, stopped to pet a filmmaker’s dog, and hunted for empty wall space to hang paintings—a rare commodity in an artist’s home.

Pauline B. Lim ’88 enjoys sewing in her free time.
Pauline B. Lim ’88 enjoys sewing in her free time. By Grace Z. Li

For Lim, choosing arts worked out. But sometimes people might find that another career suits them better. Pianist Berenika D. Zakrzewski ’04, whose Wikipedia page describes her as “a child prodigy,” used to tour around the world with her music. She later moved on to managing cultural programs as the Executive Director of Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. Lara M. Hirner ’04 acted similarly, moving from singing to a career as a speech pathologist. Emily R. Pollock ’06 opted for a more academic route, becoming an Associate Professor of Music at MIT. And just because you pursue a different career doesn’t mean you can’t involve yourself in the arts ever again—Hirner still occasionally sings for paid jobs.

But sometimes the only choice is to stay. Michelson remembers the night she realized she needed to be an actress. She was watching “A Little Night Music” on Broadway. Bernadette Peters was singing “Send in the Clowns,” and for some reason, Michelson started crying.

“For the next 48 hours I was nauseated, I was just ill. And I had to look inside of myself and ask what the heck was going on,” she said. “The only thing that would make me 100 percent happy is going for it as an actor.”

“Be fearless,” Michelson said. “Because fortunately, with a degree from Harvard, you have assets. You have skills that are going to make things a little easier for you to find those second and third jobs to help you do what you really love.”

“And it’s going to be tiring—you’re going to have to have multiple jobs and wear multiple hats to make it work,” she added. “But why not? You got to Harvard. You’re used to multitasking.”

—Staff writer Grace Z. Li can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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