Cogitating on the New Year, New Decade, New Work, and Working Class Artists
In 2010, I was 30 years old and heading into my 8th year working as a retail manager at a small frame shop in Huntersville. This was a company that I was forced to report to the Department of Labor because they were refusing to pay managers like me overtime, paying us instead "half time", or half our hourly wage, which amounted to less than minimum wage for some (at Christmas, to boot). The DoL found in our favor and we won our case. This was the same company who, in 2008, in response to a worsening economy, cut the entire staff's pay by $2.00 per hour, taking me down to where I had started when I began working there, and then one of the owners showed up not even a month later in his brand new Mercedes SUV. This was the same company who, when I told the owners that I wanted to go back to UNCCharlotte to finish my degree, refused to allow me to change my schedule, saying that I had to work with their hours and keep my availability open every day that the shop was open, and that if I had a problem with that and wanted to go back to school, my job would be in jeopardy and my hours would go to someone else. I would leave that job the following year to work administrative jobs, something I considered “moving up” at the time, because now I had weekends off---two whole days in a row, like a real person.
My husband and I had just bought our first home a year prior in 2009, a small, affordable house in north Charlotte in an unassuming neighborhood of other working-class people. To no one’s surprise, we soon found out that 485 was being built practically in our backyard, and we would climb down the embankment and take walks there on the many many days when no one was working on it. It was kind of an ironic, blistering hot greenway for us. Later when it was finished, we would be woken up almost nightly by the insanely loud sounds of jackasses racing each other down the interstate.
In June of 2010, I finally had a hysterectomy after years of pain and illness. No longer having a period was life-changing; it had always been horribly painful for me and being freed from that is something I will always be grateful for. I still say that of all the surgeries I've had, that was my favorite. I felt better for a few months and then gradually began to feel sick again, with similar symptoms. I continued to go to work every day despite constant nausea and pain, adapting and persisting since the pain wouldn’t go away, and hiding how miserable I was by burying myself in my work.
I always made art when I worked full-time at these jobs, but like so many other working-class people who keep a consistent practice, no one noticed or cared. I was just as prolific back then as I was now, doing a ton of documentary photo work, churning out dozens of illustrations and sculptural items, evolving my practice, constantly teaching myself new techniques and programs, learning to edit video, learning special effects makeup and costume creation, selling my work online and in craft shows, where I would often pay more to rent a booth than I ended up selling. I scrambled to fit these things into the little time I had while not at work, despite being exhausted from the health problems I dealt with on a daily basis.
When my employer let me go out of the blue for no reason, I recorded him admitting that he was paying me under the table to avoid paying payroll taxes, turned him into the IRS, submitted to a hearing for unemployment where I presented all my evidence and won my case. He is still operating in Charlotte as a very corrupt business and property owner, with terrible reviews, and is considered by many a slumlord. He is typical of Charlotte business owners: he has the money to pay the fines he accrues for his violations.
When, at a different employer, I found out they were violating the FMLA by starting loyal, good workers back at the lowest base pay when they took maternity leave, I turned them into the Department of Labor. When that same employer let go an extremely valuable, faithful employee who asked for a small raise, I changed all his hours to overtime so his final paycheck would more reflect how much he mattered to the job.
I am proud of every action I’ve ever taken to defend workers’ rights, both mine and others. I measure my success not by how much money I have made, or how many awards or recognition I’ve gotten, but by how true I stay to my values, by doing what I need to do despite it being hard or scary, and making the things I see in my head happen in the real world through my own work.
I want to make my work. I’ve always been a worker: now I am freed from the relentless, soul-crushing work I did in the past, pouring myself into jobs that did not compensate me for the massive amount of effort I put in, and I am free to pursue the work that I want to do. This is life-changing.
And I do the work. All I want to do is the work. I’ve been doing the work, living in Charlotte since 1999, despite getting zero support from any of the organizations in the city that supposedly exist to help artists like me (these organizations don’t actually support artists like me, who are from the working-class, no matter what they advertise to you in an attempt to get your donation: they are cliquey enclaves of privileged people giving handouts to other privileged people). I left the city for a more affordable place to live where I could have studio space to work, something that is absolutely necessary for an artist.
There are hardly any working-class artists who are able to continue their practice consistently in a way that allows them to grow while trying to hold down a job that allows them to survive. We exist, but we are ignored by the arts establishment, our work considered not sophisticated enough to show or support, and for many artists, the lack of support is a self-fulfilling curse: the work supposedly isn't good enough because the artist lacks time and resources, so instead of granting us the time and resources, organizations turn around and give the resources to artists who are already making what they consider to be sophisticated work. You have to water something to make it grow.
I am so insanely lucky to be able to do what I’m doing, working as a studio artist, as a working-class person. It is disgusting that I was unable to rent a studio in the Charlotte area because the owners of those properties---many of them “artists” themselves---refused to provide any reasonable accommodations for artists like myself who aren’t from a privileged background, and instead are more concerned with how much profit they can make off property, just like the predatory developers who have turned Charlotte into the most boring, tacky, mediocre city imaginable.
The first time, and only time, I had access to real studio space in Charlotte was from 2014 to 2016 when I finally got the chance to go back and finish my degree, at UNCCharlotte in the arts program. When I had this resource, my work output exploded. The monthly stipend that some artists receive for their residencies, such as at the McColl Center, was more than I used to make in a month, at an actual, miserable full-time job, and yet I was not ever able to convince the people running those organizations that I would be a spectacular person to take advantage of such amenities.
I am going to continue to be vocal about this, despite being called “whiny” by people who have no clue what it’s like to work for a living, at low paying jobs that you hate, being disrespected daily by these same people who have never worked a day in their lives. I am a worker, I have always been a worker: and I will keep doing the work. Now, I do MY work, and that is what I am meant to do. It is absolutely necessary for local organizations to support local artists, by paying us real money for our work, by providing us space to work, by helping promote and show our work. It is especially necessary for local organizations to support working-class artists, but they rarely do, instead giving precious resources to people who fit an elitist vision of what an artist looks like.
Success is about being able to do the work I want to do; it is not about how much money I made this year, how many followers I have, how many likes I get, or how much recognition or accolades I receive. Success is really just being able to wake up every day, go into my studio, and make the work I want to make. This is a dream. I am successful, right now, doing what I never dreamed I’d be able to do: making the work that I want to make, on my own terms. When I think back to where I was 10 years ago, working at a frame shop, I am so grateful to be doing exactly what I do every day: making the damn work. It’s all I wanted to do, is make the work. And I do.
I am very grateful to the people who have given me work: Greensboro Bound Literary Festival, Meg Whalen and the UNCCharlotte Department of Art + Architecture, Marek Ranis, Lee Hicks, all the people who buy originals and prints from Wandering Witness; I am also grateful for the people who give money and don’t even ask for anything in return.
This year I’ll turn 40, and I intend to keep doing exactly what I’m doing: making the work I want to make, on my own terms. This is what artists are supposed to do. This is success. I am going to continue to be very vocal about the classist, elitist arts industry, and to continue to be very vocal about artists being paid for our work, and how artists being paid for our work is a step towards dismantling this elitism. I am going to continue to support workers and workers' rights and make work that supports this cause: I am a worker, I am an artist, and I do the work.