I first remember meeting Marrus a while back, when I was going to college at NYU, trying to convince myself that I hadn’t made a big mistake switching out my “safe” major for a creative-focused course of study that was almost guaranteed to grant me a life of artistic poverty. I met her through some mutual friends in the Society for Creative Anachronism, but our worlds rarely coincided—although, when they did, I thought it was so fucking cool that here I was in NYC, and meeting real, live artists and stuff. Even back then, she was a role model for the kind of creatively-lived life I knew I wanted for myself.
When I first started this blog, I knew I wanted to invite Marrus for a Conversation, but I wasn’t sure what tack to take. It’s hard to describe, and then to interview, someone who is that multifaceted, wide-ranging, surprising and frustrating. But then I started thinking of how I described her to other people, people I wanted to go to her Web site and check out her art, or perhaps pick up a copy of her book.
“She makes a living as an artist,” I say. “I mean, she supports herself through her art. She knows a lot about how to do it.”
Much (not most, but a large part) of Marrus’ book and blog feature discourse on the life of the artist as a businessperson. One day, she may post a snippet on How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot When Running a Business. Or, flipping through her book, you may read a short anecdote about her struggles to support herself when just starting out, and the decisions she had to make about whether to pursue life as an artist or an IT guru. Whatever insights she shares, I give mad respect, knowing how hard-won they are.
So I asked her: When you think of yourself, do you think “artist,” “entrepreneur,” “businesswoman” or other term? Or are labels for jars, not for Marrus?
Her answer: “I’m always an artist first. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I was those other things until I read your question. I wanted to put my work into the world, and I wanted it to feed me. The other stuff kinda had to happen since no one was jumping out of the woodwork to do it for me.”
This answer struck a chord, as I grew up around artists and musicians, and hopefully will always be in a community of creative people. But something I have noticed—the most successful people are the ones who have mastered not only their craft, but the art of being their own business associate. Some people are terrible at this, while others never seem to figure out the fact that they are, indeed, running a business. Marrus noted that she spends about 60 percent of her time dealing with the business side of her life, although “…the art and the business and the life all seamlessly run together.”
I see this also in the writing community. For every “overnight” success, which usually never are except in the PR material, there are the “slow-burn” successes who scramble and fight for every sale, while still putting in the long hours required to create something beautiful.
“Thinking someone will come along and discover you is the artist’s version of winning the lottery,” Marrus explained further. “Making a living as an artist means getting out of the house, getting good at talking to people, and leaving your comfort zone in the dust.”
Get out of the house? Talk to people? You mean, I can’t just rely on social media to get the word out?
“I read somewhere that once your fan page has 1000 ‘likes,’ you’ve started to make money with what you’re promoting,” said Marrus. “However, Facebook has begun making it harder & harder for page owners to get their content out to those who signed up to receive it.
“My fan page stands around 2300 people. If I put out a text post, I know about 800 people will see it. If the post has a link or a photo attached, that number drops by half. Folks who ‘like’ or share a post cause that number to go up, which is why it’s not a bad idea to ask for that courtesy.”
She added a note of caution, though, for people who advertise their work versus trying to build a community of fans.
“Most fan pages fail in how they talk to their patrons. If all you’re writing is, ‘Buy my stuff!’ over & over, people are gonna jump ship. They’re there because they’re interested in your work, sure, but also in YOU. Respect that, and treat them as you would want to be treated.”
So what, exactly, does the life of a working artist look like?
Marrus: “An average day is wake up, chase a Tramadol with coffee (I’m missing a disc in my back – ow), catch up on emails & marketing stuff while the drugs turn me into a functioning human. Then, I work out at the gym, do errands, eat, fulfill orders. After that, I might work on a commission, research the next painting, restock prints, poke the shops that carry my work to cut me a check, write an essay, do some gardening & house-cleaning, and prep something for dinner. Maybe my assistant comes over to pick up a new painting – she sells my work at a market here in New Orleans. If she’s there, I’m usually home painting (I like to work late – less distractions), and if I’m working the market, then I bike down to the French Quarter, set up my prints and paintings in a beautiful outdoor space replete with glowing furniture and Christmas lights, and share (and sell) my work to folks from all over the world.”
Currently, Marrus’ work is available at a variety of locations, some in New Orleans, some on her Web site, and some in other areas. If you happen to be down NOLA way, I highly recommend you stop by The Frenchmen Art Market, and pick up a copy directly from the artist.
Knowing that Marrus travels all over the country selling her art, part of that “you have to get out of the house” technique, I wanted to know more about what it was like to be on the seller’s end at all the Cons and Faires and places I go to have fun, but an artist/writer/musician must go to make a living. She shared these thoughts:
“It makes me a little—okay, a lot—crazy to hear the assumptions people have about working artists. Getting work out to the people who will love it is a thousand times more difficult than creating it.
“You just see an artist sitting at an outdoor festival with a bunch of paintings and prints. But consider all the questions that needed answering first:
“How many hours did those works take to create? How did the artist find the right venue to sell her work? What happens when it rains (cuz it will)? How much money was invested to make those prints? How did she decide which pieces would sell? How did she get to the event? Are there tax licenses involved? How many days did it take to drive to that location? It goes on, and we haven’t even touched on craft, or technique, or schooling, or medium, or subject matter.
“This life is not for the weak. A working artist rarely, if ever, knows where the next paycheck is coming from. Health insurance is out of pocket. People want to tell you how their 9-year-old daughter does work JUST LIKE YOURS. Or, they aren’t interested at all in what you’ve created, but whip out their phones to show you THEIR work, and talk your ear off, ignoring the fact that you’ve paid to be there, and you’re trying to put food on the table.”
So, add “tact” to the list of skills one must develop in order to be a successful, working artist. Time and space on this blog was running short, but from previous conversations, I knew that there were a few questions Marrus hears over and over again. I wanted to give her a forum where she could express something that wasn’t a reply to one of those familiar questions. I invited her to discuss her favorite piece of her work. Her reply:
“My favorite piece of art is always the next one I’m about to create. If each one wasn’t an obsession, it would have never been created in the first place. (I.S. Note—My emphasis.)
“I tend to fall in love with my twistiest, most complex pieces, but they chime with a more limited group of folks. Sometimes, I’m pretty sure that the thing on which I’m currently working isn’t going to find an audience, but I decided a long time ago that I would go where the muse sent me, and hope for the best. It’s been working out so far. For example, I LOVED my “Pierced Monarch” painting, but it’s very layered & convoluted, and didn’t sing to people as much as I had hoped. (I.S. Note—This is one of my favorite pieces by Marrus. Having spawned a flash fiction short story in my head, a framed print is now hanging on my wall.) However, the Celtic musician, Heather Dale, did use it as an album cover, and I really like her work, so there’s that.”
And, last question—but not least—What is one question about your work that people never ask you, but that you wish they would? And, of course, what is the answer?
Marrus: “In the almost 20-years I’ve been selling my work directly to the public, I have been asked just about every question imaginable. The only one I haven’t gotten is, ‘Hey, I love your work. Can I pay you six figures just to keep creating the stuff you do, when you get around to doing it?’
“Cuz that’d be awesome.”
From Marrus: “I wrote a book detailing how to make a living doing what you love, so maybe other people wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s called “Lightsurfing: Living Life in the Front of My Mouth,” and it’s a full-color, anecdotal, illustrated, autobiographical journey of what it takes to carve your own path in the world, make a living at it, and all the wild, weird, and whack things that happen as a result. You can buy it on Amazon, [including Kindle] or if you track me down at one of my events.”