If you’re like me, when you consider the word ‘career’ you probably conjure various vocations: teacher, nurse, accountant, customer service rep, sales person. These examples are ones that easily come to mind because among other things, they’ve proven to be perennially in demand, their opportunities are virtually ubiquitous and the path to get there is well lit.
But what about a career whose twists and turns aren’t illuminated? A career filled with uncertainty, even doubt about whether the choice to pursue this thing is going to lead anywhere, let alone pay the bills. Yet, even as the echoes of financial crises and great recessions reverberate in our minds, there are those who pursue this path.
We’re lucky they do because they’re the ones who enrich our lives with their creation. I’m talking about those among us who pursue their creative passions professionally, who focus their time and energy on the beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking and contentious. They dangle themselves over the precipice so the rest of us might feel something from their creation.
And it’s all so dangerously subjective with no guarantees – of mention, of resonance, of a decent livelihood, of longevity. This is why I was immediately curious about the experience of a long lost friend when I discovered he had set himself down this path and was meeting this struggle with success and notoriety.
What follows is my discussion with Eric Lee (E.LEE) and is an exploration into what it means to have a career as an artist, to discover your passion and pursue it relentlessly, to trust in yourself and your convictions completely, to do that thing for no other reason than you know you have to or a part of you will die.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an artist, I do street art and I paint work for galleries. I would say painter, but whenever I do people assume I paint houses. I think that ‘what I do’ will evolve in the future, I don’t think it will be limited to prints and paintings and street art – it’ll be more experiential things that’ll be harder to put a box around.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist and did you follow some plan or series of steps to get there?
No, and that’s mainly because I didn’t really know it was an option until I was about 20. Growing up I didn’t know anyone who made art. Like many people, I thought I’d go to college and study math or science – get a degree in something that would get me a job, and go make money somewhere. I had no idea. Although when I was young, I did love to draw. I was really patient and I’d just sit there and keep working on something until it looked exactly how I wanted. I had a 6th-grade art teacher who gave me a ton of confidence to keep drawing. I drew a lot in Junior High – I used to draw the Shaq logo and the Nike Jumpman in study hall – and some friends would buy them for like 25 or 50 cents and put them up in their lockers. It’s funny to think I sold drawings back then. In High School, though I pretty much completely stopped drawing. I didn’t do any art. I just played soccer and focused on academics – math and science. Yeah, I just figured I’d go to college and pick a job that would make me money – and art fell by the wayside. I didn’t think about it much.
Sometimes completely unplanned and circumstantial things have a big impact on our choice of career – did you have any of those things happen to you? What were they and how did they influence you or your path?
Yeah, this has happened to me on several occasions.
I randomly took a psychology and philosophy class and I think those sparked something in me. It shifted my focus from the idea that college should be job training to me trying to understand myself and the world better. The next year I enrolled in a drawing class, and I think that was in large part due to taking those classes. It just felt like something I should explore more.
Then, the way the professor I had for that drawing class encouraged me completely changed my life. That was a big thing I didn’t have any control over and I was very lucky for that.
Going from taking one art class in college to becoming a professional artist is a pretty big leap – were there other smaller things that also pushed you towards a career in art?
Absolutely, after a few months in that first art class, the professor took my drawings and brought me into his office and asked me why I wasn’t an art major. He asked me what was going on in my life and how I was thinking about my future. I told him my plans and he told me that life’s too short not to do the things you love – and it was obvious to him from my drawings that I should go down this path. He was trying to educate me on all this but I had a lot of doubts. I was wondering ‘what do you do with an art degree… how do you make a living?’ – I really had no idea. I’d never met any artists and barely ever went to museums. That world was just not a reality to me.
So, my professor told me to think about it and asked me to join a trip to the St. Louis art museum with the art club. I went, and turned a corner in the museum and was struck by this giant Frank Stella painting. I stood in front of for probably 20 minutes and tears just started streaming down my face – in the middle of the museum! I was like ‘what the hell is going on with me – I never cry’ – that was a very rare thing for me in my life and this painting was this abstract, geometric piece. There was no emotion in it at all. It is a mystery why it affected me so emotionally and at that moment I thought: ‘this is what I want to do – I want to make people feel something’. From that point on, I knew I needed to learn how to paint, I needed to get better at this so I can understand more, so I can understand that moment more. But it’s like that painting busted a wall open inside me – I’m just way more empathetic and in touch. It really felt like this epiphany had happened.
I decided on the way home from that trip that I needed to change my major to art. It was like ‘I have to do this’ because nothing up to that point had made me feel that way.
Things interested me but nothing was driving me.
Then it became about convincing my dad – who is an accountant by trade – that I should change my major to art. He questioned the practicality of it and he actually wrote me a letter. It was him saying: ‘I love you, I want you to be happy, I don’t understand this and I don’t know if this is worth the money we’re spending for college but if it’s something that you feel strongly about – then I trust you.’ I changed my major to art and I got accepted into the program but it was only because of the support of my parents and that art professor.
How did you make a living coming out of school with an art degree – something that many people might think isn’t practical – that if you have an art degree, you’re destined to be a ‘starving artist’?
You know, they don’t teach you how to make a career out of art in art school. It’s more about theories and techniques. When I got out of college I turned to something else I enjoyed doing to earn a living – coaching soccer. Coaching was fantastic because it taught me how to be a leader. Like a lot of artists, I’m more of an introverted person. Coaching got me out of my shell and taught me how to engage and motivate people. I had to develop a philosophy and communicate it well to big groups of people. This has been an absolutely invaluable life skill.
My life is less certain since I’ve gone full time with art. I don’t know what is going to happen over the next couple of years, and I don’t have a set career path like a lot of people may have in their jobs. However, I think I’m a little bit lucky in that this works for the way I approach life. I’m okay with uncertainty. I like doing my own thing, and I know I’ll figure things out no matter what’s thrown at me. Worst case scenario I sell my TV, my car – I’ll do whatever I need to do to continue to make work. If that means I’m living in a shack without running water, I’ll figure that out too. I know I just need to keep moving in this direction because this is what makes me feel alive.
When I’m creating something new I get this feeling – and when you don’t have it, when you’re not creating – you feel dead.
Did becoming a professional soccer coach as your job mean you stopped making art or pursuing it as a career?
No, I only coached in the evenings and on the weekends. I found lots of time to paint and draw. I didn’t know where it was going. It was just something I enjoyed doing.
I also partnered with a friend to create logos for his clients, which kept me doing some creative stuff while I was coaching. He would sell the creation of a new logo to a business and I would have to figure out how to design it based on what he sent me. And I didn’t know photoshop or illustrator at the time, but I would just screw around with them on the computer until I could get something to work.
When did you know you could pursue art as your full-time career?
I got married at 27 and my wife was a creative director at an agency. She had a great aesthetic sense and she was the one that really pushed me to get my work in front of people. I didn’t know any galleries or shows to be a part of, we just hung my work in the house and invited people we knew over. I had no idea how to price work so it was just silent bidding. I sold a number of pieces and at that point, the seed was planted that I could possibly make money selling art. But it took me 8 years after graduating to finally have that show on my own – to put my stuff out there and to realize it could even be a side gig.
Fast forward a couple of years and there happened to be a gallery in our neighborhood in Chicago called Vertical Gallery. I randomly walked by it and felt compelled to go in – and that’s what really got me excited about art again. I saw paintings on rusted cans and on McDonald fry packages. There were paintings created with stencils and spray paint. They were all fantastic and they expanded my ideas of what art could be. I went through a very experimental creative period and came out the other side with a few pieces in a group show in that very gallery. Both the pieces I made sold, and the gallery asked me to do another group show with more of my work in it. That did well and so we did another. During that time I also had a street art piece that sort of went viral on Reddit and some blogs. I had no idea what Reddit was back then. I woke up one morning and had 200 new followers on Instagram from one Reddit post. That’s pretty much how it started, it was all these little tiny things that propelled me just a little bit further and gave me more confidence.
It seems pretty simple – you found a gallery and showed your work and then things fell into place. Was it that easy?
No! Not really. All of that happened over a three year period – it took a lot of patience and persistence. It also took hard work – I would help out at Vertical Gallery with anything they needed. It didn’t matter what it was – I would make myself useful. I really just enjoyed being around it and wanted to learn. The owner, Patrick Hull, loved talking about art and I learned a lot just from having good conversations with him and other artists that came to the gallery.
One artist named Sick Boy flew in from England and needed an assistant to help him prior to his show. It was only supposed to be for a couple days but he liked working with me and asked me to help him for most of his trip. That created a relationship and he invited me to come over to Europe and work a bit in a couple of his spaces in Barcelona and Bristol. I helped him a bit, and I got paid a bit – enough to travel and do some street art in Europe. It was a great experience.
I was also still coaching soccer at this time, in addition to making art but was beginning to see a ceiling with that as a career. I didn’t feel like I was progressing and I kept having more ideas for my artwork. All my attention and energy started funneling toward what I wanted to make. Coaching soccer was what paid the bills so I had to figure out a way to make art more financially viable. Otherwise, I was going to drive myself crazy not being able to bring all these ideas I was having to life.
I also got divorced around this time. It was quite a transition. Getting divorced, going to Europe for three months, and when I came back I was asked to do a solo show with the former manager of Hebru Brantley, a very well-known Chicago artist with the kind of career trajectory I’d love to have. So that was something I had to figure out how to do – even though I’d just gotten back and didn’t have a place to stay, or to paint. There was a lot of uncertainty, but it all got figured out with a bit of help from the gallery and my friends.
For the past year, I’ve been full-time as an artist, only making money by selling paintings and prints – living off of what I create. Which is really fantastic, but it’s also really scary and quite difficult at times.
I could make thousands of dollars in a month or I could make nothing.
That’s the reality of it. It’s impossible to know whether work will sell or not – so you have to diversify. I do other things in addition to my own work to generate income. I’ve done a number of commissions, made signs for businesses, partner with brands on street pieces. Doing projects that continue to hone my skills, create relationships and make money – they all help me continue to make the work I love making.
Did you have to make any sacrifices or tradeoffs in your life so you could pursue art as your career?
I don’t have kids and I rent. If I owned a home and I had kids – that becomes a very different situation. Right now I don’t have many obligations and no one is relying on me. There have been some very big sacrifices. At one point I was married with a house and we had always talked about having kids. It was very difficult for us figuring out whether to take the next step and have kids or get divorced. I was basically starting over with my career – moving from coaching to art. I felt it was a horrible time for me to start a family. We really cared about each other, and still do. But neither of us were getting any younger and she wanted children. We needed to divorce so we could both pursue what we wanted in life. Looking back on it now, I know it was the best decision for us both.
I changed my whole life so I could pursue art as my career in a meaningful way.
So where do you go from here? What’s next?
That’s what I have to figure out. I did a show in August where I collaborated with a contemporary dance company, which is something I’ve never done. I’m trying to push myself in ways that will make me more creative and will give people an experience they’ve never had. A lot of artists just put pieces in group shows every few months. Getting your work in front of a lot of audiences is important, but I don’t want to go that route. I want to create my own world. I have my own studio space now that’s big enough to put on my own events. I can make my own shows when I want and never have to worry about fitting into a gallery’s schedule or show theme. There are a lot of cool things I’m building toward but its definitely difficult to do it this way. I’m taking on all aspects – I have to manage my events, market them, and make all the art. But it’s invaluable – I’m learning the business and it’s what I really need to figure out to have control over my life and take my career to the next level.
Do you enjoy the business side of art – the stuff that you have to do behind the scenes that’s not creating the art?
No, just because at this point I’m not very good at it… yet. I realize I have a ton to learn so I’m always trying to figure out what mistakes I made last time so I can do it better the next time. I read and do research, but you really just have to go out and try things and see what works. For example, I could make an unbelievable print. If I just throw it up on my website and post a picture of it on Instagram – a lot of people may like it, but it won’t sell. I have to create a story, lead into it – give it a week or two of previews, build interest and excitement and really make it an event. I didn’t know anything about any of this until I did it a few times and researched ways to improve what I was doing. It’s trial and error and I’m slowly getting better at it.
As you’ve gained prominence and experienced success, how has the business side of being an artist changed for you – what have you learned?
This is probably cliché, but relationships are everything. It’s important to get out and talk to people – create new connections, and to build upon and strengthen the ones you already have. But I guess that’s probably pretty good advice for succeeding in anything. That’s why it’s cliché, right? Other than that, I’ve realized it’s important for me personally to make more small original paintings at lower price points. I love doing big impactful pieces – it’s hard for me to go small. But the bigger the piece, the more difficult it is to sell. Fewer people are able to afford it and fewer people have the wall space. And the majority of people that will buy a big piece from you, have already bought a small piece from you. It’s just smart business to get more people living with your work in their homes.
I also need to get work into more cities – this could be showing in more galleries or museums, and to get out and do more street art.
Art is subjective and I’m sure people make judgments about the quality of your work or style (and indirectly about your ability) – how does that affect you and do you do anything to stay positive?
You’re always going to want people to like you and to like what you make – but you’re just never going to please everybody. My art is definitely a certain niche and people can think it’s visually beautiful or that the idea was great – but it still won’t be for most people. When people are willing to spend their hard earned money on a piece of art, in my estimation it’s usually because it speaks to their own life experience in some profound way.
It doesn’t hurt me when people don’t buy my stuff. It just means that their life and my life didn’t coincide in a way that this piece spoke to them on a deep enough level.
Is there always a message that you want to communicate or do you get inspired by an image that comes to you or is it something different altogether?
Sometimes it can be imagery that catches me but usually, it’s a concept or idea and me figuring out the best way to convey it. Basically, it all comes down to – ‘does it feel right?’. If it feels right, I move toward it. If it doesn’t feel right I have no hesitation completely painting over it. It’s a process though – and the only way you learn is by creating work. For instance, with the suffering hero series, I did a number of different types of pieces. The paintings that were more realistically sized, with heavy focus on the lighting and shadows – those were the ones I was most happy with. After making those, the others just felt flat and off scale. That information heavily influenced my next pieces.
Never knowing whether someone will like your work enough to buy it has to be stressful. How do you deal with that uncertainty?
That’s the life of an artist – you have to jump off of the building and just kind of figure out how to grow wings as you fall. If it’s going to be worthwhile, it’s got to be something new, interesting, and truly reflective of you. So it has to be something you haven’t done before – maybe no one has done before and you never know how people are going to react to it. You simply have to do and learn from it.
It’s definitely not for everyone. A lot of people want to see a roadmap to move forward. To deal with a tremendous amount of uncertainty and still take meaningful steps forward – it probably takes a certain personality type. Uncertainty can create a lot of anxiety. It creates anxiety for me too but I’ve always been ok being a bit uncomfortable as long as I could do what I wanted with my day. And actually looking back on my life, the times I was the most uncomfortable were the times I felt like I was actually getting somewhere.
You’re learning about yourself, you’re moving beyond what’s comfortable and you realize that before – when you were comfortable – life was not in bright colors, it was in very dull colors.
How do you think your life would have been different had you not chosen to pursue art as a career?
I feel my life is richer because of art. It broke me open emotionally and made me more connected to other people and myself. I think its pretty universally true that the more you learn about something the more you appreciate it. But art is impossible to separate from history and philosophy. When you dive deep you’re learning about what it means to be alive as a human. That seems fairly special. No?
A lot has been said about the importance of a supportive group of people – a network, community, peers, tribe etc. – to finding success. Do you or did you have such a group of people in your life?
When I was in school I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of painters that really pushed each other – on our ideas and our process. Lyle Salmi was the professor that changed my life I spoke about earlier – he created a fantastic environment to learn in. We all felt comfortable enough to experiment, but in our group critiques we always had to justify all the decisions we were making about our work. Our peer group was pretty serious. The only way you earned respect was if you really pushed yourself and genuinely were trying to improve and grow. We fed off of each other’s energy. I think that was a special group – I was very lucky to be a part of it.
Place is also important and has played a critical role in my development. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I really started to get some traction. Living close to a quality gallery, I could pop in and ask questions, talk with incoming artists from around the world.
You need those things – it energizes you to find other people that think like you. And it’s extremely important to meet people already doing the things you want to do in the future. What’s the saying, you’re the sum total of the 5 people you spend the most time with?
If you spend your time with other people who are actively trying to do something special with their lives – trying to be as impactful as they can in the world – that’s going to rub off on you. If you don’t have that around you at all, it becomes a lot easier to just sit on the couch and watch Netflix.
Do you ever doubt your own ability and whether you’re going to be able to make a career as an artist work?
Yeah, definitely. I do doubt – but that’s not productive. Whenever there’s a sticking point I just have to ask, ‘what’s the real problem here and how do I solve it?’. I love to create and put all these ideas that I have out into the world. The problem is that you can’t just do that as an artist and be successful. You have to market, tell a story, be consistent, build a following. Only when you do all that are you going to sell your work. When I get down on myself and question whether the work is good enough or why it’s not connecting with people, I realize it really is connecting with people. It just may not be selling at that time because I didn’t present it to my audience in the best way. Maybe the audience I have isn’t as interested in my newest work and I have to grow my audience. But I don’t question the quality of my work. I believe in it whole-heartedly. And when you make a good piece – it will sell. It’s just a matter of when.
I’ve learned that any problems I encounter are simply opportunities to learn about the areas I’m screwing up in.
If I take it that way – I’m always going to get better. When something doesn’t work out, it’s not the world shitting on me – it’s that my expectations of what the world should do and reality are not in line. If I learn from it, I have more of a chance of things working out the next time. Expectations can really mess you up. I just have to focus on what I can control and let the rest go.
What advice would you give someone who is contemplating a career where there’s no predetermined progression (like an artist) and success is solely dependent on what you create?
There are pros and cons to doing work like this – it’s very rewarding to be able to focus on creating, however, all my money depends on my figuring out how to be successful with it. That can bring about a lot of pressure. My advice would be to have a steady job that makes you money. Make art on the side, build up savings and get your art career moving in a very good direction before you jump in full-time. Know how much money you’re making from it and how you’ll grow it if you had more time to put toward it. It’ll save a lot of time and misery if you have all that in place before you leave a steady job to pursue something creative.
Another thing to consider would be how to diversify so you can make money doing several different things in your field. Logos, signs, murals, commissions – there are a number of things I can do to make money that’s still me being creative and using my skill set. If I have those areas working for me and paintings don’t sell at a show, I’m still going to be able to eat.
I hate the word ‘networking’ but going to galleries and talking to people is one of the most important things someone entering the art world can do in my opinion. But don’t just go to any galleries – go to ones in which your work would fit. If it doesn’t fit, you’re just wasting your and the gallerist’s time. Do some research and know the work they show. Get to know the gallerist – maybe even collect work from them.
Contribute to the community you want to be a part of.
But I would say that the majority of what an artist does isn’t making art. Making work is like 40% of your time. The other 60% is marketing the work you make and getting out and talking to people. Talking to other artists has been instrumental for me. I got into a show in Paris for example just by talking to an artist that put me in touch with one of his gallerists. I did murals in London, Bristol, Amsterdam, and Japan by talking to other artists. The more people you know and the more connections you can make the more opportunities are going to come your way.
What are some of the things that keep you up at night or worry you about making a living as a professional artist?
I do worry about money, but it’s not the principal concern. My predominant worry is what direction I want to go next – what’s the next right step? I have to think about what has been successful in the past and what I want the future to look like. When I plan things out way in advance – which is a necessity most of the time – I end up constraining myself. So with any commitment, I’m trying to make sure it’s really something I want to do – going the direction I want to be moving. Otherwise, I just end up throwing a lot of time away doing things I’m not that excited about.
What do you do for inspiration?
Good art inspires me. I flip through Instagram to see what some of my favorite artists are making. I like watching “Brilliant Ideas by Bloomberg” on YouTube – each episode walks you through the career of a prominent contemporary artist. I also like going to museums, galleries, doing studio visits with artist friends to see what they’re working on.
Who is your current favorite artist?
I don’t think I can say just one. Aakash Nihalani makes very simple geometric work with bold colors and outlines. He does urban interventions and great work in galleries. I just really love the simplicity and impact of his work.
Joshua Vides has made his own world. I love his work for many of the same reasons, but I think he’s absolutely brilliant at marketing his work.
And for street art, Invader is probably my favorite. He’s done things very differently than everyone else – he’s been a pioneer. He’s made every city a playground.
What music do you have on regular rotation?
When I’m working on an idea or I’m doing stuff on the computer and need to concentrate, I like listening to something more orchestral like Hans Zimmer or Yann Tiersen.
When I’m painting I really like Tame Impala or LCD Soundsystem. Sometimes I get into moods and just want older soul stuff like Otis Redding or Al Green.
When I’m doing something kind of brainless like cutting stencils I listen to podcasts or youtube videos. I like Vantage Point Radio and Tim Ferris. If Joe Rogan has someone really intelligent on, it’s usually good. And I love hearing Jordan Peterson lectures for some reason.
Check out E.LEE’s work here.
Neill Beurskens is Founder of This Fearless Life and creates profound change for incredible people looking to get more out of their life and work. To explore the possibilities of a life lived fearlessly visit www.thisfearlesslifecoaching.com