If You Go
What: Café Avatar exhibition by Nadine Nakanishi and Nick Butcher, part of the Diane Marek Visiting Artist Series
Where: Cress Gallery in the UTC Fine Arts Center, 752 Vine St.
When: Through Nov. 3
Gallery hours: 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; closed holidays.
Admission: Free and open to the public
Nick Butcher was deejaying, pumping out the jams. But strangely—or probably not so strangely—people weren’t paying attention.
He wasn’t all that surprised. Who would expect customers in a Whole Foods Market just outside Chicago to get down with their bad selves? He figures customers paid attention to the music for “at most, three seconds,” had a moment of “What the…?”, then went back shopping without a backward glance.
Still, Butcher had no problem with the gig.
A graphic artist by trade and musician by love, Butcher took the grocery job—“check your ego at the door,” he says—to make some cash. “I was like, ‘Great. I got $200,’” he recalls.
Taking any job that pays is what you sometimes must to do when you’re making a living—or trying to—as an artist.
Butcher and his wife, Nadine Nakanishi, offered such insights and advice this week during sessions in UTC’s Cress Gallery. In front of a group of about 50 students on Wednesday afternoon, they discussed “Professionalism.” Over about an hour, they basically laid open their lives as graphic designers in Chicago. As visiting artists in the Diane Marek series, they were here not only for their exhibition, titled Café Avatar, but to expose art majors to the realities of being an artist.
“Let’s get dirty,” Nakanishi says at the start of the discussion.
The couple have been pursuing careers as fulltime artists for more than a decade, starting off making posters for bands, clubs and local concerts (music is the reason they moved to Chicago in the first place, they say). From there, they opened their own print shop—named Sonnenzimmer, German for “sunroom”—and, while sticking posters, they expanded into catalogs, books, exhibitions, artwork and prints, textiles and, yes, live performances mixing music and art.
“There are the people that have a business plan and are very thoughtful and thorough and can make that happen,” Nakanishi says. “For us, it’s been a really good measure to be totally naïve and stupid and just figure it out as you’re drowning or swimming.”
“We swam a lot. We still swim quite a bit,” Butcher adds.
Even after years in the business, there are times when money is tight, they say, something you must accept if you’re going to be an artist out in the real world. That means not only taking any art job that comes your way when you’re just starting out, but keeping part-time jobs such as house painting or bartending or teaching—or gigging at Whole Foods—to pay the bills until you can concentrate only on the art.
To make ends meet, they lived in a 950-square-foot studio basement apartment with $950 monthly rent for 12 years, Nakanishi says, only moving out about 18 months ago. So face it, she tells the students, at the first of every month you’ll have to pay rent and utilities and buy food—all the things that life demands. And if you have a studio, its rent will have to be squeezed in, too. In the end, you’ll have to fit your art into those realities, she says.
“That’s kind of where you’re going to have to integrate your art practice in,” she explains. “And that’s not just being fiscally responsible, that’s being an artist if you say failure is not an option.”
One student asks whether the couple ever did work for free just to get the exposure, a common situation in the graphic-art world, but one that “is a point of contention with a lot of professionals,” Butcher says.
“We have worked for free many times,” he says, mostly by printing posters for local bands to promote their shows. But for the couple, it worked out because they forged relationships with the bands, the promoters and the venues and those connections brought back paying work.
“It’s speculative more than free,” Nakanishi adds.
But even when paying work became more reliable, more stable, they didn’t quit taking small jobs, seeing them as a continuous marketing campaign.
“You just make a lot of stuff and that becomes its own sort of business card,” Butcher says. “We churned out a lot of work, didn’t say ‘No’ to anything.”
After the hour-long discussion, Butcher says he and his wife often talk to university students about the realities of being a fulltime artist. Diving into that life is “scary for everybody,” he acknowledges.
“It feels very opaque from the outside and it remains opaque once you get on the other side,” he says. “I think what we try to instill is: You just have to do it. There’s no secret knowledge. We say all the time: There’s no model that you can to follow. You’ve got to establish it for yourself.”
But if art is your passion and the career you feel you must pursue, keep plugging along and don’t give up hope, Nakanishi says
“The beauty of a graphic art studio or a print studio or any of the other workshops is you can piece together an income and that’s really important as an artist … between teaching, part-time jobs, bartending, typesetting, illustrations. It’s all fair game if you can keep finding that path forward.”