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Artist: Steve Juras
Steve Juras was drawing self-portraits as a four-year-old and had moved on to hyperrealism by 10, but he didn’t set out to build a career as an artist.
Steve talked to JMA about the unconventional path his art career has taken, and the balancing act that makes his life work.
JMA: Tell me about your background. Did you plan to be an artist?
SJ: I took a pretty idiosyncratic, unconventional path to get to where I am today. I went to Notre Dame for undergrad and joined the Program for Liberal Studies. I was reading and discussing the books of the Western Cannon in chronological order — but it cuts off in 1950 and is very conservative. We weren’t reading a lot of women or writers of color, so I got an English degree as well to get more exposure and pretty much undermine what I was learning in my other major.
JMA: So you started your balancing act early. Were you thinking about teaching?
SJ: I was very interested in Wallace Stevens and I had a thesis advisor who thought I was the next great Stevens scholar, but I was burned out. I graduated and didn’t know what I was going to do. I had been writing my own poetry — really bad stuff — but all of these images were creeping in and I was combining text and image and, as I was doing that, I found this magazine called Émigré. The magazine was a very sophisticated way of looking at design and it inspired me to go ahead and learn design out of thin air.
JMA: How did you learn design? Did you go back to school?
SJ: I bought design programs and was ignorant enough to just go try to get a job. I was living in Missouri and went into an interview so pretentiously. The woman interviewing me said, “You have no experience, what makes you qualified?” And I said some total a**hole thing like, “If I can read and understand Platonic dialogue, I can figure this out.” I got the job and working there made me realize that I wanted to go back to school because the job wasn’t really intellectually engaging.
JMA: What was going to art school like?
SJ: I attended the post-baccalaureate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Basically, you go for a year and learn more and if you like it, you apply to grad school — it’s a bootcamp year. SAIC was the first non-Catholic school I’d been to. I was the weirdo because I was so straight-laced and I didn’t dress crazy. It was a good experience to get out of that institutional religious environment and into one with a bunch of people with no boundaries whatsoever.
I applied to grad school and stayed there. You can make the experience whatever you want it to be. I went into visual communications, but had this pull to go beyond the design aesthetic. I was doing these sort of humorous, anti-hero performance acts like sharpening pencils for eight hours. My final piece was sculpture and video and nothing near traditional design. I had the gut feeling that this was what I should have been doing all along, but as school ended, I started freelancing at a small advertising agency because in my mind that’s what you did to make money in art.
JMA: That makes sense. A lot of art careers are agency-related. How long were you in the advertising world?
SJ: I was doing that for about eight years before I realized that the commercial context I was in wasn’t right for me. I committed to getting my own space and working there three to five times a week and reengaging in creating my own work. I was participating in the arts system: engaging with galleries, applying for shows, seeking out residencies, researching grants and entering my work for prizes.
JMA: How was that transition and how has it worked for you?
SJ: There are so many kinds of artists and so many ways be an artist, but in terms of the work I do and am trying to do, it means being part of the larger contemporary art audience. You have to treat your practice as a business in terms of engaging that audience. I hesitate to use the word “brand” — it’s the scariest word to an artist because it’s fixed and everything should be fluid, but you do need something people can access.
That factors into your art moving beyond being a hobby and the feeling, “If I just do the work, people will find it.” If you said that in a business context, it would be ridiculous; that’s not sustainable. The challenge for any artist is how to make a living with this stuff.
JMA: Have you been able to make a living with your art?
SJ: It’s a balancing act. Most of us have different gigs to feed the artwork — that’s a necessity. To be an artist is accepting that it’s not a stable corporate job. Hopefully you are the type who doesn’t want that anyway if you’re doing this.
This balancing act keeps coming up in my life and development, and that does sort of define an artist’s life, too. I have been lucky, and I have no idea how it will pan out, but my wife connected me with CB2 [a modern furnishings retailer, from parent company Crate & Barrel] a couple of years ago and they sold a limited edition print of mine online and in catalogs. That commercial context is totally different from the gallery and contemporary art scene. So I have to ask, can you split yourself in that way? How do you reconcile those things with your own work? That’s the next step for me.
JMA: What made you nervous about leaving a more stable agency career to focus on your own work?
SJ: That is such an anxious moment because you have staked everything on your ability to pull this off. It’s only through doing the work that you realize you can do it. The anxiety of “now it’s just me out here and I have no business doing this,” but you get over that — not entirely, maybe.
Then there was the financial aspect and trying to place value on my work. For the most part, art is utterly undervalued by society and has no tangible metric. You price your work, but what you make doesn’t reflect its value.
JMA: What has been the most surprising thing about your career?
SJ: It’s almost a trite thing to say, but it’s that it has been so non-linear. I grew up in a traditional family. My mom was a nurse, my dad was a doctor and my brother was an engineer and went to business school. These are very linear careers. The surprising thing was learning that I’m not like that.
What I learned in advertising and getting out of advertising is that I was trying to force something that wasn’t there. If you told me when I was in college and writing all of those papers that my artwork would be in a catalog, I would have told you you’re crazy. But that’s the beauty of it. I prefer that to the scenario that says in seven years you will have a Ph.D. and be teaching. I prefer the surprise.
JMA: What’s the salary range in art careers?
SJ: Unless you are really, really, really lucky you are not going to be making what an accountant or attorney makes. It varies, and balance plays a role here as well. My income changes every quarter, but I have three main sources of income: design work (which I am particular about — I work for a number of nonprofits), commercial work (like CB2) and my art (grants, gallery installations and sales).
It’s really important to have a supportive network of people because it’s not a short game; it’s a very long game. Hopefully the work I have been doing over the last five years will start to get traction — things are starting to happen, but it’s a different time schedule than many people are used to.
There are other ways to generate income as an artist. It’s not a ton of money but if you can string together jobs curating shows, there’s a stipend — but you have to budget your time. There are grants you can apply to. You can hang stuff in a coffee shop. You have to do those things over and over and over again.
JMA: What do you love about being a career artist?
SJ: I love the ability to rigorously explore the things that inspire a sense of wonder. As an artist, you have permission to fail and then succeed — and when it happens, it’s all you. You generated that and made it happen and that’s where a sense of value comes in. I don’t mean to sound new age-y but that’s the life in it. You are engaging in bringing something to life. I can bring an ad campaign or a poster to life, but it’s not the same.
JMA: What advice do you have for people considering a career in art?
SJ: I don’t often take a comprehensive view of what I have done, and you can talk to 18 artists and get 18 stories, but a thing to remember is that there’s no official path to get to be whatever you want to be. There’s a beauty in the idiosyncratic way of doing things. Don’t let anybody tell you what to do, but at the same time I really do think it’s important to have a sense of humility.
You are going to fail so many times, and in order to be any good, you have to do things you don’t know how to do. Humility will allow you to stick in it for the long haul. If you think you’re the sh*t and take things personally, it’s not sustainable.