by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 19, 2008
THE ART LIFE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A friend recently asked, "Don't you get lonely?"
She was curious because I live and work in a small house so deep in the woods that this week we lost our satellite television service because the trees have grown too tall. After my husband leaves for work in the morning, I'm alone all day. But it suits me, because I write for a living.
It might surprise you to know that according to a recent survey done by the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont has more writers than any other state in the union. (According to my husband, we have more writers than deer. And sometimes, when he's feeling grumpy, he talks about thinning the herd.)
According to the NEA, there are slightly under 2 million artists in America, representing 1.4 percent of the workforce. It's hard to believe, but there are nearly as many people working in art as there are in the active and reserve armed forces.
In case you're curious, California has the most actors per capita, Nevada the most dancers and entertainers, and Tennessee has the most musicians - can you say Nashville and Memphis? Vermont also used to have more visual artists than any other state, but that honor now belongs to New Mexico. We are second.
Vermont's beauty, solitude and accepting nature are what nurtures artists. How many other states can claim that four Nobel Prize for Literature winners lived here - Sinclair Lewis (1930), Pearl Buck (1938), Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1970) and Saul Bellow (1976)?
For more than 50 years, John Kenneth Galbraith did most of his book writing in Newfane. From Rudyard Kipling and Robert Frost, to Howard Frank Mosher and John Irving, to Chris Bojalian, Jamaica Kincaid and Karen Hesse, there are no shortage of great writers who chose Vermont to be their workshed.
And don't forget poets such as Galway Kinnell and Hayden Carruth. And then there are the great native Vermonters, from historians Daniel P. Thompson and Rowland E. Robinson to the "First Lady" of Vermont literature, novelist and essayist Dorothy Canfield Fisher,
We're admittedly light in the area of music, but Rudolf Serkin gave us the Marlboro Music Festival and that more than makes up for Phish. And the less said about the Hollywood portrayals of Vermont ("Funny Farm," "Baby Boom" and "Newhart"), the better.
Painters? Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell spring to mind for most, but Wolf Kahn, Diedre Sherer, Woody Jackson, Sabra Field, Warren Kimble and Stephen Huneck are the current giants in the field who call Vermont home.
I recently spent a lovely afternoon with Kimble, a contemporary folk artist, up at the Shelburne Museum where, at 73, he's having a career retrospective. In the mid-1990s, when he was just over 60 years old, he hit the Zeitgeist. His images appeared on everything from bow ties to dinner plates, and were pulling in - at retail - millions of dollars a year. He only got a percentage of that, of course, but it made him comfortable and gave him the freedom to turn from painting happy roosters and fat fluffy cats to making powerful antiwar pieces.
He offered me two pieces of advice. The first was to have as much entrepreneurial energy as artistic energy.
"The business side of art is important," he said. "It's important to have a commercial life and an art life."
The second: find someone to help you - a spouse, an agent, a gallery, all three.
"You have to have someone who takes care of you, because you can try and do the selling of your art or your book, but it takes think time away from the work," he said.
Economics play a huge role in the art life. Artists earn an aggregate income of approximately $70 billion annually. The median income for artists (from all sources) in 2005 was $34,800. (The median for the total work force that year was $30,100.) These figures are skewed, of course. Some artists - Nicole Kidman, Danielle Steele - make a lot more. Those of us at the bottom are just scraping by, and many of us are working two or three jobs just to pay the rent. (A different survey, released last year, found that the "arts economy" of Windham County brought in $11 million in 2005, but apart from a few lucky arts administrators, no one here knows who got the money.)
The reason I don't feel lonely up here in the woods is simple: I love to write, and writing takes solitude. I have sacrificed the sociability of an office life and a larger income - the median wage would be a huge step up for me - for the pleasure of being able to think and write what I want when I want to think and write it. It may be a hard life, but honestly, often I just get lost in the joy of it. It's about the totality of living an art life, Kimble said.
"You have to want to do this," he said. "You have to be prolific. You have to have fun, but you have to work. I work from nine to five every day. Inspiration comes from looking at books, taking pictures, the total of your experiences, how you're thinking today, what you're hearing on the television, what you're reading in the newspapers, what is going on in your life, you past life, or whatever is happening brings you to this. It doesn't come out of the air."
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.