Making art: & money: interview with Melissa Sillitoe
Questions about making a living as an artist in Portland
Melissa Sillitoe started Show and Tell Gallery in her living room in 2007, a DIY gallery open at Everett Station Lofts on First Thursdays that included live musical and spoken word performances as part of the arts format. Friends showed art and volunteered showing guests from the lobby to her living room. Show and Tell Gallery Productions–which includes collaborators Luke Lefler and Nikia Cummings and volunteers–now hosts a weekly invited reading and open mic at Three Friends Coffee House. A few months ago, she booked and hosted 9 monthly events and had a great time doing it; she’s now cut back to five. She makes a living as a petsitter, administrative assistant temp, and doing other odds and end jobs. She also writes and performs poetry.
MAKING A LIVING
How do you pay your bills? Do you have a regular full-time job, a few part-time jobs, do you temp?
I’ve spent the last two years being self-employed and patching work together, including temping as a secretary.
How does the way you make a living right now either support or complicate making art?
Being a temp is a great lifestyle for me since they usually don’t have much for me to do and I can work for Show and Tell or edit poems at the same time. I think of temp jobs as performances and try to get good enough reviews to be asked back. Nothing is personal. It gets scary when I don’t get enough regular temp work to pay my bills, though. I might get a full-time call center job.
What’s the most important lesson you want to share with an artist about how to make a living?
If you will never be able to make a living at your art, realize that’s your true work, but find a way to make money that won’t steal your creative energy so you can do it and pay bills, too. Earning and work are not the same things, not always, and maybe not ever, if you’re a poet.
Do you hope to make a living doing your art one day? Or is it not important?
I am a producer, not a promoter. I think that in a few years, I would love to run a non-profit Show and Tell Gallery that gets grants and corporate sponsors so I can pay myself, Luke, Nikia, and the artists who perform. But that’s really not important as long as I can make the art AND make a living somehow.
Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” to call yourself a poet because you’re not paid, published, on a music label, etc., or famous?
I call myself an artist. I’m someone who creates and improvises. I’m also a producer, though I like hostess better, and I’m a writer when I write. It doesn’t matter that I’m not being paid—I know I’m a producer because I stand up at a mic every Monday night and need to have something to show people.
What excites you as an artist?
It’s creating that excites me—not judging and sifting. I love producing events—I have a small element of control, and I find that stimulating—choosing themes, finding talent, figuring out how to bring everything together. The magic is in how it unfolds, and like any art, that’s beyond my control. That’s the magic. It’s like writing a poem—you start with an idea and then surprise yourself with it.
Some people are very excited by sifting material and choosing the very best of one particular style, for example. I’m not an editor. I put it out there and let other people decide whether it works.
Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?
No, but I’ve always been more likely to invent games than play other people’s…in every sense of the word, actually! As a kid, I loved it all—writing, make believing, painting, drawing, playing piano, dancing, acting, singing, I did it. Then I realized that I was good at writing and not so good at other things and really chose that. Also, my mother is a writer, so she really helped me get good at it. In junior high, I passed around a notebook of my daily reflections—a primitive blog. I loved the rush of friends asking to reread things I wrote. I spent high school smoking pot and being a dumb blonde while also writing bad Plathesque poems and editing the literary magazine. Then I stopped making art for a long time and was busy self-destructing, and then busy being normal, and I was relieved when I started writing again in 2004.
Why is your art important to you? Why do you spend time creating when you could be doing something completely different and no one else “makes you” do it?
It never occurs to me NOT to produce events. I get an idea for a theme and find collaborators and everything builds. For example, I created an event called “A touching show.” I got the idea, and then I found art that was about touching or tactile, found friends who would read “touching” poetry or performing “touching” songs—some of it campy—put out play dough and finger paints for guests, and I recruited Love Tribe to host a cuddling workshop. Now that’s fun. Why do anything else? Some people play golf; I produce. I write because I have something I want to say or explore and I’m verbal. But I also write to make sense of the life I want to create. I keep a journal.
What does it feel like to create? No, seriously, what does it feel like?
I can stare at a poem, line by line, for a few hours, changing words, and I don’t get bored. I can work on Show and Tell logistics and get completely absorbed, too. I’m a very restless person, so this amazes me. Besides sex and dancing, it’s my very favorite release. ;)
What’s your creative process? Do you follow a routine—use certain materials, write on certain days?
No, I need one. I spend about an hour on producing every day—mostly logistics, and sometimes inventing. I carry a notebook around and scribble ideas for poems and events. I have to write at a computer, though, that’s one of my little habits, but also, my hand cramps. I’m also always watching what other people do—picking up show cards, sifting newsletters and Craigslist for ideas on days when I feel expansive.
What are your dreams?
Well, I actually used to literally dream about Show and Tell—like we had an office and the photocopier broke. I’m still figuring out my bigger dreams. I’m not bored, and I learn my art by doing it—what I like and what I don’t like.
Are there habits or places that help you create or get you inspired?
Yes, seeing other people’s art and reading biographies about other artists’ lives. Well-made documentaries and plays really inspire me. I love plays and films—like poems, they get to break rules. I also am always watching other people’s events to see what works well. Rainy days make me feel creative. I love gray skies.
What have you learned about your art that’s surprised you?
I have to see a poem as well as hear it to understand it. I notice colors more than details when I’m observing—I’m not a novelist. I notice drama, character, conversation, colors, scene, mood. As a producer, I learn with every event how to exert just enough control and then let go. I love it. I don’t worry about mistakes any more.
What are your limitations as an artist?
Internal, not external. I never feel as if outside forces are holding me back. My own craziness, inertia, and the shyness I’ve taught myself to overcome most of the time.
What’s the most important lesson that you want to share with a beginning artist about how to be creative?
Keep your life tidy so you can spend your energy creating. Know how you’ll pay your bills. Love people who love you back. I’m a clean surfaces person. I can’t create when I’m drunk or crazy—been there, tried that. I’ve also been in relationships where I was too busy being someone else to be real enough to create. I can’t lie and write at the same time.
Second, do your art, even if it’s for free, and try to commit yourself to doing it. Find a community who will notice whether or not you show up. You need to do your art to believe you’re an artist, and that will keep you going.