Show and Tell Gallery’s Working Artist Interview Series:
Making Art & Making a Living in Portland
Celestial Concubine has been sharing her poetry in Portland since 2007. In 2009 she released WORD[S]!, a ‘zine of poetry, and will be releasing more soon.
S&TG: Do you use the word artist, poet, etc. to describe yourself? Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” to call yourself that because you’re not paid, published, etc. or famous? Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?
Celestial Concubine: I think “artist” is more a state of mind or identity that seeps into your way of living rather than a state of living which seeps into your identity. Yes, I describe myself as a poet, or sometimes a spoken word artist, and often attribute personality quirks to being an artist.
S&TG: What does it mean to you to be an artist, poet, etc? And have you always thought of yourself as one? If not, when did you?
Celestial Concubine: I’d say to be an artist means seeing everything through a much more focused lens. People who identify as artists, they see beyond and tend to lack any sense of “mundane.” In creating art they help others see beyond as well, at least, that’s my take on it. Poet, musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, dancers, etc… these are all artists, that is, if they feel they are.
Have I always thought of myself as an artist… hm… I guess I went through a time when I was actually told I wasn’t an artist and I believed it. Anyone who had any part in that is now long gone from my life and my advice, if anyone tells you anything like that, stay far far away from them.
With the exception of that time frame, I’d say identifying as an artist is as much a journey as identifying with your age, gender, race, or anything else, some spend time struggling with it, others immediately embrace it, I went back and forth at first but at this point I’m pretty solid with it.
S&TG: How long have you been making art?
Since the first day I gave my dad a bouquet of dandelions.
S&TG: 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 would stop you?
My art is important to me because it’s mine. I need it. I share it because maybe there’s someone else out there who needs it too, and this belief is confirmed regularly and that confirmation keeps me sharing. If I were completely isolated I’d still write poetry, I can’t imagine not.
I don’t write because there are people expecting it of me, circumstances are often quite the opposite, it is when I’m doing other things, shopping, socializing, gardening, etc, that I feel guilty that I am not writing, the joy of my craft is that I’m generally able to do both.
S&TG: What does it feel like to create? No, seriously, what does it feel like?
Think back on the best orgasm you have ever had. That one that made you quiver all over for what seemed like forever. It’s like that, only better.
S&TG: What kind of art do you make? What excites you as an artist?
I make poetry mostly, I’ve got a few skeletal novels, there’s a play I’ve been working on for awhile, and I do a little bit of visual creativity with my poetry.
I’m excited by everything most of the time. If I’m not excited by everything I take that as a sign that I’m exhausted, I take some time out for myself, and come back to life once again wholly excited.
S&TG: What’s your creative process? Do you follow a routine?
I almost wish I did. My routine and process consist of scrambling frantically for a writing utensil and surface or recording device to capture whatever piece has already begun to pour out of me as a response to anything because, as the last question reveals, everything excites me. I tend to find poetry in just about everything. I’ve gotten my “system” as organized as having a banker’s box in which I put all sorts of things that have poems in them if only because my space was getting really crowded with scraps of things like letters from family, funeral announcements, bank receipts, news clippings, stickers from kids, advertisements, etc. When I get a case of writers block or am looking for material for my play or novels I go to this box. It is a pretty magical box.
S&TG: Are there habits or places that help you create or get you inspired?
Alternative states of mind make for interesting creations. In my teens I experimented with sleep deprivation and fasting and their effects on creativity. I have since explored other mind altering experiences. My most recent was a fever, while lying sick in bed with a 102F fever I decided to try to write, the whole experience is fuzzy but when I finally got better I found a folder of poetry on my desktop entitled “exorcizing delirium”, there were some very raw pieces in there that opened parts of myself up to me, and really, I think that’s what it’s about, learning more and more about myself, diving deeper into the psyche under all sorts of circumstances and writing from there, allowing myself to go places, deep into places like grief, anger, passion, fear, etc, and creating from the heart of those places. Each place takes its own method of journey.
S&TG: What have you learned about your art that’s surprised you?
I sometimes go into channel mode where I close my eyes, place my fingers on the keyboard and go. The writing that comes from those sessions is generally very revealing on personal levels, that’s more what my art has taught me about me though. I guess what I’ve learned about my art is that it will not allow me to make it anything more, or less, than what it is; like me, it is very stubborn.
S&TG: Who are your creative heroes?
Alice Walker and Jeanette Winterson would be my first main stream responses. Although, I tend to keep my heroes very near to me. The more I know about someone, where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through, the more they inspire me. What it boils down to for me is the courage to not only create but also openly share raw, unfiltered experiences and visions in one’s art, anyone who can do that is my hero.
The community of artists that I am most intimate with is doing very brave things with art and most of these artists have risked a lot for the sake of their art. Their courage to create is a constant inspiration.
S&TG: What are your dreams?
Artistically I’d like to reach more people. I’m working on getting more books published and audio and visual captures of my art available. I guess the other dream is to someday be able to just write and not have all that other living stuff to worry about, but that is farfetched so for now I’m focusing on the dreams which I can achieve.
S&TG: What kind of support system do you have?
At this point I can, without hesitation, say that I am surrounded by encouragement and love, from the families I work with to the people that I live with and of course my dear dear friends and art family, I don’t know where I’d be as an artist if I didn’t have them.
Also every time I perform I feel like the audience is a support system, a good audience can infuse me with energy, I find myself improving poems when I share them with an audience. Really, anyone who listens to poetry, or appreciates a painting or dance or song, etc, is supporting the art and artist and that is invaluable.
S&TG: What’s the most important lesson that you want to share with a beginning artist about how to be creative?
Just do what feels right. Try workshops, try how-to books, try school, try mentors, try spending an entire day not speaking or sitting completely still for 60 minutes thinking about nothing. What works for others may or may not work for you and that’s ok, just create.
Making a living
S&TG: How do you pay your bills?
I’m a nanny. I’ve been many things, some encouraged my art and some left me drained and exhausted at the end of the day unable to create. I tried pursuing a few careers which felt like they would eventually enable me to have more time to make art but then I woke up and realized how much time I was spending not making art in order to eventually make art and I really didn’t like that. I stepped away from that path, found something I was already trained in and experienced at, developed a career around it, and started finding more time to make art immediately.
S&TG: How does the way you make a living right now either support or complicate making art?
I feel very fortunate, my work is such that I only work 3 days a week, longer days but still, that gives me 4 consecutive days to create. Even when I am at work many opportunities for poetic inspiration and reflection come up.
I think even if writing did take care of all my fiscal needs I may still work or volunteer somewhere if only once a week. That time away from writing and being exposed to new people and situations regularly is great for keeping a social flow.
S&TG: What’s the most important lesson you want to share with an artist about how to make a living?
It’s important, but then, so is art. When your art tells you it is ready to take care of you, don’t be afraid to listen.
S&TG: Do you hope to make a living doing your art one day?
S&TG: Do you feel having to make money limits your creative life?
I often wonder what sort of art I would create if I weren’t worried about getting bills paid and affording food. When I was working a 50 hour a week job and going to school in pursuit of a career the money making path was interrupting my art making path. At this point though, I’m getting more comfortable with the balance of self support and creativity. Having to take time and handle accounts and accounting and all the fiscal stuff feels like it limits my creative time but then, I remember when I had to spend lots of time trying to make enough to be able to spend time doing accounts and accounting and I feel very grateful for where I’m at. Sure, things still get tight, but thankfully my art doesn’t take more than a writing instrument and surface, sometimes not even that, so I work on my art and things generally get back to good.