Welcome to Episode 6 of Un*varnished!
Frank questions with rad artists about those times when the going gets tough.
Are you an artist with an intense love for something completely non-art related?
Has this seemingly divergent passion ever caused you headaches over which path to choose? Our guest Charity Oetgen has struggled with her own tug of war between her passion for primates and art, until she finally found a way to reconcile the two into an authentic and innovative art career. Enjoy this interview and learn how your head-scratcher passions can become your greatest asset for a life of true creative fulfillment.
Don't want to miss a bit? Listen to the full, unedited conversation on Soudcloud to catch the entire back and forth between Charity and Carolin Peters.
Please introduce yourself and what you do as an artist!
My name is Charity Oetgen and I call myself a creative conservationist. I’m also a tattoo artist and teacher. My subject is wildlife and nature, and my art usually relates to conservation in some way, shape or form.
Is art a vocation or profession for you?
I’d say it’s definitely both. But first and foremost a vocation, just with a definite professional aspect to it. But regardless of whether I make money with it, it’s something I’d do for the rest of my life.
How did you evolve into making money with your art?
I did it a bit backwards.When I was in the military I started to draw, after which I started tattooing at the age of 23. It took about two years until tattooing became my sole profession. Having tattooed for about a year I decided to go to art school.
During my 3rd year of art school I realized that I can combine art and conservation, and make my living through this. It was my teacher Sharon Allicotti who probed me to think about how I’d combine my love for primates with my love for art. She pointed out that I talked way more about primates than about art, and pushed me to really consider this. She suggested I start talking to non-profits and begin building relationships with them, which I did. But I was actually too scared to do any artwork for the non-profits myself in the beginning. I loved primates too much and was afraid to make a bad painting of them. So instead, I’d take other people’s art work of bonobos to the foundation, and only much later did I feel comfortable enough to create my first painting for them.
One project grew into several ones, and eventually a full-fledged direction emerged during my senior year of art school. At that point I had several connections with different non-profits, I also had traveled to see bonobos in the wild, which lead to bigger events once I was back home again. Companies like “Grass” started to contact me for info-graphic artwork and paintings, which led to being invited to a convention. I didn’t even know that primate conventions existed, but it was magical. I even got to work with Jane Goodall… it all unfolded so fast without a concrete plan. Instead, one thing naturally lead to another. By now I have regular pay coming in and it’s so exciting seeing it all work out.
What are the different income streams that you are combining?
I tattoo, which is a great source for income and travel. I teach a class at Laguna College of Art and Design, and a second class for children. I do private commissions, and private art lessons. I sell my artwork, but I also give a lot of my art away. I puppy sit, which pays really well.
I’m doing a little bit of everything, really, as long as it leaves enough time to create artwork. I do lose sleep like this sometimes, but I love it and it’s worth it.
Have you ever struggled with the fact that you have to have side jobs, instead of being fully supported by your art?
It’s only hard when there isn’t enough income and I start to wonder if I’ve made the right decisions. Luckily I have very understanding people in my life who understand when funds are low, or if I have to spend extra time painting and cut back on a few other things. I’d say you really have to know yourself and your need to paint, and accommodate that. I often have months where art is taking a backseat, because I need to build up my funds again. During those stretches I’ll tattoo a lot for a while, or take on extra private lessons. As long as it’s creative and I do it with a goal in mind, I’m fine working like this. I know it’ll allow me to paint more in the coming months again. Maybe my whole life will be like this, but it’s doable when I maintain a big picture outlook, rather than getting stuck on the momentary inability to paint any given month.
Explain to us how bonobos have become this extreme love and focus of your life and art.
I have loved primates ever since I was a child. I still have my first stuffed animal from childhood, a gorilla that my grandma gave to me. I fell in love with bonobos in high school without even knowing what they were. At first it was just infatuation and then I started to learn more about them. I loved that they are a matriarchal society, and how they solve conflict. The do get into fights and argue but they don’t kill each other over arguments, which we as humans can learn so much from. I also got to spend time with them in the wild, and got to care for them, hug them, see what their struggles were, and it was all over after that.
What do you consider to be your biggest creative success?
First, being published in National Geographic. They called me right as I turned in my thesis paper for my master program. They asked me to do artwork for an upcoming edition that had gorillas and Dian Fossey as its focus. I never imagined that I’d get the chance to do something like that.
Second, that same year I was able to do work with the Jane Goodall Foundation. I got to travel with them and do a couple of events and artworks for them. That was amazing because I have looked up to Jane Goodall ever since I was a child.
And third, I am working with a couple of non-profit wildlife foundations now, doing artwork for them. After seven years of not making any money like that, I am finally at a place where I am making a steady income through these relationships, and that’s very satisfying.
What patterns, habits or mental loops do you have that make it hard to do your creative work sometimes?
Procrastination! Especially when I’m dealing with something I am very passionate about. I get stuck in my head about not going to be good enough, or thoughts like“What if they hate it? What if they picked the wrong person?” I’m sure a lot of people can relate to the negative self-talk. I sometimes have to write myself a letter saying all the negative things in it, then burn it, and lastly write myself a love note.
Other thoughts are about not being productive enough, or not getting into galleries when that’s what other peers are doing; doubting if I took the right route for my art, etc. That negative talk can really snowball and I usually have to physically leave and take the dog for a walk, or hike, when that happens. Anything to get outside and remind myself why I have chosen to do the things I do. Not enough Vitamin D can really be a bad thing.
What are you go-to thing to snap yourself out of the funk aside from going on walks.
Other than getting outdoors, I’d say going to museums, seeing art, or reading a good book. Art and Fear is one I often pick up when I’m not at my best, or listening to a podcast with other artists. Anything that gets me to remember that I’m not the only one with these thought patterns. Talking to a mentor is really helpful, too.
I remember when everything was due for National Geographic, they asked for three pretty big revisions the day of the deadline, and I didn’t even know where to begin. I remember sitting on my front steps just crying, and my neighbor came down and got me to go on a walk where we talked about anything but Nat Geo. Halfway through I realized that’s exactly what I needed. Airing my brain out, being outside. He helped me move my studio outdoors and I painted there for the rest of the day. I had been holed up inside too many days in a row on this project that I couldn’t see straight anymore. That was a strong case of tunnel vision. In the end it worked out fine. I got it all done, they loved it. I only didn’t get to sleep that night. But that’s fine.
What pearls of wisdom have you picked up over the years?
I’d say the biggest thing is “don’t stop creating”. Even if it’s just 5 minutes a day of drawing ovals and shapes, or a quick study. The longer you stay away from your studio, the harder it is to get back in.
Also, think outside the box. Not everyone has the same path. Look for your own path and be clear on how YOU define success. Find what you are passionate about and be OK that it might look different from everyone else’s. Also be OK with having to supplement your income because in the end you have to take care of yourself first, before you can make any art.
Anything else you wished someone would have told you before graduating from art school?
I wish someone would have told me how to figure out student loans before graduating. Also staying regularly in touch with other artists outside of art school is so important.
Lastly, keep a sketchbook! So many students get lost in completing big pieces and think that if they don’t have 3 solid hours worth of time it means they can’t create anything that day. But especially when you are busy with life and don’t have time to dedicate to those bigger projects, 10 minutes of sketching is priceless. Keep practicing. Use it or lose it!
The Art & Fear book talks about a class where the instructor split students into two groups. One half was told they’d be evaluated on creating the best piece ever, and the other half was told they’d get evaluated by sheer quantity. By the end of the semester, the students who had quantity as their goal were the ones with the better sculptures. Because they hadn’t concerned themselves with the product, but purely focused on producing. That’s what allowed them to learn so much because they were doing not thinking.
Perfection is the killer of creativity. That’s why it took me three years to paint a bonobo. I did a sketch of one my freshman year and didn’t paint it until I was a junior because I was terrified. Like, in tears, on the floor, terrified. It’s almost embarrassing how much I cry about art related things, but by now I have come to embrace it as a sign of whether or not what I’m working on is worth it.
See one of Charity's own non-profits here.