If you think that being a successful painter means exclusive gallery representation, think again, and definitely keep reading. In this episode visionary fantasy artist
Mia Araujo generously shares how she carved out her own successful career path after having been inside of the traditional gallery model.
Don't want to miss a bit? Listen to the full, unedited conversation on Soudcloud to catch the back and forth between Mia and Carolin Peters.
Please introduce yourself and what you do as an artist! Thank you so much for having me. My name is Mia Araujo. I'm a self-employed, independent fine artist and illustrator. I paint during the day and wait tables at night. I do this so I can paint what I actually want to paint.
I mostly paint portraits of women, and would describe my work as fantastical, but based in nature. I try to represent women of color in my work, as this is something I want to see more of in the world, and I am really passionate about it.
I am currently working on an Alice in Wonderland reinterpretation. It's a sister story set in a fantastical, West African world. I'm redesigning all the characters, and the whole story is going to be an illustrated novel when I am done.
What set you on the trajectory of focusing your art on women of color? Well, I am white Hispanic and I feel like I am in the middle of two worlds, in the sense that I have always navigated in a world of privilege, but I'm also conscious of the fact that I am very clearly an outsider in some ways. I've always been interested in stories that fall outside the status quo, or outside of the type of stories that we hear all the time.
My interest really deepened in college when we analyzed media and visual communication. I studied illustration, for which it is really important to understand imagery and how it communicates directly to the viewer. I found it interesting (and frustrating) that brown and black people are very underrepresented in visual media, movies, and art. I find all people beautiful, so I want to represent people who you don't see often enough.
Also, when I paint women in general, I gravitate toward a strength that I see in them. More of a quiet strength, as opposed to what we are usually shown in the media; that physical strength which equates women's strength to men's strength. So I've always been drawn to creating a world that I want to see more of, and don't see enough of.
Also, in terms of people of color, one thing that I don't like about fantasy art is that it is very white-washed. To me the whole idea of fantasy is that it's imaginative and that we get to create worlds. I talk a lot to people at conventions about this, and how people will readily invent races, but not represent the ones that live on this planet.
Is art for you a vocation, profession or a blend of the two? When or how did you realize that you were going to lead this artist's life? I'll answer that second question first, because honestly there was never any question in my mind that I had to be an artist. My earliest memory is that cliched story- I picked up a pencil and I never put it down. I never really thought of any other options. I think I entertained the idea of becoming an author for a while, because as a little kid I loved writing and illustrating my own stories. I did have a 10 year break from writing after college, because of an in-class experience which turned me off from the whole thing. But I kept drawing and I kept painting. I never stopped that. I'm slowly reintroducing writing back into it all now.
It’s always been a passion first. I would definitely also consider it my profession too, even though I'm not a "full-time" artist. I think it's really important to treat art as your profession, even though art and business often seem mutually exclusive. Especially when you are an independent artist! A lot of my non-artist friends can't imagine me as a professional, because I am working from home, working on art... They don't take that seriously as a real profession. But it is. And it is very hard work. It is really fun, but it is like any other job where people enjoy their career.
Has your definition of what it means to have a "successful;" artist's life changed over the years and if so, how? Absolutely. When I was in art school, I was searching for a long time what type of path to pursue or even what type of art to create. Did I want to be employed?... all those things... In my head I thought "If I can just get paid to do art, that's enough." But that's a very simplistic answer, at least for how I feel now.
In the beginning, I was painting and showing my work in galleries, making a living off of that. Even though I was very lucky to do that, I really wasn't handling the business or sales side, since the galleries were taking care of all of that. Now I realize that whenever you put your career into someone else's hands, at least the financial aspect of it, you are always going to be at the mercy of the changing markets, or of the gallery's clients.
What I believe now, is that if you want to make a living off your art, in particular if it's your own style and vision, you also have to be a business person and learn that part of it. Learn social media, and where your buyers are, all that stuff. I didn't learn any of that at school. I had to learn it all on my own.
But that's how you achieve longevity, by adapting and changing with the times. For example adapting the way you show your work, or adapting how you make your work available to an audience and constantly figuring out where your audience is. And that may change over time, too. So it's definitely been a big learning curve.To young artists I would recommend to learn that stuff- not just the technical stuff, but the business stuff, as well.
Let's talk about the good parts of being a creative. What would you describe as your proudest creative accomplishment so far. My first solo show at a gallery was definitely a very proud moment. Just the idea that I had all those gallery walls to myself, that I got to fill them, and that people would come to the opening just to see me. That felt like a huge moment. I also was a very shy person back then, so I honestly have no idea how I did it. But the show proved to me that I had something to say. Whereas up until then, I had always felt like a hobbyist in my head- I was just someone who was lucky that people liked my art here and there. The solo show really cemented for me that people responded to what I was doing with my art. So that was definitely the biggest watershed moment.
But since then, not so much creatively speaking, but in terms of getting on my own feet and learning the business side of things, I've been gaining so much more control over where I am going. I feel so much more adaptable now. Back then, by working with galleries, I felt like my eggs were all in one basket, which put me at the mercy of the buyer’s market. So I am feeling really proud of my newly-won control. Also, I’m very lucky to have gotten into some really tough, juried conventions these past two years. Doing that all on my own terms, even though I am not 100% on my feet yet, makes me super happy.
What made you forge ahead with shifting from gallery representation to self- representation despite how scary that must have felt? How did it unfold? It was a personal and financial decision. Around the time when I had my solo show, the market was changing. There were a lot less buyers. The gallery scene was thriving a lot more right up to my show, which also coincided with me moving out. I had been living with my parents up until then, which had allowed me to develop my art style and pursue the gallery path. I had been making my living and paying all of my expenses through my art aside from that, but my choice to move out made me realize a lot of things I didn't know. It kinda was a coming of age moment which taught me a lot of things about myself. I had naively thought that my art wasn't going to be affected by that sort of personal move. I quickly learned that major life changes are always going to affect your art, whether you want them to or not.
I was also experiencing an evolution of my art style, because I was becoming a different person. I almost feel like now I couldn't create my past work any more, because that work was literally coming from a different person. I was also upping my skills at the same time too, which led me to not want to put any restraint on my art in terms of having to live off of it. So I decided to take a non-art job to pay the bills, so I could focus my art on getting better, and on what my new vision was transitioning to.
Would you be so generous and share some personal habits or mental patterns that you have that keep you from doing your creative work? #1 for sure is social media, just because you have to be on that all the time. As a self- employed artist, you are your own marketing team! Sometimes it's really easy to get sucked into that hole- you start wondering if what you are putting out there reaches your audience or not, and it can get a bit much. So I have to schedule my time for social media. I schedule my posts ahead of time, so I don't have to worry about it during the day. I do this first thing in the morning and then I get to work.
The second, is my own personal struggle. Every artist feels that they are a hack in some way. For me, it's always been about my skills. I always feel like my skills aren't where I want them to be, which often makes me believe that I can't do an idea justice... The Alice project, for example, feels like such a monumental task for how I envision it, that sometimes I am really intimidated by all the numerous skills I should get better at, before I tackle it. Only just recently have I discovered that this is just an excuse made out of fear. I'm afraid of how big the project is, so I use my lack of skills as an excuse to convince myself that I don't have what it takes to do this project.
There is actually a great book I just read called "The War of Art" (imagine Carolin is doing a happy dance because her fave author is mentioned), in which the author (Steven Pressfield) breaks down how every single thing is basically an excuse in disguise, and that it is fear disguising itself. If it presented itself as fear, you'd probably get work done just out of shame... which I find so hilarious! So it disguises itself as "my skills aren't good enough,” or "I don't have enough time. I only have an hour before I have to go to work. I can't get anything done." It takes on all these different guises to convince you to not get anything done. But the core of it- which is so powerful- is that anything which strikes that much fear in you is really worth doing, or at least is something that you are super passionate about, and therefore it's the right thing to do. That's why it's so scary to you.
What things are your go-to's for when you are stuck in a funk and need to get back to work? My biggest funks probably happen because I work all the time. The minute I get up, I work on my art, and then I go to my serving job, and I'm there until midnight or 1am. So I literally work all day, and I'm realizing that some of my blocks happen because I'm not giving myself enough time off. I think artists definitely tend to blame themselves for taking time off. But you have to fill up your inspiration bank, because when that's out, you literally can't create.
What I tend to do when I get stuck is I pick up a book and read. I absolutely love reading. I could probably read all day if I procrastinated enough. Seeing how other people create worlds and the characters they come up with, that refuels me. Or I'll go for a walk, and get out in nature. That's usually really inspiring to me. I also meditate. Just anything that gets my mind off the task at hand, or brings in some inspiration.
Sometimes too, I just sit down and start doing studies thinking "Ok, what's stopping me here? Is it my lack of knowledge in this area?"Studies feel like less of a mountain to tackle, because they aren't final. I usually get stuck because I don't know how to go on. So I'll either take my painting into Photoshop and do a digital paint-over, ask an artist friend for feedback, or I’ll pick up an anatomy book, take some photo references... So it's a mix between anything to get me moving again, or slowing down to refuel that inspiration bank.
Have you picked up any pearls of wisdom from mentors, artist friends or people you look up to that have helped you get through the sticky spots? Yeah, in the month of June I had this really big artist block, where I was so paralyzed that I couldn't move forward. I hadn't even started painting. I was still in the planning phase of this piece that I had to get done for a show. I reached out to a long-time mentor of mine, Marshall Vandruff, who is an amazing anatomy teacher. He is really incredible. He had recommended a book to me years ago which I had read back then, and had forgotten was still on my shelf. It's called Mastery by George Leonard, who equates any creative pursuit to this martial art called Aikido. He says that the pursuit of knowledge, or leveling up, in any creative field, is basically a bunch of repetitive, subtle movements, over and over and over again. And it's not going to feel like anything is happening, even though you are growing. He talks about plateaus and spikes, etc. Usually we get frustrated by the feeling that we are not getting anywhere; that we are just working, working, working. This book is all about that. You can read it cover to cover in an afternoon- it's really short. But the times I've read it when I was the most stuck, I've always come out of it super inspired.
Any last words about things you wish you had heard more often when you started out? Yeah, to all those worriers out there- I've been a worrier my whole life, which I think is almost antithetical to being an artist. But you can really worry yourself to death if you let yourself think too much. One of my art teachers, Jim Auckland, told me "You worry too much!" and it felt really uncomfortable having him point out that truth. But I realize now that he was so right! I've definitely mellowed out over the years, but I wish people had told me that more often, maybe I would have listened more.
The thing is, there are literally hundreds of problems in life, and once you solve all of those, there will always be more. Worrying about them isn't going to make your life any easier. Being more calm and collected is very important. Meditation has helped me a lot to control my worrying. The more zen you can be about being an artist, the easier it's going to be on your mental health, which will free you up to be more creative.
You can also visit her Shop and follow her on Instagram & Twitter: @mllemiaaraujo, Facebook: mia.araujo