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The Artist’s Heart

I have been working with artists for a long time. As a gallery owner, I interacted with artists every day. They were my customers, my employees and my partners. I have, quite purposely, surrounded myself with them for my entire adult life. I love artists. Nearly all of my close friends are artists. With a few notable exceptions, however, artists are lousy business people. The same traits that attract me to them are the things that drive me crazy about them. The creative mind is not usually the disciplined mind. If I schedule a meeting with an artist at four, I’m lucky if she shows up at four thirty—if she shows up at all. Artists see the world as they’d like it to be, not always as it actually is. They can be, at once, both anal and flaky; obsessing over an innocuous detail one second and blowing a deadline the next. They can be feisty and fiery, irresponsible and incorrigible. Most of all they are unpredictable, and that, I guess, is what attracts me to them. When you live in a tribe full of artists anything can happen, and often does. At their heart, writers are artists.

When I was growing up I wanted to be a fine artist. I would spend hours in my bedroom with pencil and paper, shading and sketching the orcs, knights, dragons and valkyries from the books of J.R.R. Tolkien and Piers Anthony. I consumed those magical tomes like popcorn, recreating in my sketchbook what I saw in my imagination. I wanted nothing more than to grow up to be an artist. But my well-meaning parents—for either pragmatic or paranoid reasons—discouraged me from pursuing my dream. “You can’t make any money as an artist,” they would tell me—as if money were the key to happiness and, for them, I suppose it was. I rebelled, I hedged, I became bored. Just as there was no emotional support, there would be no financial support either. With art school out I became anxious and rudderless. After high school I fell in with the “wrong crowd.” I took on a series of unsatisfying jobs and flashed my resentment to whoever was looking. Still an avid reader (although, by then, I had left the fantasy genre behind), I was usually the brightest person at the worksite (if you’d asked me) and quickly rose to positions of authority. But by the time I was in my early 20s, I was burned out. I felt like Moby Dick in a sea of minnows. But I was really just a dick. Although my ego eclipsed my knowledge and experience, the one thing I knew for sure was that I had more potential than I was using. I still had, at my core, the heart of an artist. I had to do my own thing. Even though I had regretfully given up my pencils and paper, I would, like Degas with his paintbrush, create my own reality. An entrepreneur was born.

My first step was to learn marketing. I devoured everything I could read in the genre. When my brother had an idea for a startup software business he called me, “the marketing expert,” to help out. Out of the four people who started the business, I was the only one who stuck with it. In business startups you often trade paychecks for dreams—perhaps something only a true artist has the stomach for—and my partners sailed away like leaves on the autumn wind. Unfortunately, the Internet came along and smashed my plans of selling shareware via direct-mail catalogs. So I moved on to the next big thing: espresso. Through some creative financing I was able to purchase a coffeehouse from a friend. This time, seeing the wave, I integrated the online world into my plan for business success and started the first Internet café in Southern Oregon. I wasn’t counting on Starbucks and the proliferation of drive-thru coffee stands however, and my shoestring budget had me, at one point, working 90 hours a week and making very little money. Tenacious, I hung on for a few years but finally succumbed to the competition.

Discouraged, I traveled back into the corporate world—the world of middle management. It was a short trip. Entrepreneurship had soaked into my soul and I found it difficult to follow the seemingly subjective rules of my new employer so, when another opportunity for self-employment presented itself in the form of a frame shop and gallery in Bend, Oregon, I leapt. The third time was really a charm and the business thrived. But, after several years, I realized something was wrong. My creative mind was confronting Quickbooks. The numbers involved in running a high-volume frame shop were squashing my brain like the vices required for frame assembly. I finally got the hint in the form of a birthday gift. For the umpteenth time, an employee gave me one of those stress relief things that, when you squeeze it, the eyes bug out. Those buggy eyes stared into mine, telling me I was on the wrong path. My creativity needed out. I sold my business and returned to school.

The transition from entrepreneur to writer has made me keenly aware of both the strengths and foibles of each aptitude. Business people can be staid and stressed, too concerned with profits and not enough with play. Artists can be frivolous and undisciplined. Somewhere in between is the person I have chosen to become.