September 17, 2007

Personal essay: Where to start when you know no one and nothing.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this new series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)


Image courtesy Josangelica Pinon
Image courtesy Josangelica Pinon.

I recently received an email of the type I've been getting semi-regularly for a number of years now, in this case because of recently joining the events-calendar site Meetup.org; a letter from a young artist, to be specific, who was involved with his local community back in college and who has a lot of smart ideas, but who is now in a big city he doesn't know that well yet (Chicago, the same as me) and without much of an idea of where to turn. And indeed, a large city can be surprisingly intimidating when first arriving, despite the plethora of opportunities it affords to make friends, see smart projects by your peers, and acquire resources for your own projects; and that's because the sheer wealth of new resources can be overwhelming as well at first, not to mention confusing and threateningly insular (whether seemingly so or in actual fact).

Oftentimes a young intellectual will land in a new place with at least a couple of "insider" benefits at their disposal -- an old school chum or family friend who's already a resident, perhaps, a job in the arts that is already waiting for them. For those like me, though, who ended up in a place like Chicago in the early '90s with two suitcases, $75 in cash, and absolutely no existing connections to the arts scene, here are some inexpensive and accessible ways to get yourself ingratiated into the community, as well as meeting the types of people you want and gaining the kinds of opportunities you're looking for.

--So for starters, I can't recommend enough an option that was unavailable to me when I first moved to Chicago myself, which of course is the web -- Oh Almighty Web, Mother and Protector of Us All! For example, last year I ended up learning a lot about the vast network of web-based alternative arts-and-entertainment urban guides that now exist, because of some work I was doing for a freelance client; I learned, in fact, that at least one such publication seemingly exists for almost any urban area of the planet with a population of 100,000 or more, with of course many of these cities having several competing publications of this nature. (Why, in Chicago alone there are traditional publications like the Tribune and Sun-Times, paper-based groups like the Reader and Time Out, online-only organizations like Gapers Block and Chicagoist, smaller startups like the Beachwood Reporter and the Chi-Town Daily News, and of course dozens more I'm not mentioning.)

Such sites can be an enormously powerful resource for connecting with peers and groups in your area; and more importantly, can serve as portals into further and more specific areas of the arts you yourself are interested in. And that of course brings me to the most important piece of general advice I have, which is echoed over and over in the specific recommendations I'm making today; that the quality of all these processes are directly tied to the amount of work one is willing to put into them. A casual scanning of your city's daily paper, for example, is unlikely to regularly yield quality information about your city's fuzz-based electronica music scene; finding the occasional link, though, following it for more information, subscribing to speciality sites, doing regular searches at places like Google and Technorati, will.

--Second, let's not forget the community-based meetups found throughout most big cities, which is the whole point of living in a big city to begin with; because it's easier in a city for like-minded people to simply get together in a physical location than it usually is in spread-out suburban situations. Keep your eyes open, for example, at your neighborhood cafe -- most have community billboards where locals can post notices about discussion clubs, film nights, open mics, peer workshops and more. Don't forget as well those unending piles of flyers at the front doors of bookstores, live-music clubs and used-record stores; and of course it never hurts to check your local libraries and park districts, although admittedly such organizations tend to cater more to families and kids than chain-smoking, bourbon-swilling underground artists.

--And similarly, my third piece of advice is to simply keep your eyes and ears open, no matter where you are; this too is one of the main advantages of city living, and an opportunity available a lot less in spread-out, car-dominated suburban environments. I remember quite specifically, in fact, when I first moved to Chicago myself in my mid-twenties and with no connections, just how many opportunities came my way simply by removing my headphones every so often in cafes and on the train, being attentive to what was being said and what was going on around me, willing to step in with a comment or question if appropriate. Connections matter when it comes to being involved with an arts community, and these connections in many ways are much easier to make within an urban environment, simply by making note of one's surroundings and then following up with simple actions; to notice an artist at an open mic or whose work is hanging at a cafe, for example, write down their contact information, then actually contact them when getting home. Like I said, a big part of getting yourself ingratiated in a new environment relies on how much you're willing to seize your own destiny; how much courage you have, for example, to contact strangers out of the blue, add useful information to nearby conversations, etc.

--And finally, of course, a big part of this process is to simply participate! The way to be an artist, I'm convinced, is to simply make art -- not to study how to make art, not to make plans for the kind of art you're eventually going to do, but simply to make it, then to show it to an audience and gather feedback. A big part of my own successes in my twenties, to be frank, can be attributed to simply gathering a fan base, and the way I did that as a broke unknown with no connections was merely by performing week after week at the various open mics around town, and publishing month after month in the various zines and chapbooks I was making at the time (later upped to daily, of course, once the web finally rolled around). There's really not much faster a way to find like-minded artists than to simply publish your work, so that fellow artists can discover if they're like-minded or not; there's no faster way to get invitations to bigger showcases than to simply make your work available, inspiring these groups to send invites in the first place. As we all know from that frustrated uncle who's been talking for 15 years now about that novel he's going to someday write, 95 percent of art is simply finishing.

Anyway, I hope all of this has been of some help; believe me, I know how frustrating it can be to move to a place with a million strangers, armed with nothing but a portfolio, a new pair of walking shoes, and way too freaking much free time on one's hands. As mentioned, my biggest piece of advice is simply that you get what you give; that if you make a concentrated effort to find, join, and enhance creative groups in your area, and to make friends within these groups, that most people in general will respond in kind. As always, I invite you to share further tips as well as success/failure stories as comments at the end of this entry.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:56 PM, September 17, 2007. Filed under: Arts news | Design | Literature | Movies | Photography |