One Year After the MFA

It’s been a year since I graduated with my MFA in Photography. It’s been a wild year, full of growing pains, opportunities, and disappointments. I’ll be real with you: the first year after earning your MFA is pretty damn hard.

After I graduated, I ran off to Asia for two months, came home, and then assisted at an art camp in Michigan while traveling to and from Chicago for job interviews. I landed a great job as a professional retoucher and product photography for a top-tier branding agency. I thought it was going to be awesome.

And it was, for a while. I learned a lot from my supervisor about Photoshop (which was great because I thought I knew a metric shit ton, but man, PS is crazy,) and I really enjoyed seeing my photography on packaging. But, after a while, the grind was getting to me. I’d come home from work, exhausted from staring at two screens all day, and get to work on my own art practice. Some days I didn’t want to, but I forced myself.

I didn’t want to be a retoucher forever. I knew that, but I thought it would be a good gig for a few years, while I built up my teaching experience in the evenings and on the weekends. I’ve heard all about the artist grind, working 9-5 at a job you hate, then coming home and staying up late to do the real work. It was awfully romantic.

But, another truth: it’s bullshit.

There’s nothing romantic about the self-suffering. I’d come home crying from work some days because I was so fucking tired. There were evenings when I would be working on a teaching application or putting together a portfolio for a grant opportunity, but I would just stare blankly at my screen for two hours, zoned out. I stopped going to my friend’s art openings because I was either working late on some bullshit for PepsiCo or I was just too tired to talk to anyone.

The job got rough. There was no flexibility– I wasn’t allowed to have night time commitments, which threw a wrench in my teaching plans because I used to teach night classes. After getting time off to speak at SPE in November, I think my job figured out that I was very serious about my art career, and my otherwise fine work environment turned into something highly controlling and cult-ish. It got so bad, I quit via email with no notice.**

Another truth: that sucked, too.

But I was happier. I wasn’t climbing into my partner’s car after work, sobbing because I wasn’t changing the world by editing potato chips. After teaching on the weekends, I went home feeling full, not having this sense of impending doom hanging over my head at the prospect of returning to the agency that Monday for another week of emotional abuse.

I got my certification in substitute teaching, and was hired on-the-spot for both Chicago Charter Substitute Teaching Network and was also hired after a 5-minute interview for Chicago Public Schools. I make only half of what I was making at the agency, but I get to pick my own schedule– AND I’m allowed to have a life outside of work.

(Seriously– they used to get mad because I didn’t want to go to company happy hour. Uhm?)

So now, my life is a lot like this: Mon-Fri, substitute teach from 7AM-4PM. I get home, relax for a little bit, eat dinner, then get to work on my photography. Weekends I teach in the morning and spend the afternoon either making art, tutoring people in the area in photography, getting brunch with my friend of 10 years, or doing something fun in Chicago with my love.

The hardest thing about this past year was that it was everything I thought it wouldn’t be. I thought I’d have a job, come home, make art, have lots of exhibition opportunities and be well on my way to making waves in the art scene. But that’s not what happened at all.

What I’ve learned is that for some people, that’s exactly what happens. Maybe they work harder than you did, or maybe they didn’t. But those other people don’t matter– you have to focus on what you’re doing, on your progress, and on what you can do to succeed.

For me, it’s been excruciatingly slow progress–but it has still been progress! I sold some work this year, been in a few exhibitions, gave two artist talks, and I’m making connections in the arts community here in Chicago. I’ve been working on a book, a zine, and a fresh new body of work. But it is all slow going.

Another truth: you don’t make as much art as you did in graduate school.

That truth was difficult to reconcile. In school, that was my life: making photographs, thinking about art, talking about art. But really, that’s not life after graduation for most people. Most people have to make time for their art. Most people don’t crank out 12 images of conceptual work in two weeks time. Now it’s more like 1 or 2 photographs a month, and they both might be garbage.

But that’s okay. Instead of going to school all day every day, I go to work. Instead of staying up crazy hours to finish editing or writing something, I now go to bed at 9PM. I brainstorm on my commutes. I slowly buy my materials paycheck by paycheck. I’m submitting work I made 1-2 years ago to exhibitions because I’m still working on the new stuff.

The most important thing is to KEEP GOING. Slow progress is still progress.

I’ve been repeating my mantra, “Don’t Stop,” over and over since last May. I’ve been screaming it to myself these past three difficult months. Life after graduate school is such a pain in the ass, but you gotta keep trucking.

So, what’s next? What’s going to happen this second year after achieving my terminal degree?

I would tell you what I’m expecting, but really? Who fucking knows what’s going to happen. All I know is I’m not gonna stop, and you shouldn’t either.

Happy Shooting!

** I don’t recommend quitting your job with no notice, unless you have a safety net in place, like I did. I had a reasonable tax refund, money from my teaching gig on the weekends, and when all else failed, my mother lent me money. I know life sucks sometimes and your job may be toxic, but please, don’t do anything crazy without having a plan, otherwise you might end up worse off than you were before. Make informed decisions! ❤