This month I had the pleasure of talking with Michele Théberge, an amazing artist and friend of mine. Michele is a professional artist living and working California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been exhibited in New York, Osaka, Kyoto, London, Cologne, Chicago, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Miami and the United Arab Emirates.
She is also the owner of The Mindful Artist, a business that provides practical and inspirational studio and career advice for artists. Her free articles and videos can be found on www.themindfulartist.com and YouTube.
I sat down to speak with Michele about her journey as an artist- from her early days as a student to how she developed her own path towards a professional career. We talked a lot about building community, defining success, and how knowing yourself deeply is one of the best tools to building a life that works best for you. I hope you enjoy!
Hi Michele! Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I’d like to start at the beginning and I’m wondering - what was the moment in time you told yourself you want to be a professional artist and made that decision?
It was pretty much as soon as I graduated [from college]. I can’t even imagine- I just knew I had to do this. And I was probably the least likely person in my class to do this. But I didn’t have anything else going for me except that I wanted to [be an artist]. I don’t mean to be self-deprecating, but all I’m saying is, I had ability as an artist, but I hadn’t found my own voice yet. I just knew this is what I wanted to do in my life. I didn’t have family encouragement, or teacher encouragement or anything external. It was completely internal.
So how did you find models for being an artist? Since you didn’t have family encouragement or specific models, how did you formulate for yourself what that was going to look like or what that career would be for you?
That’s such a great question because I think it’s so good for people to think about these things, but we usually don’t have very many diverse models. Basically all I had was my professors because they were the only professional artists I had ever met. So I just assumed the traditional route- I was supposed to paint these paintings, find a gallery and have the gallery sell them. I didn't have any conversation or training at all in undergraduate school about how on earth to do this. I think schools are better about this now.
And unfortunately, I moved immediately after school, so I didn’t even have those people to ask questions or figure out, what the heck am I supposed to do now? So I just had my stereotypes in my head - like the starving artist stereotypes. For example I thought I couldn’t take a full time job – which I believe now is not true. A lot of artists do work full time jobs and make their work. So I struggled hard financially. I was making so little money. It was extremely stressful.
I think if I were to do it differently I would definitely say get financially stable. It can be really stressful and the stress doesn’t help your art practice. Even if it means you have less studio time, if you are financially stable then you aren’t adding an additional stress to yourself. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. For me at least, when I am stressed about money my studio time feels more stressful. I feel like I have to get as much out of it as I can in the little time that I have, and so it becomes this terrible cycle where I get caught up in being afraid to make mistakes or give myself time to go through the process of working through ideas, and it sets me back.
I totally agree. The other stress that gets added is if you think you are supposed to make money at it right away. That can be really stressful. And I know artists that have been [selling work] for years and it’s still a stressor for them.
For me, I had to separate those two things out, and not have art just be a commodity – for me it’s so much more than that. It’s just such a traditional capitalist model to be a producer of goods and sell them. And I don’t think artists have to buy into that. I mean it’s fine if they do and they’re successful at it, great, but I don’t know if it’s helpful for everyone’s practice to have those two so inextricably linked.
Getting back to my history, my ego used to be tied to whether I had that success or not. I was looking for validation through external means, like someone either wanting to show my work or wanting to buy my work meant that it was legitimate. Those are things that I think would be helpful for people to address early on. They need to know their work is worthwhile whether people are interested or not, or people are buying it or not.
But that’s something each artist has to develop for themselves. It’s an internal process - it’s not like something you can just say and then you’ll feel that way. But that was one of my early struggles. I was sending stuff out and I wasn’t getting much of a positive response. It took me years to realize that’s normal. You have to send out a lot of stuff and you’ll get a few yeses.
In fact I read an article in this publication - I think called Art Calendar back in the day – I don’t know if it’s still around – but it was a publication out of the East Coast that was about artists’ professional practice. This was before the internet and it was a printed newsletter that you could subscribe to and they had an article that surveyed a bunch of artists and it said that for every fifty things you send out you would get maybe one or two positive responses, and that was the average. So if you knew that from the get-go, then you wouldn’t stress on it. You could just say “Ok, well, I’ve got another 37 to go”, you know?
For me, the very first rejection letter was so devastating. I mean, I was crushed. Now it seems silly. Who expects the first time you approach a gallery for them to say they’ll give you a show?! But I was young and I had no mentors. I didn’t even really have any colleagues because I left my art community back at school. I was totally on my own just completely bumbling along trying to figure this out and it felt like trying to climb a cliff made of sand.
I kept at it though because, like I said in the beginning, I needed to do this and it’s amazing that I persevered.
It is amazing because I feel like a lot of people get discouraged and give up really easily.
Yeah and I wasn’t very confident, and I really don’t know why I was able to keep going.
Well I’m wondering then, how did that mindset shift happen first to separate your art making and making money?
That was a very long process for me. I don’t even know if there was a distinct shift and I think it’s still an ongoing thing.
I think that as I was able to find a way to make a more stable living, then I became less attached to the idea of selling work in the sense that I didn’t need the income. When I was struggling, I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be so great if I was just selling this art because I wouldn’t be struggling so much.” But once I wasn’t financially struggling, I was able to think “Wouldn’t it be cool to sell art, but I don’t need this to pay my bills.” I was already doing that ok on my own. If I was able to sell stuff then it was extra, but not necessary to pay for my health insurance.
That was just a very gradual thing. I don’t know if there was really a specific turning point.
So what kind of mindset changes or compromises did you make with yourself in terms of a job? What kind of work were you doing to get yourself to that financially stable place?
I think it started to change when my teaching work expanded. I wasn’t rolling in the dough or anything, but I was making enough money where I was able to support myself independently in the Bay Area back then.
So that leads me to a question about the Mindful Artist platform you created. How did that start and then evolve into what it is today?
I have to give thanks to a teacher I had back in 2009. She was a business mentor that I started studying with. As a teacher – I’ve been a teacher now for over thirty years – I always felt like I had so much to give beyond the technical aspects of being an artist. I was doing all of the inner work over the years – spiritual work, psychotherapeutic work, all of the work where I was developing my inner strength and my inner core. Sharing that felt really natural to me, but I didn’t have a format to do it in. I wouldn’t have stepped into that role myself, but somehow it came out in one of our meetings in the group we worked with, “Oh- I can teach that.” And that’s actually more core to who I am. Anyone can teach you how to mix color, composition etc. But I had something that I had uniquely developed over my years of traveling this path that was something to offer.
And that’s when I really went full on. As soon as I came up with the idea I started crying because I had never thought to put myself in that role. I wouldn’t have claimed that role for myself. But now that I have, it feels very natural. I feel like I have so much to offer, but before that meeting it hadn’t even occurred to me.
You make a lot of content that is very public – videos about your practice, instructional videos, putting your process on the internet. Was that hard for you? It’s a different kind of vulnerability…
It’s weird, but I think it’s just the teacher in me where it just comes naturally. I sometimes jokingly call myself a “compulsive divulger”. You know how some people have their special techniques and don’t want anyone to know about them? I’m the person who will learn a technique and then make a video and share it with thousands of people. I’m not saving it for myself and I think it’s just a core part of who I am as a teacher.
It wasn’t as hard as you might think and I still kind of marvel at it because I certainly understand – I have a lot of friends who want to get into video, and they feel so stiff and awkward - but when I get in front of a video camera it’s the same as if I’m talking to you now. It just feels very natural. That wasn’t the hard part.
The hard part was the step I told you about earlier. Once I owned that part of myself, then everything just flowed. It was almost like the floodgates opened. There was so much in me that I wanted to share, and I finally had a container for it, if that makes sense.
So you’ve had the Mindful Artist going since 2010. How has it evolved over the years and even informed your own practice? Or does it feel very naturally integrated?
I can’t say that I think my work would have evolved any differently if I hadn’t been doing the Mindful Artist work. I’m sure everything does feed each other in some way. I don’t think I can tell you exactly how it’s influenced my practice, but I’m sure it did.
In terms of how the Mindful Artist has evolved, it’s actually the reverse. I’ll solve a problem in the studio and I’ll make a note of being able to share that with my community. It could be anything. For example, I may be feeling overwhelmed and want to organize the studio and I’ll do a video about organizing the studio and give you tips on how I did it. I even did one video that happened kind of spontaneously. I was applying for a grant and I was getting bogged down in the process and you probably know how you have to re-formulate everything just for one application- your images, your statement, etc. And then I re-connected with the greater purpose of what I was doing and it became more joyful. “I want my work to go out into the world.” That’s my greater purpose, and as soon as I connected with this, the tedium of it became less. So I did a video on that because it was a simple mindset shift that helped me so much and I though it might help someone else.
I think it’s the fact that I am a practicing artist and going through all of this stuff, then I have things to share with people. My practice is what gives me the ideas for helping someone else.
I want to go back for a moment to that idea of community and how you mentioned in the beginning that you didn’t have one immediately when you moved to the Bay Area. That’s something that is really challenging when just getting started. A lot of the opportunities or work that artists get are through people we know and those genuine relationships. What did you do to build your community?
Well I kind of lucked into one thing. My friend, Jenny, was someone I knew from high school and she had moved out here and gone to grad school at UC Berkeley. She introduced me to her fellow grad students and that kind of gave me an instant community. Once I connected with them, they drew me in and included me in things like their drawing group or informal potlucks. Over the years different people came and went but I was a part of that drawing group for quite some time. That was super helpful because other than that, I didn’t know any artists.
And then there was a group called Arts Anonymous. It was a group based on the 12 steps, but it was about artists who were having a hard time practicing their art. I didn’t really make any long-lasting connections with any of those people, but just the meetings and the rituals really influenced me a lot and helped me feel not so alone.
It can be very isolating making art – especially if it feels like no one cares but you. When you are surrounded by other people who [making art] matters to, it helps you validate your practice and your commitment to your practice.
I do hear from other people that they feel misunderstood as to why art is so important to them, and that it’s not a hobby. It looks like a hobby to an outsider. But it’s something you have to do and it’s helpful to be around other people who understand that it’s part of our mental well-being as artists to make art.
I can remember back to when I first moved out here and I didn’t have a studio and I wasn’t making art and I started getting depressed. And I realized it was because I wasn’t making art at all. I haven’t had that depression ever since then because I make art regularly. What I’m saying is, I know a lot of people have this kind of feeling, where they are not well in their being, and it’s because they’re not doing their work. And there really isn’t a substitute for it.
All this is to say that the little group, even though they weren’t my buddies, just being in their presence meant we were all there for a common purpose and it helped.
As we wrap up, I'm wondering how you balance your time or think about scheduling and structuring your time so that you are able to do everything you want to do?
For me, it’s more a day-to-day thing. For example, some people will teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays and that will determine their studio days or whatever. But it’s a lot more fluid for me. I structure my time more in terms of priorities than in actual blocks of time. And I think that works well for me as a right-brained person because I don’t work well when I try to experience time as linear. When I do try to structure things more linearly I kind of have to pull back because I’ll get really goal-oriented and think from segment to segment and I’ll need this many hours in the studio, etc and that will drive me crazy.
So what I do is I set priorities every week and every month and I just look over them and figure out what’s most important, and I make daily lists. Time charts stress me out. Now that I understand that it’s just a function of being a more right-brain type person I accept it, but for awhile I felt like something was wrong with me.
One thing that I remember reading that was so helpful for me was that the forty-hour work week is really just a part of a capitalist, industrialist society. I have a super strong work ethic- I want to be in my studio and I do go in Monday through Friday- so I don’t want to make it sound like, oh I’m just getting up and eating at like 3pm, and deciding to make art somewhere in there. It’s not that nebulous. But the rigidity of the time clock is really bad for me personally. For some people that’s good for them and they need a lot of structure but for me it’s more intuitive and internal.
I work really hard sometimes and sometimes I just have to follow what feels right, which has to be done with consciousness and presence and awareness. If you don’t have that internal awareness, you don’t know what’s going and you can’t follow it. But if you are hooked into it, it will guide you and tell you when it’s time to take a break, when it’s time to work, when to keep going, and you just follow that awareness. It was so hard for me to get out of that 9-5 mindset. It took me years.
I completely get it. I feel like I’m in that process right now because I’ve been in a lot of jobs, especially in public service, where you are accountable for your time and I literally had to clock in and out. But if I got my work done in three hours, it didn’t matter because I was still tied to those work hours and had to clock out at a certain time.
When work is more organic, the work still gets done and in some ways I feel like it’s better because you aren’t trying to fill time a certain way.
Yeah, and we all know that feeling of when you are on and things are switched on in your mind, you can get so much done in so little time. But when you’re not on and you’re just forcing yourself and slogging through, when really what we should be doing is out taking a walk or taking a nap, then you just end up wasting everybody’s time. But when you’re on a roll it just flows. Sometimes I’ll be in the studio until 8 o’clock because something cool is happening and I don’t want to leave.
I like to conclude with asking for any advice you might have for an artist who might be just getting started and is trying to find their way. Is there anything you wish you had known that you could share with artists who are trying to figure out who they are internally and reconcile that with their external obligations?
This may sound kind of trite, but it really makes me think “Know Thy Self.” But that simple aphorism contains so much in it, and it’s a lifelong thing.
But just in short, some of my favorite things are: get community, commit to your practice and make it a regular thing, and pay attention to what’s going on in your head whether it’s through meditation, journaling or whatever. Don’t sweep what’s in your head under the carpet. Pay attention because you got to address all of that stuff.