by Seyhr Qayum

Seyhr Qayum is a professional artist who holds a BFA in Painting, and a minor in Art History from Boston University. She now works for the National College of Arts in Rawalpindi.

I don’t remember the first time I started making art or knew that I loved the process, just like I don’t remember the first time I saw my parents and realized that I loved them, or the first time I tasted chocolate and thought, “Bingo! I’ve hit the jackpot!” It’s because scribbling away with a pen or pencil and then creating a mess with a paintbrush has always been something I do. I’ve never patted myself on the back for being able to do it, it’s just something I’ve graciously accepted is a part of who and what I am. I know that I’m an artist inside out for the simple reason that this is the one thing that I have never gotten bored of – I will happily wake up at 5 in the morning on a Saturday to work, and I’d willingly stay in my studio all night painting. After having met hundreds of dissatisfied employees, I’m well aware of how fortunate I am to truly enjoy what I do.

However, being an artist comes with a price – a pretty high one, and no, I don’t mean rent that you don’t always know you’ll be able to pay. Along with the financial instability that emerging artists must endure, and along with the ambiguity of “Will I ever make it? Will the New York Times ever do a piece on how this installation of mine has the potential to change the world?!” There is a colossal question mark printed over “How do I make it? And what does making it even mean?”

A medical student graduates and works at a hospital or clinic as a doctor. An engineer will either take up an on-the-field job, or work at a fancy office with air conditioning. A political science major will likely join an NGO, but what does an art student do? Nobody really knows, because it’s equally likely than an artist will do anything, everything or nothing. There’s no set career path, no entry level job that will set the tone for your career. In fact, having a steady job is a problem, because it pulls you out of the studio. You’re either emotionally drained or physically exhausted; neither of which is particularly conducive to the production of master pieces.

As a consequence, you find yourself in a sink or swim situation in your early 20s. To take up a job or not to take up a job? Should it be part-time? Should I be networking? Well, yes – but how? I’m too humble to boast and shamelessly promote myself, but if I don’t, my art and I will simultaneously rot in my dingy studio. Do I like this city? Not really, but where could I move to, and how? Maybe I should be an escapist and go back to school – get a masters or something.

Should my art be commercial or should I just paint whatever I want to paint? Wait, what is commercial art anyway? Shall I paint a face? I live in a Muslim majority country though, what if by painting figures I’m limiting my audience. Hang on a minute, who is my audience? I hate the galleries here, the curators know nothing about the contemporary international art scene. I mean, why are they still so keen on exhibiting flowers, village scenes and birds? Why do Pakistanis love paintings of birds so much?

These are all questions that one must face and find answers to, and these are not answers you can find on Google or get by chit chatting with other artists. If somebody else did manage to make it in the archetypal sense of the term, it’s usually because they were in the right place at the right time, making art that was perfect for that time and place, exposed to opportunities that were ideal for their art. Following somebody else’s trajectory, while offering you a sense of false security, may one day prove to be just that – false. You could do all the right things, and still not make it, for the simple reason that there is a massive variable involved: the work you’re producing, and how current it is. At the end of the day, no amount of networking or research will culminate in anything concrete unless your work has substance.

That leads to your mind never quite being able to switch off, the wheels in your head have to keep going round and round, until you figure out what to paint and how. You seek inspiration everywhere, you waste a lot of art supplies, you feel guilty about wasting the hours you sink into experimenting. People ask you what you are painting and why, they ask you why you’re painting something thematically similar to what you painted previously, and then if they are your friends; they ask you why you haven’t yet given them a painting, and if they’re an acquaintance, they ask if you have a painting that will go with the yellow curtains in their lounge. They’ll ask you when your next exhibition is and how many pieces you’re planning to show.

I cannot speak for everybody when I say this, but I personally feel that it’s important to tune out the running commentary you get from other people while trying to find your place in the art world. However, the fact remains that while an artist loves the process of art making, in order to be successful, an artist must deal with other people – non-artists, people who do not marvel at how the paint drips on your canvas but who focus on subject matter and colour palette. Businesses that buy art based on how well it ties in with their brand, hotels and offices that want non-controversial, uplifting paintings, spas that want soothing landscapes. When deciding what sort of art to make, an artist therefore must take into account ways to make their work accessible, you conduct your market analysis to figure out how to please the people or audience that personally matter to you, while still getting your own conceptual message across and making art that resonates within.

Deciding to become an artist is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage and a lot of daring, for you are creating an individualised, personal career path with no prior knowledge or experience when it comes to charting out a path that way. It requires constant initiative and years of shooting in the dark, it takes commitment and resilience, the ability to not let your spirit get dampened when your work does not sell or a gallery refuses to show your work. It takes opening yourself up to the world, in an urgent scramble for inspiration, looking anywhere and everywhere for direction. There is security and convenience in a more marketable, traditional career path. Hard-work will in more cases than not, result in a tangible achievement. Your effort presents itself to you and the world in statistics or a higher bank balance.

When you’re an artist neither you, nor anybody else really knows if you are making it or doing the right thing, for at least a few years. Your success may at some point be measured in terms of how many people know your work or of it, rather than how much you’re earning. It may come down to how many publicity stunts you manage to pull off, or how different your work is, especially considering the increased competition in today’s art world – since the internet and the ease of air travel have reduced the solidity of international boundaries, you’re competing with artists from literally all over the world.

Going to art school is wonderful – it is satisfying and fulfilling and usually everything you hoped it would be, and more. Yet it is definitely not the easy way out, especially if you are ambitious and have big plans for yourself. It requires a bold, unyielding personality, it is the one field in which you really cannot afford to be risk-averse.