The Hidden Path to a Creative Career, with Cory Huff

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Transcript

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life. I’m Mac Pritchard, your host, and publisher of Mac’s list. Our show’s brought to you by Mac’s list and our book, Name Your Dream Job in Portland (and Beyond). To learn more about the brand new edition, now available for the first time in print and Kindle, visit macslist.org/eBook.

Say the word creativity and the first job that comes to mind may be artist, or you may think of writers, actors, or designers. Whatever the occupation, one of the most valuable gifts each of us has is our creativity. Every day we bring to our jobs unique talents and ideas that nobody else has. When we have the opportunity to put that creativity to good use, our work becomes more rewarding and our employers and the customers we serve benefit.

This week on Find Your Dream Job we’re talking about creative careers. Later in the show I’ll speak to Cory Huff, founder of the website theabundantartist.com, about the hidden paths in creative careers. Whether you’re an artist, or just need to share work samples, Ben Forstag has a photo editing tool you’ll want to check out. [inaudible 00:01:17] Let’s first check in with the Mac’s list team, Cecilia, Ben. When you two think about creative careers, what’s the number one barrier you see people encounter?

Cecilia Bianco:

I think when people are first breaking in to the creative industry, they’re not as prepared as they should be as far as samples of their work. Building that up before you start job searching is something that I’ve talked to a lot of people about.

Ben Forstag:

I’d say there’s two. One is talent isn’t always good enough, a lot of success depends on the networks you build. You can’t just paint a pretty picture, or have a great writing sample, put it online, and expect business to come to you. You have to go out there and build the connections, do the ground work so that you can sell your creative services to others. The other one, I’d say, and this more of a structural issue in the economy right now, is a lot of creative services have become commoditized, where creative artists are creating against each other for different kind of contracts, which really pushes prices down and I think, to some extent, devalues what those folks bring to the marketplace. Those are just challenges that people in the creative space need to look at.

Mac Prichard:

I would agree with both of you. I think a key point, and we’ll share more about this from Cory later in the show, is mindset. It’s thinking about if you are pursuing a creative career that you need to think about the business of doing that, whether it’s how you approach your job, or whether you go out and work for yourself. You don’t have to accept the idea that following a creative career means that you have take a vow of poverty. Let’s check in with Ben, who every week is out there exploring the internet, looking for tools that you can use in your job and in your career. Ben, what have you discovered for us this week?

Ben Forstag:

This week, I want to share a free and very powerful photo editing tool called Pixlr, that’s spelled P-I-X-L-R. It’s available at the aptly named URL pixlr.com. I think this is a great tool for 2 different reasons. One is it provides a platform for training, if you’re not really good at photo editing or graphic design this is a free tool you can use to get some experience in that area. Second, and I’ll talk about this a little bit more later on, this is a tool you can use to help with your actual job search.

We’ve all heard of Photoshop, which many creative professionals use, and even many people outside of the traditional creative sector use this tool to edit, crop, enhance, and modify photos. Photo Shop is a fantastic tool, I use it almost every day.

Cecilia Bianco:

I do too, Ben. It’s funny that you’re talking about Pixlr, because before I had access to Photo Shop, I always used Pixlr.

Ben Forstag:

That’s right. I’m talking about Photoshop as a segue in to Pixlr because the downside of Photoshop is it’s expensive, you have to pay for it. Pixlr is the poor man’s Photo Shop, where it’s free but you’re not compromising a whole lot of functionality. Pixlr’s a free, web based app, it allows you to open, edit, and save photos both from your own computer, and those you find online. In terms of the layout, it looks and feels a lot like Photoshop, and I’d say it includes about 80% of the functionality you’d find in Photoshop, which for most folks is still more than enough. It’s a really solid tool and it’s been around for several years, and I’ve noticed the developers continue to make improvements and upgrades, and of course, the price is right.

Mac Prichard:

Ben, how do you think people can use Pixlr whether they’re looking for work, or in managing their career?

Ben Forstag:

You can use Pixlr for just about any photo or simple graphic design project. You can also use it to learn new employment skills. For example, if you’re not familiar with Photo Shop and don’t want to go spend the $300 to get the license, you can use Pixlr as a proxy training tool. Again, it’s amazing how similar the 2 products are in how they look, and how they feel, and they operate. Pixlr is a great way to familiarize yourself with, basically, the operations of Photo Shop.

Also, there’s always a need to crop and re-size images when you’re dealing with social media, and your profiles on social media, this is particularly true when you’re dealing with profile photos. Pixlr is a great tool for doing that, it’s quick, easy, and free.

Mac Prichard:

We do have a future show coming up where we’re going to dive into LinkedIn profiles, and a tool like this can be very helpful in making your page look as professional as possible.

Ben Forstag:

Exactly. I would encourage everyone to check this out, it’s pixlr.comP-I-X-L-R.com.

Mac Prichard:

Great stuff, Ben. If you have an idea for Ben, we’d love to hear from you. You can write him directly at his email address, which is ben@macslist.org. Now, let’s turn to you, our listeners. Cecilia Bianco, our community manager, is sorting through messages from you that come in all kinds of ways. Cecilia, what do you have for us this week?

Cecilia Bianco:

This week a reader wrote in and said, “I really want to work for a specific company. I’m thinking about taking a lower level job to get my foot in the door, in hopes I’ll be able to move into the job I want. Is this a good idea?” I think this is a great thing, but you just have to be clear with the employer about your goals to eventually be in a different role, and make sure that this job that you’re accepting is a good first step in that direction. You want to be strategic about how you’re framing your goal to the employer so you’re not giving off the vibe that you’re just accepting this job to get in with the company. You want to explain that you’re excited to learn and grow in this specific role because your ultimate goal for your career is to end up in X job, whatever that might be.

From the people I’ve talked to and my own experiences, it can be a lot easier to get hired and move up through promotions rather than applying for a higher level, because once you know and understand the company’s culture, its values, the people that work for the company, its products and markets, you’re in a much better position to move up. If you take a lower level job and do really well, you’ll hopefully be able to quickly get a promotion, which is obviously ideal. You just want to be careful because if you start too low at the company, or in a department too different from where you want to be, it could take a frustrating amount of time to get in to the right role. Just consider how large the gap is between the job that you’re accepting and the job you actually want.

Mac and Ben, what do you think about this? Have either of you ever used this tactic?

Ben Forstag:

I’ve never actually used this tactic, but I really like your suggestion about talking to the prospective employer and saying what your goals are. I know when I talk to people applying for jobs, I always say, “What is your career goal in 5 years, or 10 years?” Most of the time I don’t anticipate that the job I’m offering is the end of their career, this is not the place they want to be in 40 years. It’s good to know where they want to go and that gives me an idea, as the prospective employer, if I can deliver on what they’re looking for with the current job and the opportunities in the organization at large, and it lets that person know whether they’re going to get what they’re looking for if they come and join the organization.

Mac Prichard:

I have used this technique. Back in the 1990s one of my goals was to have a communications job with the governor of Oregon. I applied twice, Cecilia, for positions with the governors. I had interviews but I didn’t get those jobs. Then, I was offered a 10 week temporary assignment filling in for the deputy communications director and I left a permanent stay job to take that position, and I ended up staying with the governor for 3 years. But, I needed to get my foot in the door and show what I could do. I also took a pay cut to do it, my wife was a good soldier about putting up with that. It did pay off. I went in to it with eyes wide open and no guarantees it would lead to other opportunities, but I thought, and this proved to be the case, that if I could get my foot in the door and show what I could do, they would ask me to stay.

Cecilia Bianco:

Yeah, it can definitely be a good move. If you do decide to take a lower job, it’s important to set a time frame for yourself to either get a promotion or meet some milestone goals within the company, because you don’t want to get stuck in this lower level job for too long, which can make it harder to find a job elsewhere. Obviously, the alternate choice would be to find a position more suited to what you want at a different company while you continue to make connections and network within this dream company. Which is also a good strategy, but if the company in question is a hard place to get in to, it might be a longer road ahead as you found out with your experience.

Mac Prichard:

Good advice Cecilia, thank you. If you have a question for us, please email communitymanager@macslist.org and we may feature your question on our next show.

These segments by Ben and Cecilia are sponsored by the 2016 edition of Land Your Dream Job in Portland (and Beyond). Now, for the first time, you can read Land Your Dream Job in Portland (and Beyond) on your Kindle, Nook, or iPad. You can also order a paperback edition. Whatever the format, our goal is the same, to give you the tools and tips you need to find meaningful work, for more information visit macslist.org/eBook, and sign up for our eBook newsletter. We’ll send you publication updates, share exclusive book content, and provide you with special prices.

Now, let’s turn to this week’s guest expert, Cory Huff. Cory Huff teaches visual artists how to make a living from their creative work by selling their art online. His company, The Abundant Artist, has helped hundreds of independent artists, all over the world, turn their dreams into reality. Cory is also an active performance artist and photographer. Cory, thanks for coming on the show.

Cory Huff:

Thanks for having me, Mac. It’s great to be here.

Mac Prichard:

Yeah. It’s great to have you here in the studio, face to face. Cory, we’re talking about creative careers, and let’s start with some of the common myths. The biggest one out there is the starving artist.

Cory Huff:

Sure.

Mac Prichard:

We’ve all probably had parents, or friends, or family that says, “You want to be a writer, you want to be an actor, you’re going to end up living in a garret.” What do you say to people who think a creative careers means a life of poverty?

Cory Huff:

Yeah. Sure. I’ll start by sharing one of my favorite stories from the last couple centuries. There’s a guy named Henry Murger, and Henry was a writer in Paris in the early 1800s, and he wrote a book called A Day in the Life of the Bohemian. The book is about these Bohemian students that lived in the Latin quarter in Paris and they would get up in the morning and they would call themselves artists, and they would go out to the cafes and they would talk to their other artist friends. They would spend a lot of time talking about being artists. But, they didn’t actually make any money. The reason they didn’t make any money is because they weren’t actually putting in the work, they were just sitting around talking about being artists.

The funny thing about this book is the book became immensely popular. We’re talking French aristocracy coming down to the Latin quarter and slumming with the Bohemians, dressing like them, because it was cool and trendy to do so, to look like they were poor. Being a poor artist suddenly became this cool, hip thing to do. That inspired a play called a Day in the Life of the Bohemian, which became the opera La Boheme, which was the inspiration for the musical Rent. You can see this idea of the starving artist being the ideal situation, proliferating through Western culture. There’s lots of other examples like Murger’s book.

The funny thing is, in the intro of the book, Murger says this is not the ideal lifestyle. This is a work of fiction about people who don’t do the work necessary to become an artist. If you stay in this place, you’re either going to end up dead or in the hotel deux, which is the insane asylum. Even Murger, who wrote this book, recognized that being a starving artist is a stage that you go through when you’re becoming an artist. Just like any other career, you start out working for jobs that don’t pay very much, doing freelance gigs that don’t pay very much, and you work your way up to better and better gigs and jobs.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk about the path to a creative career. What’s the first step that people have to take in order not to be, and this is a phrase I picked up in grad school, an artiste manque, somebody who pretends that being an artist, but actually, as you say, doesn’t do the work.

Cory Huff:

Right, or a dilettante. Yeah. There’s a lot of different ways to say that.

Mac Prichard:

Right.

Cory Huff:

The first step is getting training, and for a lot of artists that means going to art school. But, for a lot of artists, it doesn’t mean going to art school, it’s just getting whatever training is necessary, whether you go to an [inaudible 00:13:54] or you just pick up a bunch of books. There’s even artists who just study on their own and just learn it, figure it out on their own, spending hours and hours in the studio. Whatever it is, you need to build up your skills as an artist and then you build up a body of work. That just means having an idea, taking an idea that you care about and exploring it from a creative, artistic standpoint until you’ve reached in to all of the different parts of that idea and expressed them.

Mac Prichard:

For people who aren’t pursuing art as a full time occupation, but the writers, designers, and they’re looking for day jobs, are there any differences in that path?

Cory Huff:

I don’t think so. I think when we talk about day jobs, if you’re a graphic designer, for example, you are going to be asked to have the ability to express the ideas for whatever brand is paying you. As a graphic designer, as a creative person, you need to understand what it means to take an idea and express it to its fullest extent, to take those ideas out to whatever their ultimate expression is going to be. Whether that is in writing, or in graphic design, or fine art, whatever that is, you need to be capable of doing something like that. Whenever I hire a graphic designer, or a creative in my business, I’m always looking for somebody who is actively exploring those ideas outside of paid freelance gigs, or paid gigs. People who care so much about whatever their creative expression is, that they’re working on it outside of what they’re getting paid to do.

Mac Prichard:

For some creatives, the word business is either, it’s a mystery or, perhaps, a dirty word. Why do you think that creative people, whether they’re full time artists, or people working inside businesses or organizations, should think more about the business of art?

Cory Huff:

I think business became a dirty word because of things like Murger’s book, where we lionize the dilettante artist, or we lionize the starving artist and say, well that person is great. Business is simply, at its heart, it’s just an exchange of value. It’s saying, I have a thing that you want, you have a thing that I want, let’s trade. In contemporary society, that’s usually money. I have a skill, you give me some money for that skill or that time. Understanding the basics of what business is, so that you can best leverage your abilities and skills, and get the most out of it you can, that’s the heart of it.

Mac Prichard:

One of the things that’s striking about the art world is, there’s an idea that you need to be anointed or picked. Can you tell me more about that?

Cory Huff:

Sure. There’s a couple ways. There’s art galleries that operate at a very high level, they sell individual pieces of art for 6 or 7 figures or more. There’s auction houses that sell art on the secondary market for tremendous sums of money. Those things get in the paper. They end up in the news, they end up in the New York Times, and on the evening news and all that kind of stuff. That’s what gets talked about in the day to day life of people who don’t know a lot about the art world. Artists, they want that, they want to sell their work for 6 or 7 figures. Also, those galleries and auction houses, quite often, they’re the ones that get talked about by the art critics, and by the academics. But, there’s a whole other world of professional artists, and I’m not just talking about painters, and sculptors, and stuff, I’m talking about musicians, this applies to every form of creative expression.

There’s an upper echelon that makes the news and then there’s this whole other world of the day to day working artist. There’s thousands and thousands of those day to day working creatives who make a great living doing what they do, but they don’t necessarily make the news.

Mac Prichard:

They’re not in the paper, they’re not getting calls from galleries, but they’re making a living. How do they do that, Cory?

Cory Huff:

That’s a great question. In my experience, for the artists that I work with, they have a small group of very loyal followers. I’ll give you an example, there’s an artist here in Portland, Oregon, good friend of mine, his name is Matt Richards. He runs, his studio’s called Ekko Studios, E-K-K-O. Matt’s studio, he makes these amazing mobiles, these 30, 40 foot across mobiles that are just incredible. He started 15 years ago selling these mobiles, small versions on eBay. By selling them on eBay, some art enthusiasts and art directors for construction projects started getting in to his work, by just organically discovering it on eBay. Some of these art directors started approaching him and saying, “Well, can you make bigger pieces for this new corporate headquarters that we’re going to do? Or this movie we’re going to shoot, or this private collector’s looking for a piece in his mansion in Dubai.”

These organic connections happened and his business just grew and grew over the course of 15 years. Now, he’s never been, I mean he’s actually been featured in a few magazines but he’s never been in the news, he’s not famous, but he has a very, very good business selling these mobiles. He’s expanded it out from there from the individual commission pieces, he’s got some retail pieces that sell in museum stores and things like that. In the beginning, it was simply selling pieces on eBay, and then retaining the contact information for all of those individual buyers, and maintaining relationships with them, either by phone or email, or whatever. Just being in regular contact with those people, seeing who needs work when, and just maintaining that relationship like a good business person does.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Some of the steps on that path to a creative career include don’t wait to be picked, build networks, and keep track of your customers, and pay attention to relationships. Cory, what difference can having allies and partners make along the way?

Cory Huff:

It’s a huge difference. I mentioned he made connections with some art directors. These art directors are people who, they get hired by a construction company, the client is building a new corporate headquarters and they want their lobby to be really impressive. These art directors look around and they look at their network of creatives and they say, “What can we put on the wall? What can we put on the ceiling? What kind of music can we play in this lobby?” They want to create an experience in there. The art director will come to Matt, my buddy, and say, “Hey, can you make a piece that fits these parameters, and how much does it cost?” He will give them a quote and say, “Here’s the timeline for it.” He’s got all of that figured out because he’s been doing it for awhile. That’s how the business works.

Mac Prichard:

Great advice. Then, if business can be a dirty word for some artists, a lot of artists are also afraid of marketing. Let’s talk about marketing and why many artists have, and creatives, have an allergic reaction to it, and why they should pay attention to it.

Cory Huff:

You know, it’s really interesting because I’m teaching a class right now. In the class, I’m asking artists to look at what makes your creative thing, what sets you apart from everybody else in the world. I’m not asking them to go out and market themselves, I’m just saying, let’s examine that, what sets you apart. That’s what marketing is, at the heart of it. Most creatives haven’t taken the time to figure out what sets them apart from others. Most of the time, what differentiates and artist from other people, from other artists whose work is similar, is whatever the emotional impetus is for making the art that they make. You only can know that by spending some time in introspection, looking at … There’s this great quote from Matisse he says that he looked back at his body of work, midway through his career he looked back at his body of work and what he initially saw as repetition, he said, “No, this is just mindless repetition all throughout all of my individual pieces.”

He eventually realized was actually the thing that made his work Matisse. He realized that it was his personality coming out in his work. I think that holds true. You look at certain graphic designers and you say, “Oh, I know who that graphic designer is.” There’s a couple of web designers that I go, “Man, I know that guy, that site was done by so and so.” Or, musicians, who, Chris Cornell is an example of a musician that I love, and every band that he’s been in, I listen to and go, “Man, I love the way that he approaches that music.” He’s been in 6 bands. That thing that makes you unique, whether it’s a flaw, or a perceived flaw, that’s the thing that makes you unique, and makes your work unique. It’s the thing that you actually need to embrace and steer into, rather than try to avoid, which is the mistake that a lot of artists make.
When it comes to marketing, and figuring out, why do I hate marketing so much and why do I not want to do marketing so much? I think it comes from a deep seated discomfort with understanding who you are and being able to communicate why you’re different to other people.

Mac Prichard:

Okay. Know your differences and that will help you along the way of that path to that creative career. This has been a great conversation, Cory. What are some other points you’d like to leave with our listeners?

Cory Huff:

Whether you choose to go to work for yourself or you go choose to go work for somebody else, and employ your creative skills that way, it’s possible. Don’t listen to the negative voices. Look at the people who are actively doing it and listen to what they’re saying, and what they’re doing, and ignore everybody else, ignore the critics.

Mac Prichard:

There’s certainly many, many people who are doing it. In doing research for this episode, I discovered there are 1.4 million working artists in the United States today, and there are many, many other people in creative occupations. It is possible. Cory, what’s coming up next for you?

Cory Huff:

We’ve got two big things, one is my book, it’s called How to Sell Your Art Online. It comes out from Harper Collins in June, the physical copy comes out in June. You can pre-order it now at Amazon, you can actually download the Kindle version now, so I’m excited about that. We just [crosstalk 00:23:37]

Mac Prichard:

Congratulations.

Cory Huff:

Yeah. It’s pretty exciting. Then, in July of this year, we have The Abundant Artist conference, where we’re going to host about 300 artists from all different stages of career, here in Portland. We’re going to have a bunch of artists, who have 6 and 7 figure art businesses, come and talk on stage about how they got to where they are. We’re going to, hopefully, leave all of the artists that come, with a plan for the next 3 to 6 months of their career so they know exactly what they need to do.

Mac Prichard:

That’s terrific. We’ll be sure to include links to both of those, the book and the conference, in the show notes. To learn more about Cory and his work, and the new book coming out later this year, or available now on Kindle on Amazon, visit theabundantartist.com. Cory, thanks for joining us in the studio.

Cory Huff:

Thanks so much, Mac.

Mac Prichard:

We’re back in the studio. Ben, Cecilia, what were the most important points you heard Cory make?

Cecilia Bianco:

I loved his points about business and marketing. I think he simplified what they really are, business as an exchange of value and just focusing on that alone, rather than some of the other ideas about business that can be scary. Marketing, I liked how he just simplified it to focusing on what sets you apart, and then embracing that and being able to sell that to others.

Mac Prichard:

I think being clear about your difference and celebrating that differences, gives you a huge advantage with other artists or other job seekers.

Cecilia Bianco:

Yeah.

Ben Forstag:

I liked his point about not waiting to be picked. I think a lot of people dream of the big career where they’re the international celebrity artist, or they’re the rock star musician. Some people have that, but that’s obviously not going to be the career for every artist. Even if that’s the case, you can still make a good living through art. It reminded me of some friends of mine in Cleveland, Ohio, who, they’re not household names but they make a solid living as backup musicians for different bands. He supports his family doing that and it’s a good, solid, reliable career, and he’s doing what he loves.

Mac Prichard:

I think stepping forward and chasing your goal, whatever it may be, whether it’s art or some other occupation, gives you a big advantage. Great. Thank you both and thank you all for listening. We’ll be back next Wednesday with more tools and tips you can use to find your dream job.

In the meantime, if you like what you hear on the show, please help us by leaving a review and a rating at iTunes. This helps improve our standings on the iTunes rankings and helps other people discover the show.

We’ve had several new reviews, and Ben and I are going to share them. The first one is from Solar Engineer, who writes, “I recommend this podcast for its beneficial blend of advice from professionals, its anecdotes, well researched tools and resources, and spot on subject matter. Each episode has provided useful tips which have positively enhanced my job search. Thanks Mac, Cecilia, Ben, and all the many insightful contributors.” Thank you Solar Engineer. Ben, you have one to share with us?

Ben Forstag:

Sure. This one comes from Ian T. Davidson, who writes, “I’m a young professional on the job hunt and this podcast is perfect for my needs and fills a knowledge gap I didn’t realize I had.” Thank you for your nice words Ian, and let us know how you’re doing on that job hunt.

Mac Prichard:

Thank you, Ian and Solar Engineer. Thank you all for listening, join us next week.

It is a myth that a creative career means a lifetime of poverty.

Nearly 1.4 million Americans work in creative occupations. And while only a small number of those become famous household names, a vast majority maintain successful and rewarding creative careers.

This week on Find Your Dream Job, we’re talking all about creative careers. We’re joined by Cory Huff, an actor, writer, and expert on the business of being a creative professional. Cory shares advice on how to start and maintain a strong, independent, and financially sustainable creative career.

This Week’s Guest

Cory Huff teaches visual artists how to make a living from their creative work by selling their art online. His company, The Abundant Artist, has helped hundreds of independent artists, all over the world, turn their dreams into reality. Cory is the author of How To Sell Your Art Online. He is also an active performance artist and photographer.

Resources from this Episode