becoming an artist

Three Times the Charm

 Mia Weinberg’s studio shows her love of nature.

Mia Weinberg’s studio shows her love of nature.

You may have already seen the art of Mia Weinberg and not even known it. She creates public art. Her illuminated nature map was seen at the Richmond Skytrain Station. She designed another nature map for the floor of the Delbrook Community Centre in North Vancouver. Public art enlivens our everyday lives, but we seldom recognize the artist or the effort.

In this blog series, I'm interested in discovering what triggers people to turn to art after another career. In Mia's case, it was not a single turning point, but a series of leaps.

Mia came to art through a very circuitous route. She grew up in England and although she loved art as a child, she believed that real artists had an innate ability to draw. Although she excelled at pottery and screen printing, she couldn’t draw and thus believed that she wasn’t creative enough to be an artist. She went on to study materials technology and became a packaging designer in the plastics industry. 

But after nearly a decade of hard work and success, she made a bold decision. She was going to rent out her house, quit her steady job, and move to Vancouver to explore her artistic side. She explained to her puzzled friends and worried parents that this would be the gap year that she had never taken. 

Why did Mia make such a drastic change? It was a combination of things. Her job had shifted and she was looking for a change. Her milestone thirtieth birthday was approaching. Her sister had just gotten married—in Vancouver.

After arriving in Canada, Mia dove into the creative life and took art classes.  After her “gap year” was over, she decided to stay in Vancouver, applied for her visa, and found a job. Eventually she enrolled in the fine arts program at Emily Carr University.

But even though she had moved much closer to her childhood dream of being an artist, Mia's pragmatism still won out and she chose the industrial design stream. Her immigrant parents ingrained a strong work ethic in Mia, which meant she prioritized the responsibility to support herself. Night shift work at the post office financed her while she was at art school.

Her second turning point came at a summer retreat for personal development with new friends from art school. Mia realized what was really important to her was fine arts and freedom of personal expression. She switched from industrial design over to painting and photography, and began experimenting with photograms. Photograms allowed her to express her love of nature and natural forms. (You can see one of her photograms in the studio photo above.)

After graduating from Emily Carr, Mia continued with the photograms and her work at the post office. Then an opportunity arose for her to work with an art consultant. This job was more related to her art practice and its part-time hours allowed her to work on her art. At work, Mia created proposals and presenting to businesses—all new experiences for her.

The final turning point for Mia came when she was invited to apply for a public art project in Edmonton, which combined natural forms with granite. Public art was a perfect synthesis for Mia. The Edmonton project combined the nature themes of her photography, her work in industrial materials, and the business aspects of her art consulting. She loved the experience and began to apply for more public art projects.

A public art career is different from a studio practice. Mia applies to cross-Canada competitions for public art pieces. She develops a concept and then researches the materials involved---like the engraved granite she used in Edmonton. Her proposal includes: the artwork concept, a construction schedule, and a budget. The budget includes artist fees. After writing and submitting a proposal, she waits to hear if she has won the competition. Delays are common, and it can take months or even years before the artwork actually happens. Her schedule is tough to predict and years can be crazily busy or scarily empty.

Naturally, the more public art you create, the more well-known you become and the easier it is to win competitions. For Mia, her dream is to become so renowned that she will get to skip competition process. The day I interviewed her, she was finishing a proposal, and waiting to hear about two others. However precarious this life might be, Mia loves her public art practice. For the first time since she quit her job in England, she works full time in art alone.

Mia's art career has lessons for other creative people looking to pursue their dreams.

Don’t give up your day job.

Mia walked the tightrope between creative dreams and practicality. Although she was drawn to art from the beginning, she resisted the impracticality of an art career. She worked first in an art-adjacent field—packaging design—to make a living. In this way, she built up a nest egg that allowed her the financial freedom to take off for Canada and art school. Throughout her art career, she maintained part-time jobs alongside her art practice. Mia can proudly say that she has always supported herself.

But…your day job can inspire your art.

When Mia finally settled on public art, she was able to synthesize all her life experiences, something that a younger artist would not be able to do. Her work in industrial design, her interest in nature and photogram work, her art consultancy experience—all have come together in her current art. Most artists draw upon their lives and history to create art; the more experience you have to draw on, the more depth your art will have. 

To see more of Mia’s artwork, especially the public art you may have already admired, check out her website.

I have a painting at the MOMA (and you could too!)

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OK, as I'm sure you've guessed, there's some fine print involved in my claim, which I'll explain later. But this journey began, as many good things do, in Venice. 

While I was on my three-month European trip last year, I had more free time than usual since I had so few responsibilities. I was a lying on a couch in our Castello apartment when an appealing art course appeared on my Insta feed, It was Postwar Abstract Painting and it was offered by the MOMA through Coursera. Since I had the time, I signed up. To be honest, Venice does that to me. There's so much exquisite ancient art that I get itchy for something more current.

The course is eight weeks long, with each lesson focusing on one artist. There are videos, readings, quizzes, and to my surprise: studio exercises.

The studio exercises proved very interesting. The instructor, Corey D'Augustine, demonstrates on video how artists like Ad Reinhard and Yayoi Kusama created their works. (Not Rothko of course, his luminous colour techniques remain a  mystery even though Corey tries.) I couldn't begin the painting part until I got back to my studio, but I was eager to try. And studio exercises were a revelation. Technical details connected my own art practice to those of artists I admire. For homework, we were supposed to create "copies" as an exercise, but the more inspiring part is realizing how each artist struggled to communicate theory and ideas through their work.

Ad Reinhard tried to create completely black paintings by stripping away everything but pigment from his paints. Before, his blank black canvases were the kind of painting I would pass by, but now I can hardly wait to see his work in person.

I'm a huge proponent of continuous learning, but it's not always possible to find the courses you want to take in your city. However with online learning, the options are endless. I was surprised that a free art course with no feedback could be so fulfilling, but this one definitely was. The MOMA continues to notify me when new videos related to the class are posted, and recently they invited all the students to submit for a show about the course. The artwork will be the exercises we created during the class. I submitted my Mark Rothko exercise. Believe me, I respect his painting even more now that I've tried to recreate his luminous colour through thin layers of paint. And I was happy to find out my art was selected for the exhibition.

Which brings us to the fine print. The show I'm in is at the MOMA's Education and Research building. The featured artwork will be projected on four screens the show runs for most of January. There's even an opening on January 8th. A New York opening? I wish I could be there, but apparently there's a ton of snow right now.

If you're interested in taking the class and someday being in the MOMA yourself, check out this link on Coursera. Then you  too could be exhibiting at the MOMA someday.

Art As Therapy

This post marks the first in a series of interviews that I will be doing about artists who came to art later in life. I was inspired to do this by my own life as well as many questions I've been asked in my studio and after artist talks. I believe that many people are looking for encouragement in pursuing an encore career in art. Hopefully these stories will encourage people to explore their own creativity.


Sande Waters

Choosing a career in art was simple for Sande Waters. Art is something that she must have in her daily life. In her lovely water-view home in North Vancouver, she has not one but two studios. The upstairs studio is a wide desk crammed with art supplies located beside her kitchen in the place where most would install a breakfast nook. Sande has trouble passing this spot without adding something to the many paper works she has on the go. On the day that I visited, she had two ink abstractions drying there.

Her other studio is in a converted garage (shown above). She  shares this workspace with two of her sons; her three sons are artistic as well. Sande confesses that this studio can get cold in the winter, but it gives her a place to work on larger art. She has a big canvas laid out with a beautiful splotch of ink absorbed into the surface in a way that reminds me of colour field artist Helen Frankenthaler. This studio is also full of: artwork, art books, art supplies, and canvases. If the studio illustrates the brain, Sande is an artist overflowing with ideas.

Sande’s current work is abstract and energetic. Ink is her current obsession, and she uses it on Yupo paper, canvas, and even on the small paper boxes she constructs. Her favourite subject is overviews, the kind of images that you get from airplanes. The loose flow of the spread of acrylic ink can be converted into imaginary topographic maps.

And Sande’s artwork isn’t confined to the studio. She serves on the board of directors of the Contemporary Art Society of Vancouver, and is in charge of awarding prizes to cutting edge artists. Sande and I meet most often at Seymour Art Gallery openings where she serves on the board there as well.

The Turning Point

Despite all this creative activity, Sande wasn’t always an artist. Her life followed a more traditional path: office work, marriage, and bookkeeping for the family business. Then at 42 years of age, there was a turning point in her life: her marriage ended.

At that point, with three young children, she had decisions to make. On one hand, she could take courses in accounting and continue her career in bookkeeping. But the other path—her love of art—was the one that appealed to her. She took a job with the school board as a special needs aide that would allow her summers with her kids. And she began part-time art studies at Emily Carr.

Although Sande has no complaints about the turn her life took, she fully realizes that art became therapy for her. She loved all her classes at Emily Carr. For Sande, art was an escape: a place where she could be creative and maintain a sense of self. Every mother knows how draining children can be, regardless of how much we love our kids, we become so-and-so’s mother instead of ourselves. Art is a way of declaring our creative identity. 

Sande’s determination shows in her art education. She graduated with her BFA from Emily Carr, a feat that took fourteen years! And then she went on to get her MFA at a low residency art program at the San Francisco Art Institute. The low residency component meant she could remain in Vancouver with her family and attend only summer classes in San Francisco.

What artists can learn from Sande

I was impressed by Sande’s inner calm and confidence. Perhaps because of her art degrees, she has never had any trouble identifying as an artist and continuing her art practice throughout her work, parenting, and studies. She would like to make more money in art sales, but draws a distinction between “décor art” and “core art” that may be less commercial.

Regarding art as personal therapy, Sande said she can both “lose herself in art, and find herself in art.” Art cannot be understated as a way of expressing ourselves and working out our emotions. I have written before about the times when I’ve used art to escape my personal problems, and Sande’s experience underlines this idea for me. She sees art as a form of self-expression and has identified therapy as a consistent theme in her work.

Finally, I asked Sande if she has any advice for aspiring artists. In particular, what should mature artists do to make current, cutting edge works? Her suggestions:

  •  Be true to yourself. Don’t worry about what people buy or like.
  •  Use play and experimentation to extend your art practice. Sometimes finding your expertise is a process of elimination.
  •  Educate yourself about art. Take an art degree or quality art courses.

To learn more about Sande Waters’s art, please check out her website.