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Finding Freedom in Full-Time Artistry


Jessica Dalrymple '94
Jessica Dalrymple '94

In 2002, I signed a lease on my first studio, completed my training, and committed to being a full-time artist. Eighteen years later, I’m happy to share with Hamilton College students what’s been consistent and what’s evolved in my practice as well as some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a working artist.

Finding inspiration from my surrounding environment has been a consistent theme throughout my career. While some artists look inward, I look outward. This began at Hamilton when as a fine art major, I sourced inspiration from the farms, hills, and valleys where Hamilton is nestled. I was supported and encouraged by my art professors Bruce Muirhead and Bill Salzillo to discover my artistic path. After graduation, I continued to find myself drawn to pristine natural settings and rural landscapes. I situated myself in areas north of New York City for extended periods of time painting outdoors with a portable easel to capture views. I finished and expanded on these works at the studio. During this first phase, I focused on producing, showing, and selling paintings. In addition to mastering the skills of my craft, I acquired skills to operate as a small business, including marketing, promotion, advertising, sales, accounting, photography, styling, web design, writing, and more.

An early challenge of art-making included disciplining myself to get to the easel and stay there! I employed techniques such as listening to the same music (inducing a Pavlovian effect), as well as warm-up rituals (arranging my paint and palette), in order to de-excite my system and focus my attention. Keeping regular hours to impose structure on my studio practice was vital for my productivity. Another challenge was producing consistently, which required remaining “in the zone” on a daily basis, five to six days per week in order to sell 25 to 40 original paintings a year. In an effort to maintain a “flow,” I would often isolate myself through the completion of paintings. While being in the zone produced blissful brain chemistry, the solitude required could be difficult and I struggled in group situations, often feeling socially awkward and nonverbal. My creativity has always come from being well-rested, clear-headed, and unencumbered. Meditation has been a huge help in this regard as well as having a support system. Being in a neighborhood such as Greenwich Village with lots of foot traffic, cafes, and neighborhood personalities has helped too.

The rewards were great almost immediately. Selling paintings was thrilling, and still is. It’s an incredible honor to have someone choose my work for their home or collection. By personally selling my work at art fairs and events (and sometimes right off my outdoor easel), I had the opportunity to meet many people and see firsthand how my work resonated. I enjoyed nurturing these relationships with collectors and supporters and was often invited into their homes for meals and extended stays.

During the second phase of my art practice I  shifted my focus from rural landscapes to nature in the city. I began depicting the contrast of nature with the built environment and found inspiration from the street trees, parks, wildlife, and urban gardens of New York City. Having moved my studio to a cavernous warehouse in an industrial part of Brooklyn in 2011, I wrestled with even greater isolation which forced me to reach out and connect with community organizations. This led to collaborations, art events, and workshops that raised awareness about the local landscape and environmental issues. Participating in open studio events and showing the work in local venues sparked conversations about the landscape and urban nature.

A new challenge emerged, however. While my work was becoming more environmentally conscious and educational, it was now less salable. For example, a series of nine-foot-wide panoramic paintings illustrating past, present, and future local landscapes was not exactly flying off the wall! Curating free art workshops to the public was incredibly rewarding, but grant money was spread thin and only offered small stipends—not to mention rising studio rents in Brooklyn. Adapting meant adding part-time work on the weekends and evenings to supplement my income, including art handling, teaching, renting a spare room and portions of my studio, working restaurant shifts, etc.

Most recently, I’m concerned about my artistic carbon footprint. I hope to make less quantity and instead create higher quality work as I move forward in my studio practice. I’m conscious of recycling and repurposing materials. I’m currently trying to eliminate frames and stretcher bars so my work uses less energy to display, transport, and store. I’m also increasingly interested in teaching, creating experiences, and making public art.

Studying horticulture and teaching botanical drawing has engaged me with the landscape in a more tactile way, such as by foraging plant specimens from city tree pits and parks to have my students observe urban plant life more closely while creatively expressing themselves. Through designing experiences such as “Meditative Nature Journaling Hikes” that bring people to urban green spaces and developing my current painting series about New York City parks, I hope to not only represent nature in the city, but promote direct engagement with it.

Being a full-time artist has meant working all the time, not earning much money, spending lots of time alone, and having to constantly adapt and hustle. My life is my work and my work is my life. But the spiritual rewards are huge--inspiring people, raising money through my art sales for nonprofits, grassroots art galleries, and causes I believe in. All the while, learning, growing, and art-making with infinite creative freedom on a daily basis. Well… I feel blessed.

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