Honesty as a Resource for Early Career Artists in New York City
by Mack Lawrence* for Movement Research
I decided when I was very young that I wanted to move to New York someday, back when my dreams looked very different and I wasn’t worried about how I was going to make it happen. At first it was idealistic and far away and glittering, and eventually it became more logistical — how am I going to pay my rent, will I like Brooklyn better than Manhattan, how far is the walk to the nearest grocery store? I grew a bit more weary. Do I have the temperament for New York? Will I be able to find my way there? Will I actually be able to afford it or will I have to turn right back around as soon as I get there? But after graduating college into an unforeseen-pandemic-filled adult life and a year stuck in my hometown, I figured I should try.
Once I got here, I realized I had spent so much time fretting about how I was going to get here, that I hadn’t thought much about what I was going to do once I actually arrived. I had done it! Moved to New York! The thing I always said I would do! Now I’m in a huge city, going to classes where I know no one in spaces that feel foreign and unfamiliar. In some ways this is invigorating — the endless possibilities, the new communities, watching people building lives you always wanted. And on the other hand, it is so horrifying. There is so MUCH here, just to learn about it is a feat of its own. Some people may suggest that this is something to be excited about — the world is your oyster! But as a young twenty-three with generalized anxiety disorder and a desire for control, it’s thrown me for a bit of a loop.
“New York is challenging. It demands something of you. When you feel like you’re getting a handle on the city, and its million little ecologies, it feels gratifying. You have to collaborate with New York.” -Tess Michaelson
I find that transparency can be hard to come by. I feel pressure to pretend like I have a plan, like I am headed in the right direction, like I have no doubts. But inside I feel like an eighth grader who just transferred schools mid-year, knows no one, and is in the middle of a gender identity crisis. Fortunately, I think A LOT of people feel like that, especially early-career artists that have just moved to New York City. So, when deciding to write this blog post, I wanted to reach out to other interns at Movement Research who also just arrived here. In true pandemic fashion, I e-met Willow Green and Tess Michaelson and asked them some questions about their experience thus far.
What has it been like moving to New York City?
Willow: Moving to NYC felt like a relieving transition for me, which was, at first, hard to believe. I grew up in rural North Carolina in a town of around 900 people (it has since grown, plus, thankfully, my family moved to Raleigh). After that, I went to school at Kenyon College, which is a liberal arts school in smalltown Ohio. Living in these rural places is not something I regret, but, leaving them, I knew I needed to live in a city. I needed the queer community and expansive self-expression possibilities of New York, and I needed artistic opportunities. Many of the friends and fellow artists I am closest to from Kenyon were from here, which sometimes makes it feel like I am being held by the same community but in a new setting. Maybe I’m being cheesy or too quick, but, for me, NYC does already feel like home. I don’t imagine myself leaving for a good while, unless for contained opportunities (i.e. summer residences / etc). NYC itself has felt exciting and strangely relieving. The difficulties, I think, are in the continued burdens of weight I already carried.
“…moving to New York felt like meeting a bunch of far off relatives who are just like me.” -Mack Lawrence
Tess: I moved to New York in the summer of 2018, spent a few months at an editorial internship, totally broke down, went home (to Portland, Or), came back the next summer, started in the MFA writing program at Columbia, did a semester and a half-in person and then the pandemic “hit.” I went back home to Portland and did school remotely. Being isolated from my cohort/community was a huge loss. At the same time, I think it provided me with the privacy and anonymity I maybe needed to get to certain places in my mind/artistic practice. I came back to New York the next summer — summer being a totally fateful time to move to New York…or maybe moving to New York is always fateful to some degree — and submitted my thesis a year later. This is all to say, I guess, it’s been a somewhat, at least geographically, scattered time since I “moved” in 2018.
I’d say the first year or year and a half or two can be tough, lonely, I felt like a loser a good amount of the time. And New York is challenging. It definitely demands something of you. I think that’s why when you feel like you’re getting a handle on the city, and its million little ecologies, it’s a very gratifying experience. It feels earned — to use language I’m trying to stop using…You have to collaborate with the city.
Me: When I was in college for dance, I started to feel like I didn’t quite fit in the repertory dance world. It didn’t feel like my body, or my mind, was built for it. Maybe it was my growing relationship with my queerness or a desire to explore other types of artistic connection, but I was drawn to the experimental. I am from Austin, TX, where experimental dance does exist — some really cool shit. But moving to New York felt like meeting a bunch of far off relatives who are just like me. The vast depth of the experimental scene here that goes back for so many years — it’s so thrilling to see and learn from.
I connect to what Willow said about needing the queer community and self-expression of New York. I didn’t realize before I got here how much I was craving it. Here I feel like I can build myself how I please, and that is so freeing. But I also connect with what Tess said — it’s been a challenge. I’ve had to remind myself that people don’t say hi and smile on the street like they do in Texas. I’ve had to learn the best system to carry my groceries home, adjust to the demands of a grueling schedule, and overall develop a tougher mentality. New York pushes you and several times I’ve wondered if I am the right person to be here. But right now I like it, so I will keep taking it one day, and one rent payment, at a time.
What has been the scariest part?
Willow: One of the hardest parts for me has been navigating the relationship between money and artistic opportunities. It is very difficult I think, especially as an early/emerging artist, to find paid opportunities as a performer and/or choreographer (sometimes even as an arts administrator). I am also not classically trained. The opportunities I am most excited about are often either unpaid or provide very little compensation. I find myself angry and avoidant which usually signals: I am afraid. I am afraid I won’t be able to pursue this beautiful, strange art form (which is really the only thing that makes me feel entirely alive) because of the money. Or the lack of it. Because of the assumption that my passion should be enough reason to give my creativity.
I guess I should expand to name the ways it’s more than just the money itself because I think this is true for many people, especially as we face the realities of chronic exhaustion and accumulated trauma — There might have been points in my life before and there may be points in my life in the future where I could handle the over-busy hustle of a full (or nearly full) time paid gig and squish, squish, squish in creative thinking time, class, and rehearsals. And I know some people can do that. That is part of what makes me afraid and ashamed and scared. At this point in time, I have found I cannot. Or that my limits are met in quick and painful ways.
I haven’t found the perfect way to talk about this. I am still learning a lot about what’s going on with me and then its context. I have been struggling a lot with my health — both mental and physical — over the past year, and I have found it much, much harder to sustain the squishing that I have internalized “should be” possible as a 22 year old. (Because aren’t we supposed to be energy-filled and hungry for opportunity when we are fresh out of college? Or at least that’s the messaging unpaid creative work signals to me). I am definitely taking opportunities that fall into the unpaid/limited paid category, but I am feeling very aware of their costs as well as their benefits. When I’ve been trying to make the squishing approach work, I have been experiencing vertigo, (at times, daily) bouts of vision loss and aura migraines, chronic pain extremes, brain fog/concentration problems, and fatigue, among other things that signal an alarming amount of stress/exhaustion. I go to class and I cannot fully participate or I have to sit out. I try to hold a rehearsal with myself only to find I am too exhausted. While I am very comfortable adapting and accommodating the reality of how my body is feeling, it is crushing to feel the impact of the stress in this way. To know that if the things I am doing that are unpaid were paid, I would have significantly more time and energy to give my practices. I would be able to take better care of myself.
I would be in less pain.
Tess: I feel like life is kind of scary in your twenties. You’re just trying to figure things out and you’re still trying to apprehend the gap between who you are and who you want to be and there is a big sense of rush and you’re just unsure, probably believing that you will always be this unsure. So that’s hard. It can be very rewarding too. Just trying to be a person in the world is kind of hard — regardless of where you are. I guess New York is hard in that it just requires a lot of energy, or, a lot of willpower. I still haven’t quite figured out how to properly take care of myself in New York especially, like slow down, and eat, and watch tv.
Me: The scariest part about being here has been choosing to believe I can do it. I am no longer being held by my college program or the city I lived in my entire life. Now I am here, working a full time job to pay my bills, trying to squeeze in art and community around it and all the while trying to remember to keep my room clean and water my plants and get in a normal vegetable intake. The scariest part has been realizing that I have no idea what I am doing and the only way to learn it is by doing it anyway. All the while, how to make money??? The stresses of wanting to build a fulfilling artistic career while also learning how to make enough money to take care of yourself is exhausting. Also all in the midst of a traumatic pandemic, like Willow pointed out. You have to take care of yourself! And get enough sleep! But also you are young, enjoy New York! You are twenty-three, you should have so much energy. Take as much class as you can! Remember to set boundaries with your time. Go see shows! The tickets are $60, think you can swing it? Learn how to have the emotional maturity to tend to your relationships well. Rest, rest, rest! You can handle all that, can’t you?
What has been the most fun part?
Willow: It has been so fun to get to know myself in this new world of sorts. I enjoy finding what stays, what transforms, what I am letting go of entirely. In conversation with the last question’s discussion of pain, I have been trying to intentionally give myself time to play. I am rebelling, I think, against my previous notions of linear growth and achievement. I am learning there is much to be uncovered through indirect life-motion. I am playing with self-expression, spaces, relationships, etc. I have been seeking out the type of DIY artist scene I experienced in college through queer nightlife and performance art spaces. This is the question I feel least prepared to expand on, perhaps because I still feel like I am very much exploring, but I just want you to know there has been a lot of fun and delight.
Tess: I love my friends. I love dancing. I love the way you can really be in public in New York. I like feeling like I like who I’m becoming, however slowly. Getting caught in the rain in the summer.
Me: This city, as challenging as it can be, has been a blast. I have been trying to be intentional about having fun because I know that feeds my artistry. It can feel like celebrating your friend’s birthday or getting drinks on a Wednesday is unrelated to art, but in actuality, it breathes life into it. After graduating into a global pandemic, I am unwilling to sacrifice joy wherever I can find it. I love my friends, I love a good coffee, I love a dumb mystery novel and a reality tv show. I know if nothing else happens while I live in New York, I will have a great time.
“I have enjoyed having the time and space to explore the vast possibilities of community here.” -Willow Green
Have you found a community anywhere? If so, where?
Willow: From my college friendships to the dance community I built at Jacob’s Pillow, I was privileged to come to NYC with a fair amount of community already available. Though those aren’t necessarily the communities I feel closest to now, I know I have people to hold and to be held by. I have been most excited, though, to find community in people who do not know me from any “before.” I find a lot of peer artist community in my coworkers at the Whitney, where I am working as a Visitor and Gallery Assistant. I am building new dance communities through the classes I am taking and the performances I am collaborating on, particularly at MOtiVE and through Chaesong Kim’s Columbia MFA Thesis. I am finding queer community through queer bars (much love to Mood Ring among others), events, and dating. I have enjoyed having the time and space to explore the vast possibilities of community here. I cherish time spent being alone, but I am a generally extroverted person who thrives off of new things. I have been finding a variety of spaces to expand different aspects of myself, and I constantly have ideas of new aspects of life and community I want to explore. I am hungry to find queer burlesque and drag community soon, but I am also trying to be patient. As I stated, I do not plan on leaving any time soon, so I am trying to give things their time to evolve and settle within me.
Tess: I generally think of myself as a bit of a loner. Or one of those people who stands close to the door (haha). But I do feel like I’ve found more or less where I want to situate myself, and I feel that I have found like-minded people, people I like to think and make things with, and feel that I’m continuing to meet people like that more and more. Where? Not any place in particular necessarily. If I were giving someone advice, I’d say do the things you like to do, trust yourself a little more, and just give it time. I think it’s (aka community) something that you really can’t force.
Me: I am lucky enough to have moved here with friends who I adore and I feel very comforted to have them in this huge transition. But I have struggled to find community in new places. Blame it on Omicron or my social awkwardness, but I have had a hard time meeting new people. I am in total agreement with what Tess said — I think community isn’t something you can force. If I continue to follow my interests and niche curiosities, I will find people like me?? Maybe??
I think the best resource for early-career artists in New York is honesty. Reading Tess and Willow’s generous and honest responses felt like community to me. A reminder that I am not the only one who feels like I am “squish, squish, squishing” my art around my full-time job or who feels overwhelmed and excited by the hugeness of the New York dance scene. As intimidating as it can feel, I can see that there is a community to excavate here and that is thrilling.
The reality is, most of us feel like the eighth grader who switched schools mid-year. Moving here is hard, but that difficulty is communal — if we are honest enough to admit it.
*This blog post was an electronic conversation between Mack Lawrence, Social Media and Digital Archiving intern, 2021/2022 and Critical Correspondence 2021/2022 interns, Tess Michaelson and Willow Green.
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