“I was hanging on to a strap on the subway when my friend asked me what I was going to do next. I found myself almost choking up as I replied, ‘I want to see what will happen if I paint every day.’ He said: ‘Do it now so when you’re 80 you won’t be sorry. Also don’t worry about making great art.’ That was a crucial conversation”
Some people know what they want to be when they grow up, but life gets in the way. Older age offers the opportunity to revisit childhood dreams — but in a grown-up way.
Diane Abt was 61 when a chance conversation with a friend on a Tokyo subway, near the end of a seven-year stint working and living in Japan, opened her eyes to how she really wanted to spend her days. Over more than three decades, Abt had built a successful career as a journalist, radio reporter and producer in both the U.S. and Japan, covering stories for NPR and other organizations, and the early years of the Silicon Valley tech boom. During those years, she dabbled in drawing, painting and calligraphy but was never able to fully immerse herself. The subway conversation was her turning point — Abt retired from journalism and switched careers. Now 75 and living in Oakland, California, she is doing what she always wanted to do, making art full-time, and showing it in both off- and online galleries.
She spoke with us by phone from her Berkley studio.
How did you make the transition from journalism to art?
I’d always wanted to be an artist. Art-making has been my hobby since I was a little kid. When I was ten, I won a paint-my-window contest sponsored by the local stores and a got signed autograph of Rock Hudson. But even though I took some art classes all my life, there’s a big difference between art as hobby and art as work.
I stopped working as a journalist on our return to the States in 2003 and began my ‘one year’ experiment to work professionally as an artist. It helped to have a limited commitment. I rented a studio for a year and 13 years later, I’m still in the same studio. I didn’t want to work at home because I was was used to going out to work everyday, so I wound up in an old building with a bunch of other artists — though in the end I had to the shut door and be alone.
On the one hand I’d been making art all my life, but when I started professionally I needed more focus. So I took courses, and once I settled on certain media that spoke to me, like monotypes and mono prints, I started to take workshops, and still do. It was important to me to refine my technique.
How is being a professional artist different from being an amateur?
Art as work is about how am I going to communicate and improve my craft. Basically I said to myself, “I don’t know shit.” I’d taken a lot of creative workshops, but for the first time I took one on materials and techniques. The artist teaching that class asked me what I was trying to do. At first I was pissed she’d even asked me that question, because I thought art came from within. That’s when I realized you also have to an intent to be a professional.
It was daunting to meet young people with art degrees. At first I’d look at kids with degrees and feel like, what do I know? So I spent time taking classes and reading about art. That convinced me to shut the door on journalism, because I felt I had so much to learn in art. But then I met a young woman with all the proper art degrees, who told me, ‘journalism and political issues are important to you, so put them in your art.’ So some of my work grows out of my journalist background.
So, your journalism career has found a place in your art?
I just finished working on paintings about migrants — the more than 60 million who are uprooted. But a painting can’t be a political poster. The more I painted, I realized that my work has to be aesthetically enticing so people will peer in and begin to see what’s really there. The more you work as an artist, the more you realize what’s important.
Your work has a strong Japanese influence. Where did your interest in Japanese art and calligraphy come from?
I’m interested in mixed media, and a lot of my work grows out of calligraphy. I started studying art in Japan in 1997. I’ve a dear friend who grew up in Tokyo and knew that art was my hobby. When I told her how fascinating the Japanese characters were, she told me to study calligraphy. Through her older sister, I met a great teacher. She didn’t speak any English, but we had ishindenshin, which means heart to heart communication. We had a profound connection.
What does it take to do your kind of art?
Technically it’s challenging. When I came back to California, I studied with a Japanese master in his 80s who is freer than if he’d stayed in Japan. He said to me, “Diane, get a big brush and have fun in your studio.” I love calligraphy, but I had to make it my own, I started doing gestural calligraphy — not characters, but strokes that are emotional and have a certain intent. I’ll do 30 pieces, and three are worth keeping. My practice is to start with 30 minutes doing traditional Japanese calligraphy and then start playing with the ink that’s left. Basically, I started doing intuitive drawings with calligraphy tools.
How does your age and job experience play into it?
I began to realize the more I worked as a professional that authenticity was a crucial element in making anything creative, and unless you dig around and use all of yourself, you’re not being as excellent as you might be. I’ve been around a long time, which makes my work interesting. I rented my studio the September that my mother was 96. She’d been a businesswoman. I was at her kitchen table and I said, “You know mom, I’m going to work as an artist, I’m getting out of journalism, I’m really scared.” She said, “Why are you scared. Everything you’ve done before is good.” It was a reminder that I’m a competent person. I may have had a lot to learn as professional artist rather than a hobbyist, but learning something new keeps you alive.
Can you make a living as a professional artist?
I do sell my work. Could I live on it? No. I get Social Security, I get a pension from my work as a journalist, I live with my husband who’s still working. My work sells for between $100 and $1000 apiece, and I make between $10 and $15,000 a year from it. I often sell my work directly to clients. Twice a year, in June and December, I participate in artist-organized open studios. I also sell work through my website, through Ugallery.com and through galleries where I might have a solo show or be part of a group show. But I have expenses, too — studio rent, supplies.
What is Ugallery?
A collector of mine told me about it a few years ago and suggested I apply. Ugallery is a 10-year-old online gallery. I was impressed, because unlike many other online galleries, UGallery curates its artists. In other words, it doesn’t take everybody, so I figured it had some class. I applied and was accepted. I give them some but not all of my work. They take a 50 percent cut, just like a bricks-and-mortar gallery. I’ve sold several pieces through Ugallery, including to a Singapore-based lawyer, a Manhattan yuppie and a collector in Connecticut. So I figure that link helps me reach collectors I would otherwise not reach.
What training is needed to be a professional artist?
Depends whom you ask. Twenty years ago when I told an artist friend I was considering going back to school to get a master’s degree in art, she said: Don’t do it! It will ruin you! I believed her. The most important training I’ve had includes my life experiences, including my long career as a journalist; workshops and classes in certain artistic techniques that appeal to me, and that includes learning Asian calligraphy for nearly 20 years from two different Japanese master calligraphers; and monotype, etching and painting workshops with important artists; as well as reading as much as I can about art history, including diaries and memoirs of artists from DaVinci to Paul Klee and Robert Motherwell.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of being a professional artist?
I’m really pleased and proud of how my work has evolved. I’ve continued to grow — it’s a gift. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. When I complained I was stuck to an artist friend, he reminded me that’s part of the deal. But it’s been an invigorating journey.
How does it compare to journalism?
I worked for companies as a journalist, so I had a structure. When you work on your own, you’re setting your own schedule. That’s an interesting challenge. I do a lot of what one artist called “creative procrastination,” where I’m just stewing. It seems like you’re not working, but you are. It’s much more intellectually challenging. I have to feed my mind, I have to read about other artists, I need to read about art. One of the challenges was combining my intellect with my intuition. A teacher told me, “If something is on your mind you don’t have to figure out how to portray it, it will emerge in your work.” That happened with the migrant series. I was thinking so much about those people that one day in the studio something accidental happened in my work that portrayed the heart-wrenching tragedy migrants are going through. In that series I use images from newspapers and magazines.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
I’ve always been someone who never really thought that because I was a certain age I had to behave in a certain way, but approaching 75 was depressing. What’s interesting is now I am 75, I feel that issue is gone. It is what it is. It’s important to be whoever you are and not let others’ judgement impinge on that.
The Bottom Line
Some artists are self-taught, but most who sell their work have some training ranging from art classes in a local art school to college degrees.
What you can make
New online galleries such as UGallery offer expanded opportunities to show and sell your art. According to UGallery’s marketing director, Keith Becker, nearly one in four of the site’s 500 artists is age 60-plus, and collectors who use the site tend to be older, too (the gallery accepts some 10% of artists who apply). “Several artists on the site have sold upwards of 100 pieces for over $100,000,”Becker says. “Our average order value is $1,250.” Like most galleries, UGallery takes 50% of each sale. Some artists are able to develop their own relationships with collectors without using a gallery, and so take the full 100% of each sale.
Cost of art classes, which varies by region. Art supplies, depending on medium — oils and canvas, for example, can be pricey. “Artists buy supplies they can afford,” Abt points out. On top of that comes studio rental, unless you work at home — Abt pays more than $900 a month for her studio in California, but rents can be much cheaper in other locations.
Do you have a childhood dream you’d like to turn into an encore career?