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Career Transition Guide for Artists: From Commercial Gigs to Fine Art

Those interested in pursuing a career in the arts may find it easy to make the initial career move toward commercial and editorial work, whether working in photography or graphic design – but what about making a career transition back to fine art? For those in the creative fields that have worked on commercial projects and are ready to make the leap back to the art studio, we have compiled insights and advice from an artist who has made a successful career transition to the fine arts. Our conversation with New York-based artist Masahito Ono was built around these topics: how can creative entrepreneurs and thought leaders re-position themselves and/or return to their roots in the fine arts?

Build Storytelling into A Career Transition

career transition
Artwork in Masahito Ono’s series, “After Memory” (2015-ongoing)

Art Business Journal: Thank you for speaking with us, Masahito. You have previously worked in journalism and commercial/advertising fields before becoming a fine artist. How have those roles affected your approach to art-making, if at all?

Masahito Ono: Yes, being previously a news producer and a news cameraman is at the foundation of my art-making. Advertising, not so much.  I made the decision to go back to graduate school….where I learned a lot.

Let me tell you a story of a young Masa…when I first went to cover an international conference in Tokyo, I think I was a 20 or 21-year-old intern. Suddenly, what is usually just seen on television was right in front of me, and that took my breath away. That overwhelming feeling is still indescribable and I think people in the news industry would agree that it is a bit addictive. [At the time] I was lucky enough to first receive training from a chief-cameraman who had been to war zones. I heard [countless] stories… and I remember feeling ignorant about the world. Unlike today where a journalist carries his or her small camera to record the happenings, it was the time when we worked in a pair as a journalist and a technician: as craftsmen. The camera and tripod were still very heavy. I became probably the last generation to use all manual. I learned to use the camera as the extension of my arms, my eyes and my thoughts. To be behind a camera is to acknowledge that I am the mediator of what I witness and what I experience in time and space.

Then in 2011, Japan was hit by the earthquake and tsunami. That was when I realized that the news doesn’t tell every story: I went back to Fukushima area after the disaster, thinking there is something I can do to tell more stories as an individual with skills in photography and video. And that made me question myself and about my own intention. The only right thing to do was to feel powerless. Facing the dilemma of wanting to make something out of someone’s tragedy and facing the tragedy head-on made me feel awful about my own action. I wanted to find a way to talk about tragedy and the victims without victimizing them again. That’s how I started to think about the way to tell the stories through art and that’s how my [career transition and my] first body of work, Unmeasurable Sole came into being. The main difference between news and art, to me, is whether there is poetry or no poetry.

Art Business Journal: What advice do you wish you had received when you making a career transition into becoming a fine artist?

Masahito Ono: It was helpful that my time in graduate school was my [career] transition period. Also, I consider myself to be lucky that I started [out as an artist] without much knowledge in art or the art world.

One thing I realize today is that New York City alone has 55,000 working artists living here – can you believe that is the kind of number that we are competing with? When applying to some of the best opportunities here, we really have about maybe a  2% chance. So we must keep trying, and it is difficult.

Career Transition: Seeking Consistent Success

career transition
New York-based Artist and Photographer Masahito Ono

Art Business Journal: Your installations, films, and photographs deal with the natural world and environmental phenomenon. Can you explain how you approach the rhythms found in nature from the perspective of an artist and are you commenting on our relationship to nature with works in series Alone Together and en route?

Masahito Ono: I think more about what relationship I have with nature as an individual having mostly grown up in Japan where natural disasters are common occurrences. We grow up experiencing, with our own skin, its power, vastness, beauty, and horror. In short, it makes me understand how small I am and how small we are compared to nature. When I think about nature, I think about change. (“One thing certain about weather is that it changes” happens to be the very title of the neon artwork I am working on now.) When I think about change, I think about time, space and everything that is in it. Then that brings me to a conclusion that nothing is eternal and change is inevitable.

en route has two different works in the series: “Years within Years (I Love You Always)” is a work I started producing in 2014. I take one photograph of the sun (visible or not visible depending on the day) every morning as I wake up. I then transfer the images to a canvas (a body) that represents the person whom I dedicated the work to. Then they stand at a height that reflects my age at the time of each production. This is what happens: they slowly get longer as the other person gets older and they slowly come closer to the floor as I make progress toward the disappearing. It is a work in which I am accepting change and the unpredictable nature of… our own lives.

Alone Together is less about change and more about the use of metaphoric representation of an idea. I’m comparing the two individuals with the Earth and the Moon. I made a new work recently, “Two Portraits, A Landscape” which is [another piece similar to this body of] work.

In conclusion, I think my answer to your question would be yes. I am commenting on our relationship with nature. After all, are we not [a part of] nature ourselves?

Art Business Journal: You have won numerous awards for your artworks, including 2nd place, International Photographer of the Year (2015) and First Place in the Neutral Density Photography Awards (2015). How do you manage to continue to create critically acclaimed artwork? 

Masahito Ono: I think it [may be that] fear drives me forward. I have received awards and the opportunities to show at an important international exhibition. Of course, I am happy when these things happen, but I am always overwhelmed by the new wave of fear thinking about what is to come after. It is not that difficult to achieve momentary success, but it is extremely difficult to keep achieving success consistently for many years. We see people come and go from the art world all the time. You have to keep appearing on the stage over and over again to be really remembered. I can only try my best.

Yet, there are days I just cannot give birth to anything. It could be a month. It could be a year. When that happens, I do not make anything, because I cannot make anything. Instead, I walk around, I talk to people, I research, I read, I listen and I watch a lot of things until I find something clicking inside me. I also prefer to surround myself more with things and people not related to art or art world. You never know where your next inspiration would be coming from.

Art Business Journal: What upcoming projects are you involved with? Where can we find your artwork in 2019/2020?

Masahito Ono: The new neon artwork I am producing now will be included in a group show at New York Live Arts opening this summer. I also work extensively as an exhibition designer for other artists, and I already know I will be quite busy traveling extensively 2019-2020 [as a result of this career transition]. I am hoping to complete at least one of the two major works that have been taking a few to finish.

I also find great pleasure in teaching younger generations, and that’s something I’d like to put more effort into in the coming years. Just like how I was helped by people around me to become who I am today.

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is Managing Editor+Curator, Artrepreneur's Art Business Journal & Creative Career Center. She is a curator, arts marketing consultant, and editor based in Sunnyside, Queens, where her Chi-Spaniel puppy graciously allows her to cohabit.

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