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First Job Reflections: Creatives on Learning From Their First Gigs

What artists have started their creative journeys at the top? Spoiler – no one! So often creatives begin by working in industries that have little or no relation to their artistic practice, yet many lessons can be drawn from these experiences. Whether getting your hands dirty by working outdoors, serving meals with a smile or answering phones to ensure polite and professional interactions for customers, artists and creatives have plenty to offer – and even more to gain!- by learning pivotal lessons from their first job experiences while they build up their artistic chops.

Some creative folks get experience working their first jobs while they are studying for an arts degree, while others transition into the art world straight from the workforce. No matter what the career trajectory, the message is clear: by adapting lessons from a first foray into professional life over to one’s artistic practice, improvements and new thought processes can emerge. Take a look at some of the lessons artists have gleaned from taking on some not-so-creative roles as they built up their artistic resumes!

First Job Learning Curve

first job
Bring Patience and a Little Bit of Creative Edge!

“Answering a lot of questions, some of them relevant, many of them not.” An anonymous artist agreed to share her first job experience of working for a tech startup’s customer service line. “The weirdest call I ever had was someone whose cat was out on a ledge and they were panicked and we were the last number they had called, so they called back. You can’t make this stuff up.” When approaching this artist to hear about what she learned, she reflected that there is a learning curve in every job, and a certain amount of empathy and critical thinking skills are necessary. “Once you have the employee manual and common questions memorized, you just have to work from there,” she reflects. “There are always weird questions and people who don’t really need advice, but just want to talk. Learning to be polite, professional and a problem-solving maven is key. I learned to really listen and get to the root of the problem, so I could move on to the next.”

Working for a massive tech giant is one thing, but what about being stuck working the late-night shift at a family-owned restaurant? Can artists and creatives take away lessons from repetitive tasks, sore feet, and friendly smiles? Artist Polina Riabova reminisces about her first job in the hospitality/food industry. “It’s important to be efficient. This need for efficiency can extend out into one’s artistic practice if you let it.” Riabova continues, “My first job taught me how to extend myself outward, [to communicate] with all sorts of people.” As a performance artist, writer and poet, connecting to a wider audience is a key aspect of Riabova’s practice. Taking a first job that prioritized visitor interaction helped her learn what allows people to connect to you – and how to respond to a variety of reactions as well.

Learning From Your Customers

first job
Technical Aspects of Work May Cross Into Your Artistic Practice

Many artists take on their first job while pursuing their studies. This allows them to continue to learn and perfect their practice while supporting themselves and making sure their bills get paid. While these jobs may take blood, sweat, and tears, it’s important to keep the focus on the upward trajectory of one’s creative career while maintaining a positive attitude through hard work. These jobs also require respect for customers and cooperation with others in one’s work environment: all helpful when it comes to working as an artist and creative in the real world. While the fantasy of cloistered artist working in a sanctuary safe from the world finally unveiling their creation to an adoring public persists, the reality of the fine arts market is quite different. Artists will often take on commissions for collectors or even corporate clients, and these relationships require communication skills and respect. Additionally, once an artist builds up a practice they will need to hire studio staff: assistants, manager, accountant. These staff members will look to their boss – the artist – to set the tone for their work environment. Fostering a positive, respectful and efficient work atmosphere will be easier once an artist has had experience working in other environments and becoming an integral part of a team: all skills one can learn at a first job.

Another added bonus? An extra skill set to rely on! Artists who take on roles such as yoga instructor, dog trainer, or even clothing sales representatives will have a fine-honed set of skills to draw from. Should a collector mention in passing that they are struggling with a yoga pose, or a museum curator reflect on a fashion dry spell, you can always chime in and have advice to add! Small touches go a long way in establishing a relationship. Showing your well-rounded resume, and thirst for knowledge outside of your artistic practice, can place you in a competitive position and work to your advantage.

From flying the friendly skies to digging into work in construction, there are a diverse array of first jobs available for budding arts and creative professionals. Unleashing one’s creative potential is the sum of many parts: no matter where your resume may take you, in the arts or otherwise, the countless opportunities to learn new lessons mean a limitless supply of inspiration and creative insight. Creatives who never miss the chance to learn something new from any aspect of their lives build on skills that will take them through ma

What has your first job taught you as an artist? How has your work improved or how have you been able to consider your practice differently as a result? Any quirkly first jobs that stand out that you want to share? Head to our comments and share your perspective!

About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert 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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