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Artists find a way to make their work their day job
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff

Artist Alice DuBois' Elgin kitchen doubles as her art studio. She has to live frugally to make ends meet as a painter.

 

John Starks | Staff Photographer

Brian Babendererde of Arlington Heights wrote "Soul Chaser Betty" in his studio. Babendererde said he loves producing graphic novels but pays the bill by designing video games.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

GEORGE LECLAIRE/gleclaire@dailyherald.com Brian Babendererde, an Arlington Heights cartoonist who's trying to market a graphic novel, named Soul Chaser Betty in his studio. Babendererde said he loves producing graphic novel but pays the bill by designing video games and recently added a second floor to his house which he uses as a studio.

 

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Published: 2/24/2009 12:00 AM

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Alice DuBois never imagined she'd have to rely on food stamps to help cover her expenses, but that's just one of the measures she's taken to continue making ends meet as a painter.

"People are tightening their purse strings," the Elgin resident said. "Many consider art a luxury - it's not like shelter or food - so they're cutting back. That means I have to, also."

Brian Babendererde, a graphic-novel and video-game artist from Arlington Heights, can relate. He gives himself a small "allowance" every week and doesn't put anything on his credit card he can't pay off by the end of the month; rising costs and ballooning debt would force him to spend less time drawing.

"You just have to live beneath your means if you're serious about your work," he said.

DuBois and Babendererde are among the scores of suburban artists trying to make a living in a recession that has left people with far less cash to spend on works of art.

"Even in the best of times, it's a challenge for artists to make a living," said Terry A. Scrogum, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency that provides financial support to artists and arts-supporting groups. "In an economy like this, it's an absolute struggle."

The economic downturn hits the art world on two fronts. First, it forces state and local governments to cut back on grants and other financial support for artists and arts groups. Scrogum said the Illinois Arts Council's budget, for example, was slashed by 30 percent in 2008. Those cuts carried over to this year.

Second, the downturn drives consumers to rein in spending.

"Our traffic has dropped sharply," said Tom Hilligoss, president and owner of The Studio of Long Grove, one of the largest art galleries in the suburbs. "It's very challenging to survive these days. Our clients want to spend as little as possible."

The economy makes things particularly difficult for artists who aren't big names - artists like DuBois.

Since quitting her day job to be a full-time painter three years ago, DuBois has sold 40 to 50 paintings a year, mostly via exhibitions in rock clubs, bars and cafes in Chicago and the suburbs.

Early on, each show generated two or three calls from people interested in her colorful, sometimes surreal paintings, which DuBois says are influenced by the French artist Paul Gauguin and R.B. Kitaj, an American. (DuBois' work ranges in price from $40 to more than $200.)

As the economy worsened, DuBois' phone and e-mail inbox became disturbingly quiet.

The 38-year-old realized she had a choice. She could get another day job and relegate her painting to spare-time status, or she could do whatever was necessary to make her career work.

The decision wasn't hard. DuBois had dreamed of being an artist since she was a child. It's her passion. So when the inquiries about her paintings started to taper off, she worked harder.

"I had been pretty leisurely about following up with contacts and lining shows up," she said. "And I painted only when I really wanted to. Those habits had to change."

DuBois stepped up her self-marketing efforts, to the point where she now spends hours each day spreading the word about her art via the phone, e-mail and her Flickr site, flickr.com/photos/artistalice/. She resolved to paint for three or four hours every night, whether she felt like it or not. And she started supplementing her original work with commissions, or paintings done by request. They now account for about 80 percent of her workload.

In addition to changing her work habits, DuBois keeps her overhead low. She doesn't have a car. She uses food stamps to help with her grocery bills. The kitchen in her Elgin apartment doubles as an art studio.

"I really live very frugally," she said. "I'm proud that I've been able to sell enough work to make it so far. In this economy, that's an accomplishment."

Babendererde, 37, worked full-time as a writer and artist in the video game industry before quitting in 2001 to pursue a career as a cartoonist.

During the next four years, he wrote and drew a graphic novel (basically a long-form comic book) called "Soul Chaser Betty" in chunks of about 12 pages at a time. When each section was finished, he put the pages online. He worked whenever he could, taking freelance video-game jobs when he needed money.

"Betty," an action-fantasy tale told in a visual style influenced by Japanese comics, created enough of a splash online that Babendererde decided to collect it in book form. He published the 176-page book on his own, then spent an exhausting few months contacting hundreds of comic retailers and Web sites in an effort to get them to stock it.

The book, which has a price tag of $14.95, arrived in stores earlier this month with an initial order of 120 copies. After all the work Babendererde spent creating, publishing and then marketing it, he couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed.

"For a small-press book, that's not terrible, but it was on the low side of what I was expecting," Babendererde said; he'd hoped for an initial order of 250 to 300 copies.

The good news is that Babendererde sold enough copies of the book at comic book shows and via his Web site (twilighttangents.com) to cover the printing costs, so he won't lose money on it. He said he is already at work on another graphic novel.

"I wish I could devote all my time to my comics work, because that's what I truly love," he said. "But I never looked at this as something that will pay the bills. I do it because I want to do it, because I love it. And in this economy, that's the kind of attitude you have to have."

Artists and art dealers hope things will improve in 2009. The economic stimulus bill recently approved by Congress includes $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, and a large chunk of that will be distributed to state and regional arts groups. In addition to that direct help, the stimulus package might soon prompt consumers to spend a bit more freely, said gallery owner Hilligoss.

"I don't think people's interest in art has waned at all," he said. "And people turn to galleries like ours to find out about new artists. It will just take a little bit of help to get people buying again."

In the meantime, artists say they will keep on hustling to get their work noticed.

"This is not the time to be a wallflower," DuBois said. "You have to get out there. You have to learn how to market yourself. No one else is going to do it for you."