Being an Artist in a Small City

Odd Jobs

Being an Artist in a Small City

By Calder Yates October 24, 2017

Originally published on Daily Serving, Odd Jobs is a column exploring artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs.

Being an artist is an odd undertaking. Most careers in the arts entail economic uncertainty, more than typically found in other professions. It’s a field that often disparages wage work and valorizes unpaid activities, often at the expense of an artist’s financial stability. Odd Jobs features interviews with artists about how their practices—indeed, their lives—do and do not align with the needs and values associated with more traditional career paths.

Today’s column features excerpts from conversations with two artists who talk about living and working in smaller cities. Teresa Baker is a painter whose work takes the lineages of abstraction and sculptural materiality as subject matter. She lives in Beaumont, Texas, which recently endured extreme flooding and destruction from Hurricane Harvey. Cassie Thornton, a social-practice artist and activist who explores the relationships between debt, financial systems, and economic justice, recently moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario.


Teresa Baker

[Regarding the hurricane], we were really lucky. We had about five leaks in our home and a lot more in my studio, where a few drawings were damaged, but most of the work is safe. I know an artist who lives in Port Arthur; he and his family lost everything. It’s awful. But they’ve already rebuilt the drywall and put in new flooring, so they’re back in their house again. 

Teresa Baker. Give an Account Of, 2017; Astroturf and yarn; 34 x 179 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

After grad school, I was catering at the Headlands [Center for the Arts, in Marin County], working the weddings on the weekends. I was able to stay in San Francisco after receiving the Tournesol Award. But I moved to Beaumont to help my husband with his grandparents. They were elderly and ailing. We lived with them and took care of them until they passed.

In Beaumont, I’m surrounded not by artists but by people who have full-time jobs and who save for their retirement. I’ve never thought more about my retirement than I have in the past year. Now I’m working part-time for a relocation company and supplementing my income with babysitting.

Teresa Baker. Crosshatch, 2017; Astroturf and yarn; 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

[The project space I started in Beaumont, at 215 Orleans] felt like an opportunity—an exchange of sorts. Because the city has a small arts community and university, there is a ready audience for a project space to operate—not economically, but conversationally. I only curated a few shows; I invited other artists and curators to be involved. It was a nice way to keep connected with other artists. Interestingly, people only really come to a show if there are local artists in it. I don’t particularly enjoy organizing events, but I’m glad I did it. I won’t say that I’ll never do it again, but it’s not high on my list.

In January, my husband and I are going to move to Los Angeles, to start over. I’m okay with risks; he’s a little less so. My long-term goal is to have a little more financial security. Here in Beaumont, the only way to have that is through the oil and gas industry, or through some office job or a law firm, but these fields just don’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t want to enter these worlds and start working my way up. 

Cassie Thornton

After grad school, after living in Oakland and Brooklyn, I married a scholar and we moved to Thunder Bay for his special and rare job in academia as a research chair. I live five hours north of Minneapolis, in a city of a hundred thousand people, where winter is so cold people die on the way to their car and cats’ ears freeze off. I’m not allowed to make money in Canada yet, even though I’m doing a lot of work here. I’m in the process of applying for residency. So for the next year or so, I’m doing projects in different places to cobble together financial support and to get my fill of friends and culture.

In a small city, if you want stuff to happen, you have to organize it. It’s a different kind of pressure; I like it. When you live in a major city, you feel like the city is everything. People say, “Brooklyn and Oakland are the only places I could ever live, the only places I can find people who are doing interesting things.” I feel like that is such a big lie! I’m so happy I realized that life continues outside of Brooklyn and Oakland. Leaving a big city means you might be able to think in a more long-term way or do projects that reach different kinds of people in different ways. To not have to fight to find a niche but to actually just do stuff is amazing: I never knew I wanted it.

Certainly there are drawbacks: I live in the Canadian capital of violence and anti-Indigenous racism. We’re dealing with levels of racism and white settler naiveté and really embedded histories of oppression that have never been questioned by most non-indigenous people. A lot of this stuff is being dealt with openly for the first time, here. So there’s a lot to work with, in terms of doing social-practice projects, working with people’s imaginations. People in larger cities don’t have time for exploring their imaginations if they work all the time. It may seem like people are really radical in the cities, but everybody’s hustling so hard that, in a way, they’re a bunch of drones.

I’m interested in how we internalize rules that aren’t openly stated. To disobey isn’t easy for any of us. Many parts of our society are based on rules that don’t seem to make sense but that we perceive and try to obey. Credit reporting is one example: No one is invited to understand the rules behind what makes our credit report good or bad. The police are guided by rules like that. So we’re all very careful because we don’t really know what the rules are or how they’re going to affect us. If we’re sensitive to race, the stakes are higher. When people in my work act out and become flamboyant, and get eye rolls in response, maybe the invisible rules become easier to question.


Teresa Baker, Mandan and Hidatsa from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in Mandaree, North Dakota, currently lives and works in Beaumont, Texas. She had her first solo museum show at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in 2016 and has exhibited widely in the San Francisco Bay Area at venues such as Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, di Rosa, the Wattis Institute, Kiria Koula, Et Al, The Luggage Store Gallery, and Interface Gallery. She has been a Tournesol Award artist-in-residence (2013–2014) at Headlands Center for the Arts, an affiliate artist-in-residence at Headlands Center for the Arts (2014–2015) and artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony (early 2015). Baker received an MFA from California College of the Arts and a BA in visual arts from Fordham University.

Cassie Thornton is an artist working under the title of The Feminist Economics Department (The FED), in collusion with Strike Debt. Her work investigates and reveals the impact of governmental and economic systems on public affect, behavior, and the unconscious, with a focus on debt and security. Cassie Thornton received an MFA from California College of the Arts and a BFA from University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Read past Odd Jobs interviews on Daily Serving.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content