Artist in the Office Interview: Katherine Dunn
Katherine Dunn is a painter, illustrator, pie maker for peace, and a farmer. Her first book, Creative Illustration Workshop: Seeing, Sketching, Storytelling, and Mixed Media will be out in November from Quarry Books.
Why did you decide to go out on your own towards a full-time painting and art career?
I had worked in a variety of design related firms in the marketing capacity [architecture, design and ad firms]. It was good experience, but there was always something missing, and after a time, although I did well, I’d get antsy and move on. I was watching Bill Moyers interview Joseph Campbell, and he talked about the responsibility we all have to do what our passion is, to follow our unique path. I decided the next day to be an illustrator. Within 6 months, I had quite my job and was, an illustrator. 
Were their things you had to change about your life in order to quit the full-time job and dive into freelancing? Did you scale down your expenses or change your lifestyle?
Yes, I sold the condo I was living in, and bought a $60,000 house, of 400 sg ft. It was my first house, it was in a good neighborhood, but it allowed me to have a small monthly mortgage. I’ve always lived frugally, so that wasn’t much of an issue. I’m a homebody too, so I worked into the night. It was a long time ago, but I would say that I did have some hurdles to get through to sell the condo – in that I had parents that thought it might be a mistake, that thought, “You’d be going down scale if you do that”, etc. But I remember I was SO intent on my goal, I just plowed ahead. I also remember I had to buy clothes at the Goodwill for awhile! And I guess that’s trendy now [I still by buy our farm coats and such there if i can]. For the first few months as I built my portfolio, I had a few good jobs from Marshal Fields, and I also did about 3 months of freelance prop styling since I had so many contacts. But after that, I was ok.
Were there things you didn’t expect about freelancing? Pitfalls? Bonuses?
Hmmm…I think the only thing about freelancing that people need to be aware of, is you are always working and you are always looking for another job. The minute one job ends, you bill it, and there isn’t a new job on the back or front burner, it can create anxiety. It took me a couple years to overcome this. However, I also had a nest egg I managed to build up from a couple big jobs, and selling that little 400 sft house after 2 years. I think some people will not do well in that part, others will. I’m a self entertaining unit, lived alone most of my adult life until I married at 44, so I was used to scheduling my own time, and I loved that freedom. Still do.
Were there any issues about doing your art for a market? How did/do you stay inspired and motivated? Did it hinder you as an artist at all?
I think this is a learning curve, and a personality thing. In the beginning, stuff gushed out of me, but a lot of it wasn’t really easily applied to any given market. Some thought I was to fine art, fine art thought I was too commercial. Paint what you know. If I get uninspired, I take time off for a day, or two, garden, do other mediums. I usually work through it. I’m 13 years older now than when I started, I’m 50 ! So my perspective on my art and career is different .I moved from city to farm, from Mpls to Oregon, so many things have changed. Sometimes, you get hired to do something that you might not have sought out, but I try to sit down and say “How can I, individually, put my mark on this?” That’s part of the job.
What worked best for you about freelancing? What was hard?
Freedom, freedom, freedom. Nothing is harder than working in a cube, and commuting, so freelancing has no real ‘hard’ for me. Life is hard. But I get to do want I’m gifted at and love, so the hard moments of life are passing clouds.
I know you’ve expanded your work life to include farming, which isn’t a job you can ever really slack on or just leave—how do you make time to do your artwork? Are there times you just don’t get to do your painting?
I think of the farm as my life, not a job, but it is my daily work, just as art is, or sewing, or selling the lavender, or making bread so we can eat. It’s all intertwined. I know that sounds like a magazine article on wellness, but it really is – You hit the nail on the head though, I do not paint every day anymore. I do not paint into the night. But I’m not sure I would be if I were single and living alone. Like many artists, I am easily intrigued by much, and my biggest personal challenge is to focus, but that focus has to change daily. If I have an illustration project, I set a schedule and it takes priority, but when I’m just working on my portfolio or painting personal work, I set a daily goal – otherwise I can spend too much time on the computer – which I do!! I have to be on the computer to keep my sites fresh, to write, to maintain the farm store.
But after I settled on the farm, after say, 2006 /7 [we moved here in 2004], and I was able to focus more, I find I get a lot done in shorter spurts.
Do you have a set schedule?
Sort of. Depending on the season, since the farm can dictate changes, depending on if it’s harvest time for fields, vegetable time, lambing, horse season. I get up by 7:30 [ok, usually, I LOVE my bed], quick email check, out to do barn chores for 30 minutes. In warm weather, I work more in am with animals. Back in studio and work at studio stuff in afternoon. I often sew in the late afternoon a couple times a week to add to our farm/lavender products. I usually am doing something until at least 7pm in studio. If it’s summer, I often do field or barn things then. We eat late [bad, bad, bad, I know]. Weekends, we usually 95% of the time are working on the farm. I will gestate in early morning about projects while I lie in bed.
The thing about the farm – it’s a living, breathing entity. While as romantic as people want to make that , it’s like romanticizing having a baby. It takes time, energy, thought, money and sacrifice. There always fences to mend, etc, and I have learned to ‘calm down’ after moments of panic, and just prioritize between that day’s tasks, be it farm, art, store, animals, etc.
Any advice for anyone who is dreaming of being a full-time painter and/or illustrator?
Do it – if it’s in your heart, and it keeps coming back to you. Be realistic, but not fearful. If you really want it, you will live in a cheap apartment, or shack, or sell your metaphorical jewels to get what you need and want to start. If not, you probably didn’t want it enough.
And there is nothing wrong with going from freelance to a job and back to freelance- someone told me that once, and I think that’s true. Sometimes, you ‘need’ things freelance can’t give you.
Treat your art like a discipline. Whatever you put your intention, if true, and your energies and time, it will grow.
Thank you, Katherine!