An Artist’s Life

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S.M.: Athan Chilton earns her living as a department secretary for Dance at the University of Illinois. But to say that this is what she ‘does’ would be to reduce to a single dimension what is in fact a multidimensional life and a unique artistic quest.

A.C.: Writing about my ‘artist’s life’ is no simpler, I find, than living it. This is not to say that there haven’t been many satisfactions. There have, or I’d have given up long ago. Let’s just say that I am no stranger to compromise and frustration.

I have been involved with the arts, in one way or another, all of my life. As a child I drew incessantly. In high school, my paintings won nominations for Hallmark Awards. I considered a career in the fine arts. But alienated by art school and by the ‘high art vs. low art’ controversy prevalent in the late 1960s, I dropped out of school and made a kind of career (a lot of hard work for comparatively little remuneration) as a professional musician, writing and performing my own music. I did not seriously reconnect with my other artistic abilities until after I left the music business in my mid-30s.

I had been fascinated by jewelry and beadwork for as long as I could remember. An interest in collecting and carving amber and setting amber pieces into jewelry led me to explore beadwork: to learn new and old techniques of off-loom beadweaving and construction, and to develop unique combinations of materials. I’ve immersed myself in the sense and significance of jewelry from around the world, and I’ve expressed myself in varied styles that have grown out of my technical and design studies and my love of cultural diversity and periods of history as reflected in ethnic jewelry.

In tandem with my jewelry work, I have been active for some years in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and have also studied Egyptian classical dance. These activities have put me in touch with varied groups of people who have suggested to me ideas for further directions in art.

I have had some professional success with ‘Firefly Jewels’, and have taken part in art shows whose juries accepted my work, in situations where the shows were held close enough to home that I could travel to them without the need to take much time off from work. Success has been slow, but I feel that I am growing as an artist.

“So where,” you may ask, “does the compromise come in? The frustration?”
Simple. No matter what I do, some part of my life suffers. If I take time off work, I have to face the unhappiness of my employers. If I neglect the jewelry business, I suffer. I have to balance the requirements of a ‘steady’ job, with its retirement plan and medical benefits, against the needs and rewards of the ‘artist’s life.’

I have reduced the conflict between these twolives, both of which seem essential to me (until that happy day when an unknown benefactor leaves me a few cool millions!), by choosing work that I can do, given my temperament and my inclinations, without completely compromising the energy and time I need to develop my art. This has not been easy, and it is not a perfect solution. After a long day in an academic office spent coping with the myriad problems of faculty, staff, and students, I sometimes find it hard to discipline myself to go directly to my basement, where my flameworking torch and kiln reside. I sometimes have trouble picking up the restringing/redesign/repair work I have done for many years for Calico Jewelry in Lincoln Square, or even the personal beading project that awaits an inventive solution to make it a special, one-of-a-kind piece. Then there is the literature crying to be examined: a new book on flameworking glass, the latest Ornament or Lapidary Journal magazines, e-mail from a fellow glass beadmaker in Indianapolis. When was thelast time I sat down to read fiction without feeling a twinge of guilt about the work I wasn’t doing? I can’t recall.

On the other hand, when I’m hard at work and a new design is revealing itself to me, the compromise seems worthwhile. I still want more than ever to find a way to make my art business grow to the point whereit can start to pay my bills instead of just paying for itself. I would love to give up my ‘steady’ job and simply do art. This is the goal of most artists, but it doesn’t come easily. I will keep workingand studying; learning and creating, in the hope that I will be able to find a wider audience for my work, and in time will be able to retire from my job and attend full time to the call of the bead!

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