By EA Douglas
Making a living as an artist is a well-known challenge but living with chronic illness compounds the issue. Kimberly Edgar is one of the coolest artists working in Canada today and through cavernous illustrations and comics, they explore the landscapes of chronic illness and mental health. Their comic The Purpose won Best Comic from the Broken Pencil Zine Awards in 2019. To support themselves, Edgar also runs The Forager’s Club, an accessories and home goods shop selling designs with plants they have personally encountered. With their latest work fruit/soil being published by Moniker Press, I was fortunate to talk to Edgar about the connection between making work and getting paid last month.
EA Douglas: One of my favourite quotes is, “Nobody needs debt less than an artist” and I also know that being sick is expensive AF. What’s your experience been like pursuing a career as an artist while living with chronic illness?
Kimberly Edgar: It’s been interesting! Especially since a lot of my chronic illnesses were only diagnosed recently, I didn’t realize how much certain things were affecting me. Generally, I always had side jobs, which is a common thing for a lot of artists. Many successful and famous artists have had day jobs and that’s totally respectable. Not everyone wants to make money or make a living off of being a full-time artist. A lot of people find that changes the way they create art and that’s totally fine.
The problem is, [that] I only have one real skill and that is making things. I mean, I have other skills but I’m not able to do them consistently because of a lot of chronic illness things. [For example,] I used to do [the] cleaning at hotels which I quite liked because it felt like honest work. I felt like I was doing something physical but then my body stopped being able to do it. Between my autism and my ADHD and the brain fog, I started forgetting what I was doing [and] my memory [caused] issues with having a day job. I became bad at the job and would forget important things, so I stopped being able to [work at that job.]
Outside of a capitalist construct of money, if I didn’t have to work to live or have money to live, I would be using my time to make art anyway. Not necessarily to make money but to use my resources to create art, to create connections. But I don’t have resources if I don’t have money in this world. There is a stress to make a living so I can continue to do the things that I love, which is making art.
The chronic illness thing has made it so I can’t have a side job. That has definitely been an issue because of my issues around work, I have gone into a lot of debt as well. On the flip side when I couldn’t find a job to save my life the silver lining [was it] pushed me to start making money off of my art.
I started a business doing commissions and pet portraits for people. I was desperate and I was taking anything that I could monetize but it did give me a certain amount of business sense and helped me survive. It helped me learn the avenues that I could make money off of with art. Not that that’s the main thing but how do I make this practice sustainable? And sustainability does mean being able to support myself.
EAD: A lot of your comics are available for free on the Internet, which seems counterintuitive as a wanting-to-support-myself-as-an-artist’s-move. What’s driving that decision?
KE: On the one hand I want to support myself and on the other hand I believe in accessibility. I realize that the goal of my comics currently is less about making money and more about the spreading of ideas and sharing stories.
If my goal [were] to make money with the comics, I wouldn’t necessarily put them out for free. However, if people read them and they like them, sometimes they buy a physical copy. On top of that, my long-term goal with comics is to get a publishing deal, [in order] to get a publishing deal people have to have read your stuff. There is a sense of [a long-term goal.] If I’m selling comics for $20, with the amount of money it takes to make them, I’m barely breaking even on that. Selling physical books is not going to get me anywhere.
EAD: You want to stay relevant and accessible.
KE: Exactly. What I realized is that by making this sort of comics and putting them out I’m not making that much money off of them, it’s very much a labour of love. However, if I get good enough, I’m hoping that people will give me a publishing deal for my graphic novel.
EAD: If there are any publishers out there reading this interview…
KE: Yes! Wink, wink. Even with big publishers, nobody is making a killing off of graphic novels, but there are advances, which I could live off of for a little bit which [would be similar to] a grant. [From] what I have seen with people who are artists, it seems the way people make money [through] book deals [is by gaining] notoriety. [With] that, you get jobs, or you get opportunities to do art shows. [It’s] getting known that eventually yields jobs.
I’ve been finding this in a small way in the past year. I’ve been working at being an artist for 7 years and I feel this year it’s paid off, in 2020.
[While] My practice has changed a lot, eventually, the momentum builds and there’s an upward thrust. Right now, I’m finding in small ways now that once you get one thing you start getting other things.
EAD: How do you manage the precarity of an inconsistent income as a chronically ill artist?
KE: Up until about a year ago it was “not well.” I think there’s some intergenerational trauma around poverty in my family lineage, there’s been a lot of poverty-related issues.
I grew up with a lot of unintentional financial stress which moulded my ability to handle financial stress. I’ve gone to therapy for it. I didn’t realize until this year when I got out of that stress how much it affected me, and how much it affected my mental health which is another part of disability and chronic illness. The fact that I couldn’t hold onto a job because of my disabilities added to that. [It felt like] “I’m never going to be able to make a living because I’m autistic and have chronic pain and ADHD. But I also obsessively make art and managed to create something that is now finally afforded a bit of stability. I’ve been able to get grants to help to smooth out the times between contracts and freelancing.
When I finished art school, I made the specific commitment to myself that I would not apply for unpaid work unless it was specifically beneficial to me as a foot in a door, or if it was a project I really believed in.
EAD: If it was in-line with your values in a way that would engage an audience? I have a similar mentality.
KE: I also go into opportunities assuming I’m going to get paid and asking for payment.
EAD: Good for you! I’m okay with free labour when it’s explicitly an organization that has significant overlap with what I’m already doing, there’s a community-building aspect to the unpaid work thing.
KE: I have to remember that sometimes unpaid work is community building, as long as you choose to do it. No one should be forced to do unpaid work or feel like they have to do it. But, if you’re choosing to do it as a donation, “I’m gifting this work to you” can be a beautiful thing.
For example, I do hate design contests because it just makes everyone do free labour and the company gets to choose your favourite design. It’s exploitative.
What I like to do is look at the career of the people who have what I want, or that are interesting, and try to trace back how they [got] there. Was it because they won a competition? Did they win an award? I try to see [the] avenues. I find people whose careers I am interested in, to my knowledge, I don’t think they got where they did from winning a competition.
EAD: Let’s talk about The Forager’s Club, an accessories and home goods shop that sells your custom designs. I remember one time you said something like, “These pins aren’t my art.” How do you separate, mentally and creatively, the designs you make for The Forager’s Club and the work you do as an artist?
KE: They overlap quite a bit obviously. I see the Forager’s Club as a project in design. I am thinking specifically of the aesthetic of the thing I am making and I am making something beautiful. There is meaning behind it in terms of the plants I represent, I do feel a spiritual connection to these plants and it’s a way of giving thanks to the specific species I am interested in. However, it is also about teaching myself design. Through that, I’ve been able to get design contracts.
I do illustration but more than that I do design work. I’ve become the person who designs pins in the Yukon. People who want custom pins for their business or organization [come] to me. [The Forager’s Club] sells things and it acts as a portfolio of the things I can design.
Design is making something that has a very specific purpose. The Forager’s Club in that sense isn’t my visual art, it is my design work. I don’t have a conceptual basis for it in the same way. It’s a commercial practice, I’m thinking very differently [about] it in terms of marketing, commercial viability. They’re objects [so] I charge the price that they’re meant to be. It’s not like books where I’m selling an idea. It’s a pin, everyone pays retail price.
EAD: Do you ever find that the marketability of The Forager’s Club bleeds into your artistic process?
KE: It’s like a trap crop for the pests. The Forager’s Club is my trap crop for stress about money. Then I don’t really think about it in my personal work. You have a crop that attracts all the pests [in this case financial worries], so they don’t go to your prize crop [my artistic practice]. Any worries I have about finances or what people would like all go into The Forager’s Club and not into my personal work.
EAD: That’s a fascinating way to handle the money/art problem.
KE: There’s also the fact that I’m starting to make money off of my work via grants and approaching my work honestly and authentically is [better]. I’m trying to lean into that and not let [financial worries] stress me out.
EAD: I think it’s better to do your own thing and when it fits within a theme, submit. If not, keep rolling.
KE: I’ll apply [for grants] if the theme is aligned with something that I’m already doing. Sometimes if the theme is a little off-center it can be an interesting way to push your way in a different direction, but again if I’m not getting paid to make work different from my art, I’m not going to do it. That being said, there are times when I’ll break my own rules.