Before the pandemic began it had been over three years since I had spent more than three months in any given city. Travel wasn't a hobby or vacation for me, it had become a necessary part of the process for making and supporting my work. Within a couple months of graduating from SAIC with my MFA in 2015, I sold nearly all of my furniture and household belongings and moved to Vienna, Austria for a Fulbright Scholarship in Installation Art. At the time I thought it would just be a one year thing, a short reprieve before I went back to waiting tables or started the adjunct teaching grind. After a few months in Austria though, I knew I didn't want to go back yet. I used the time provided to me by grants and residencies to apply for more grants and residencies. I didn't have an apartment or even furniture to go back to, so I just kept moving. When there was a few months down time between residencies I would find a cheap sublet, visit friends and family, or even pass a month or two exploring to a country with a low-cost of living.
I love the opportunity to see new places, and being immersed in another culture, but honestly the best part of these residencies is the feeling of validation that comes from being paid to make art. Suddenly the long nights in the studio don't feel so self-indulgent, and I began to think I might actually be able to make this art thing into a career. Sometimes it could be lonely living places that I didn't know people, but living abroad meant constantly pushing myself as both an artist and a person. Then everything shut down, residencies were cancelled, and I found myself with nowhere to live. With less than 24 hours notice I flew back to the US from Ukraine, to my parents house where I stayed in a room by myself for two weeks, eating meals off trays my mom left outside the door for me while I self-quarantined.
Thankfully I didn't know then that it would be nearly two years before I could do another residency again. In the interim there was a lot of time for soul searching (probably too much time), and if I'm being honest there was a fair amount of self-pity too. Even before the shutdowns I knew I couldn't keep living the way I was indefinitely, after five years living out of a suitcase and relying on applications for income and housing was wearing on me more than I was willing to admit to anyone. But how could I say no to these opportunities, it's not as though there was a well-paid job with benefits waiting for me back in the States, let alone institutions offering to fund my art. It felt like my choices were to keep fighting through the burnout and financial anxiety, or give up on travel and the residency circuit all together because the stipends aren't enough to sustain an apartment in the US while I'm away. I've made a lot of sacrifices over the past decade and some change chasing this dream, and to stop now and start a new career from scratch in my mid-30s feels like taking a loss.
I wish I could say I had an epiphany during the pandemic, and my future path is now clearly laid out before me. I still don't know how much longer I will keep traveling, and I don't want to give myself a hard deadline. I have been working on improving and developing systems when it comes to goal-setting, time management, and all of the other things that fall of the professional side of being an artist. Even more importantly, I'm learning it's okay to ask people for help and admit when things aren't going well, and I'm seeking out support networks and spaces where it's okay to talk about these things. I guess that's why I decided to share all this, because I'm aware that with everything going on in world these are very privileged problems to have. I think it's important for artist's to share their problems, privileged though they may be, because otherwise we're left looking at the Instagram highlight reel and wondering how everyone else seems to have figured it out. My life on social media may look like an artist's dream, hanging out in Germany or France, working in my new studio of the month, but half the time I don't even know where I'm going to live after. For now it still feels worth it, and I'm so grateful to be at a residency again, I just want to be more transparent about the tradeoffs. this life requires.
This post ended up being pretty long, so thank you if you've read this far. If other people have positive and negative art residency experiences I would love to hear about them. Once I get a little further into my residency in Bourges, I plan to make a post about life and the project I am working on here.
Heather Beardsley is an American visual artist. In 2016-2017 she was awarded an International Artist Scholarship by the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony, Germany. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in Fibers and Material Studies in 2015. She has exhibited work throughout the United States and Europe.