My Friend Can Paint
Tamara Armstrong is an award-winning contemporary painter who works independently out of her home-based studio in Tamborine Mountain. She runs her arts career on her terms and believes in self-awareness, positivity and authenticity; which is evident in her work. Tamara speaks openly about her journey to becoming a full time, professionally practicing artist.
When did you become a professionally practicing artist and what were the steps you took to make it happen? ~ For me, professionally practicing artist means; someone who is regularly making art and earning an income from the sale of their art, and this is where it's a bit blurry to pinpoint when I in fact became professional.
I studied Visual Art & Secondary Education at QUT and was a full time high school Visual Art Teacher from 2004-2011 and I always made time to paint over the school holidays - in fact I craved it and went bonkers if I didn't. I regularly sold my paintings to friends, colleagues and family members and even sold my very first artwork while I was still at university. But I never felt comfortable calling myself an artist. I hid behind the label of being or becoming a teacher. I think this was because I was stuck in other people's opinions of what making art is (ie. a hobby) and not seeing the role of an artist as an actual career - something I'm now actively attempting to educate people of all ages on, particularly if it will help young people realise this at the same age I was when I fell prey to the doubt.
I officially got an ABN in 2013, when I stepped away from full time teaching and that felt like official permission to call myself a professional artist. But in actual fact I had sold $12,000 - $15,000 worth of artwork in 2011 and 2012, at a time before I felt that I could confidently call myself an artist and not just a teacher who occasionally painted on the side. So I guess the steps to this were very much dependent on listening to the belief in my artwork and the value of the artist's career and time, vision, and output and listening less to other people's opinions about it not being a real job. It also really helped to have a loving, supportive partner who saw past his own fear of how we would in fact continue to pay off our mortgage if I did leave teaching to be a full time artist, without that stable and consistent wage coming in.
Doubt and fear and lack of emotional support from others for your art and your ability to be an artist will stomp on your own belief and confidence, so surround yourself with love, honest support and acceptance.
How did you plan and develop your workshops and how did this idea come about? ~ The workshops I now (very occasionally) offer came about purely because I felt so grateful when my dream home studio was built in 2014, I felt an immense desire to share the space with others and to connect over the making of art.
I had previously been asked by people via social media and email if I would ever offer art classes and at the time I was so burnt out from teaching, I couldn't fathom the idea of doing it anymore. 2012-2014 really was a time for me to just put my own art first, not to mention my health and my family. But the studio was physically born two weeks after our daughter in March of 2014 and whether it was the oxytocin or immense sense of love and gratitude, I really opened myself up to the idea of teaching privately, but I really only had an interest in teaching adults.
I wanted to work with people who really wanted to show up for me and my time and truly be there for themselves. I launched my 'Creative Studio Workshops' program in 2015 and started with an introductory round to feel my way through initial concerns about pricing my time, and whether the topics I offered were in fact of interest to people. That initial round of workshops gave me full confidence that I was on the right track and that keeping the workshops exclusive, occasional and very intimate - fitted my teaching approach and the demands of putting on a workshop.
My workshops are a completely immersive experience and I see them much more like a creative day of pampering. I also found the greatest way to plan and develop my workshops came from the feedback repeat workshop participants have given me, so many of them have really ramped up their making and are so eager to learn more. I wanted to support them as best I can while also sticking to topics I know I can explain and feel confident any beginner can find success with. I really believe that everyone is creative and can reconnect to it if they trust themselves and do the work. I tell everyone who comes to me this same thing, in many different ways because I want them to leave knowing they can recreate this work without a teacher present, they can go on and really discover their own style.
What marketing tools do you use to promote your work? ~
The short answer:
Courage, trust, honesty and openness are actual tools I use. I don't read business books and marketing guides, I just use my intuition and the well practiced communication skills that years of high school teaching gave me. I find that being organised, consistent and diligently addressing things as they cross my desk is what helps my professionalism and what gains trust from potential clients and fellow creatives. Clear communication and clear images of your work are a must and so turning the act of promotion and marketing into a creative activity itself allows truth, openness and honesty to show through.
The long answer:
When I first launched my facebook page in 2011 I called it 'My friend can paint' and I did this because I had only ever sold works to friends, colleagues and family members and I didn't see myself as an actual artist. My sister in law suggested I start a page so she could tell her friends and colleagues all about my work as they often admired the pieces of mine she had hanging all through her home. This was a beautiful gesture of support and love and I figured it couldn't hurt. I didn't want to put my name on the page because I thought it would be easily forgotten, so I wrote down a bunch of ideas that I thought were catchy and checked if they were available and then announced the big launch with giveaways and online auctions and a place to showcase past and present works, hence the marketing of my practice (and myself) began.
I wasn't even aware that I was operating from an entrepreneurial brain when I started the page and had it pointed out to me by several other entrepreneurs that I was in fact marketing myself and my work really effectively by simply using social media - namely facebook at the time (which never required sponsored posts and didn't pick and choose who could see your posts) - and my own personal blog. I couldn't see it myself for many years, but I was a walking, talking business card because I took any and every chance I had to talk about my work and show people and generate ideas to get my work out there as much as possible. My family and friends proudly took on this role too and regularly gave out my card, shared my work and bragged about me whenever they could, and this hasn't changed after 8 years. I'm extremely fortunate and blessed to have so much love and support. I still don't have official vocabulary to tell you the actual tools I use to market, I just got comfortable being an over-sharer in person, on facebook, with my blog and now with a 6 weekly newsletter thanks to Mail Chimp and of course via instagram.
When I've been consciously aware of marketing techniques - like sponsored posts, tags and targeting audiences, I've cringed. I'm completely aware it works and you need your target audience most certainly, but everyone needs art and those searching for it find it when it's right for them. I much prefer just trusting in my intuition and letting my work speak. The works sell themselves, they are visual and with that connection is made. It then gets hung in other spaces and continues to spread the word for me. People I've spent time with then spread the word for me, spaces offer to hang my work and that spreads the word for me. Beautiful fellow creatives constantly lift each other up and pass on opportunities and this spreads the word for all of us. I'm slowly becoming aware of the middle ground between the two worlds and that's CREATIVITY. As long as I tell the truth and remain authentic, whatever I share when I'm truly meaning what I say and finding joy in how I share it - I know I will reach the right audience. I don't particularly care for fame or huge crowds of followers, in fact the thought of that worries me more than anything else. It's too much pressure. I just want to continue to make and share my art along with my creative ups and downs - and whatever else comes I will face it with positivity and a new challenge to get creative with. That's the beauty of vulnerability and ART.
What do you have planned for the next 12 months? ~ I actually hate this question right now. Only because I don't personally have a confident or certain answer for it. I'm very much going through another personal transition period, which is attempting to throw me off balance and occasionally tricks me into thinking up ways to keep myself outwardly busy. But I know I just have to sit with it and listen and keep making my art and see what is revealed.
I spent most of the last two years working on my most ambitious series and solo exhibition to date 'Women of Colour' - which was also a fundraising series for 12 different charities and NFP's all nominated by the 12 women I painted portraits of. The series was so powerful and the ripple effects of it are still being felt in profound and unexpected ways, which I'm so grateful for but at the same time overwhelmed by. Birthing that series and exhibiting it was a huge release and process of personal growth and it was also really well received by my audience. The show had a strong emotional impact on a number of the people that came and viewed the work and attended the number of events I planned to happen within the gallery during the exhibition. Before the show even ended (much like the period after child birth) I was getting asked what was coming next, and this felt really insulting to me.
I honestly think I just need to slow down and feel the changes that this series has brought for me and anyone else who felt it. The world is moving way too fast right now and everyone is getting used to instant results and instant service and constantly having a plan. The predictability is making people too scared to sit still and just live in the moment. Fear of uncertainty is something I've really had to get comfortable with and I really believe anyone else who struggles with this just needs to go back to their inner creative. It's the direct line to the answers we are desperately seeking.
Have you experienced a positive key moment this year in your arts career that keeps you motivated and pushing? ~ There's been so many this year already, I can't narrow it down to one alone. Anytime I finish an artwork and know it truly is finished, I feel positive and motivated to keep going - but we all know that. All of the other moments that are bubbling up revolve around the witnessing of other's reactions to my work, in person. You don't really get that through a screen or in typed words and emojis. The intense emotional reactions of joy and pride from the subjects I chose to paint when they first saw the portraits in person, to the conversations we later had about the importance of female creatives lifting each other up and coming together to share and connect and collaborate. To watching the tears people shed as they stood with my works and told me how they believed they cried tears that didn't belong to them. To witnessing complete strangers hugging and laughing with each other and taking selfies together in front of my works and lining up to hug the women in my paintings. To seeing each of these people connecting outside of the gallery walls and continuing to support one another on their own platforms in connecting them with more women in their orbit. I really opened myself up during this series and every woman I painted a portrait of is essentially a portrait of me, and if you ever paint a self-portrait you know what that mirroring experience is like. It's profound and it can either make you deeply uncomfortable or immensely surprised. I painted a fierce version of myself and the woman I want to see more of.
This has all helped me feel closer to my purpose and more aware of the power that art can have to bring us together and remove the barriers that isolate us. I'm motivated by the fact that making art and sharing it is my true way of bringing more joy into the world. Donating $5000 from 20% of the total sales of my 'Women of Colour' series - to five different charities and NFPs also made me feel like I'm contributing to positive change in this country. My art is my activism.
Do you get involved within your local community? ~ Oh no, this is another question I don't feel I can give a clear answer to. My local community in terms of the physical geographical one that I live in here at Tamborine Mountain is not a community I actively go out into. I guess it's because moving to the mountain meant that I had a sanctuary in which to distance myself from the school I worked at and the demands of students and parents and workloads and I needed the mountain to give me autonomy and anonymity.
When you're a teacher in a small community (which I was for the first four years that I taught, in a remote town of 2000 people) you are always seen as a teacher by the students and their parents and the community as a whole. People don't relax around you and you don't relax around others, because there's this expectation that you are a responsible role model and you don't seem to exist outside of that context and if you do, or if you break that persona you get judged, gossiped about and speculation about your personal life becomes small town news.
It was an interesting and valuable experience to have had as a young single female (I was 21) coming from the busy suburbs of Logan - and at such a formative time in my young professional life. I left that small town after 4 years, with many mixed emotions about when to trust people and when I could and couldn't be myself and talk candidly, so I've hung onto that barrier since moving to the mountain and perhaps I should let it down, but for the time being I'm feeling safe so why fix it if it ain't broke? We are all damaged goods at the end of the day and more honesty and openness would certainly help.
There are also a lot of artists up here on the mountain and it does at times feel a little territorial and competitive and I don't like that feeling. For this reason I choose to exhibit my artwork off the mountain and this has worked really well for me. I also get to keep the mountain as my sanctuary. But again, thanks to social media people watch what you are doing and I'm sure my work is known about even up here, but I really feel I've created my own community and been lead to my true tribe because of social media, despite the lengthy physical distance between us. It is amazing that you can vibrate towards your tribe even through a screen.
There are some wonderful artistic communities coming through on the Gold Coast and I love to occasionally get amongst it, but as always I love to return home to my quiet mountain and home to recharge.
The same goes with getting into big art prizes in Sydney, which has happened the last two years with a portrait getting selected for the Portia Beach Memorial Award in 2016 and my second ever year of entering this art prize world saw me get selected for the alternate Archibald last year (Salon Des Refuses) - both were exhilarating experiences and very much helped my creative and professional confidence along, but the best part was actually getting to meet with fellow artists in person, bond over the peaks and troughs of this endeavour and really just find the right crowd to share vulnerably with. We tend to 'get' each other and can relate and we all learn from one another. It's beautiful and special and something I don't want to forget by doing too frequently, if that makes sense. Much like my workshop offerings, I just want these times to remain special and I don't want to lose my gratitude by overdoing it.
It's that introverted nature that most creatives have and it is occasionally forced and challenged to be extraverted in the marketing, professional world of being a self represented artist. It's always push and pull, but mostly I've picked up the signs as to when I should be in solitude and when I'm comfortable being social, and when to put a forcefield of light around myself to keep out unexpected words of doubt or criticism and when to let that guard down to help someone else who might be absorbing too much negativity or listening to their inner-critic too much. It's a skill I believe teaching has given me, to spot when someone is being paralysed by negative talk (inner or outer) and years of making art in solitude has helped me personally overcome.
I wish we could all support each other more as we educate the rest of society of the realness of our jobs. Using your platform in this way Chantel is just one of those beautiful offerings, so thank you. At the end of the day our community expands as far as the opposite of the world, there are people making art everywhere and we are all craving connection, love and to be seen and heard.
What does success mean to you? ~ Being brave enough to seek out my purpose and doing my best to honour it - when I do indeed find it. I think I've found it! Haha, some days I need a reminder from someone outside of my brain.
In five words - who is Tamara Armstrong? ~ Warrior Woman, Creative, Teacher, Student, Maker.
Where can people find you and your work online? ~ The clearest, most orderly online way to find me is via my website www.tamaraarmstrong.com.au - The occasional updates on workshops and going ons can be found on facebook at 'Tamara Armstrong Visual Artist' and the most regular posts and celebrations of whatever has my attention is via Instagram at @tamara_armstrong_art and to see what my workshops do for others and the works they create check out @my_friend_can_paint
What advice can you give to creatives launching their start ups/arts careers? ~ Make sure you really want to put financial pressure on your art. If you don't feel 100% ready to do that, than work a job that provides financial stability to fund this lift off.
I worked full time in a hugely draining career for two whole years while cramming in my own art every night and weekend and I didn't think I was ready. I then had the privilege of taking 6 months long service leave to set the foundations of my business without worrying about money. I also saved up a good chunk of capital before I took the leap and by this stage I was already selling artwork weekly. I didn't realise I was ready to make this my full time career, until I was rendered choice-less and by that I mean my body shut down completely when I attempted to return to part time teaching, on top of being a new mum and small business owner AND artist! It was too much. But I trust the timing of it all and I now take a lot more notice of my body.
Unfortunately this world is always going to require money for survival, so make it easy on yourself and take paid work that doesn't exhaust your creative energy too much, and keep putting that money back into the production of art. Don't believe that artists have to starve, it's total BS!