Welcome back to Odd Jobs, where I interview artists about their varied and untraditional career arcs. For this installment I spoke with Conor Fields. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, he received his BFA from Tyler School of Art in 2008 and his MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2013. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Rome. Fields lives and works in Los Angeles and is co-director of the artist-run gallery space Ms Barbers. His work was most recently exhibited in the group show Other Better Things curated by Adrian Rosenfeld.
Conor Fields: I was looking at your other interviews and I definitely have the fewest markers of career success compared to those you’ve interviewed. And so my outlook might be a little bleaker, because right now, I’m working and there’s nothing coming back. It’s so intimidating and frustrating to hear, “You gotta put in your time! You gotta be poor!” “For…ever?” “…Until it happens!”
Calder Yates: It sounds like you’re saying that when “it” happens—whatever “it” is—its timing or its arrival feels arbitrary.
CF: Oh yeah. Totally. I read about this study on music that showed that once the product, music in this case, is at a certain quality level, after that any additional success or popularity it got was arbitrary.
CY: So you’re not working at [a boutique Los Angeles hotel bar] anymore, right?
CF: I stopped in December. I realized I wasn’t going to get off for the holidays.
CY: You’ve been in the service industry since I met you.
CF: Yeah, the previous two restaurant jobs, I was like, “Never again!” But of course I come back because it’s the easiest way to make a fistful of cash in a night. But the way people talk to you… Some customers, they sneer at you. The worst is when I approach someone to take their order and ask, “Hey, how ya doing?” and they just respond, “I’ll take an old fashioned” or whatever.
CY: You’ve been out of grad school [CalArts] for how long?
CF: Two and a half years.
CY: What are some of the jobs you’ve worked since then?
CF: I worked for an artist doing an installation at the new children’s museum in San Diego. Worked with another artist fabricating pedestals. Then I started working at Matthew Marks gallery, working as an art guard, and they kept calling me back to do install work. I also worked at a boutique furniture shop. I also made a display rack for someone selling purses. Perhaps the worst job I’ve ever had: a restaurant in Los Feliz. I was a server during brunch, by myself, with 20–30 tables, and the owner was in the habit of taking the food runner off the floor in the middle of the brunch shift to go look at blinds for her apartment… I painted people’s apartments. Bartending. Art handling.
All the art handlers I know who do it long term are pretty miserable. If they’re artists, they’re as miserable as you can get. I’ve seen art handlers who are installing someone’s work and realize they went to school with that person and have a full-on meltdown. It’s terrifying. The artists end up hating art.
CY: How do you feel about your career so far? Do you feel like you’re making headway?
CF: Yes and no… But I keep doing it. You have to bet on yourself. You have to keep doing it—studio work—as if “it” is close. It’s like you’re playing the lottery every day, but instead of paying a dollar at a time, you’re paying with all of your time and money and energy.
All of my money—if it’s not spent on rent, food, or beers with a friend—goes into my studio [practice]. And there’s no return on that. Yet. It’s just a giant pit. Like right now the pit is twelve years large and $100,000 deep, at least, with no bottom in sight.
I don’t mind not making much money, which is why I live in my studio. You know, after grad school I assessed the situation: I could either have a studio or an apartment. And this [the studio] is the priority.
There’s a good chance I’ll have to make an adult decision and have an actual money-career. I was toying with the idea of becoming an electrician. But that’s forty hours a week, plus classes, to get certified. And I can’t do that and [art]. At that point you don’t have an art career. It’s tough… we have multiple careers.
At the same time, I signed up for it! I’m not going to stop. This is what I want to do. When I was working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I got to go into this ancient Chinese temple and dust it! That’s crazy! Freshman year when I saw The Way Things Go, my mind was blown. And then installing the Fischli and Weiss show at Matthew Marks. I was elbow deep in that show. Walking through the show with [Peter Fischli]. Oh my god, that was amazing.