We had the good fortune of connecting with Lindsay van Ekelenburg and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Lindsay, is there something you believe many others might not?
The idea that when you are a Talented Artist, you have a job you love and never work a day in your life, is dangerous.
I have found these little insidious labels the bane to my career. What I would say instead to a young artist is yes, you may be talented. But what is more important for you to focus on is that you are skilled.
Since I was a wee one, everyone said I was going to be an artist, as though I had no choice because it was predestined. People would say, “Oh Lindsay, you are so talented. You are going to be an artist. How lucky you are.” I never even got a chance to sit down with my high school career advisor because it was assumed I needed no guidance or advice. The result was the idea that I have this gift that I can fail at reaching the potential of. If I struggle, if I stumble, if I desire a break, if I am not making a living I can thrive on, I am a failure at what I’m supposed to be.
Several years ago, burnt out from trying to do Art as a Living, I was paying the bills working as an art model at Sheridan College. When the colleges went on strike, I found myself with no work, no pay, and total uncertainty. All my life, I have struggled with the demons of anxiety and depression. In times of struggle and uncertainty, they are louder and even harder to face down. While I dipped daily into my meagre savings to pay for food, the demons crept in, wrapping their dark tendrils around me and whispering, “How long can you go on like this?”, “You were destined to be a successful artist, you should have made it by now” and “Maybe you should just give up on being an artist, settle for some sort of desk job.”
So I pushed all the thoughts about making money, about career, about success, out of my head. And I drew a picture for myself. I painted a portrait of Carrie Fisher, a personal hero, while I processed grief about my life, her life, about being a human with mental illness trying to survive in a world not built to work for me.
When I finished the painting, I shared it on my Facebook page as usual. The next morning, I suddenly had viral success for a portrait that was made for myself with no agenda other than to bring myself some comfort, and maybe a few others. But then hundreds of thousands of people seemed to resonate with it. Viral success is a very strange experience and one I was wholly unprepared for. The truth is that I really never expected the portrait to take on its own life. It was a piece that I made for myself, an extremely personal expression of gratitude to a woman whose influence on my life was enormous and whose legacy was to empower women like myself, encourage us to not give up or give in to our darkness, to live and create beauty despite the weight of our struggles in this world from within and without.
Years later, it still overwhelms me to think that so many people have found that my painting speaks to them, that they want more of it. I have been shy to talk about my experience being a working artist since then. Friends and online fans wonder at how awesome it must feel to be a working artist. And I have not really known what to say to them because it didn’t feel great. I created work I like, I created work I hated. I took months off at times, then crammed several pieces in all at the same time. The hot/cold feelings I had daily as I tried to balance making art and running my business made me feel like I wasn’t being a good artist. Wasn’t I supposed to be gifted, a natural, and love what I do?
What I realized was that I was trying to understand who I was now, as Lindsay the Artist, but as I looked hard at myself, I realized there was someone else there: Lindsay the Career Creative. Being Creative and doing Creative Work are two different things. I came to understand that the dream job idea, a job you love so much it feels like you aren’t even working, is not a thing that exists. Lindsay the Artist is not Lindsay the Career Creative. They hold hands, share many ideas, co-create. But they have to be separate. Lindsay the Artist has to be able to lose her head in the clouds, while Lindsay the Career Creative sits at the computer making social media posts, talking to clients about their criteria for their commission. Career Lindsay sometimes needs to take the wheel and simply work, practice, struggle. And then sometimes Career Lindsay needs to take a weekend off and let crazy Artist Lindsay do nonsense for no one but herself.
Doing creative work is a skill. You need to hone and nurture it. And when you are honing it, it sometimes doesn’t feel creative. You need to practice, all the time. Like an athlete doesn’t simply “do their sport” and call it a day, artists don’t simply draw something masterful, all the time, and then are done. Like an athlete, we have to “work out”.
It is dangerous to the job you love to not separate the work and the creative, because sometimes work is work. When you don’t separate the two, you start to think something is wrong when you aren’t enjoying it, and it is far easier to burn out and quit all together. Sometimes, you simply have to work. And sometimes you have to work on your skills.
And like you have to let yourself simply work and not feel the pressure to love it, you also need to take breaks from the work and just not worry about anyone’s opinion of your art and make something for yourself and only yourself. That’s the gift.
In general, I struggle with the idea that a career is what defines you. Living in a society that has made the vast majority of our waking time dependent on career or job, I count myself fortunate that I find success in doing something I am skilled at. But, like many creatives, it is still a challenge, and is still work. And it is work that is often undervalued, because so many people view it as a hobby. And when creativity is not valued as a job because people view it as a hobby, it becomes very hard to not doubt yourself when it isn’t going perfectly well.
Finding the small joys in your work, seeking out work that brings you joy, that is important in a creative career. And understanding that is is very normal for it to feel like work. Because it is work.
I will always fear there may come a time when I won’t be able to earn a living doing art. But I try to remember that that is not unique to just creatives: all people worry about losing their jobs, needing to move on to something new, etc. It is a shared human experience. So I continue to remind myself that the career part of creative career, is just that. Career. Job. And the creative, well that is a part no one can take away from me. I am always a creative, an artist, even when I am not producing art for society to consume.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I draw and paint what I love and what I am intrigued or haunted by. I straddle two subject matters of wildlife art and portrait work, sprinkled in some silly cat drawings and fan art. My style utilizes the softness of watercolour and ridgedness of ink line-work to explore a broad range of themes and subjects, frequently centring the everyday power and beauty of women and nature while imbuing these subjects with a soft touch of magic, and I often like to try and capture the tension between the world as we see it and the world of imagination.
I have always been an artist and have always shared my work with others as much as I can. I stumbled into the work I do now, which is Freelance, after I had the unexpected viral success of my portrait of Carrie Fisher called Blessed Rebel Queen. This piece will forever be my favourite art, because I had made it for myself in one of my lowest moments in life, and it instantly became hundreds of thousands of peoples’ favourite piece. This portrait quite literally gave me a new start to life. The original painting holds a place of prestige in my studio space: in the centre of everything the Blessed Rebel Queen watches over my work, flipping the bird as a reminder to my demons that they are not in control and they can shut up and take a back seat.
That piece of art threw open so many doors for me, at a moment when I was very unprepared I felt like I had been caught in my underwear, that I felt so overwhelmed that all I could do was ride the wave, try do deal with everything flying at me while maybe screaming from time to time. As a human with anxiety, depression and good old ADHD, it took me a while to get my footing, and I still find myself stumbling as I learn most of what entails running the business end of my work on the fly, through trial and error. I won’t lie, it has been challenging in many regards. There isn’t really a roadmap to being a self employed artist trying to make money off of commissions and prints. But the best thing that I have learned, both for my art and for my business, is to take chances, and put one foot in front of the other even if you aren’t entirely certain of what you are doing, because sometimes you can only learn along the way.
What I would love for people to know is the greatest reward being an artist has given me is seeing the impact my work has had on so many people. When I feel bogged down or full of self doubt, it is the comments left by people on my posts that move and push me on. Knowing that people vibe with my work, that it resonates with them, gives them the same sort of comfort and strength it gives me, is truly the greatest motivation to keep making more.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Moving downtown in a city is a bit of an odd choice for one who grew up in the wilderness and spent most of her day high in the branches of a tree or down the steep slopes in the ravine. So seeking out any nature I can is important, and is usually where I take anyone coming to visit me where I live now in Hamilton, Ontario. My favourite place is the Royal Botanical Garden Greenhouse in Gage Park. I remember the first time I stumbled upon it as I was wandering through the trees of the park on a crisp and very blustery fall day. I was drawn to the giant glass structure, the windows completely fogged up with condensation, and as I pressed my face to it, I beheld the wonder of a tropical oasis. ￼
It’s a beautiful retreat, completely free to visit, filled with hundreds of plants, including a very pungent corpse flower named Kramer, ponds filled with fish and turtles, and the most precious Button Quail to keep pests at bay. Its a great place to warm up in on snowy days, have a nice lunch and do some plein air painting.
And if for whatever reason I can’t get to the greenhouse when I am feeling the desire for nature, a ditch with a ravine works wonders! Entire little ecosystems that seem so alien compared to the city roaring around it.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
To a person living and actively in my life, I need to give my shout out to is my dear friend and mentor Geordie Millar (@thegeordiemillar on instagram, check out his work it is fantastic), who is among other things an instructor at Sheridan College. I met Geordie 15 years ago when I started working at Sheridan as a model for the animation department. Over the years in his class of being all manner of characters and, in general, a professional goofball for his students to be inspired by, I came to finally be brave enough to show him that I too loved to draw, and we hit it off from there. Often going to get sushi or a drink after a 9 hour days of work at the school, we would rant about our mutual journeys and experiences trying to do this strange thing of making art for a living. Geordie is the one who has always been able to ground me in moments of panic and doubt. The best advice he has ever given me is that if I simply paint what I love, in a way that is authentic to myself, people will flock to it. Now whenever I am working and feeling the pressure, I just hear his voice in my ear telling me to chill out, let go, and draw whatever I want, because whether it is a highly rendered portrait you have spent months working on, or a silly little 30 second drawing of a cat, someone will think its the greatest thing they have ever seen.
And to a person passed and never known by me, I wouldn’t be where I am without Carrie Fisher. It was Carrie Fisher’s One Woman Show I watched late at night while I was unemployed and worried how I would pay my bills. Her snarky, hilarious and candid discussions about being a creative and a human with Mental Illness brought me a lot of comfort and inspiration in facing my own health issues. And, through the portrait I made of her, she quite literally gave me a new start to life with my work. It was her legacy that encouraged me to summon the will to create art again, and believe in my art, and its unexpected success gave me a renewed enthusiasm to move forward and walk this path of being an artist.
And finally, to the many people I have never met, but whose words always gives me steam to push on: the fans that follow and support my artwork. Every once in a while I receive a message or email from a long time follower or someone who has just stumbled upon my work, who felt the need to reach out and tell me the impact my work has on their life, the strength and comfort my work can bring to them to face their day. It is genuinely the greatest thing that keeps me going when I doubt myself.