Deb Chaney '92: Contemporary Artist Inspiring Artists
When we go up the elevator to Deb Chaney’s loft in the ARC artist’s work/live space, I’m struck by the industrial scenery out the window. Deb greets us with some rooibos tea and initial introductions, but she’s eager to emphasize from the beginning that she has an “intention to inspire girls to believe that they can have a future in the arts.”
1898: From everything I’ve heard, it’s very challenging to make a career in the arts. Have you found that?
D: Well, what you’re looking at is embracing uncertainty. For you two [1898 Interviewers], you’re coming to this job or position or whatever it is, and at the end of two weeks you know that you’re getting a paycheque. My life doesn’t work like that. And it’s a matter of whether you can live like that. There are no benefits. When I look at my mentors, who I’ve created intentionally, there is an entrepreneurship for those who do succeed at this.
I would recommend a book called The E-Myth to readers interested in becoming artists. E stands for entrepreneur. The focus of the book is why entrepreneurs fail, and the biggest reason they fail is they get into one modality -- generally the “technician”. The technician is when I’m going in my studio and painting, and of course that’s what I love the most. That’s fun, right? I get to play with color and texture. But that doesn’t get my art into the world, and it doesn’t get it sold, so then there’s the business mind, the one that’s going, “How do I price these paintings, and how am I going to get them out, and who’s my market?” And then there’s the visionary, going, “what’s my game plan in two years and five years and ten years?”
So the people that succeed in art are usually good technicians to start, but they branch themselves out more than that. If I was going to ask “What can I share with girls now if they’re really creative and want to aspire to a career in arts?”, the three archetypes would be one of the first things.
1898: So beyond that book, how else did you learn about the more visionary and business aspects of your art career?
D: It’s ongoing. I’m a continuing adult learner, and I’m always growing and learning. That’s part of our journey. I’ve been really privileged and I’ve been allowed to study with a lot of people. A big influence was a woman named Alyson B Stanfield. She has a website called artbizcoach.com. She has a masters. She’s worked in galleries. She’s worked in museums, and her entire business is dedicated to teaching artists how to market themselves and how to get their work out there. So I did private coaching with her. I wrote a marketing plan. I did an online blog class, which allowed me to connect with artists all over North America and really get a sense for what other artists are doing and what was working.
1898: How did you discover her? What are the practicalities of looking for a mentor?
D: The journey started with the idea that I wanted to be an artist for a living and knowing that I loved it. I then asked “What stops artists, and why don’t they succeed?” I started to look at this archetype of artists like Jackson Pollock, who was alcoholic and abusive to the people around him and a very dark soul. It concerned me, the question of how I would be able to produce and stay in a positive creative flow.
So I started to amass tools and information, and I ended up taking a twelve week creative coaching course on how to support artists in a coaching capacity to overcome procrastination, to overcome overwhelm, to overcome self-sabotage, and all of those things that stop people in any realm from achieving their dreams. I took it from a very selfish perspective. I had no desire to be a creative coach. I just wanted to know how to coach myself, so that I could live this path.
So then the question was, “now I’ve seen other people that are super successful, ones that are in New York galleries: How do I find them?” Well, I serendipitously met one of my mentors, Russell Young, who got his big break by photographing George Michael for the cover of his Faith album.
1898: That’s a very famous photograph...
D: It is! And his prints are gigantic. They sell for $30,000 a pop in galleries worldwide. So, you can imagine, he has a beautiful estate in Santa Barbara, his wife’s a movie star, Finola Hughes, and they have three kids. When I saw that, I thought, “wow, it’s actually possible to be very successful at this”, but again it was a question of tools. I needed that sense of the business, because you really are a businessperson as an artist. I thought, “man, I want a website, and I want to do it myself... and what about blogs and Facebook and Twitter?” And that’s when, through a lot of searching, I found Alyson. So I called her up and I said, “Hey, this is where I’m at. I’m producing and I have this goal, but I’d love to be represented in galleries. How do I go to that next step?”
There’s a long answer to your question!
1898: It’s a fabulous answer! Now, I am curious about your project called Illuminate the Artist Within. How does that relate to your career?
D: I had the privilege of studying with Tony Robbins. I was in a big room with 3000 people, and Tony picked me out of the audience, and I got to speak with him, and it was amazing...
You know, I have no doubt with my drive and determination and ability that I’ll create success, but Tony helped me ask “how do I want to contribute to others?” That’s where Illuminate the Artist Within came from. I want to pass on the gifts of having figured out how to overcome procrastination and overwhelm and self-sabotage, and how to be able to produce despite lots of obstacles (and believe me, I have had an enormous amount of obstacle in the last ten years. You name it, I’ve been there.) The mission of Illuminate is to “playfully and compassionately illuminate the artist within each and every one of us.” It’s a mouthful.
1898: Why compassionately? How does that work?
Artists have usually been represented in society as dark geniuses. It’s a very strong archetype that we’re very loose, and liberal sexually, that we don’t have values, or we cut off our ears, that we drink... and I don’t do any of those things, and I never have. I like to say “You can do what I’m doing. You don’t have to be all of that craziness. It’s not compassionate. And it’s also not life-sustaining.”
1898: So if other artists are using self-destruction to get to that place, how do you get there? When you’re really in the depth of your process, what does it look like?
D: Time kind of disappears, and all of the sudden the sun’s gone down. It’s like kind of going into an ethereal... another world. You get in there and the number one thing is that “God help anyone that interrupts you. Me in particular.” You get in the zone. Like in Karate, they call it mushin, which is no-mindedness.
Here’s the best example I can give you: I studied Kyokushin Karate. It’s a Japanese form, and you do a lot of basics. A lot. You’re standing in Zenkutsu Dachi pose, and you’re doing this [punches], like a hundred times. So, when you’re doing these basics, you are teaching your body, not just on a cellular level, but on an energetic level. You’re actually shifting your aura, your energy around you, so when you get to the fight, when someone throws a punch at you, you just block and you don’t think.
So when I get in my studio now, after ten years of doing this, this whole thing takes over, and it becomes automatic... I’ll be working on a piece, and it’s all of these different pieces of me thinking. There’s the part of me that steps back and looks at composition. Then there’s the part of me that’s right in there and says, “Nope. I need more of this”, and I’m grabbing from my shelf. It’s so fluid that I’ll just reach over and exactly what I need I’ll get. You’re just in a place that’s not about words. It’s like that no-minded place; it’s very blissful.
1898: As a younger person, I thought that one either had genius or didn’t, and then over time I started to realize that it actually takes a lot of work to get there. So was there a phase in your artistic career when you were focused more on technique, sort of like the punches?
D: Absolutely! It lasted between four and six years. I went to gallery after gallery and website after website, and I would call the artists I liked and say, “Hi. Can I meet with you? I really like what you do. Can I study with you?” I went to North Carolina. I flew to San Francisco. I went to Wisconsin. I took every workshop. I studied with every interesting artist I could get my hands on. I also started teaching which really helped cement it. They say genius is like 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. For a long time I really disliked the word “talent” because people’s egos get gratified and it comes so easily to them, and I don’t feel like I’m one of those people.
1898: So when you were at Crofton House, do you have any memories of the art program? Did you take art classes?
D: Miss Slater-Siskind was the art teacher. I remember drawing a shoe. I remember the building because it had glass. It had that vaulted ceiling which I thought was really pretty. I’m really inspired by light and high ceilings. That’s why I love living here; I love this space. And unfortunately, that’s about it, because I come from a family of doctors and lawyers and I was just told “artsy fartsy waste of time”, and so I took one art class and then went to UVic and got a science degree. I do remember there was one girl in my class, her name’s Jennifer Kelly, and she was so amazing. The musical in the year I was at Crofton House was the Sound of Music, and they did an amazing production, I mean mind-blowing, and she had painted the green hills in the background for it. She was just so talented. I remember having so much awe of her.
1898: Well, there are a whole bunch of young artists there now that will really appreciate reading your story, too. Any final thoughts?
D: I just want people to know what’s possible!
By the end of our discussion, it has become clear that Deb is a person who has addressed the obstacles and challenges in her life with compassion and enthusiasm. It’s reflected in her work, which is at once celebratory and self-consciously laced with hidden depths. After we’re finished with our discussion, she takes us on a tour of her studio, highlighting many of the tools she uses and types of projects currently on her slate for the present and future. The space and the materials she uses are indeed inspiring, and hint at how she’s managed to continue producing so regularly throughout her ten-year career as an artist.