All dressed up to paint at the Venetian Macau, 2007
RISKING IT ALL
A few summers ago I was still learning how to breathe Hong Kong’s polluted air and wondering what the hell I was doing there. I had left Cambodia to explore opportunities in HK’s developed art market, and was debating my decision to settle in this pragmatic city that was so businesslike and money-obsessed. It felt frigid even on the hottest days.
I sweltered through countless afternoons while I painted and printed Cyanotypes, too stingy to turn on the air-con in my studio, because the rent and deposit had wiped out my savings. But this wasn’t the first – or the last – time I’d gamble with my savings on my career.
I taught part-time private painting classes and threw monthly art events to showcase my work and that of local artists. Eventually my perseverance paid off with several book and painting projects, but at the time I had no idea if my investment in my studio would break even, let alone put me into the black.
Today a British painter emailed me asking for advice on Mural Painting “in the Middle and Far East,”, he wrote. My stints with the Hong Kong Mural Society and painting at the Venetian Macau frequently lead people to my website and, they hope, to work in exotic locales. But it’s more difficult than ever for a Westerner to break into this industry, unless they’ve been sent over by companies based in their home country – companies I assume the writer has already contacted.
It’s a narrow field these days, Scenic/Mural Painting. As with most other creative industries, technology has replaced most of the human hands which once decorated our walls, buildings and billboards. And cheap labor has replaced much of what’s left. The protectionist labor guilds that keep painting wages relatively high in the West don’t exist in Asia.
To make a good living in the Asian commercial painting industry, you’ve got to:
1. Start your own company
2. Work 100-hour weeks for an hourly rate, competing with spry students who live with their parents, and hungry migrants from Nepal and the Chinese mainland like those I met in Macau, who slept on casino floors to save on hotel rooms. If you can get the work. And the work permit.
Here’s what I wrote to the artist:
“After doing more online networking in these regions, catch a cheap AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur, then a connecting flight to HK/Macau, and meet up with your contacts over dim sum or steak – whatever they prefer. In Asia, face to face networking is key. [Flights from London to HK can run at under US $800 return in off-peak season.]”
THE RISK: Show Up
Showing up shows commitment. It allows you to taste the polluted air and the incredible food of Asia’s cities and see the working conditions of a very different part of the world, where Western assumptions – about communication, even about contracts – are still alien. Maybe it’s the right place for you to work, maybe not. But potential employers will have no idea if you’re the right painter for them unless you meet in person, or are recommended by a trusted friend.
Only by showing commitment will an artist get anywhere. For some painters, that means showing up at their studio downstairs. Every day. For others like me, showing up means flying to a strange airport on the other side of the world, for work which may – or may not – ever happen, and occasionally agreeing to unexpected projects, which may not always be labelled Fine Art.
But nothing else compares to the adventures along the way.