Art teacher anchors paintings in life

Discipline yields inspiring career founded in art

During the 1990s, Victoria Wagner's first show sold out—about 15 paintings, some at nearly $2,000. Excited at the prospect of making a living purely as an artist, she quit her job as a pastry chef. For three years her paintings sold well. Then the dot.com crash came and many potential art buyers lost their fortunes. Making a living as a painter became more difficult. Wagner went back to baking wedding cakes. Art sales were rare. She ended up making only $5,000 a year.

She went to graduate school in ceramics and painting. "I graduated in 2001," she recalls. "I came out scared. I owed a lot of money."

Victoria Wagner

Wagner knew she wanted to teach. Competition for art teaching jobs is fierce, with hundreds of applicants for any position. Most jobs are filled because somebody knows someone.

At California College of the Arts in San Francisco, she had tea with the chair of the department. "She had hired me before I even walked in the door," Wagner recalls. Her graduate thesis advisor had recommended her in advance. "I never applied for that job. It was all about confidence the community has in you as an artist. I was very fortunate to have found a job immediately."

At 31, she was young for a professor, and had a newborn baby.

Although the college is large and well-established, with several thousand students, two campuses in the Bay Area and about 250 faculty members, over the next few years the school laid her off twice. She patched together jobs at other schools then was hired back.

"I have the best possible job I could have in the world," she says.

Wagner teaches color theory, design in two dimensions, drawing and painting. Theme project classes include nature's patterns, art and consciousness and extended nature, such as how to incorporate telescopic vision into art.

"We graduate students who are open to creative solutions on many levels," she says. An art student may end up working in technology, for instance. An industrial design student could become a great painter. "It is the power of seeing and responding," Wagner says. "It is more about creative problem solving than art. It's not about being a great artist. It's about being a whole person. Have your art come out of a true place."

First-year students, most under 30, demand to know why they have to take humanities and sciences. They want art classes. Wagner helps them become whole persons.

Young artists imagine that a successful artist rubs elbows with important people and stays out late at night. That is myth. Artists make it if they have discipline. Otherwise, they fail. "It's discipline all the time," Wagner says. "You have to remember what your goals are. I wish I had known that in high school. I wish I had taken yoga to see what discipline really is.

"I have always been an easy drawer," Wagner continues. "I figured it was because I liked math." She relished math in high school. "I liked algebra, trigonometry, calculus and physics. I like to be given an equation and know that there is a way to solve it. There's a formula. If I can figure out how to plug information into the formula, out pops that gratification. That's why I like color theory and prismatics."

Every artist must retain her intuitive spirit so the art doesn't become formulaic and flat, Wagner advises.

Some aspects of teaching drive her crazy. "We are mired in bureaucratic language such as 'interdisciplinary,'" she says, chuckling. "When I go to meetings sometimes, it's all about four-syllable words." But the lingo doesn't much curb her spirit.

"I love interacting with people," she says. "I love opening a spark in someone's creative consciousness. It's good work in the world. Plenty of artists never find their own voice."

"I don't think anything truly great is created out of frantic energy."

It's more difficult during the recession to make money selling art in the Bay Area, Wagner says. Few artists support themselves solely by selling their work. Some survive on grants, and spend much of their time writing grant proposals. Some become frantic trying to make a living. "I don't think anything truly great is created out of frantic energy," Wagner says.

"Teaching is synonymous with struggling financially," Wagner says. Part-time adjunct faculty with a few classes may earn $15,000 a year. Full-time teachers are lucky to garner $30,000.

Working artists find shows or galleries. They cart their work around and strive to keep it safe. "If you really love making work and bringing it into the world, you can manage the trials of being a visual artist," Wagner says. "Pressure may not allow your finest creative self. Seat yourself in the pressures of life to find your center." Many artists only begin to hone their professional lives past their mid-thirties, she observes.

"It's noble to be a hobby artist," she says. "Many artists supplement with teaching or odd jobs. Sometimes you have to give up canvas to paint because your kid needs new soccer shoes."

Artists must think creatively about how to harness their artistic talents in businesses not focused on art, such as Apple Computer. Browse business magazines for ideas, Wagner says. "Be flexible about what an art job means. Every industry needs creative people."

—James Dunn
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