In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Los Angeles-based arts consultant Beth Pickens found her clientele in a quagmire. Her clients were saying things like, “Oh, I’ve got to run for public office now. I should go to law school. My art has to change.” In the chaotic weeks that followed, Pickens wrote and distributed a pamphlet called Making Art During Fascism in which she outlined ways that artists resisting the Trump administration could maintain their practice and engage with political resistance while also caring for themselves and staying true to their art.
“Over and over again, I heard artists devaluing the work they were already doing,” Pickens tells the Mercury. “I wanted to respond to that, and the pamphlet got very popular. I expanded it a couple times and it eventually ended up in this book.”
Your Art Will Save Your Life, is a slim, 130-page survival guide packed with useful anecdotes, advice, and exercises. “In my experience,” Pickens writes, “when artists stop making work, they become depressed, anxious, and generally dissatisfied with life. Making art is an essential form of self-care in their lives.”
Pickens’ methodology comes from an unusual combination of practices. After completing a Masters in Counseling Psychology, Pickens moved to San Francisco and immersed herself in its queer arts scene. “I don’t have any sort of art practice,” she says, “but I need a lot of art. I rely heavily on artists. Artists are the population that I want to work with, so I utilize what I’m really good at: counseling, strategic thinking, and fundraising.”
After a few years organizing a queer writers’ retreat with authors Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott, Pickens began to imagine a new fusion of her skills: specialized consulting services for artists and arts organizations. Her current practice has her writing hundreds of grants per year, but she also works with artists to “dig into their trauma and fear, develop new habits, grow their communities,” and more. “You can look at my book and see what my brand is,” Pickens says with a laugh. “It’s a series of lists, and there’s a spreadsheet where my heart would have been. Art is what actually brings soul and feelings into my body.”
After the election, Pickens’ colleague and friend Michelle Tea pitched the idea of expanding Making Art During Fascism into a survival guide. Pickens combined the expanded pamphlet with another she’d been working on since 2015, one that she wanted to give to the scores of clients she couldn’t accommodate. “I often have a waitlist for my consulting practice and, at some point, I thought I should write what I do into book form so that I have something to offer artists when I have to turn them down.”
Your Art Will Save Your Life is a dense, power-punch of info. It’s dead-on in several places. I inhaled it while I was at a writing residency, and the book’s section about getting “spooky writer face” (trying to interact socially after furiously writing for hours) expressed my exact experience there.
Initially Tea wanted to do an entire series of survival guides published on her Feminist Press imprint Amethyst Editions. That never came to fruition, but Feminist Press is publishing some of the books that Tea proposed, including Your Art Will Save Your Life and Virgie Tovar’s You Have the Right to Remain Fat, which is slated to come out in August. Such grand designs call back to the frenzy of activism muscle-flexing that followed the 2016 election, but like Pickens says, “Justice—like your art career—is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Your Art Will Save Your Life
by Beth Pickens