Making it as an artist in New Zealand and collecting cabbages

Rose Northey

May 3, 2020

We are living through some very odd times now - lost jobs and loved ones, working from home, no canned chickpeas and frozen veg left, and not being allowed to lick surfaces. Despite of most of us being more alone than we usually are, we need to search for ways to connect and fight loneliness. This was going to be a video interview but in the light of safety concerns and virus transmissions, we shall persevere and put “social” into “social distancing” by doing a good ol’ written one! I am really stoked to have Rose on Storyo sharing her journey!

A friend invited me to a local poetry show “Open Your Mouth and I Will Poet All Over Your Face” in Auckland last month. He got very excited and told me that I have to meet and interview this bad-ass artist - Rose Northey whose show it was. The show was funny, deep, silly, and just wonderful. A few weeks later another friend tells me about this woman who quit her full-time engineering job and became an illustrator and a poet. He was surprised that so early on she was able to make a living out of her creative passion and how confident and excited she was about her work. “Is her name Rose?...” I asked. “Rose… Yes! That’s her! How do you know her?”

From a mechanical engineer working with nasal cannulas to spoken word poetry and illustrations - what was the thing that was surprisingly easy or hard during the transition?

I was first attracted to engineering after I discovered that I loved solving math and physics problems. When I was at university I would sometimes dream in algebra (but I’m not Ada Lovelace so it never went very well). I assumed that I would be well suited to product development since it can be quite creative and I’ve always been attracted to art. But to be honest, I found it a little frustrating. The answer to an engineering problem is never clean like y=2x. Design for use in the “real world” is all about compromise. Having an imagination is fine so long as it also obeys the laws of physics and economics.

Compared to that, figuring out how to make a living from a creative career was surprisingly complication-free. Even when I was still establishing myself, I knew that eventually the answer needed to be x>$2500 per month + joy. I’m not the biggest fan of capitalism but money does make it satisfying to track progress towards not starving to death. I hate admitting that I’m driven by money but to me it represents time in which I’m allowed to do what I love. So I got comfortable putting a price on my creative labour pretty quick!

After trying my best to not write and doodle all day in my engineering role, finding motivation for creative work was like being told to breathe. Unlike engineering, if you can imagine it, you can draw it or write about it. It was freeing and addictive. When I first bought myself Procreate (an illustration program) I barely slept for 3 days. I actually had to learn how to stop working!

It’s not all sunshine and melanoma-free-moles though, I miss my workmates. I miss leaving trash-talking post-it notes on their monitors. They were my best friends even though it wasn’t socially acceptable to give them daily hugs. When I was still living in Auckland I would often go and visit them and fought back tears whenever they asked me how I was adjusting. Moving cities definitely didn’t help! I was pretty lonely for the first 7 months and as a result, spent at least 3 of those months “visiting” Auckland. Things have been a lot better since I made a conscious effort to put friends first. I’ve been calling 2020 “The Year Of Friendship” which has begun to sound sarcastic because of the whole COVID-19 social distancing thing…

Rose and her friends enjoying some sun from lockdown on the rooftop
Rose and her friends enjoying some sun from lockdown on the rooftop

How do you make it as an artist in New Zealand?

I have to acknowledge here that I come from a position of privilege. Establishing any business takes time and money. A creative business is no exception to this. My brothers both went straight into trades and my parents paid my way through my engineering degree. I had no one to support but myself so I was able to put money aside with ease once I was employed. After my quarter life crisis, it took half a year to figure out how to earn enough to live so I ate and slept on the money I had saved in engineering. I’m not sure I would have made the creative leap if I was in debt which kind of pisses me off. How many people are being deprived of a more fulfilling life because of their student loans? People keep telling me how brave I’ve been to make the change but in my case, it took more luck than guts.

Even when we put socialist rage aside, establishing yourself as an artist is a challenge. One of the most important things I learned in engineering is the vitality of working smart over working hard. This means more than just buying a nice iPad and laptop.

My days are the opposite of structured because I’ve found that I work best when my body rules my schedule. I prioritise getting the right amount of sleep. When I’m feeling creative, I create. When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m restless, I run or play Skyrim. Everyone has read one million articles about how stupid the standard work week is. As it turns out, the standard work week is actually stupid. Motivation to complete work is important but you can’t make it through on motivation alone. If I had to give advice to another artist, it would be to value your own labour and to get comfortable with adaptation. This is especially true now.

It’s such a strange thing to be writing about establishing yourself in the thick of a pandemic. People are bored and at home so virtual art is being produced like never before but there’s also an expectation that this art is free. It is so important to remember that we cannot pay for toilet paper with likes and comments. And if we give our art away for free, we are undercutting ourselves and other artists.

At the moment, I charge $50 per hour for private illustration work with each piece taking between 4 - 10 hours. I’ve adapted this cost according to demand. This rate used to seem like a lot until I realised that I am also the marketing manager, communications manager, strategist and janitor of my own company (all of which are unpaid roles). Overall I work longer hours than I ever did in engineering but usually only manage about 4 or so hours of billable work per day - the rest is admin or professional development. I would recommend charging at least $30 per hour. You will not believe it until you do, but the more you value your own work, the more others will value your work too.

Last year my challenge was to try lots of things and figure out which jobs gave me the most joy and were the most likely to feed me. Usually my instinct is to work at something until I perfect it but this is a trap. Some avenues are more rewarding than others by nature. For example, I found that busking and selling art at flea markets was the perfect way to die of both starvation and boredom whereas personalised commissions fed both my heart and my belly.  

I do poetry for council events, charity events, corporate events and did my own self-produced show. I do illustration for bird conservation, advertising, games and those personalised commissions I mentioned. I have work at the moment but there’s no guarantee that this will be true in June and I will need to start experimenting with the ways I earn money once again. Realistically, most artists will need to adapt to the apocalypse and essentially re-establish their practice so if you are feeling uneasy at the moment, you are not alone!  

Digital illustration by Rose - a sloth filing an IR3 tax return form
Digital illustration by Rose - a sloth filing an IR3 tax return form

What are some of the values and missions that you are driven by?

I’m a highly emotional being - sometimes I like to cry myself to sleep for fun. I’ve found that the things I create have the power to drastically affect my mood. This is a problem when I spend over a month writing a performance piece. In 2018 I wrote a poem about realising that everyone I loved would die and trying to convince my best friend to become an immortal jellyfish with me instead. This resulted in a two month existential crisis and insomnia inducing dreams featuring the realistic death of my little brother / favourite colleagues etc. Because I am such a sopping tissue paper person, I generally gravitate towards expressing joy and humour in both my poetry and illustration. My other thoughts and feelings tend to pop up in the subtext. People have only so much emotional capacity. I do love moody, meaty pieces but I let my own work act as a kind of palate cleanser.

I strongly believe that bringing entertainment and joy to others is underrated in the art world. It’s kind of like the way the writing world sees romance novels - they are perceived as frivolous trash even though they are a billion dollar industry and help to keep publishing company’s afloat. I’ve heard one or two artists talk about how some art is less worthy than others because it is not thematically “important”. This is a crock of shit. Yes, cleverly created art can be used to make people think about climate change or alternate ways to cook and consume rich people but a doctor might still go for a morning run while listening to Selena Gomez and an environmental activist might still sit down to watch Love Actually with her family at Christmas. Entertainment can be just as important as ideas if we truly value mental health.

Without knowing the full stories, It is easy to get overwhelmed by the list of achievements that people might have online, especially looking through a social media lens. Could you please share some of the personal or professional challenges that you have experienced?

I have general anxiety. I feel like most people do, or maybe just the people that I like to hang out with. My family doesn’t like to put labels on stuff like that. But before I called it general anxiety, I had so many other labels for it such as “I have a personality that is so weird and gross that everyone I spend time with will eventually hate me” or “I have no real intelligence or talent and my safest strategy is to pretend that I’m a different person” or “I have a long list of irredeemable mistakes which I need to be constantly punished for”.

My life is so much better now that I can use the general anxiety label and ditch all the other toxic tag-lines. I talk about self love and compassion a lot in my poetry because falling in love with myself was the best thing I ever did.

When you’re not a certified narcissist, it’s so easy to confuse self hating behaviour with selfless behaviour. I worked my way into a toxic relationship in which I was not respected because I convinced myself that I was lucky to be loved at all and their needs were more important than mine. My mental health and my physical health deteriorated as a result. I was depressed, had insomnia, was extremely anaemic and almost always violently ill because my immunity could not deal. Luckily I found an excellent doctor and counsellor. I learned a lot of things about myself, made positive life changes, started running and got a mirena (which are now publicly funded and are the foking best). Also how good are selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors? I dealt with most of my emotional baggage before I tried them out, but wow do they make life easier. Because I’m not constantly worrying and sleep deprived, I now have the energy to create things! People keep telling me that I seem like a totally different person and to be honest, I am.

In terms of professional struggles, money worry is a big one. I never fully appreciated how amazing it was to have peace of mind arrive monthly in my bank account. I had saved $40,000 in order to support myself while I made the career change. This really seemed like a lot at the time. I’m generally pretty frugal but on top of my business startup expenses, my boyfriend and I moved to Wellington and I had to pay a much higher rent with next to no income for months. I watched my savings plummet and had an average of one meltdown per week.

I felt like I was failing and couldn’t talk to anyone about it properly because most of them were in Auckland and I was too ashamed to ugly cry at them over Skype. Wellington doesn’t have many jobs for Product Development Engineers so I knew I’d either have to move back to Auckland or start a whole new career on the benefit or in banking. Throughout this, I was creating art and posting it to my social media every day so I probably looked super chill to people who weren’t my flatmates.  I strongly believe that social media can go and eat a pipe bomb but on the flip side, after a couple of months of posting I began to have more consistent commissions come through my instagram and facebook. This included some larger, more long term projects.

I know that a lot of people are worried about their income at the moment and it’s very possible I’m going to witness my savings belly flop again now that people are nervous about spending money. A few of my clients have cancelled future work with me so i’m emotionally preparing for it. But if needing to get a part time job is the worst thing that the COVID-19 crisis does to my life, then I will be very lucky.

Rose on the TedX Auckland stage doing spoken poetry in a very dedicated stance. Credit for the image to: Connor Crawford
Rose on the TedX Auckland stage doing spoken poetry in a very dedicated stance. Credit for the image to: Connor Crawford

Without knowing the full stories, It is easy to get overwhelmed by the list of achievements that people might have online, especially looking through a social media lens. Could you please share some of the personal or professional challenges that you have experienced?

Yes, this question is the same as the previous one. I copy pasted it because I wanted to talk about my own experience with social media exhaustion. It is a whole thing. I had to learn how to live with Instagram anxiety because it’s where a lot of my work comes from. I’m pretty sure I was addicted to social media when I was a teen. I would sit in bed scrolling all Saturday long, feeling bad about not being as happy as everyone else seemed to be. Deleting all my social media accounts for a year was like naked dancing. Of course I had to get back online for creative work when I changed careers but I minimise the impact of this by only following groups / people who directly relate to my work. I’m super aggressive with it as well, I don’t even follow my boyfriend and I basically untag everything I’m tagged in on my personal account. The sparser my online presence is, the harder it is to compare myself to others. And it really really works. I cannot stress how much doing these things has improved my life.

When I first created an Instagram I was constantly comparing myself to other art accounts. There are wonderfully talented people all over the world and the internet has this special way of making them feel very close to you - like an overachieving big sibling who allows you to live in their shadow. I had a realisation though, one of the accounts I follow has millions of other followers and yet they mentioned that they have a day job in one of their stories. It’s helped me to understand that there is a big difference between online success and a sustainable career. I try hard not to be swayed by online metrics, I don’t want to be famous. I want to be able to earn a living from the things which bring me joy.

Poetry is a different entity entirely. The community is tiny (but also growing) so it’s easier to think holistically. When one poet succeeds, it makes the entire community stronger by attracting a larger audience / readership. There are only a handful of full-time professional poets in New Zealand. But as our community grows and develops, there can be more. A friend told me that Hera Lindsay Bird works at Unity Books and I was so pissed off - if anyone should be able to spend all day writing poetry, it’s Hera. We should make a Kickstarter to give her a yearly salary or something.

What brings you joy in a day to day life?

Weirdly I don’t think anyone’s asked me what brings me joy - which is strange because it’s a common thing that I ask when deciding what to paint for clients. Right now my day to day life is spent in lockdown. So I figured I would talk about my lockdown joy.

I am embracing all of the isolation fashion trends. I only wear pyjamas and jumpsuits. Pyjamas are designed for sleep, jumpsuits are so comfortable I regularly fall asleep in them. Hopefully belts and dresses with tapered waistlines will one day be viewed with as much contempt as socially enforced corsets. I am filling my skin with chocolate, I have forgotten how to operate heels, my body hair keeps me warmer than possum socks. I am turning into a proper feral bubble lady and I adore it.  

I am playing a game called Bioshock. It’s fantastic because of the variety of items you can pick up. I love games like Skyrim and Fable and Diablo because you can hoard objects like crazy and no one judges you or tries to put you onto a reality TV show. I keep thousands of collected cheeses and cabbages in an abandoned house in Skyrim. Each one is hand stolen from every building the elder scrolls franchise presented me. It’s possibly my greatest achievement.

Mostly when I’m looking to add more joy to my life, it’s all about making the extraordinary of the ordinary. We did Christmas last Sunday. We just decided that we couldn’t go anywhere anyway so we may as well do April Christmas. It was honestly the most magical time. We decorated our tree (which was an overgrown weed that my flatmate dug out of the garden) with fairy lights and tea bags. We lit a Netflix wood fire. We didn’t even have a mechanical egg beater but somehow we managed to make a pavlova by hand. We all gave each other presents of acrostic poems and tea vouchers, hard boiled eggs and Macbook computers made from paper. I made some shitty toothbrush holders in the shape of my flatmates faces from some oven baked plasticine. It was truly one of the best days of my life.

A small portion of Rose’s extensive Skyrim cheese and cabbage collection.
A small portion of Rose’s extensive Skyrim cheese and cabbage collection.

How do you think about yourself when you are by yourself?

I had to think about this for a while. I’m frequently ruled by my health and emotions but I try to be very compassionate with myself. I guess I see my body and my mind as two separate entities. My mind is essentially the young single mother of my body. Body is a 7 year old child who will still sometimes throw tantrums at bedtime and Mind is working two jobs and is not afraid to use Netflix as a parenting tool. When she can find the time, Mind is very gentle and understanding with Body. She has learned that when Body is playing up, it usually means that Body is hungry or anxious about the divorce and needs to be fed pasta and reassured that both Mummy and Daddy still love her (I don’t know who daddy is in this metaphor, like society or something?). I give myself lots of positive reinforcement, verbally forgive myself frequently and if I’m having a bad day, I allow myself time to binge watch a competitive baking show. I remind myself that things will be better tomorrow. They always are.

I have to ask - how are you feeling in the midst of COVID-19 crisis?

There’s a lot of speculation but truly we have no idea what the long term consequences of this will be. I’m going through this strange cycle of feeling anxious, then feeling guilty about not feeling anxious, then feeling guilty about not feeling guilty and then straight back to anxious again. I feel very safe at home doing illustrations on my iPad but in stark contrast to that, I’m watching the horror story unfold in the media. It’s never nice to be reminded that your family, your friends and you are just bags of meat. Also, you are a bag of meat with asthma.

I’m finding it difficult to write poetry at the moment because everything I write about the pandemic seems privileged and unfounded and everything I write which is not about the pandemic seems petty. I’m mostly just trying to take it easy and focusing on art for a game due to be released at the end of May (shout out to White Rabbit - Royal Scheduler by Skybear Games).

I’m just trying to take things one day at a time at the moment and acknowledge that I do not have very much control over my world at the moment.

Rose’s digital illustration of White Rabbit - Royal Scheduler by Skybear Games
Rose’s digital illustration of White Rabbit - Royal Scheduler by Skybear Games

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

For artists / illustrators I’d love to read an interview with Ruby Jones or Hannah Shand. And for poets maybe Grace Taylor, Carrie Rudzinski or Hera Lindsay Bird. And in terms of wild cards I choose Estère, Chloe Swarbrick or please please please interview Jade Leung before she benevolently rules the entire world and doesn’t have time to sleep anymore. She’s my age and I’ve only had like 3 conversations with her in my life but I can tell it’s only a matter of time.

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