Our mutual desire for it is the same, but we all have different definitions of what it means. While we can find this fulfillment in other ways — and many people do — it’s most often tied to our jobs. We flock to cities in search of it. We’re constantly redefining it. We lose sight of our true priorities in the name of it.
The third interview in our Success series is with Polly Shindler. I met Polly a year-and-a-half ago when we both worked together as servers at a restaurant in Brooklyn. We developed a quick connection and have been friends ever since. In fact, Polly was the one who recommended Gig after seeing me with a copy of Working. Since I left a second restaurant where we worked together this past summer, I hadn’t had many chances to talk with her at length until now. We met at a café near her place in Cobble Hill and had a nice conversation, excerpts of which have been edited for clarity below.
January 2013 – Brooklyn, NY
I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, outside New Haven. I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to be a lawyer. Things that I knew existed.
My dad went to school for a couple years, art school, and then he needed to start making money so he didn’t finish. My mom, she was a dental hygienist. That’s how she met my dad. One of her clients was my dad’s aunt. My mom worked at Yale. She was an administrative assistant for a lot of years in the drama department. My dad ran his own business, ad promotion. My mom was the plow horse. She went to work every day. She was out of the house at 7:30 in the morning — rain or shine — worked an eight hour day and came home. My dad, on the other hand, he’s like a pro golfer and would go to work, some. He did a lot of the work between golf.
My parents, they don’t understand my artwork, but they are super proud. They ask a lot of questions. My dad was a painter, but he does really desolate landscapes of Maine in the winter time. It’s super depressing but they’re great, he’s technically very good. I can’t paint like that. He looks at my stuff and he doesn’t understand it, but he says, “Obviously your peers understand what you’re doing. So it’s something that I just don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile and good.”
The first job I had was scooping ice cream. I was 16. Work was always for just throwing money away. I liked my job, all my friends worked there. There was freedom. I got to drive my car there. It was a place to get away to. Everybody went there, all our friends visited. I graduated from high school in ’95 and it was really just about competition with your friends. What schools did you get into, what schools did you apply to? I have a brother, older. He was at UConn for his last year. I knew that I wasn’t interested in going to college, but I went. My parents didn’t really care. They paid for my undergrad.
I was at UMass in Amherst for two years. I was undeclared and I was so miserable. It was too big, coming from a smaller town. I transferred to UConn for a semester, hated it, left. When I was at UConn, I was an art major that one semester. It was just technique and I was like, “This sucks. I don’t want to learn this.” My friends were living in Boston at the time and said, “Why don’t you just come live with us? We have a big apartment. Come live there and figure it out.” So I went there, lived there for a few years.
It was the first time I was living in an apartment, not a dorm. I was like, “I’ll finish eventually. I just have to figure out what the hell I wanna do.” I was living in Allston, working in the Prudential Center, Copley. I was working at Chili’s with my brother and my cousin’s cousin and I had too much fun. I was 21, had kind of way too much fun. I was also getting my feet wet in Boston. I had never lived in a bigger city. I wanted to get some life experience. I wanted to make money. I made some friends. We were all in the same boat.
Then I was like, “Alright, I need to get back to school,” so I went to UMass in Boston. I quit Chili’s when I went to school. I was a commuter and that’s when I was like, “All my classes are in History, History’s my favorite subject. I’m just going to finish out in History.” I also took a printmaking class and made the cover of the UMass art journal. It was a big deal for me, because I hadn’t done anything in so long and was like, “Well, maybe this is still a thing.” Right away, I was like, “I’m gonna go to grad school.” Right out of the gate. My roommates were all in grad school. I didn’t want to go for what they were going for. I got in for Art Education at Lesley in Cambridge. I went to one, two days, of school and was like, “This is not happening.”
I was really disenchanted. I was like, “I have no idea what I want to do and I’m not seeing good examples.” I have been an anxious person my whole life. Making a decision is very nerve-wracking for me. I have to try everything first and then I immediately regret it. I didn’t have a lot of worries when I lived in Boston until I hit 25. That’s when the shit hit the fan and I moved back to Connecticut.
I got a job at an art store back in New Haven. I was meeting a lot of artists and I started painting again. I lived with this girl and she basically taught me how to use oil paint, ’cause I’d never taken a painting class. Then she said, “I’m doing open studios. I got a wall. Do you want to share it with me?” I’d just been doing collages, nothing close…I felt like someone needed to ask me. It felt like a hobby. So she did that and it was a fun experience.
Maybe I’m coming off like I didn’t really know anything about art beforehand, I did. I was always interested in going to museums and galleries. It just was not something that I thought was for me. I didn’t understand that you could be an artist. New Haven’s pretty artsy. I would do the open studios every year and then I was working at Cosi and my boss said to me, “Do you want to hang up some of your artwork here?” So I hung it up and right away, people were like, “Are these for sale?” Then I would sell some and he would be like, “Oh, I really liked that one. Can you make one for me? Can I give you these colors? Will you paint it?” So I was making some money on the side, doing that.
I got into school to be a therapist and everyone I knew was saying, “Don’t go. Don’t go.” One of my best friends, Eva, her dad is a therapist, and she said, “Do you know that my dad’s an artist?” I said, “No.” She goes, “Exactly. He has no time to do anything because work takes over his entire life.” I took it to heart and I also was somewhat flattered, not flattered but it helped feed the artist ego. I’m like, “These people think I’m talented enough that I don’t need to find a career.” It wasn’t [patronizing voice] “Oh, maybe you should think about getting a job. Or, maybe you should find a skill.” They were like, “Don’t do it. If you wanna go to school, go to school for art, because that’s what you’re good at.” I’d never had anything but support concerning my artwork.
It was picking up a little bit and then I went through a break-up and I needed to get out of town. A lot of my friends were living in Austin, Texas and I’d visited five times, so I moved to Austin. I waited tables at a fun restaurant. I was very relaxed when I lived there. I rode my bike everywhere, I was super in shape, the weather was gorgeous. I did two paintings when I was there, which was the problem. I didn’t make any art contacts. It was under a year and then I started feeling the push like, “Alright, it’s time to go back.”
So I went back and I fell in with some new friends, one of which worked at Yale University. She’d gone to Yale as a grad student and she started opening things up for me, like “Your art’s going well. Do you have any interest in going to grad school?” I was working full time at the art store again, framing whatever. Before that, another friend had said, “If you really want to grow, you need to dedicate your time to honing your skill. Don’t you want to be practicing with other people and collaborating? Apply to Yale, apply to a bunch of schools.” So I did. I said, “I’m either gonna go to school in Texas, New Haven or New York. That’s it.” Those were the only schools I applied to and when responses started coming in, I was like, “Okay, I’m a fraud.” Because I didn’t get in anywhere except for Pratt. I was so relieved that I got in anywhere.
New York was never a place that I considered living. It almost seemed cliché to move to New York. Going to school here afforded me the opportunity to come here. I would have never been able to come up with the money. The goal when you’re in school is that when you get out, you get gallery representation. You get taken care of, you get a stipend, you get a studio. You don’t have to worry so much about making time, because they kind of create that time for you. Not to say you don’t have to work, but you have support. You have somebody trying to sell your work, actively trying to sell your work, which is valuable. When I was in school, two individuals were taken on by galleries. They’re both really talented, but it felt attainable because it happened to them. Because it had happened a year ahead of me, it felt like, “We gotta go out and get this.” I gained a confidence I didn’t have before. I felt like I’d figured out what it was I was supposed to do.
Immediately after school I felt the same way, because I was getting a little bit of attention. Everybody was like, “Oh, you’re gonna be a rock star.” I got into a couple pretty good shows. I was in a show for a year, a different show, up until a year after I graduated. I was feeling pretty good.
I knew that going to school was a luxury. The way I think about it is that I can’t let money stand in the way of education or doing what I want to do. It’s just money, I’ll never have enough. I’ll never pay off this loan. It’s fake money. It’s such a big number that it’s fake. I could never make that much money. How long am I gonna wait tables for? I don’t know. I don’t think I could have a nine-to-five job. I need the flexibility. I have to be able to make money in a short amount of time so I can have three days off to be at the studio, or do research or go to the galleries, or read, or just get my head straight. Because, that’s the good thing about waiting tables, that you don’t bring it home. I don’t have a conscious thought pretty much the whole time I’m there. You’re so focused on the most ridiculous things. There’s no room in my brain to also think about, “What am I doing with my life?”
I try to really just be happy in the moment and I can’t plan the future, I don’t have any control. I can do as much as I can, just trying to get some place with the artwork. I look at art blogs and I try to keep up, but I can’t be that involved because it’s not that important to me. I just wanna do my thing and hope people like it. Of course there’s some influence, of course I see other people’s artwork. I share a studio with four other people. It’s impossible to not feed off each other, even using each other’s materials. I think that’s probably more of the challenge, is to get away from the contemporary art world so that you can actually find your own voice. You can paint a shoe in a way that will trip people out. It’s just your style and innovation is important and that’s what I think we spend our time doing, is trying to figure out how to do something in a way that no one’s ever done it before. If you can think outside of the box and you can make your work in a vacuum, it’s easy to be innovative.
I’ve applied for a bunch of residencies. I’m just doing everything I can to give myself time to paint. I wish it was tomorrow. I don’t like to be in my head, I think too much. It would definitely be something to get used to, but if I could afford to just live off my artwork, hell yeah. I don’t need to live in a city. I want to pare down. I say, “Oh, I want to move to the desert,” and everyone’s like, “Oh my god, you’re gonna be sorry.” I like more solitude and more quiet. It’s hard to feel like you own anything here. You don’t own your apartment, it’s hard to really feel in control of your own life because there are so many other factors. It’s like, what’s gonna make your day go well or poorly?
I’ve had so many, “Am I doing the right thing?” Money is never gonna make that go away. I have too much anxiety. Money would make me happy because I wouldn’t have to stress about it, but I also think that being poor makes you hungry. If I had every day off, how many days would I go to the studio? I don’t know. Some people are really motivated. I’m not really one of those people. I need structure so I can carve out a routine. If I didn’t have that routine, I don’t know. There are a lot of people that are really unhappy. I think that there’s some sort of epidemic going on in the world about people just don’t know how to be happy. I’m certainly trying to figure that out myself. It’s definitely not having an awesome job or a bunch of kids.
It’s really just being able to live off of it. This is what I do. I’ve read all these books about it and artists don’t usually hit their peak until they’re older. I always think, “I got in it so late. I’m one of the oldest people in my grad school class,” but there was a 60-year-old, there were 45-year-olds. There are people who, you know, said, “Fuck it.” And that’s the way I live my life.
-Interviewed by Cole Rosengren