You can't force that spark. It's something you have to find.
As an art teacher and now full-time collage artist, Beth Holladay has dabbled in many ways of making and teaching art throughout her life. I met up with her on a recent trip to Baltimore to learn more about her journey to the #freelance-life.
Mandy: How would you describe what you do?:
Beth: I discover static images (from found paper and other ephemera) that say one thing and mix them with a couple other images to say something new, to find other meanings.
In college, I did this digitally, layering photos in Photoshop. But one thing I like about what I do now is the authenticity of the paper. There is something cathartic and sacred about cutting and pasting from real, printed magazines and other materials that translates into something deeper. What I really love are old 1940s magazines from National Geographic. The newer ones are glossy, but there's something about the older issues, the Kodachrome film and the way that the photos are printed.
M: I totally get that! Paper texture, old film photography, the grit...it's so much more meaningful. What does your process look like?
B: Well, there are three distinct ways that I work.
Collecting: I'm 20% hoarder-librarian. I'll get new magazines and just sit on the floor and page through them, looking for images that inspire me. If something catches my eye, I'll cut it out and put it on my table. It might sit there for weeks or months before I know what I want to do with it. But one day, I'll see a couple of images together or I'll suddenly have an idea and I'll get to work! I kind of feel like I'm a fortune teller or reading ink blots—trying to find meaning that's already there.
Current events: Sometimes I hear about a specific story on the radio or in the news, and I'll know that I want to make a piece that speaks to that topic in some way. So I'll look for images that relate to my ideas or thoughts about the story.
Series: Sometimes I have a concept in my mind that I can't explain with just one piece. So I'll create a series with multiple pieces on the same subject. I've been finding myself doing this a lot more lately.
Every day I focus on completing just one piece. Some days that happens really quickly and I can go on and try to make more. And sometimes it takes all day to get one piece where I want it.
But honestly, so much of what I do is make a ton of intuitive combinations and hope that I land on something that works. You can't force that spark. It's something you have to find.
M: How do you inspire yourself to find that spark?
B: For one thing I have to have a super organized space. When I'm in the weird librarian/hoarder mode and I'm sitting on the floor surrounded by images that I'm interested in, it's too cluttered and my mind gets completely swamped. I have to be really ruthless with myself at times to keep from working on the floor and not starting 500 pieces at once.
I've become my own student, and translated my high school classroom into a personal studio:
I have assignments, I have a critique wall, I have my resources neatly organized so I can get right to them, and I have themes and things that I'm trying to work through to get to the next step.
M: Sounds like you have a good balance of discipline and play. How did you get started freelancing?
B: At first, I wasn't really sure how to start. I was inspired by an artist named Michael DeSutterin Brooklyn who creates these beautiful, billowing fabric collages, and I wanted to emulate him. So I looked at what he was doing to be successful, like having a website, joining a collective, evolving his work, etc. And I decided to do the same.
I made a website. I set goals for myself to continue my work and keep growing. I even reached out to the same international collective, and they accepted me! I also belong to a community of collage artists on Instagram that is really active and positive and encouraging.
M: What's been challenging about transitioning to the freelance life?
B: It's crazy town. I'm in my studio all the time. I get so wrapped up in my work that I forget to eat sometimes and find myself working for far too long. And I feel really bad for our dogs. I have to set up multiple timers on my phone so that I don't get completely lost in my work.
I'm just the kind of person that I put everything I have into whatever I'm doing. I've had to really learn balance in my life—it's part of my job now to create and protect that balance. It's a lot of saying no and being really intentional about what I'm doing, and then paying attention to how it makes me feel. If I'm doing something I don't like, instead of beating myself up about it, I just correct it and keep going.
M: What's been the most rewarding part?
B: There have been a few moments where I made art and felt like I had expressed something that I couldn't have expressed in words. This might sound super conceited, but I even felt moved to the point where it brought me to tears. It felt magical. And therapeutic. It was really, really, really cool. And when other people see my art and say it means something to them, it makes me feel like this is all worth it. Those are the moments I live for.
A lot of artists live a very isolated, very quiet life. And it can be kind of lonely. When you want to share something you've discovered, or happened upon, it can be even more isolating because it's impossible to convey in words. That's one reason I force myself to post on Instagram and my website and show people my art.
I hope that maybe at some point in someone's life, they will see something of mine and it will mean something to them or help them to heal or to consider something in a new way. Just make it and put it out there. If it fades and gets destroyed, fine. But if one person sees it and says, "Oh, that really means something to me," then I think it's worth it.
M: Where do you want to go with this in the future?
B: It's a great feeling when all the things you love come together. I know this is where I need to be and what I need to be doing. Now that I've tasted that and seen how enjoyable it is, and I've started to believe I can really do it, I don't want to give it up. If I ever had to, I could, but I'm driven to find a way to make it work. That's what I think the entrepreneurial spirit or freelance spirit is. You love what you're doing so much that you're going to find a way to make ends meet. You're a hustler but in a really good way.
For example, one of my future goals is to have an actual creative/retail space that feels accessible to the community. This morning, I woke up and all I could think of was how could I make signage for the shop? What font would I use? How big would I want it to be? Could it be lighted? I should talk to a neon person. My brain won't stop thinking about all the possibilities, I'm so excited for what could be!
Twinning! Thanks, Beth, for being so honest and sharing your story with us! Looking forward to catching up with you in the future to see all that you've achieved!
If you want to learn more about Beth and follow her journey, check out:
P.S. Check out my Insta for a chance to win a piece from Beth!
P.P.S. Beth has another cool story coming up soon (we just couldn't fit into this post!), where she reveals the reason she left teaching to make art full-time and shares the emotional journey of this transition. Stay tuned!