Flouting the Work History

Odd Jobs

Flouting the Work History

By Calder Yates November 14, 2017

Originally published on Daily Serving, Odd Jobs is a column exploring artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs.


Being an artist is an odd undertaking. Most careers in the arts entail economic uncertainty, more than typically found in other professions. It’s a field that regularly disparages wage work and valorizes unpaid activities, often at the expense of an artist’s financial stability. Odd Jobs features excerpts from conversations with artists about how their practices—indeed, their lives—do and do not align with the needs and values associated with more traditional career paths.

Work-history documents like a curriculum vitae (CV) or resume imply a constant progression within a person’s career. Gaps in that history are regularly frowned upon; employers want to see an unbroken stream of achievements from a prospective worker. A side effect of artists taking stopgap or provisional jobs is the minimization of, and sometimes total disregard for, the creation of coherent work histories.  

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Patricia Fernandez

 
I have been doing odd jobs forever. I was a dishwasher, I worked in a café with a gambling hall, and I worked in a sushi restaurant where everyone in the kitchen spoke Spanish. Babysitting led to house-sitting. For one house-sitting gig, I was the watchdog of an empty piece of land in Topanga, west of Los Angeles; the owners didn’t want any squatters, so they paid me a little bit of money to stay in a house that was solar-powered but without running water. I didn’t take one job because I couldn’t commit to being in one place for a year. I had a moment of crisis and said, “I’m not available for one year! I won’t be kept by you!” Maybe it’s my fear of commitment.

I don’t want a “real” job—does that sound horrible? I don’t want a job where they’re going to look closely at my resume. I was talking recently to someone who said, “I want to go to that residency and put it on my CV.” That’s not the reason why you do things. You don’t do it so you can put another merit on your CV. Perhaps I’m too much in the moment and not thinking ahead. I don’t think, “These are the steps you need take to have this career.” I’m not so goal-oriented. I’m more interested in the experience of the journey because it is so unpredictable.

A bunch of us after grad school would laugh because we realized we were getting paid less after getting a graduate degree than before the degree. Money is an irrational thing. The expectations of our culture are really crazy, so it’s good to laugh at them. For one job, I was getting paid to take care of twelve chickens, four pheasants, several parakeets, and a bunch of other birds, which is funny because I’ve never been a fan of birds. I thought, “What am I doing with my life? Who am I? Where am I?”

I always wanted to make art, but I felt like I had to prove that I could get a real job to my parents. So I got a master’s degree in human development and education; for three to four years, I was teaching in this field. I thought, “I could be a therapist if I do this, this, and this. I can get a real job.” I’m interested in people, their thoughts, and how we live out our lives. This is all stuff that I’m still interested in and think about in my work.

My parents worried about me and tried to dissuade me from attending CalArts. They thought I was insane and didn’t understand that I could live as an artist. But I wanted my life to be more open to chance. That’s scary. I know a lot of artists are constantly struggling with money, and I do, too. It becomes an emotional roller coaster. But it suits me better to not live my life worrying about the steps I have to take in order to get to the end. You don’t really know where your life is going to go or how long you’re going to live.

Patricia Fernandez. Points of Departure: Five Walks, 2012–15 (detail); glass and hand-carved walnut tables with drawings, paintings, watercolors, and text transcripts; each table 37 x 29 x 49 in. Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Artist and Commonwealth & Council. Photo: Heather Rasmussen. The transcripts are of a previously unwritten archive that records the path of the exiles from Spain into France after the Spanish Civil War.

For a while, I was working with a commercial gallery and selling work and going to art fairs. I was asked to make a particular kind of work that would sell at the fairs, or I was pushed to make more sellable work, which became a big worry for me because I don’t think about my work as a thing to be sold. I think of work as something not to sell but to share, in some form. Luckily I’ve gotten a lot of grants that support my work.

I don’t have to care for a family or children; I haven’t entered a realm where I’m responsible to other human beings. I can take risks. I know a lot of artists who cannot tolerate the ups and downs and can’t trust that things are going to work out, because maybe it hasn’t for them. I never really make plans. I throw a lot of different ideas out and see what sticks. I hope in some way to have some form of family, however that might look.

The past couple years, I’ve been archiving an antique collection that began with a woman’s inheritance from her mother-in-law. She has a lot of Georgian-era mourning items from the 1700s made with human hair—some decommissioned from museums—that were used in rituals for dealing with the death of loved ones. I learn about how these objects are made, their purpose and cultural significance.

Patricia Fernandez. Memory Is in Progress III, 2017; oil and pencil on walnut-dyed linen; 54 x 72 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Christopher Wormald. This diptych records the ongoing exhumation process of mass graves in Spain that date to the Spanish Civil War, using newspaper clippings and a personal archive of images. The number of mass graves in Spain is the largest within a European country and second to that of Cambodia.     

I’m making a body of work that deals with the exhumations of mass graves in Spain from the Spanish Civil War. The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a nonprofit unaffiliated with the Spanish government, is exhuming and investigating mass-grave sites throughout Spain. They’re finding interesting objects that allow the deceased to be identified. They’re also dealing with families who are looking for these loved ones. This process raises questions, such as: Does one exhume the bodies and have a ceremony for them? Do they remain as individuals? Or do they get inhumed, put back into some kind of gravesite as a group? I’ve been thinking about how do we, as a culture, take care of people’s deaths? I became interested in human remains, which is really taboo, today.

I think it’s true that working with this subject matter turns me away from a traditional career arc. In particular, a lot of my work has been about bodies, migration, and war, particularly the Spanish Civil War, memory, death, and life. It doesn’t make sense to think about building a CV. It’s not that I think about dying all of the time, but I value the everyday, and I think about the present. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen.

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Patricia Fernandez was born in Spain, a descendent of political dissidents from the fascist Franco regime. She currently lives in Los Angeles and researches the physical forms that a history of mass migration, war, and political persecution take, especially concerning the Spanish Civil War. A recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant and a Pollock-Krasner grant, she’s been an artist-in-residence at Headlands Center for Arts and 18th Street Arts Center, and has exhibited at Orange County Museum of Art and Hammer Museum.

Read past Odd Jobs interviews on Daily Serving.

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