An Artist’s Life in New York City

Met Painting

(by Diane Leon) Being an artist is a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes in many ways. New York City has always been my home, and here, ordinary objects and images catch my eye and become something new. On the subway as I sit and roll by the station, torn posters play with the imagery. The rips and tears now give it new meaning. Once outside I watch the sky and how patterns of light fall on the sidewalk. Everything breaks down into shape, color and design. Painting gives me a sense of being alive in New York City. < The curse part is how the life of an artist is burdened with the need to handle more than one career. It’s not just the daily penance of my desk job, but how to find the time to manage and create the art, find new clients, update jpegs, shoot slides, build mailing lists, participate in exhibitions, and sustain the pace year after year. It’s the staying power that counts. In New York City if you don’t keep up, it will swallow you and no one will even notice. You survive by the friends you make.

The added curse to life in the city as an artist is how to find affordable space. In the 1970s I moved out of Manhattan to Queens. The rents were too high for too little space. I use a second bedroom as studio space which I share with my artist/husband, John. We wish we had more space, but we create the work and that’s the main thing. Our apartment is in Elmhurst, Queens, half an hour from Manhattan. It is predominately an Asian and Hispanic neighborhood. The subway is half a block away, but the draw back is I have no large regular “American” super-market. I would need a car to get to it. So, since I work in Greenwich Village I carry home our favorite things on the subway. My full time job is on Washington Square Park, and I also teach studio art at New York University.

The NYU day job in Greenwich Village is wonderful base because I can buy anything I want for any cultural taste. We eat Spanish, Indian, Ethiopian, Italian, and French within a few blocks of one another. I’ve been coming down to the Village since I was a teenager and have never stopped. My husband, John, lived in the Village before we were married and took advantage of listening to live jazz at the Village Vanguard and Blue Note. The Village is made up of New York University’s campus, the old timers, and people who come to live in New York City who want to be able to reinvent themselves. It’s one of places that still has a neighborhood feel to it.

Surviving as an artist in New York City is tough. So many artists finally succumbed to the pressure of a full time job.

The trick is to make sure you still find the time to do the work. Don’t waste your time looking for the big loft space in Soho or Chelsea that cost $3,000 and up a month. You will either need to have roommates to survive or end up moving to one of the boroughs, which isn’t all that bad. It’s up to you to figure out your way of handling a job and doing your art.

Remember, you need to create your own success. Don’t use money as a barometer. The creative process should be the driving force. Use the job as a means to an end.

I’ve been working, painting, exhibiting, and selling work for decades. Here are some of my own tips on how I have survived in my home city as an artist:

  • Get a full time job that pays the bills. Let everyone at the job know you’re an artist. You’d be surprised how many people at the office have bought my paintings. One person years ago ended up buying eight works and that paid for my vacation.
  • When you’re not too busy, use the time to do the business part of your art.
  • The most important thing is how to say no to the things that take you away from your art. When I was young I did more socializing and still managed to work and paint.

Be strong and commit to your art and use the resources of this great city to make your dreams come true on your terms. A place to look for a job in the arts and for all other art resources is the New York Foundation for the arts

Surviving the arts takes stamina. I worked as a secretary in the music business for nineteen years. I worked on visas for the Rolling Stones and Beatles. Danced all night at Studio 54 and did my art, sold work, and even bought an apartment in Spain. The full time job gave me the stability of steady money. Sure, it would be great to work in my studio full time instead of paying dues in the office. But, I have made my choice and it all works out. You need to do the same.

If you are brave enough to live in New York City you’ll find it has a force of its own. It’s not a place where I can sit still. Whether you like it or not the city demands your energy. New York City challenges me to be the best I can be, and that is a blessing. The city may be too expensive, too loud, too many people, but everyone from around the world comes here. This is why it is so important to find your own rhythm and focus. I love the idea that in this city you can stay as friendly or anonymous as you want.

On one cold morning John took the camera to work. As the No.7 subway line moved across the early dawn he shot views from the window–the city coming to life. I, too, left for work and once on the subway, I continue to day dream and mingle with thousands of strangers day after day. Over the years I have seen many changes take place, but it always amazes me. I love New York. New York City will always be home and a place that nurtures my art and soul.

Diane Leon


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Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg