A Columbia College freshman describes what art as a career means to them.
It was early May 2015, and in sixth grader Frankie Buente’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, this meant one thing: Kentucky Derby season. Buente and their dad devised a routine. While Kentuckians and out-of-towners alike were donning their formal attire and extravagant hats for the big race, Buente’s family would be down near the press zone waiting for the right moment. When the coast was clear, Buente’s dad would lift them over the gate, and they would run off with their camera to get a closer look. At only 12 years old, Buente was building a business by taking and selling photos and paintings of Derby winners to locals.
“I had news stations I’d pretend I was working for. I’d get press passes,” Buente said, laughing. “It was funny because nobody was gonna tell a 12-year-old to not do that. I’d be there with Courier Journal on one side and CNN on the other.”
Though, in reflection, they recognized this Derby tradition as morally dubious, Buente still liked the story as an example of their early aspirations to make a living doing art.
Now, Buente is a sophomore at Columbia College, and in a lot of ways, it seems like that plan has already panned out for them. They previously worked as a videographer for Industry Media which held events at House of Blues under Live Nation. When they have time, they also do freelance graphic design work and other creative projects.
It would be nice to wrap up the story there. Buente serves as a reassuring example for college students worried about finding work in their field – everyone loves a prodigy story.
However, as Buente explained, their path to success has hardly been a straight line, and the final destination still isn’t clear.
“Burnout doesn’t cut it.”
From a young age, Buente recalls the constant encouragement to sell their art, whether it was crafts for their mom’s friends, music they wrote and burned onto CDs, or their later horse painting and photography pursuits. They have mixed feelings about this now.
“I don’t think I would change it, but at the same time I wouldn’t recommend it,” they said. “I think it made me very anxious, but I also feel like I’m grateful to be financially independent now.”
This precarious balance between work and creativity came to a head during their time at a high school visual arts magnet program. They recalled a week during their sophomore year when they turned down a $600 horse painting commission after putting in a month’s worth of work on it.
“I feel like ‘burnout’ doesn’t cut it,” they said. “I just could not pick up a paintbrush anymore.”
For Buente, it felt like a breaking point for their creative pursuits. It was that year they decided that they still intended to make a career out of their art but couldn’t monetize everything.
Mandala Gupta Verwiebe, Buente’s best friend from high school, remembers this as a painful yet necessary time for them.
“VA [visual art] sucked the life out of them in a lot of ways,” she said. “There had to be a period of finding confidence in something other than art.”
So, after a few more self-portraits for a few more classes, they switched out of the visual arts program and began seeking new creative outlets.
“I have become very aware of the fact that I would rather sit on the couch with my friends than go make money anywhere,” Buente said while watching their roommates cook pasta in their dorm kitchen. They admitted they were exaggerating just a bit. After a childhood selling horse paintings at art fairs, they said they wouldn’t expect their money-consciousness to go away altogether.
They came to college with a personal goal of maintaining a better work-life balance but continue to struggle with what that means when it feels like art is both work and life. Their roommate, Rachel Owen, noticed this conflict in the way Frankie worked and organized their life.
“The work never really stops which means the school never really stops which means it’s kind of interlaced into [their] social life as well,” Owen said. Despite this, one of her favorite memories from this year with Frankie was a day they spent together with no agenda.
It was early November 2021, and Buente and Owen sat in their living room with an entire day at their fingertips. They decided to go try out instruments at Chicago Music Exchange which led to lunch which gave way to a walk through a bookstore which progressed naturally into a movie night in their dorm while the year’s first snow fell outside the window. Their minds were not clouded with the weight of undone tasks and unseized opportunities; those would still be there tomorrow. For now, they were happy to enjoy a day in the city with a friend. For now, they were exactly where they needed to be.
Header illustration by Magda Wilhelm