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Insider Connections  > Article

Living an Artist's Dream

By Aviya Kushner

Artist Daphne Confar shares her insight on how to use your artistic talent and follow your passion.

"All you hear about is how difficult it is...but there are so many things you can do with talent in art."

Daphne Confar is breathless. She's just sold 11 out of 12 paintings in a solo show in California. The gallery owner called moments before with the news--plus the cash tally. For a painter, especially a young painter, a near sellout is a rare triumph. But this is not any young painter. At 30, Confar is already living a painter's dream. She's been reviewed in Art in America, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times. She's represented by Boston's prestigious Pepper Gallery, and she's had three solo shows in the past year. In addition to grit, optimism, and a trademark style of painting people who appear to be deep in thought about their lives, Confar has business sense. She believes in making things happen--especially good things.

"All you hear about is how difficult it is," she says. "'It's so hard,' they say, 'you won't survive.' And it's true, I guess, to a point. But there are so many things you can do with talent in art. The options are endless: layout, design, illustration, animation, web design. I find art everywhere and in everything, even in arranging the furniture in your living room." Whether you choose one of those paths, or the one that Confar chose--making paintings--persistence is crucial. "You have to put one foot in front of the other," she says. Her recent success has meant that her studio, among 20 artists working in three floors above an old car dealership, is relatively empty. But not for long. "I'm prolific," she says. "Really prolific."

Confar's studio contains a book of 1970s wallpaper, two self-portraits, and some barrel slats from her grandmother's backyard. Along the far wall, and piled on a pink floppy chair, lies a series of paintings and prints of a pair of scissors, opened and closed in various positions. Two Confar trademarks are immediately apparent. She's crazy about people, especially faces, and she's drawn to reminders of times past. The self-portraits have incredibly detailed eyebrows, several dozen tiny lines that require absolute control of hand and brush. And her obsession with old stuff explains the swatch of mustard-and-orange wallpaper tacked to a wall in a place of honor. Big volumes on Albrecht Drer, Alice Neel, and Rembrandt Van Rijn are housed in the bookcase, along with several books on technique and some imposing medical tomes on human anatomy. Then there's a surprise--a fat black binder labeled "TAXES."

That binder confirms that this young painter is different. She's making money off her art, and she's got a shot at continuing to support herself through selling paintings at galleries around the country. In fact, Confar hasn't worked at a conventional job since she received her B.F.A. in painting and drawing from the Art Institute of Southern California five years ago.

That kind of success is the dream in this studio building, the unspoken hope of the artists working amid the din of music and the loud sounds of frames being sawed and hammered. Confar is currently in her second year in Boston University's super-prestigious graduate painting program, and the artists working in her building are all used to being stars on their home turf. "I was the little artist in high school," Confar says, knowing that everyone within earshot was also an art room regular.

Despite her high school stardom, Confar has had to create an artist's life with very little to draw upon. "I had this normal, middle-class American upbringing. My dad was in the navy and we traveled a lot, and we went to aquariums and science centers--not lots of art museums. I knew I could be an artist but I didn't know what artists did. It was an abstract thing for me."

Right after college, Confar spent six months in Sweden living with a family she had worked for as a nanny a few years earlier. Her first show was at a little cafe in Sweden. "I saw a posting at an art store that said there were models at the cafe on Tuesday mornings," she says. Confar started going, found out that the cafe also functioned as a gallery, and showed the owner her work. "It was fun and exciting," says Confar. "I invited my Swedish friends, bought some champagne, and had a real opening," And a few paintings sold. "That built my confidence. I said, 'I'm out of college and I'm gonna be an artist.' I had six months in Sweden before my loans kicked in." When she returned to the United States, Confar stayed with her grandmother and went out in search of a gallery that would show her work.

Confar chuckles at the next part of her story. She was too naive to know the process of sending slides to a gallery and waiting months for a reply. Instead, she walked into a gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a popular summer vacation spot, and recognized the work of an artist from California. She started talking to the gallery director about that artist, then gave him some slides of her own work and told him she'd be back in a few hours. When she returned, the director told her he was about to open a gallery in Boston and asked her to send a few paintings.

Confar realizes now what a lucky break that was. For her, the ball was rolling. Her work was hung in a group show at the well-known William-Scott Gallery in Boston, and that group show led to a solo show. The solo show, in turn, led to an important break--her first review, by Christopher Millis, a local art critic for two decades and now the editor in chief of ArtsMEDIA, a monthly magazine covering Boston-area art. Millis says he was struck by the humor and charm of Confar's work. "It was a good review that came out before the opening," Confar says. "I was really surprised that my paintings sold so well. 'But you don't know these people!' I wanted to say, 'Why would you want to buy paintings of them?'" After that experience, Confar started to feel good about how things were developing. "It's really nice when people are touched enough to want to buy your paintings. It also feels really good to think 'I can support myself as an artist.'"

While many emerging painters focus on large, attention-grabbing canvases, Confar tends to paint small. Most of her work is a square foot (some tiny portraits are just five inches by six inches, about the size of a woman's hand), but she has recently started painting on larger canvases. She's also almost exclusively a portrait painter, and she rarely creates the abstractions or collages frequently seen at art schools. Her subjects often appear to be mulling something over, like the man in "Take It or Leave It," who is dressed in a suit and tie and standing between a white picket fence and a road that probably leads to work. There's the home-versus-career debate, played out in paint and placement. Or perhaps it's "should I stay?" versus "should I go?" What's classy about Confar's work is that she doesn't push her points, and she lets mystery claim its space.

One of Confar's creative "quirks" is that she likes to paint old people. "I like how they sit. They sit the way they need to sit. I think they're inside themselves, and I can really get a sense of who they are." Her fascination with older subjects, she says, is probably rooted in her relationship with her grandmother. "I really love my grandmother. When I was little, I loved hearing stories. I loved that history."

Her interest in people may explain part of her comfort with marketing her work, and her willingness to schmooze. She carefully researches galleries that she would like to be represented by, checks out the work they show, and talks to gallery owners at length before sending a single slide. She also uses what she learned as a college intern at a L.A. gallery--she knows, for example, what a gallery can and can't do for an artist.

But as she gets older, Confar says, surviving gets harder. "You think health insurance and something in a savings account would be good. You have to start planning and you think: how can I be an artist and live more normally? Because after a show, you may have a big chunk of money, but you have no idea how long that money needs to last." Millis, the art critic, calls Confar a "really committed painter." And that's what comes through, despite the tax receipts, the brazen marketing moves, and the lucky breaks.

"The great thing about paint is that I can paint out my mistakes," Confar says. She's attached to paint itself, to oil, egg tempera, and even wax. And the paint keeps her going. "I just love paint--the mystery of it. Every time I paint, it's an amazing thing to try and figure out. It's huge."

Artist resources on the web
New York Foundation for the Arts
Weekly job listings from around the country, and art world news releases. Maintained by the New York Foundation for the Arts, this site is a great place to find jobs in museums and arts organizations.

Art Deadlines List
Lists gallery exhibition opportunities, contests, grants, and calls for works for museums. You can subscribe to a free newsletter or a more detailed paid newsletter.

Artist's Resource Letter
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston publishes an Artist's Resource Letter with job listings for fine artists and graphic designers, including freelance opportunities and college teaching positions. The full newsletter is available by subscription only. Click on the Artist's Resource Center under "General Information and Resources" for full details.

This site offers art for sale, but it also has a good art magazine with reviews of shows from around the world. It's a great way to see what's on view in Dusseldorf, Chicago, and Paris, while checking out the price tags of big-name works.

National Endowment For The Arts
While NEA grant recipients usually have years of experience and extensive exhibition and publication records, the NEA site offers a wealth of resources for young artists. There's a lot of information to help those starting out. You might have better luck getting smaller grants from local arts agencies, which may receive some funding from the NEA (the NEA can also help you find local agencies).

Aviya Kushner writes for Museums New York, Museums Boston, and Museums Washington magazines. She fell in love with art when she saw "The Fauve Landscape," an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .

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