Terri Ristow is a local props designer. Her work has been seen at Theater in the Round and with Chameleon Theater, among others. She participated in our scenic construction and welding workshops at Rarig in 2014. She is a participant in Art in Bloom at the Minneapolis Institute of Art this year!
Trained as a chemical engineer, Terri has worked for 3M and Boston Scientific as an analytical chemist working in research. She’s relatively new to working primarily in the theater, having started in 2009 after being laid off as a result of the economic downturn.
Terri was always interested in the visual arts, but didn’t know how to break into art as a female artist so she went to school for engineering in the late 80s/early 90s, the first in her family to go to college and the only one to go into the sciences. She ultimately turned to microbiology and genetics before ending up as an analytical/formulation chemist.
This conversation took place on December 13, 2014.
Wu Chen: Why do you think there’s this difference between the arts and the science communities?
Terri Ristow: That’s an old question and I don’t know if anyone has answered that one. It could be that artists are used to living on less and working more with people. Science is more of a, here is your day job and here is your paycheck. It’s a regular field and it’s rather competitive so sometimes people are competing a lot over jobs or getting their name out there in a science way. I guess I don’t really have a really good answer for that, I only have my theories.
WC: Especially because you used to work in the sciences, in engineering and research, how do you think of the difference between a professional, an amateur, and a semi-professional?
TR: That’s a very tough question. I have asked the same question. I never even considered myself an artist until everyone else called me an artist. I would say, “I paint,” or “I do floral arrangements,” or “I do Art in Bloom,” or something. So people started labeling me first as an artist. So people say professional means you earn your major income through art or theatre, I know very few people who can actually do that. Almost every artist I know of does work a second job, so I don’t think you can actually say a professional artist is one who earns their entire income from art because there would be so few of them. They could be in training, but yet there are artists who have no training and are excellent.
It’s such a gray area now. I think at some point if people start labeling you as a professional or an artist, maybe that’s the transition into semi-professional art. Whereas if maybe you like to go out and draw once in a while, but are not willing to learn anything new or research or grow, that’s more of a hobby. But if you’re willing to sit down and research, then your heart is into it and you’re really starting to branch into making this your life. And maybe even if that’s only to you, that’s professional.
WC: Do you see it differently in the science world?
TR: Possibly. It’s tough to be an amateur scientist because science is not cheap anymore. I mean everything is analytical, lots of equipment, lots of expenses behind it. So that idea that somebody could invent something in their garage could possibly still happen, I mean maybe only computer science now, not too many people have a chemistry lab in their basement. You know back in maybe the 1800s there were a lot of amateur scientists because we just didn’t know much. In those days you could possibly get a PhD in five years and now it takes a lot longer. There’s just so much knowledge behind it. So amateur scientists, I don’t even know how I would describe it, maybe somebody who actually just likes reading and learning about science, but doesn’t actually work in the science field. Maybe a science teacher, they could still be a scientist, they would have the background. It’s a tough one.
WC: I definitely see a point about computer science and software engineering and even to a degree hardware engineering in your garage, but what about something like astronomy? Optics have advanced to the point where you can buy a personal telescope that’s really quite good.
TR: I know, isn’t that wonderful?
WC: How do homegrown practitioners fit into this broader discussion that pervades not just in the sciences and the art, but also just in general the discussions about work and class and wage that are ongoing in America now? What’s an amateur, what’s a professional, what’s a living wage? How much is people’s time and efforts and expertise worth? How would you classify someone like that who is making contributions to science through various programs -
TR: Oh, Foldit?
TR: I think that’s absolutely wonderful because you know it does tap into a lot of people who may not have science backgrounds or maybe they do or they’re students, but it shows that a lot of people, probably all of us, can think scientifically in the same way we can think creatively. As far as being an amateur scientist, I don’t know. What is a scientist but someone who is asking questions and finding answers? In a way we’re all scientists, we’re just maybe not working in a scientific field, in an actual industry. And there are a lot of people working in a scientific field who are just doing routine lab work. Can you call them a scientist? You know, even though they’re working in science? So once again, we blurred all those lines again and it’s hard to classify people as one or the other.
WC: Back to an earlier comment you made, now that you’re working in the arts having given up the stable paycheck and working job to job, for stipends, how do you feel about that as an economic model for an industry such as the arts?
TR: Um, I would say don’t do it like I’m doing. I’m just working hard when I should be in a full time job. I should be working in a straight up science job or possibly just transferring completely into art with [a second job] where there’s a little more stability. If at some point, you almost say the heck with it, I’m just going to do whatever I want to do and in a way I’ve been able to do that because I have worked in science for so long and I have been able to build up a financial background. And eventually I probably go back into either working in a lab, which I do miss, on occasion, or into the traditional day full job. I’m kind of hoping it’s not really soon because I’m thoroughly enjoying just working in art and theatre at the moment. I would say if you can afford to do it, yes. And if you can’t make sure you’re always doing it on the side and enjoying it, because it will never go away.
WC: So you just described a situation where the income is spotty and not necessarily much. Why do you think that is? And is that a sustainable state of affairs for an industry?
TR: I would say why it’s hard to do or why this has happened, for me a lot of it really did tie into our recession, because at that time we did have a lot of people, a lot of scientists who were making a lot of money, and they lost their jobs and now in the science industry, the pay rates have gone down significantly. And on the reverse, upward trend, we’ve had a lot more arts funding, so there are more art opportunities that will actually pay something. So, you know, whereas now somebody just graduated from college could get a job as a contract technician in a chemistry lab, and get paid $15 an hour, well perhaps now they could get $15 an hour maybe in a contract job in the arts. So that’s kind of blurry. The whole thing, get the science degree and get a good paycheck. It’s kind of going away.
WC: It’s interesting that you cite a contract technician in a lab at a rate of $15 an hour because $15 an hour is often considered the baseline rate for a technician job in the arts in this city.
TR: And I think that if that was well known and if people knew they could get $15 an hour or more in arts, you may see a lot of people who are working in the science field or in an administrative field or something else, start to flock back to the arts because that’s what they really want to do but they’re working in a different industry only because of pay, because they have to.
WC: Why do you think we should get paid more than we are?
TR: Why? [Laughs] Besides the fact that most people think they should be paid more than they are?
WC: Right. Exactly.
TR: You could get to the point of, well, at that point, why is art important? You should be paid on the value of your job. Maybe somebody working in a pharmaceutical company should get paid a lot more than somebody serving hamburgers even though the person serving hamburgers is serving more people and maybe having more of an effect and getting more smiles and happy people because of it. How do you really judge that? What a person’s value is worth? I can only say that I think art should get more because art is such a basic human nature. I mean if you think about it, the first things that people really love and flock to and have know are stories and music and pictures. And possibly someday we could live again without computers and without all of our medical technologies, but we will always have the stories and our music and our pictures. And it’s such a basis of human nature that I don’t think anyone is willing to really give that up. Even if they say they want to, could you imagine a world without art? That would be such a dull place. We need that to continue, we need people to produce that. We need people to look at something in a different way and be an artist and be subjective about something but also as an outsider and say, hey you know let’s look at it this way, there’s all these crisis going on, I’m going to show you a different side of it. It gets us thinking.
WC: So that being said, how does one approach the issue of pay rates in the arts then?
TR: As an employee?
WC: Or if we want to say that artists and people who work in the arts – from the administrative, all the way across the board – should be paid more, how do we approach that?
TR: Boy, if I could answer that question, I think a lot of people would be happy, because I don’t know if there’s a strong answer. I mean, artists have always, at least people trying to get funding grants, have always had to prove their worth. And prove this is why I think what I’m doing is important and it varies so much. It could be pay me more and I will give back to the community more, I will train more people to do this, I will work with people who have issues or bad lives in some form, I’m going to make them happier. Um, yeah, I’m not quite sure. You would really have to show how much art is important and this does need to be funded and these people do need to be paid and if you don’t pay them something they can live on, they’re going to go off and work on something and maybe everything inside them will be gone. And no one will ever have seen that or will have known that and we would have lost something.
WC: How do you manage time, especially given that you’re contract to contract, not necessarily being sure of when the next gig is and how long it’s going to be?
TR: It’s actually pretty easy because I worked as a scientist full time and then art on the side, so just working strictly alone in just art and theatre is significantly easier than working 50-60 hours per week, plus the additional 30 or 40 hours per week. And I love it so much that I don’t notice. I’ve been known to be standing outside in the winter in my pajamas spray painting something in the middle of the night, or it’s midnight and I’m gluing things together or I’m researching something. I love it so much that it’s just part of my life. It’s always on my mind, always in the back of my mind, how am I going to do this or I’m looking for something. If I’m out shopping, I’ll just automatically go into the nearest shop finding materials and things I need. It’s so much part of my life that I can’t even imagine not being there or being separated from my free time.
WC: Are there any particular resources or things like that you’d want to call out for other people looking to make a transition into the arts?
TR: There were so many and I have a few younger people I know, just starting out in the arts and don’t know the resources. Springboard for the Arts is wonderful; Technical Tools of the Trade; Facebook has tons of pages: Technical Theater on a Budget, Theater Communities. I really throw people at all of these because they’re’ going to run into so many opportunities. The Springboard classes that they teach free at the libraries, those are wonderful. MRAC has either a very, very low paid or free seminars. Just get on the websites and start searching and start digging because there’s just so much out there. Technical Tools of the Trade I found through Facebook. I learned MIG welding, that is the greatest thing ever. That is something I never would have been able to learn otherwise. And just the people I’ve met have been so wonderful and I just have to say, community. It’s just one big community and everybody is willing to share and everybody is willing to help everyone else. So that’s – it’s perfect.