Chioma Ebinama is a Brooklyn-based artist who like me has roots in suburban Maryland. Our parents are actually good friends and live just a few miles apart from one another. I've known of Chioma for years, but it wasn't until I finally moved to Brooklyn that I really got to know her as a person. Chioma is only a few years older than me, but when I was still in college she was off in the "big city" doing what Nigerians called, "that art thing." This was always said with a tone akin to the one adults use to remark, "Oh, those crazy kids."
You see, pursuing a creative career can be perceived as an act of rebellion in some circles. There's always a question of whether someone can actually make it in "non-professional" career. Even in New York, a city where the employment growth in the visual arts is double that of the city's overall employment growth, the "starving artist"archetype persists.
Chioma has been working towards this moment for years. I recently spent a Sunday afternoon with her at the Brooklyn Flea to catch up on life and learn how she's making it as an artist. Read my conversation with artist and IRL friend, Chioma Ebinama, below.
I always wanted to be an artist but as I got older it seemed like less of a possibility. I was researching art schools as early as elementary or middle school. When I was applying for college it was hard for me because I was a really good student and got into a really good college with a really good scholarship and did all of that straight and narrow stuff, but I still didn't know what I wanted to do. My whole life I had been set on making art.
I studied sociology at Boston College. I told my dad I would go to law school, but it was really a disguise because I took art classes every semester. I didn't really know what would happen with it but I just knew that my soul needed to stay creative.
I actually applied to my program at SVA three times before I got accepted. It was three or four years of nothing. Of no kind of validation or reward. I was just kind of banking on it because I believe in it.
TO FIND COMMUNITY
Finding a community was really important to me. The year before I got accepted I went to the American Illustration Party which is a big industry party. I went by myself without knowing anyone and it was so awkward. The next year was my first year in grad school and I went with my classmates and it was a totally different experience because my program is pretty well-known within in the industry, so I had more of a thing to say. "Oh, I'm a student and this is my work." I could've had these conversations on my own, but being in school gave me a little more reassurance that yes, I am an illustrator, and yes, I am meant to be here.
TO INCUBATE AS AN ARTIST
I didn't go to art school for undergrad and I felt that the way I have been drawing and working hadn't really changed since I was in high school or college. I felt like I really needed time to incubate. When you're an artist in New York you spend so much time working so you can afford to be an artist, but I really didn't feel like I was getting all the time I needed even though I was putting in a good 20-30 hours a week in the studio. When I was in the program I made sure to explore as many things as I wanted to. I took a sculpture class and a design class. It all came together in some of the pieces in my final show. Through it I learned how much that I am an illustrator, but I think above all I'm an artist. I'm really just happy when I'm making things.
The only resource school really provided for me was space, teachers and time. You can find those things outside of school.
If you're a really driven person, but also patient you could probably get away with not going to school. I'm really driven and impatient. I was working really hard on my own and wanted more to happen, so school felt like a good investment for me. Either way school is still what you make of it. You can go to school and come out completely unchanged.
Moving forward I want to explore more sculpture and making things that are pleasurable for my soul, but maybe don't have as much commercial use like my regular illustration jobs. School was a good experience for networking because I was able to drop that name and meet a lot of people. My new studio mates are these two other illustrators whose work I've admired for a while. By making myself more visible and being myself I was able to make those connections.
I would like to be able to be doing art full-time. I would like to grow enough of a client base that I don't actually have to be in New York anymore that I could just work from anywhere. I would like to have a base somewhere and own a home which doesn't seem very possible in New York.
As I get older the whole appeal of an urban lifestyle lessens. For now, I'm just going to stay afloat and keep making things. However I can do that is my goal.