Chuck has an MFA in art and has taught art at a number of universities, but doesn’t believe you need an art degree to be an artist. When we met him (and his dog, Nina – after Nina Simone) at his sunny home, he was getting ready to leave his job as a professor to be a full-time artist. While he loves teaching and intends to go back in the future, he’s looking forward to focusing on making art for a while.
You earned a degree in Interpersonal Speech Communication from the University of Utah in 2008 and in 2013 received an MFA in Drawing and Painting from Utah State University. These seem quite different from each other. What led to pursuing each one?
I was under the impression, as an undergrad, that I didn’t need an art degree to be an artist, which I still believe is true. So I decided to learn something else I was interested in and something that wasn’t biomedical engineering.
But I’ve always liked art and known I wanted to do something with art. I just didn’t know how to do it school-wise. And then Utah State gave me an offer. I wasn’t planning on grad school, but I just figured it would be three years where I could experiment with my art, which is what all artists really need to do without the pressures of making it saleable or financially viable in the moment.
Then I learned I loved teaching and started teaching in 2010.
So you were teaching while you were going to school?
Yes, as a graduate instructor.
And you went to school for interpersonal communications knowing you would probably want to pursue art at some point, then?
Yeah, and actually, my undergrad informed the thesis and art that I produced as a grad student.
Can you tell us more about your thesis? I read that it’s called “I am what you think I am” and was in part inspired by your thoughts on social media and how we tend to present flattering but sometimes dishonest profiles of ourselves.
Yeah, so I’m on the cusp of Millennials and Gen X and I got Facebook in college. But I’ve always kind of had this complicated relationship with it because it felt like it was something that everyone was doing that I needed to do, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to present myself.
Then Instagram happened when I was in grad school and that just blew up. A lot of the thesis’ work displayed conflicting images of deteriorating faces or changing faces, confused faces.
This work was created for my thesis and is part of a series of seven. It is the oldest piece I’m including here, but is probably the one I’m most interested in and most enjoyed creating. It has to do with how we self-identify and how we then project that identity to others. Graphite on rice paper, with acrylic, plaster, and lacquer, 2013. -Chuck Landvatter
What happened next?
I really wanted to get out of grad school. Initially my idea was, I’ll go through three years of practicing my art and I will be totally viable for the job market. And I wasn’t. Or at least I didn’t feel like I was.
Once graduation came around it was really scary. Just the idea of making that leap like my cousin, Trent Call, did 15 years ago and Josh Scheuerman has just done was nerve wracking. I loved teaching and felt like it could be my fail-safe and my constant income. And you have to, as a professor, make art. So it’s this great thing and that’s what I planned on doing for the rest of my life. But I’m actually going to stop all that and finally make the leap to become a full-time artist. I feel like I can probably do it now.
How does that feel?
Come back in five years and ask me. [Laughs]
There’s this major duality of being extremely scared, that kind of fear I’ve always had, but also being mature enough to understand fear better and how to work with it. And getting excited at the prospect of overcoming that fear. It’s exciting and still scary.
How are you dealing with the fear?
Lots of Netflix. I think I just keep reminding myself I can’t let the grass grow under my feet. I don’t want to be that person in 20 years who looks back and wishes they would have done something risky and different. I do have to be responsible since I have kids, but I’m in a place now where there are lots of jobs that are coming to me without me being proactive. I’ll just have to be a little more proactive at times. I remind myself there’s probably enough work with the advent of street art murals.
How have you prepared yourself, whether it’s emotionally or financially, to make the transition to being a full-time artist?
Well, I’ve done math. I think you just have to crunch numbers and make sure this is something you can do based on recent history. I looked at my budget, cut back on certain things.
There are websites with email lists I’ve added myself to that will tell me when there’s public art or any art opportunities for me. I’ve used CallForEntry.org, CaFÉ for short. They post whenever there’s a national or state-wide call for artists or if there’s public art opportunities. Because anytime there’s a building that has public funding, they’re obliged to give 1% of it to artists to adorn the place. That’s huge.
And I can’t overstate the importance of just being in the arts community. You can look at it in different ways. I don’t think of it as networking when I’m out there, but I know that’s what’s happening too. It’s good to go out and meet people, introduce yourself and be comfortable talking about your own artwork, which is a really tricky thing for a lot of artists to do. Some are great at it. I’m not saying they’re narcissistic, but they’re really comfortable saying, Look at me, look at me. It’s admirable in some sense.
What kind of events have been helpful in particular?
Gallery strolls and art walks are huge. I can’t do galas, they’re too much for me. They’re hard. But sometimes those are good too, to go and rub shoulders with muckety-mucks. Academics, the arts there. That’s helped.
Do you have a group of other artists you talk with regularly? What does that look like?
Yeah, I don’t know if this is a product of Salt Lake needing to band together because we have poor art patronage here, but it’s not as cliquey as I feel it probably is in bigger cities. I can co-mingle with conservative, buttoned-up, more traditional painters and also people who are maybe more lowbrow or come from the street. I love that.
It does feel like everyone kind of knows each other. Trent is a great example. He’s like my idol and we’re only a year apart, but I really look to him as a model. He’s kind of melded different identities to make it his own and that’s benefited him in this art market. He’s known by people who want portraits of their family and he’s also known by the kids who have face tattoos and won’t go over his street art with their tags because they respect him. I feel like that’s beneficial because you have more of a pool of people who respect you, but you’re also able to make yourself a commodity to more types of people. I feel like maybe subconsciously I’ve done that too. I think, independent of him, I was interested in similar things as a kid, which helps. I’m so happy now that I feel like, in Salt Lake, I can navigate both worlds. And that new identity is exciting to both crowds. It’s like, Oh, you’re an art professor and you still tag?
You do a lot of different things. You teach, you do murals, logos, posters, fine art. How do you focus your time?
Right now, I look at what pays. As long as it doesn’t violate too much of my artistic, ethical code or whatever, if it pays well, I’m taking it.
But once I am no longer teaching, I feel I’m going to have a lot more time to focus on making meaningful art. I’ve got so many ideas. Stuff that may not make money but it’s important to explore as an artist. So I’ll probably focus less on the big jobs that don’t appeal to me.
What are you projecting your income sources to be once you make the transition to being a full-time artist?
For the next few years it will probably be mostly murals. I feel like this is– I hope it’s not, but I feel like the mural trend is just that – a fad. I don’t think in 10 years everyone is going to be scrambling like they are now to get paintings on the sides of their walls. Maybe. But I feel like I just have to strike when the iron is hot, and then by that point, I will hopefully have made a name for myself.
I tell my students this. People may take advantage of you because there’s not a standard rate for artists like there is for plumbing or something else. They will say things like, We’re going to give you lots of exposure with this wall. At the beginning of your art career, you can take some of those opportunities and get paid less than you’re worth in order to get your name out there.
A recent example was I did a mural for a company for way less than I think it was worth. There were different reasons for that, I don’t think they were trying to take advantage of me. But I produced a mural I was proud of, that I put on social media, which I don’t put most of my work on social media. I was able to get a few jobs from that, I think three jobs directly from that one, where people saw it and said, Will you paint our office?
What’s the biggest project you’ve had so far?
I had a 7-story mural that was a $120,000 commission that didn’t happen. It was a big deal because we put four months into it. That was also the biggest let down.
I’ve done a 6-story mural since then that was my biggest. I think it was like $50,000, but I didn’t get all of that money because there’s the boom lift rental, which was $30,000, and there’s all the paint and labor and stuff. $15,000 maybe went into my pocket for a 3-month job. I’m really grateful for that, but it’s not like I’m making big money. When you hear about a $50,000 commission, you might think that’s crazy. But it ended up being enough to pay the bills.
I feel like there’s a taboo in society to talk about money, but artists need to begin to be comfortable with that. Not in a boastful way, but in a crowdsourcing kind of way. Asking, What are you getting paid, so I know that I’m not getting screwed over?
It’s helpful to know the breakdown because many people probably have no idea a lift would cost $30,000.
Yeah, it’s $400 a day. I think it goes down the longer you have it.
At three stories high, this was my first large-scale mural I’d done up to that point. Although I’m not satisfied with it, I’ve decided to include it here for that reason. The size of this was a game-changer for me and has resulted in other, larger works that have helped to define my career. It’s also the first mural after Squatters where I used the multi-color/shape skin tone under the shading. Latex, aerosol, 2015. -Chuck Landvatter
What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
I teach and make art. And I’m a dad. The most important thing is legacy. I love that. I get to help the younger generation and I get to put art on walls that will last for years.
My daughter is on that 6-story mural. Her face is 3 stories high. And my son, I put his face on the Salt Palace mural that I did last summer downtown.
I’ve done other jobs before and see why people have midlife crises. I can see because there’s no purpose, it feels like. I don’t need a ton of money, I’m just so excited to be able to do something that’s going to last longer than me, you know? That’s what I think about.
You’ve mentioned before that you’ve had a lot of rejections. Can you talk a little about the struggles and rejections?
It’s good to go into art knowing you’re going to fail way more than you succeed. That way, when you get a rejection letter it’s expected. You’ll get many and, this is common, I have a rejection portfolio. I’ve talked to my students about making a rejection resume where they write down what they failed at and why they failed. Don’t focus on the feeling but focus on what you can do better.
I think I had the best lesson when I lost that 7-story mural at the very last second. For really stupid reasons. That was a game changer for me and it didn’t happen. It was disappointing, but I’m so grateful it happened the way it did. I feel like you have to not only get comfortable with rejection, but excited about the idea of being able to handle shit. To develop a thick skin. It’s exciting to know you can get rejected without it breaking your heart. It opens up more opportunities because you try more, and, with the law of averages, you get more.
So that big mural that you said fell through, was that something out of your control? What were the reasons for that?
I don’t think I could have done anything differently. I could only talk to the graphic design firm and they talked to Intermountain Healthcare. It was approved by every single person on the board – the COO, CFO – everybody. And their strategy was to tell the CEO last of all because he is pretty buttoned-up. So he didn’t see any of the work that had gone into it. I had almost 100 volunteers, subcontractors, I had things scheduled. I hadn’t bought paint yet, thank goodness. I was on the verge. Everyone was there, there were guarantees. Then the CEO, from what I’m told, didn’t even want to see the pictures, the renderings. He just said, No, I don’t want tags all over the building that I learned how to practice in, which was LDS Hospital.
What did you learn? Did you get some money upfront?
I did. I got like $6,000. But most of that went to subcontractors. I think I learned that, aside from the fact that I can take a big-time rejection, I need to be more proactive. I don’t know if you can say I’ve fully learned this because I still don’t give clients contracts most of the time, but you should probably have a contract at the beginning.
Why don’t you have contracts?
I just don’t like sitting down and writing them up. I had to do one for a recent job and it was written up more to their liking than mine and they took advantage of it. I think I only got paid like $5 an hour on it and it was just a big bummer. They had me come back and do a whole bunch of additional work. Contracts are important and I think maybe I’ll learn my lesson after this last one.
It’s also important to see that your needs are being attended to and put your foot down when something doesn’t sound right. I think clients respect that if you can do it in a polite way.
You’ve had multiple mural collaborations, like the Juxtapoz and Boost Mobile one. Can you tell us more about how these came to be?
Initially Juxtapoz contacted somebody because he had a large social media presence, but he said, I’m not the guy to talk to, talk to Chuck. He’d only done one mural in his entire life and they contacted him. He’s an incredible artist. But it was good for me to have friends who aren’t into this mural-making end of art. I think cross-pollinating social groups is important for artists to get good at.
The wall was too big for me that summer, so I asked four other people I’ve collaborated with to do it. Collaborations are fun, frustrating and exciting. It’s a good thing for artists to learn how to let go of control. You shouldn’t have control over everything, you should let things happen naturally. And collaborations are perfect for that.
Was it a paid gig?
Yes, but not a lot. This type of job you do for exposure. When Juxtapoz asks you to do something, you do it.
There are a lot of examples I have of people who I did not expect to pay well, but they did. Like Smith’s grocery. They paid me like $140 a square foot for a mural and that’s crazy. And Juxtapoz was probably like $5 to $10 a square foot.
Are referrals and visibility the main ways people find you?
I think so. Josh Scheuerman doesn’t have a lot of art. He’s just jumped into the mural game and he’s doing just fine. It’s not because he has a lot of work people know – although that’s just going to snowball and help him – but because he’s a social person, and he’s out in the community and talking to disparate groups of people. He’s a genuine human being who wants to know people. I really think that goes a long way.
I have students who go to lectures with visiting professionals and the students always want a formula. You know, post once a day, do it at this time, put these hashtags on, things like that. They want a very articulated litany of things to do to become successful. But I think it’s just being nice to people, being authentic, visible and working your ass off. It’s mostly character things you have to work on more than little tricks and gimmicks.
Have you had any lucky breaks?
Being related to Trent. [Laughter] I’ve got to ride that wave for a long time. I’m Chuck, Trent’s cousin. Famous by association. I actually do think that’s something that’s been fortuitous – I’ve been around him a lot.
Also, the big jobs I get, the high-visibility jobs, Juxtapoz— they don’t seem to produce a lot. I do feel lucky every time I get a job, but they don’t necessarily spark something. I think maybe in mass they have, just having a ton of stuff. But not like any one thing where I’m like, This is all I needed.
I’ve been on SLUG Magazine’s cover a couple of times and I have public murals. I know I’ve been lucky enough to know people who are movers and shakers. I feel very lucky and grateful for the things I have, but I don’t know if it’s been any one break I caught, you know?
I like the way this cover illustration I did for Slug Magazine’s Food Issue came out. It was a lot of fun to make and means almost nothing to me other than that. Photoshop on a Cintiq tablet, 2016. -Chuck Landvatter
What do you wish you knew starting out?
That it is way easier to start earlier than later, when you have kids and stuff. Seriously, I wish I had the guts to do it earlier on.
I think a big thing for me would have been to cut out peripheral distractions. Like, have a moment where I sit down and go camping by myself or something. And just really ask myself the important questions. What do I want to do and what does that mean on a day-to-day basis?
Maybe I shouldn’t play basketball every single night for two hours with my friends. Maybe I should go into art. Maybe I should apply at different universities. Maybe I should start hanging out with this group of friends who have aligned interests more than these other people. Just asking more important, artistically existential questions early on.
Do you have any money tips?
I think Hours Tracker is a good app to have, so you know what you’re making with the time you put into things. And then using that as a goal to work more economically and efficiently.
Being very fastidious or meticulous with a budget. Asking yourself, What’s my overhead for a project?
Then taxes and remembering to tell your tax person about them. Keeping track of expenses and stuff. That’s huge.
Do you use anything specific to keep track of expenses?
I use a certain credit card for the art things. I also use Mint and Stash too. They’re simple enough that an artist doesn’t need to dedicate a significant portion of their life to figuring them out.
I think artists have a very unique stress that has to do with this conflict of making money and doing what you love. If you can just get on top of finances with some simple apps, it will really help ease your mind when you’re making work. I’ve got everything being tracked and I can see how I’m doing.
How do you estimate costs and figure out what to charge?
Well, that’s a big one. It’s having the courage to ask people what they get paid on jobs and what they think you should get paid. Just doing it and learning, I think that’s probably the best thing. If you screw up, you’re going to do it differently the next time.
What are your future dreams?
I still want to be a professor, but I want to have a few successful years making art.
I really want to get my art out of Utah and I’ve not been good at doing that. I had one show overseas, which was exciting, but that was ten years ago and I haven’t done anything since. So I’d like to have my artwork recognized nationally and internationally. And I think I can do that. I just did my first out-of-state mural in Tahoe. Not far away but it’s something. I’m really excited at the prospect of putting public art outside of the state of Utah. I hope that can happen.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Artist’s work courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. Photos of the artist and space by Kim.