Making Art Work
Making Art Work
How Crescent School alumni balance their creative talents with business skills
As a young man, Chris Luedecke ’94 enjoyed life as a bohemian singer-songwriter in the Halifax music scene. Then he and his wife settled in Chester, an hour from the city. Their vehicle, an old school bus, took $20 in gas to drive to Halifax and back. “Suddenly I realized that I couldn’t go out and play with my friends for $35 a night,” he recalls.
The realization didn’t turn Luedecke into a commercial “sell-out,” but he did start paying more attention to the business of music. Today, performing as Old Man Luedecke, he makes a good living doing what he likes best – playing music and entertaining people.
Luedecke’s story is familiar to many who choose creative careers. Driven to express themselves through art, they must also find a way to build a business and make a living. Each artist has a unique formula for living within that tension.
After university, Luedecke spent a summer in the Yukon, working and saving money. Along the way, he fell in love, and he and his girlfriend (now wife) Teresa Bergen moved to Vancouver where he bought a banjo. “I had a huge head of creative energy that was looking for an outlet, and all of a sudden I found a way to harness it.” He started writing songs while working a series of menial jobs. “My music is about my life, my own experiences,” he says. “I need to feel that what I’m doing is honest, sincere and as good as it can be.”
To put his career on a more businesslike footing, Luedecke began working with a publicist and manager. He put out records on a friend’s label and sent them to college radio stations. For a decade, he toured extensively, even doing a six-week tour when his twins were less than a year old. Now established and managing his own career, he admits that he’s still trying to find that balance. “When I write a song, I wonder why I don’t focus on the business. The next minute, I feel that I’m good at the business and terrible at the art!”
Gordon von Steiner ’06 says he’s fortunate that “business and art have been able to flow together.” A film buff from his early teens, he made “bad movies” on his camcorder and watched dozens of film masterpieces while at Crescent. After he graduated, he studied film at New York University, created video content for GQ magazine, and worked with renowned photographer Steven Meisel before setting up his own studio in Brooklyn. Referred to by the New York Times as “the budding Fassbinder of fashion videos,” his quirky films for brands like Vogue, Prada and Lanvin have featured mega-stars like Céline Dion and Michelle Williams.
Von Steiner’s artistic ambition is simple. “I love coming up with an idea and seeing it come to life on the screen,” he says. “I want to continue moving forward, challenging myself, and doing things I’ve never done before.” On the rare occasion that inspiration flags, he turns to his DVD collection and immerses himself in classic films.
He has found a ready market for his work, and plenty of creative flexibility. Although he’d like to do a feature film at some point, he’s content learning his trade. A recent video featured Cindy Crawford dancing through suburbia, starring in a soap opera, and then being driven by a monster to a photo shoot. “It was genuinely fun and creative – and commercial too!”
When Jason Beck ’89 was young, he says discovering his musical talent was “like acquiring a super power.” At Crescent, he began to dream of a career in music. At the same time, he was influenced by his father’s drive for success and the pragmatic side of learning at Crescent. “I really understand now that the skills I learned as a teenager have given me a leg up over some other musicians who remain in that purist, no-compromise zone.”
Jason, who performs under the name Chilly Gonzales, has built an international recording career. Along the way, he set a Guinness World Record for the longest solo piano performance (27 hours), starred in and scored the soundtrack to the film Ivory Tower, and wrote a set of études for lapsed pianists. Mostly recently, he launched the Gonzervatory, an innovative approach to teaching performance to young musicians. These days Jason doesn’t have to do commercial work, but he occasionally takes on lucrative projects. “When I’m in the position of having to be inspired on demand, I have a good sense of discipline, and I know it won’t last long!” He believes creativity is enhanced, not threatened, by limits. “Time pressures and heavy constraints shock the mind into looking at problems differently and trusting first instincts.”
Jason’s brother Chris ’87 found a different way to blend musical creativity and business. After graduating from Yale, he studied film scoring at the University of Southern California. He interned with legendary TV composer Mike Post and then worked on several shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “My own sense of entrepreneurship and ambition drove me to hustle gigs,” he says. “I really enjoyed the competitive nature of getting work as a freelancer.”
Eventually he quit his TV shows and focused on film work. Bring It On, a 2000 sleeper hit about cheerleaders, led to a string of comedies. Then in 2012, he had the opportunity to score a Disney short film, Paperman, which went on to win an Oscar. The following year, he was asked to score a Disney princess movie, which turned into the smash hit Frozen.
“Before Frozen there was a little voice in the back of my head that would speak up when I was in a difficult moment with a client and remind me I was still building a career and making sure my family is taken care of,” he says. Now the financial pressures aren’t as great, and he has more time to pursue his art. He is being more selective about the jobs he takes on and has discovered the joy of making music with a modular synthesizer.
Jake Graham ’09 studied communications and entrepreneurship in university and then got interested in photography while backpacking across Europe. After three years working in marketing, he decided to focus exclusively on a new career in photography. He explains: “I learn best by throwing myself right into things, where it very quickly becomes sink or swim. When you don’t have the comforts of an office job to fall back on, it forces you to adapt and find solutions.”
Graham’s creativity is driven by the desire to share his discoveries about Canada, and to encourage other Canadians to explore their wonderful country. “I love it when people reach out and say, ‘I just came back from this park or hike, and the reason I went was because I was inspired by your work.’”
Graham knows the importance of looking after the business as well as the art. He does commercial shoots for outdoor brands and some event work. When he travels, which is as often as possible, he contacts tourism boards and companies in the locations he’s visiting and sets up work in advance. He also licenses his photography and offers workshops.
While many of his shoots are meticulously planned, some of his favourite times are spent sitting in a remote and beautiful location, away from the camera as it captures time-lapse footage. Last summer, he spent five months travelling from coast to coast to coast. Now he’s working on a book of photographs from that trip. The variety of his projects helps keep him inspired and looking at the world in new ways, he says.
Graham knows that success doesn’t come with talent alone. “You have to hustle,” he says. “If you’re not putting in the time, there’s probably someone out there who is.” Jason Beck agrees. “It’s about the tempering skill of being pragmatic, rather than being a pure artistic idealist.”
It’s all about finding a balance. “If you’re too focused on the creative, you’re going to be stunted because you need money to make movies,” says von Steiner. “At the same time, if you only take projects that pay a lot but aren’t necessarily creative, you’ll also be stunted.” At some point, though, the desire to create art does re-assert itself. Says Chris Beck, “There’s a feeling I get in my whole body when I’m having a pure music experience, only to express myself and not to please a client. It’s a great feeling.”