November 7, 2013

Life After Pratt With Illustrator Caitlin Hackett

By Britt Gettys
Photos Courtesy of Caitlin Hackett

Hackett in studio, working on a large-scale illustration.
Caitlin Hackett is a small town girl with a lyrical imagination.  Originally from Northern California, she graduated from Pratt Institute in 2009 with a BFA in Illustration.  However, art wasn’t her original career path, she says.  “I have been drawing ever since I was a child, always animals and mythical creatures, a lot of unicorns and cats -- you could say things haven’t changed too much haha -- but I actually intended to go into wildlife biology, and it wasn’t until I did a pre college program at CalArts that I started to seriously consider the idea of studying art.”  From there Hackett applied to a variety of art institutions, as well as state universities, and was eventually accepted to Pratt.  “I had to decide between art and science, and I chose art.”  Despite this choice, her work is still inspired by her love of biology and forestry, a passion born from the remoteness of a small town surrounded by redwood forests and the rocky Pacific Coast.   According to her, it’s the best of both worlds.                
When discussing her first experiences at Pratt, Hackett admits that she was overwhelmed.  “I definitely didn’t know what I was getting myself into.  When I showed up at Pratt I didn’t like it very much, I was overwhelmed by the city after living out in the forests and mountains all my life.  I questioned my choices and doubted my ability to make a career out of art.”  Considering the magnitude of the college choice, as well as having been split between two very different majors, Hackett’s concerns were not unfounded, and, in fact, echo the sentiments of many art students across the world.  The question of what it means to live as an artist, as well as weather one can make a career out of it is a constant concern.  Hackett found reassurance in her Drawing 101 professor, Iona Fromboluti. “She said that going to art school was not about learning how to draw, but rather about learning how to see, and that made all the difference to me.”

“It was tremendously hard work, four years of very little sleep and furious creation, but it did well by me, partially due to my own hard work, partially because NYC is such a great place to study art, and in no small part because I had professors who both inspired, frustrated, and pushed me to do better,” says Caitlin.  She misses the camaraderie of being surrounded by artists and creative persons, especially now that she finds herself working from a home studio.     
"The Nemean Lion", by Caitlin Hackett
Since graduating, Hackett has maintained a busy and successful career as a freelance artist.  Recently she illustrated “The Lilac Fairy Book” by Andrew Lang, for the Folio Society.  She’s also been working as a Creature Concept Designer for a gaming company based in Brooklyn, a job she’s had since graduating in 2009.  Alongside this she illustrates album covers for bands, designs tattoos and posters, and produces work for gallery exhibitions.  “It’s a busy life but a good one, although between the shows and the commission work I don’t get much time for personal projects, but I do my best to fit them in when I can.”                

Hackett’s personal work, which she calls “Contemporary Mythology,” is what really displays her passion for nature and the relationship between humanity and animals.  The term comes from her obsession with myths and legends, but is also derived from the mystical nature of the creatures she draws.  All of her pieces contain a darkened whimsy, as well as a melding of the human with the animal.  According to her, this is all a reflection of the questions that inform and inspire her work.

“I’m passionate about animal rights and environmentalism, and much of my work has to do with the struggle between humans and animals, some of those struggles are literal: deforestation, hunting and poaching, the draining of marshlands for development, experimentation of medical drugs and cosmetic chemicals on animals in laboratories;  the list of infringements into the natural world could go on and on. Other struggles are more figurative, and this is really where the mythology question comes in. There is a system of value which people put onto animal lives, and it varies from person to person as well as culture to culture. We have separated ourselves from the other animals, we are the top of the food chain and as such we have relegated the other creatures we share this planet with into various categories, there are food animals and companion animals, we vilify or personify animals at will.”
Hackett is one artist who’s work is not only a meditation on the state of things around her, but a way in which she can reach out to others and inform them. Each piece in Contemporary Mythology provokes discussion and thought regarding the labels and identities we, as humans, lay upon animals.  This is where modern myth comes from, Hackett says, and that myth informs our perception of the creatures around us.  “A snake is evil, a lion is noble, a dog is loyal, an owl is wise, a wolf is a vicious killer, and an elephant a kindly giant.  What do these statements really have to do with reality, how deeply have we woven the myths into the reality? We have allowed the myths to take over the animals, and the greatest myth of all is that we are not animals ourselves.”

In opening up this dialogue with her passion, Hackett demonstrates that, though her art has been commercially successful, she can also use it to illustrate the topics and concerns she has about the world surrounding her.  She doesn’t have to chose between success as a working artist and living as an artist of expression because she’s found a middle ground.

While Hackett didn’t do any internships as a student, she did take part in an artist residency at OxBow during the summer before her senior year.  Affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, OxBow’s residency program aims to immerse artists, at all stages in their career, in an environment where one can explore both traditional and contemporary artistic mediums.  “I was fortunate enough to be chosen from a pool of applicants to be a resident there for the summer, with free housing, studio and meals, as well as several free courses, which I otherwise may never have had a chance to take, such as glass blowing.”  The residency functions as both a retreat, where one can work on their own personal projects without distraction, and an educational tool, offering a variety of classes for it’s residents to take, and instruction from visiting artists.  “It was a phenomenal life and art changing three months of my life,” states Hackett, and ultimately, given the ample time and inspiration, what led her to start selling commissions.  
"The Swan Maiden", by Caitlin Hackett
 Featured in an all female artist show at 323 East Gallery
While Hackett has managed to make a living off of her commissioned work, she says the experience isn’t nearly as smooth sailing as she makes it look.  “I had to teach myself how to write contracts, how to deal with companies that wanted to license my work to use for various posters or web designs, it was sort of a crash course in being an artist after I graduated.”  In her opinion, Pratt students could benefit from an education, not only in art, but in the business and politics of it as well.  This is one thing the Center for Career and Professional Development at Pratt strives to provide it’s student’s with.  The CCPD maintains a resource library of texts focused on the business of art and freelancing, and hosts multiple seminars on the topic every month.  

“I got taken advantage of by more than one client, and had artwork that I did not get paid for used by companies, and I had to deal with some scammy galleries,” Hackett admits.  But ultimately, these events led her to become more than an expert on the subject of freelance.      

“Make sure you have your client either pay you half or all of the cost before you start doing any work for them, and don’t send any kind of hi-res image file until after all the payments have gone through. If it’s a larger company I would recommend you write up some kind of a contract guaranteeing whatever kind of image rights you want to maintain, how much and when you will be paid, and how many alterations you are willing to do to the piece before you will start charging for the changes,” she encourages students.  
Despite Pratt not providing her with a background in the business of fine arts, her education did prepare her for hard, sef-driven work, and that’s invaluable when it comes to working for one’s self.  “I learned to set my own deadlines and keep them and to push myself constantly, as well as to go without sleep when needed (she laughs), and these are things that have come in handy for me in my career.”   

For Hackett, working as an artist has had it’s ups and downs, but it’s her passion and work-ethic that have allowed her to succeed.  “It took me a few years after graduating to really get to the point where I could support myself with my artwork alone, and even now there are good months and bad months, this is not the career to go into if you’re looking for financial stability. It requires a lot of hustle being a one woman business, and a lot of focus to produce enough work for both gallery shows and commissions, but ultimately my experience working as an artist has been a rewarding one.”   

Interviewed by Britt Gettys October 9th, 2013

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