What It's Really Like Being An Artist In Your 20s

It’s the oldest tale in NYC history: a young, hungry artist moves to the Big Apple to pursue her passion, get her big break, and discover herself along the way. You can practically see the movie credits rolling — at the very least, hear the show tune. But the notion of what an emerging art star looks like today has changed. In a world of slash-heavy job titles (actress/DJ/ceramist) and the ability to connect with fellow visionaries with as little as an Instagram follow, the new creative class is savvy, not "starving," as some clichés suggest.

Along with Kit and Ace and its line of Technical Cashmere™, an innovative and low-maintenance performance fabric, we're kicking off The Next Set, a four-part series celebrating fellow innovators. We're taking a deeper look at what it means to make it as a millennial in the art world today and at the young women who are rewriting the script, from old-school painters to new-age art-app creators. First up is Alexandria Tarver, a 25-year-old Texas native and contemporary painter, who has hustled her way to showing her vibrant still-life work in galleries across New York and San Francisco. However, for frequent visitors of the Lower East Side, you may also recognize her as a shop girl at Assembly New York.

While the double-job trope is one that will likely always accompany an artist or performers' early career days, Tarver's path to and definition of success is up to her for interpretation. Consider it the professional equivalent to coloring outside the lines.
Photographed by Aingeru Zorita.
Kit and Ace top, Acne skirt, Falke socks, & Other Stories shoes, Lady Grey ring, Alexandria's own ring.
As someone who's pursuing an art career in her 20s, how do you distinguish yourself in an industry that's already filled with so many voices and points of view?
"It helps me that there are so many points of view in the arts right now and that most of them are a click, turn of a page, or short walk to a gallery away. That means it's easier than ever to discover what I like and why, as well as what I don't like and why. My voice is something that's still being worked on and will continue to be worked on until I'm gone."

How did you decide to pursue art professionally?
"Art has always been a part of my life. I must have been three or four, and when my teacher instructed us to draw a tree from a picture, I panicked just looking at all the leaves wondering how I could possibly get each one. I ended up finishing the drawing and have kept drawing ever since.

"My undergraduate experience [at the NYU Studio Arts program] really solidified my decision to keep painting and making work. I found two great teachers and mentors in Jason Tomme and Maureen Gallace. About a year after I graduated, Maureen introduced me to Billy Sullivan, and I became his studio assistant. Working with him — and involving myself in a studio operation with someone who has always photographed, drawn, and painted for a living — taught me that I could do it myself if I really worked at it."

So far, your series of flowers in jars is one of your most popular. How'd that come about?
"I've always loved paintings of flowers, so a couple years ago, I thought, Why not try to do one myself? I went to the store, bought some flowers, made some drawings, did a couple paintings, and thought they turned out well. After doing the first few, my dad came to visit me in New York. We went to Prune for dinner, and he told me he had cancer and that he was going to die. In the awful months and year that followed — from his decline, to his death, and to the healing process that I'm still going through — going to the store, buying flowers, making drawings, and making a painting became one of the only things I could do that made me feel in control. So I did it over and over again."

What's the significance of the flowers?
"I get a lot of solace from looking at flowers — everyone does in a way, I think. I don't want to get too sentimental with the life and death thing involved with cut flowers and growing plants, but to ignore that as a primary reason why I've been painting flowers and plants for the past two years would be silly."
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Photographed by Aingeru Zorita.
Left: Kit and Ace top, Won Hundred dress and jacket, Lady Grey ring, Alexandria's own ring. Right: Kit and Ace pants, Bassike top, & Other Stories shoes, Open House choker, Lady Grey ring, Alexandria's own ring.
How do you follow up a series like that?
"What I'm primarily focused on now is seeing how my paintings evolve from one to the next. The new paintings are a step beyond [the flowers in jars] series. The plants I'm painting now are more verdant, the canvas size is getting bigger, there are heavier and more varied brush strokes, and some sense of abstraction is starting to show."

What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned about making it as a young artist?
"Patience. I've stressed a lot about how I can possibly crack the scene or get any kind of recognition. This is New York, and as a nobody from poor and immigrant parents from Texas, it's pretty intimidating."

How much does networking play a part in becoming successful in the art world?
"I've found, in the few years I've been a painter in New York, that recognition for me hasn't come from going to the cool parties and hip openings and hot new clubs, but really more through dedicated hard work in the studio and sharing the work with people I respect."
Photographed by Aingeru Zorita.
Kit and Ace tee and pants, Won Hundred jacket, Common Projects sneakers, Hue socks, Lady Grey ring, Alexandria's own ring.
You've got a side gig, too. You've been an employee at Assembly New York for the past year and a half. How do you simultaneously juggle working a retail job and pursuing your passion?
"Most artists I know have to have a day job in order to be able to survive here. I've found a great place in Assembly: The staff there is made primarily of artists of one type or another. And the founder and owner, Greg Armas, comes from a visual-art background and is always strongly supportive of the staff's pursuits outside of work. It's a good community, and I really believe that the work ethic you have in any job directly reflects the work ethic you have in art-making."
That's a lot to juggle at once. What do you typically wear to get it all done?
"Well-cut basics, mostly black or neutral colors. I am a New York artist, after all. My go-to outfit for openings or meetings is a black Helix Top by David Michael, black pants from Assembly or vintage Levi's (depending how casual), and my nice pair of Acne shoes. In the winter, I add a vintage leather jacket with a chunky sweater underneath. When I'm in the studio working, though, I usually just wear an old band T-shirt or one of my boyfriend's beaters with cotton shorts and slippers. Comfort is key — makes it easier to take naps."

What are some of the exciting things you're looking forward to in your career?
"In August, I was in two group shows (at Motel in Brooklyn and Ille Arts in Amagansett, NY), and I'm currently in another show at Alter Space in San Francisco. Around November, I'll be in a show at No.4 Studio in Brooklyn, as well."

What's your best advice for young artists who want to start breaking into the art scene?
"Never be afraid to ask people for advice, seriously."

Is the hope to eventually only have a job title of "artist"?
"It's a little corny, but as long as I can continue to live and make paintings and remain in dialogue with people whose work I like, I think that's all that matters for me in terms of success. Where that takes me professionally, who knows?"
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