Life & Business

Life & Business: Sadie Barnette

by Annie Werbler

To commemorate her auspicious year as an Artist-in-Residence at Studio Museum in Harlem, Sadie Barnette takes us through the space before her time is up. Her work in photography, drawing, installation art, and bookmaking often explores her own — and others’ — personal mythology under subcultural influences, through the identification of extraordinary moments in everyday life. As a teenager, Sadie’s intellectual and visual talents were lost in a traditional educational system, which left her with the strong suspicion that “there had to be some other way to be a person.” Luckily, she went on to art school and discovered not just her voice as an independent studio artist, but also the practical implications of navigating a successful career in the industry.

Sadie’s perseverance in carving out her place within the maker community has paid dividends. Ever optimistic, she describes how she wasn’t awarded this residency until her third application. Had she been deterred by “failure,” she wouldn’t have ended up with the prestigious opportunity during a period when she’s most able to take advantage of its benefits. Because of the numerous uphill battles involved, she only recommends becoming an artist “if you absolutely need to be,” and encourages people setting out on a similar path to consider “what you want to spend your time doing, and what you will actually have to spend most of your time doing.” Sadie’s work is currently on view in the Everything, Everyday Artist-in-Residence show, as well as in an exterior photo mural installation at The Greene Space. —Annie

Portrait by Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus working for someone else?

I’ve always been a creator and a maker. The path of an independent studio artist seems like the best way to let my ideas lead and develop, rather than selling my craftsmanship and skills to another company or agency.


Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I was always an artist, but it was as a student at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) that I was really exposed to the “art world” and the many facets of the career path associated with it — grant writing, teaching, art fairs, fellowships and residencies, studio assisting, speaking engagements, gallery representation, artistic scholarship, and all the other things that happen outside of the art studio. Many artists choose to engage with these things in different ways, and part of being an artist is navigating the different components and finding what works and doesn’t work for you.


What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Everything one of my favorite people and mentors, Andrea Bowers, ever told me.


Can you name a moment of failure in your experience that you learned from, or one that helped you improve you the way you work?

I am currently an Artist-in-Residence at Studio Museum in Harlem. I was not accepted to the program until the third time I applied. It felt like a setback the times I wasn’t chosen, but if I’d seen it as a “failure” and had not re-applied, I wouldn’t have been in a position to be chosen now — at a point in my career when I am more ready to benefit from all the opportunity has to offer.


If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?

Learn Japanese.


What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

Sometimes I feel I might be sacrificing the stability (and maybe health care) that would come with a 9-to-5, but ultimately I see it as a privilege, not a sacrifice, to do what I’m doing.


Can you name your greatest success, or the thing of which you’re most proud?

Being Artist-in-Residence at Studio Museum in Harlem! The legacy, energy, and passion of this amazing program date back to 1968 and continue to shape the future. I’ll be completing my year-long residency soon and I am still pinching myself that it was all real.


What business books or resources would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

I would only recommend being an artist if you absolutely need to be. But if you already know that that’s your fate, Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton, gives an entertaining and smart snapshot of the current art world. And when in doubt read (or watch the YouTube video of) Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art speech.


Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

In high school, I found I couldn’t “succeed” under the confined expectations of the traditional school system. I stopped going to some of my classes, and was on the path to fail to graduate. I switched to an independent study program and spent all my free time in a little darkroom there, where I discovered a passion for photography, and consequently, a reason to graduate and go on to college. Although it was stressful (and probably even moreso for my mother) I simply could not conform to traditional high school and some part of me knew there had to be some other way to be a person. Once at CalArts, I realized that there was not just something wrong with me but something wrong with the system, and that there was a whole world of people with similar experiences who wanted to create new ways learning and of recognizing excellence.


In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

Think about what you want to spend your time doing, and what you will actually have to spend most of your time doing if you choose to run your own business or studio – they may not be the same thing.


What’s the first app, website, or thing you open/do in the morning?

I’m not a person who loves to spend time on the Internet, but I’m trying to use Instagram more (after losing a bet to a friend!) so I check in on that first. I’m a public radio nerd so I usually listen to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! and Uprising with Sonali Kolhatkar while I get ready in the morning.


What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Bossing myself around.


Photography by Sadie Barnette

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  • i LOVED sadie’s work at the studio museum! my husband and i could not stop talking about it. so interesting to hear it was her third time applying.
    side note – others have probably said this already, but i love that there are so many people of color being featured on d*s.

  • Me too! I notice a major difference in the features and as a woman of color who has always loved D*S makes me feel good to be supporting a blog that is inclusive!

  • So very happy independent study helped you find a way around the behemoth system that devours so many. Your “be an artist only if you need to be” applies to so many endeavors. I remember a college drama teacher saying he tried to discourage his students from pursuing a career in theater. Why? “Because if I can discourage them, they don’t belong there.” Congratulations and blessings.