Thoughts & Process: A Time in New Hampshire Retrospective

This one is going to be unusual for sure. Despite how I may seem, I actually have tricked myself into liking state specific current events, trends, and problems. So I considered myself to be relatively engaged in the development of New Hampshire. I’ve been here for most of my life, only missing a couple years due to my time in college. However, the time has come for me to bid farewell to the “Live Free or Die” state, I’m moving out at the end of the month for Massachusetts. So for this week, I’d like to catalog my journey through New Hampshire, specifically as an adult artist, and illuminate some of the…intricacies of life here as a commercial artist.

North to South (2014)

I’ll start this from basically immediately after I graduated college and went back to NH in May of 2014. If any of you have read my “Should you go to art college” article from the past, you might remember that I said living in a rural area away from cities could be potentially damning to an art career. Why did I say that? Because I knew from first hand experience! I went back to my parent’s house in the Lakes Region of NH, and, no joke, all relevant art jobs I could find where at the very least an hour drive away from me, all in Southern NH. For those who don’t know NH’s demographics, the Northern part of the state is very rural and occasionally has a nice school or tourist attraction to spruce up the area. Southern NH has many more cities and hustle, and was the area you’d find more white collar and design jobs.

Needless to say, the driving distance was enough to scare off most employers already, but I think the worst case of this was one business calling me in for an interview, laughing at me for driving over an hour distance for the interview, and then ghosting me afterwords. In the meantime during my search, I worked at a pizza place, a couple retailers, and managed to do a remote internship for some concept art for three months. Finally, something incredibly lucky happened: I managed to trick someone into thinking that investing in me was worth it! I had an interview as a graphic artist at a trophy shop, they believed in my skills, and were okay with me driving the long distances while I tried to find my own place in Southern NH. I was elated, the search was done over a year later! Yep, you read that right, it took over a year to find a relevant job because of my circumstances. It took me a couple months, but I was able to find a reasonable apartment, and I moved out of my father’s home to continue on this new entry of my life. Granted, this job had me start at $11 the hour, and while I eventually ended at $15, I wasn’t saving too much.

Before we get too much farther, I wanted to address something. Some of my friends in the past had gotten on my case from the very beginning, saying that I should have started my own online business, made my own studio, or gone freelance. Why didn’t I do this? At the time, I was still uncertain of what I wanted to do in an art career, and was happy to be a follower where I was needed while I figured that out. Investing any actually money into my own business at the time was, and I still believe, an irresponsibly bad idea.

I stayed at the trophy shop for almost 3 years, somehow despite that being the longest I’ve ever held a job, I don’t have too much to say about my growth there, for the sole reason that there really wasn’t much. There I did learn CorelDraw, which is software I still use to this day, and standard printing and sign knowledge, but my actual advancement at the business was stagnant after 6 months. At home during this time, I’d develop my illustrations whenever I’d fancy, but it was infrequent. I also did some research into an art association I could join just to meet like minded people. I wasn’t able to find anything for digital artists in NH at the time, but I did briefly join a group near the seacoast. This only lasted a couple of months however, when it was clear that my age, interests, and portfolio didn’t match the group I entered.

A digital painting of a woman made of clouds descending upon a colorful field of flowers, done in an impressionist style.
An illustration I made for a group’s gallery showing back in 2017

However, trouble struck at this job’s midpoint: a new employee got hired with the expectation they’d take over the business, and they thought my work was so fun to do that they wanted to do it themselves. I battled with this person for over a year, leaving notes, talking to them directly, talking to the boss, even going so far as to teach them how to do my job in the hopes that at least they’d do it better! But unfortunately that was all on deaf ears, and it would be a regular occurrence that I’d have to go back and fix their mistakes, or find work that this person was deliberately hiding from me. This person was never properly reprimanded and never stopped their actions, and why would they if the expectation was that they’d take over? Sadly, this battle destroyed my mental health, it got to the point where I was taking longer bathroom breaks and hide in empty rooms if it meant I could just be alone. My boyfriend eventually convinced me that enough was enough, and I handed my notice into the trophy shop. I think the most insulting part of it all is that, despite my very obvious problems I’d addressed with the boss, he had no clue why I was leaving. This was when I learned your job is not your friend.

Somehow relevantly, it was also this year, 2018, where I left the trophy shop, that the New Hampshire Institute of Art announced its merger with New England College, with news articles citing their declining enrollment numbers.

Western NH (2019)

Unfortunately, my experience at the trophy shop did not make my next job search easier, it took me six months to find the next one. One issue I ran into this time as well, as the last job search, was that any time there was a graphic artist or designer job, the employer was asking for web design or coding skills. Most job ads would say they were optional skills, but you better believe your girl got turned away from each and every one for not having them! This was one of those hindsight things where you wished you learned those skills in school…until I realized the college I went to didn’t teach those skills at the time. So I was just screwed on that end unless I decided to go back and pay for more schooling, which I refused to do. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I did not want to do coding.

One thing I started getting used to with the job search were the familiar businesses in NH constantly reposting their jobs. Connection, NorthEast Color, Sig Sauer, Currier Museum, all these places would constantly post job ads for graphic designers or artists, I’d apply, and then get ghosted, not an unusual job searching process. But the scary thing with these places wasn’t the usual job hunting blues, it was that these places would be the ONLY businesses looking for artists and designers, with very rare exceptions.

I ended up getting a new contract position for a medical device graphic designer in Western NH, and worked there for just under a year. The work itself was very minimal and boring, but the pay was pretty good at around $20 the hour. I mention the pay because out of all the job searches I’d done in NH, this was one of the highest available. I’d only been in the state for less than 5 years, and I’d basically already peaked in an art career pay. Most art, design, and print jobs in NH even today still only pay around $13 the hour. If you are someone who has ambitions to start a family in NH while having an art career, you’d likely need that pay doubled.

The more interesting aspect of this job, however, was that the business was constantly recruiting for graphic designers, and got no qualified applicants. I even overheard the boss one time on the phone saying to his superior “I think they all moved away! We can’t find anymore!” To be fair to him, South Western NH is very rural except for the Keene area, and it would be an unlikely spot for graphic designers to call home with only one town to rely on for work. I left the job when the work both ran out and fumbled a prospective job and some seasonals.

I did notice in future job searches that I didn’t see this workplace hiring anymore graphic designers, which leads me to believe that department was closed down.

The Realization & Eastern NH (2020)

During all these searches and experiences over the years, my boyfriend and I realized something: we wanted to settle down in an area that would afford us more job opportunities, since we believed that job loyalty and staying at one place for life wasn’t realistic anymore. We realized in mid 2019 that we should try out Eastern Massachusetts and see if we like it, and then buy a house if we do after a year. It was also noted that my interview-to-job-offer ratio in MA was much more favorable. Out of all the jobs I’d interviewed for in MA, 3 out of 5 had given me an offer, I was much more desirable there (The NH ratio is too depressing to describe…). I also finally discovered that I just wanted to make art and stories I liked on my own time, maybe sell some prints and patterns online, and just have whatever art job I have be a good and flexible money maker. I’d mentally come to the realization I do not dream of labor and that “dream jobs” weren’t really applicable to me. So we were planning to move….then Covid hit, effectively locking us in NH. At the time I was working as a retail keyholder, and we decided due to the pandemic to just stay put until my boyfriend was able to get his masters and finish his internship.

The place I was a keyholder at, a metal craft shop, was in the heart of downtown Portsmouth, the South Eastern part of the state. If there’s one thing I learned in Portland ME and NH, it was that the closer you are to large bodies of water, the more art you’re going to see. Portsmouth is a port city and extremely touristy at that, and I got to see the art scene first hand. Right down the street was a beautiful music hall, an art association was stationed at downtown, and I’d walk past the Whale Mural to work on a regular basis. Besides Portsmouth, the only art community I’d seen in NH at all was the League of Craftsman fair for fine artists every August, and smaller art associations scattered throughout that seemed to be filled with much older adults, as I mentioned prior. NH, frankly, does a bad job of convincing people like me there’s an art scene at all, and if you’re a commercial digital artist looking for a community, you were going to have an even harder time of finding like-minded people. After working in Portsmouth for a year and a half, I’d resigned myself to the truth: I wasn’t going to get what I wanted out of NH.

Goodbye, Old Man of the Mountain (2021)

I wanna be clear, I didn’t hate living in NH. Despite all the obstacles it’s thrown at me job wise, the state is a very quiet and safe to live in, with lots of interesting geography and environments to explore. It’s a wonderful place for people who just want to live in peace and explore the outdoors. However, for whatever reason, it seems art development and white collar job focus take a backseat. The smaller print shops and art agencies pay too little for the cost of living in the state, those few decent paying jobs either disappear as fast as they appear despite the obscene qualifications, and despite all this, options for these types of jobs seem to keep vanishing over time. There’s also a sad irony in me making this write up the same week that the Whale Mural in Portsmouth is being torn down.

I enjoyed my time here, but it became increasingly clear as time went on that NH did not have my values and desires out of life: multiple opportunities to grow in the field, and a good community of creators to surround myself with regularly. Instead, NH is stagnant and stubborn in these regards, and the stagnation in terms of the labor force I find to be potentially disastrous for the future. So, so long NH, and thanks for the time you’ve shared with me.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for your attention and time. There’s a part of me that really liked making this write up so specifically about my experiences in a certain state, but since I wrote about it from the angle of life experiences, I probably will never make another article like this again…unless Massachusetts ends horribly. I wish you all the best, until we meet again.

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