• Justin Key

The Struggle

The sun is shining on a cloudless Sunday morning as my Prius races west along I-70. For the fourth time in as many days, I am making this drive. The first three days had been full of optimism as I sang along to the blaring radio over the two-hour commute to Vail. The weather had been perfect, calm, sunny with temperatures in the low 80s and today was more of the same. Today, however, the radio was not on, my optimism traded for a mind raging with pessimistic thoughts. 15 minutes from Vail at the Eagle County line, the blue sky met a wall of clouds and it began to hail.


Thursday was an exciting day. I drove my wife's SUV out to Vail's Lionshead Village loaded to capacity. I was set to arrive promptly at 9am to check-in and set up for my very first art festival. Everything I needed to build my booth was in the moss green Honda CRV except for my artwork which would be coming with me on Friday. The festival was a big step in pursuing my dreams and as I walked up to the welcome tent, reality hit me.


I'd been flying high since I'd received my acceptance email and immediately began constructing my booth. For two months I was running around collecting and building things for the show. I had to print artwork, buy a tent, build weights, rent walls, make title cards, get business cards, make bin prints and the baskets to hold them, figure out tax requirements, and suffer through weeks of running around town trying to remember what else I was forgetting. When I got in that car on Thursday morning I was confident I was ready.


Immediately there was a bump in the road. Another artist was parked where my booth was supposed to go and I was stuck in limbo until he moved. Optimism reminded me it was a mild sunny morning and I had nowhere to be so I began to wander. I meandered through the festival grounds where there was a buzz throughout the storefront lined streets. Artists were frantically unloading trucks and trailers or constructing their booths while volunteers hustled around coordinating and checking in. My first time seeing the setup process and I felt like a kid in a candy store.


I'd had doubts about my chances of being accepted to any festivals in my first year applying. My perception of the quality of my art in a saturated field of landscape photography and my inexperience in the festival scene were concerns. Not knowing if I would even be able to construct and fill a booth, I applied to a handful of shows and crossed my fingers. Two of the five accepted. Walking through the grounds of the Vail Art Festival reality set in. I had taken another step towards making my dream a reality.


Wandering the streets my head was in the clouds, daydreaming about the potential of the weekend. Three days at a festival that people would be flocking to with the intention of looking at and buying artwork, I was prepared for a big payday. My mind tends to skip plausible outcomes when it gets worked up so we went right past dollar amounts and began planning trips with the imaginary success I was almost sure would come. The snowball effect glitched the golf ball, baseball, and basketball stages and shot right to an exercise ball flying down a mountainside out of control as I debated whether New Zealand or Thailand would be on my docket next spring.


The snowball had melted by Sunday as the hail continued to pelt my windshield. While the weather had been nice to that point I was feeling like a personal storm cloud had been following me around all weekend. My extremely high hopes had crumbled with my sales grand total at $100 though two days. With the radio muted, I had fallen down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts. The quiet prevented any distractions from my personal berating allowing the negativity to consume and drag me deeper into despair. I just kept picking at that dollar amount that was turning my investment into a deep debt.

The drive was like a depressed Mastercard commercial as I ran through my list of expenses for the show. The booth rental, the tent, the prints, the booth fee, the application fee, the gas, the bill just continued to grow. It felt like that $100 in my pocket was just a chip in the mountain of debt. Even that chip would shrink further after taxes. The numbers added up to an amount that sucker-punched any optimistic voice still breathing within me. I never found that "priceless" moment at the end of those commercials that makes all the spending worthwhile. As I opened my booth for the final day of the festival I was ripe with misery.


This is the part of the journey they call the struggle. This is the point where the path gets a little fuzzy and the "give up" option gets tempting. The struggle is what holds most people back from chasing their dreams including myself for a period of time. It consists of all the hard work, all the late nights, all the low points, the let downs, it's where all of the possible negative outcomes lurk. The struggle is where failure happens repeatedly and that consistency drives the doubters to quit. This is the part of the journey where it gets dark.

The struggle forces you to play a mental game pitting you against yourself. Where any beliefs in luck, karma or fate need to be ignored and you have to remember you're in control. The struggle is where you prove to yourself that you can do it. Where you figure out how strong you are, what you are capable of, and how much your goals are worth. This is where you shed all the blood, sweat, and tears. This is the point where most people quit because it can look appealing. As the cliche goes, "If it were easy, everyone would do it."


I knew the struggle would be real. Like most people debating whether to embark on the journey or not, I saw the mountain of work that lay ahead of me. It held me back from even believing I could make a living as a landscape photographer. Not only was there a mountain ahead of me but I wasn't prepared to climb it. I felt like I was cold, tired and starving before I even took a step. Just like getting into a cold swimming pool, sometimes you just have to jump. With my head down, I started walking and never looked back.


The initial steps were easy. I built a website, developed a portfolio and laid all the groundwork to build my empire upon. Then I came to a massive cliff with "Income" carved into it. For months I tinkered with other projects while I debated options to scale the major obstacle. I knew this hurdle would arrive and when it did I was clueless. Then I made it into a gallery, then another. Then I sold a print, then another. I started meeting people and learned new ways to attempt the ascent. More galleries, more sales, more opportunities, momentum was building. Then came the festivals.


The festival scene costs a pretty penny for admission but with it comes a hope for a bigger payout. Naive as I was, dreaming of living like Scrooge McDuck on Friday morning, that glimmer of hope slowly faded over the next two days. The flow of traffic through Lionshead Village was steady and people popped in and out of my booth all afternoon. On my feet all day, I kept a smile on my face and happiness in my voice as I shared travel stories, talked about my work, and tried to answer questions without letting my inexperience show through. The general response was positive but that wouldn't pay my bills. It would have if I'd have gotten a nickel for every time I heard someone say, "I'll be back."


My positive outlook began to wain on Saturday. Watching my neighbors ring up sales and move pieces while I was left scratching my head. I found ways to put on a happy face to recognize their good fortune while I racked my brain for a solution to my low total. The mental game had begun and I was losing to the dark powers building. That snowball effect that had built up my excitement initially was rolling the opposite direction and now there was a hail storm barreling at me.


A painter once explained the nature of the business to me in this fashion: "the highs are short, and the lows are long." I don't know if the lows are actually longer but they feel like an eternity. What's worse is they block out the highs. The few sales I'd had were forgotten when the clouds started rolling in. That's when the thought popped into my mind, "why did I sign up for this?"


In January, I was showing in a gallery in Denver's biggest art district. On the first Friday of every month, people flock to the galleries, flooding the streets. Over the first four hours of the night, the space was packed wall to wall with visitors. I stood by my work and awkwardly made conversation with strangers about my art for the first time. The bright lights of potential were blinding when I arrived at the gallery. Over the night, as all my work still hung on the wall, the doom and gloom crept in. The crowd was dwindling as the night came to a close. I finished up a conversation with a woman about my time in Oregon and turned to find a man staring up at my work. Before I could say a word, he pointed at the aluminum mounted photo of a dark friary hallway in Ireland and said: "I want it."

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© Justin Key Photography