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How to Shift to an Artistic Career in Midlife

You don’t need to be an artist to enter a creative field after 50. Here’s how to feed your soul, if not your wallet.  

By Jennifer Davis

Andrea “Andy” Cooper of Phoenix, Md., 58, spent 30 years working in front of a computer as a publication designer and never seriously considered pursuing a second career. But in 2005, arthritis and chronic pain in Cooper’s hands, arms, neck and back led her to return to an old love: the arts.
For the past eight years, Cooper, who grew up in a musical family and went to art school, has been working as an artist facilitator. She spends three days a week as an art therapist at Mercy Medical Center in downtown Baltimore and the University of Maryland Medical Center at St. Joseph in Towson, Md., helping patients with their art projects while they’re getting IV treatments for up to seven hours a day.
A Second Career as an Art Therapist
Cooper is thrilled to bring her cart full of art supplies down the hospital hallways so patients can paint, craft, draw, make jewelry and engage in other creative projects.
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“There have been patients who have been really down in the dumps and feeling bad, not only emotionally but physically, when I’ve come in,” she says. “By the time we finish making a bracelet or whatever the art project it is, they’re happy. I’m able to take their minds off what’s happening to them for at least an hour and give them something to prize or to relieve some anxiety.”
Cooper is just one of many Americans in their 50s and 60s who’ve found their way to an artistic career later in life.
“I think there are a lot of people who enjoy the arts, but they would never think about making money that way,” she says. “It can really be life enhancing. The arts add beauty to your life, as well as meaning.”
Cooper first began tapping into her artistic talents in midlife when she learned about Lagniappe, a foundation that incorporates arts into medical settings for patients with health challenges. Its name is based on a Cajun word that means “something extra or unexpected” — and it turned out to be just that for Cooper.
She led the foundation’s music and visual arts sessions for mentally ill patients at Sheppard Pratt Health System's day program. In 2008 that work allowed Cooper to launch a six-week pilot program with Mercy Medical Systems, facilitating art projects for patients getting infusions, like chemotherapy.
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The positive reaction led to the creation of the Therapeutic Art Program where Cooper limits her work hours for personal and health reasons. She says there’s so much demand for art therapy that she could do the job full time if she wanted.
A New Life for an Empty Nester
The mother of two grown children, age 27 and 22, Cooper says now that she’s an empty nester, she’s delighted to have a second career that fills her life with meaning and allows her to take care of people. “It’s adding to the quality of my life,” she says.
Through her art therapy work, Cooper says, she is finding talents she didn't know she had. "I feel like I need that self-affirmation," she says. "It makes me feel better about myself.”
Mary Edwards, a career and life coach for artists in San Rafael, Calif., says she’s increasingly advising people eager to enrich the scope of their lives through more artistic second careers.
Edwards made a similar switch at 53 in 1998 when she took early retirement from her job as director of human resources consulting at Levi Strauss. She decided to launch a second career using her business experience more creatively by assisting artists.
“It was my values and interests that drove me in that direction," Edwards says. "And I wanted something new.”
She isn’t an artist but she is an art lover, so Edwards volunteered to be a board member for San Rafael’s nonprofit Art Works Downtown. When the group was ready to hire its first executive director, Edwards got the job. She stayed five years before starting her current business, advising artists, painters, sculptors and photographers how to develop their careers.
6 Tips to Launch an Artistic Career in Midlife
Edwards offers these six tips if you’d like to switch gears and start an artistic career in midlife:
1. You don’t have to be an artist to work in an artistic field. Theater groups and museums need accountants and people with business backgrounds.
(MORE: 11 Apps for Aspiring Artists)
2. Check out job boards for creative fields. Edwards recommends, a site that lists paid jobs and volunteer work at nonprofits and organizes opportunities by the type of creative work.
She also likes, which details paid jobs in business that tend to be more creative, like art director or illustrator.
Pay special attention to the language in these job descriptions, Edwards says. “This is important because people who want to find creative work in a new field need to translate their own skills and experience into the language of that field,” she says.
3. Volunteer at a nonprofit or a creative business that’s involved in the kind of artistic work you want to do. This is a great hands-on way to figure out if the new field is a good fit. Plus, volunteering on the front lines helps you earn credibility and make contacts — it can be a springboard to a new position.
4. Embrace your entrepreneurial spirit. You might need to create the job yourself by identifying a population, like children with medical issues, then creating and pitching a program to serve them.
You might find potential opportunities through your local school system or Department of Aging as well as at hospitals, retirement communities, assisted living facilities and service organizations.
You may have to come up with programs at several places to piece together full-time work.
5. Consider hiring a career coach specializing in creative jobs. The best way to find one is by researching online using such keywords and phrases as “career coach artist” or “career coach creative entrepreneur.”
Keep in mind that coaching can be done long distance by phone or Skype as well as face-to-face.
6. Finally, don’t expect to get rich. Leaping to a more creative field might involve a pay cut if you’ll be leaving a full-time job. Salaries tend to be lower in the arts than in business; you might also wind up working part time or freelance. But what you give up in earnings, you may more than make up in personal fulfillment.
Jennifer Davis is an Emmy-award winning journalist in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared on television, in magazines and on websites, including Next Avenue.

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