Both the advantage and the pitfall of being a freelance artist is the constant adaptation in order to create. For many, this continual adaptation is an unstable, overwhelming mode of living. For artists, adaptability is integral to long-term sustainability and mastering one’s craft.
Do artists know they wanted to be artists? For Jordan Atkins, LA-based designer, it’s an ongoing revelation.
Quarantine was reminiscent of the designer’s youth spending Michigan’s humid summers as an only child, left with his imagination to cope with boredom. Jordan jokes that his creative process is similar to Jimmy Neutron’s brain blasts, explaining that he imagines finished products and works backwards. Limitations, like loneliness or boredom, can oftentimes provoke unbridled creativity. He contemplates not being able to go to certain places and experience certain situations, but uses his creativity instead to conceptualize how things would look and feel in those spaces. “I create something in that universe and bring it back here,” he says.
In true do-it-yourself style, he learned what he knows today through trial and error. Atkins got his start studying fashion in Detroit, but left school to pursue crafting his own line. He started creating t-shirts from distinct ideas in his head of what he wanted to wear and learned by doing, rather than prolonged planning. Inspired by BET and Black Panther wear, he created a line that was contextually relevant to his generation’s lifestyle. His 2013 DetRIOT line pays homage to his grandpa, a Black Panther.
In 2018, Jordan, along with friends, created Destroy World Save Earth– a streetwear line inspiring hope for the future. DWSE is a bright, colorful play on climate apocalypse, with deep purples, military greens, and sleek, utilitarian silhouettes. Jordan explored his passion for sustainability by creating reusable stickers, as well as experimenting with air-dyeing fabrics.
For the young designer, self-sufficiency is at the core of his sustainability practice. This practice naturally evolves and grows with inhabiting different spaces and simply growing older and wanting a place to call home. “If my home was gone,” he thinks aloud, “what would I do? Can I build a home for myself?” There is a clear and tangible connection between climate issues and homelessness. Bustling city centers push historically marginalized groups out and in the U.S., especially in LA, homelessness is everywhere. We’ve become desensitized to this communal issue of simple survival. Jordan contemplates, “Even though I do think about death a lot, I think about how I want to live.”
Jordan has recently started studying and volunteering at an architectural park in California, where workshops teach students how to create sustainable dome-shaped clay homes. Inspired by Persian architecture and Tatooine from Star Wars, the young designer is focused on creating complete self-sustaining structures to call home.
A strong idea can be lost in execution and as an artist, it often feels like nothing is ever finished. Add now a layer of having to share personal work for funds, whether that’s direct sales, crowdfunding, or grants, and an artist can start to feel very overwhelmed with the business side of their craft.
To Jordan, they’re simply different expressions. The soap sculpture line Washbods was formed in collaboration with his cousins during COVID-19. “I’m not deep in the soap game,” Jordan laughs, but earlier this year, the Washbods Kickstarter campaign was featured on the crowdfunding site’s “Projects We Love”. The soaps are inspired from his love of bulbous shapes in animation (he confesses that in his head, he’s an animator at Pixar).
Washbods, for Jordan, was a stepping stone towards ceramics. Formulating natural soaps, another trial-and-error process, took weeks until they were considered right to start molding. These all-natural soaps are sulfate-free, non-GMO, and biodegradable. The creators had sustainability in mind, also deciding to offset carbon emissions in their shipping process. Through this experimentation in creating Washbods, however, Jordan gained valuable insight and skills that will now inform his ceramics practice. From one expression to the next, the beauty of cultivating a creative practice lies in the discovery of new mediums.
On an sociopolitical level, BIPOC artists work twice as hard to be able to financially sustain themselves with their art. “With capitalism, there’s always some level of perversion,” he weighs, “it converts everything.” To work within the capitalist system may be draining, but Jordan reminds himself of his goal of creative independence and providing for those he cares about.
Especially this year, we’ve seen how capitalism pervades even the deepest need for connection with others. “How did we figure out a way to make friendship a corporation?” Jordan asks. These friendships were forced to move online out of necessity, however the apps we use to virtually maintain those friendships become highly addictive. Jordan proposes that these tech corporations facilitate friendships as double-edged swords; “make friends…. On our network!” Yet beyond the dismal, he recognizes the potential for digital fashion to emerge. Platforms like Instagram have integrated direct in-app shopping, but we can imagine even broader uses for consumer-facing technology to mitigate the environmental impacts of fast fashion through 3D and AR software. Digitally printed textiles use considerably less water and energy and push brands to keep innovating.
There’s beauty in making art for oneself but with the majority of funding going towards mainstream, digestible or ‘trendy’ art, we can see how it may be easy for emerging artists to think themselves into a self-comparison spiral. It’s an easy trap to fall into; how does one gauge if their work is subjectively good? Searching for accolades from mainstream institutions or tastemakers is only a path towards misguided validation. After all, who are the ones giving out those awards? Majority white institutions like the Oscars, the Grammys, and the MTV music awards dictate what art is considered good in pop culture. “But the need for validation”, Jordan says, “shouldn’t come between you and your identity”.
It may feel at times that to create powerful work, an artist might resort to exploiting painful experience. Jordan counters that thought, “Or maybe, that pain exploits you.” This past year especially put our belief systems to the test and inflicted global trauma. In such a unique worldwide phenomenon, we must also process our collective grief. Reflecting on the word ‘exploit’, Jordan offers a similar word- manipulate. One can manipulate any experience into art, he explains, as a way to process emotions.
It’s imperative to remain flexible, as giving 40 hours a week for one employer is not something Jordan is willing to sacrifice for a paycheck. And he’s not alone- our generation is slowly but surely pushing against the 9 to 5 lifestyle and hustle culture. Even in China, the “996” culture of working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week, is losing its viability and appeal. Workers are unionizing and demanding better practices from employers to combat Corporate America’s exploitative practices. To Jordan, time is a finite resource and one that is not up for negotiation.
The regenerative ebb and flow that requires transformation fuels artists to keep moving forward in their craft. The dedicated creative cannot wait for inspiration to hit, they must diligently learn and practice. Artists are the true chameleons, absorbing their surroundings and processing them within their own unique socio-political context.
We’ve seen in the past months that our society relies on art- to imagine better realities, to process trauma, to bond with others. As our conversation comes to an end, he meditates for a second before asserting, “the idea of a better life inspires me.”