An interview with Phil La Duke
Being creative is hard. I break the rules of the art world that tell artists to find their style and stick with it because my mind is always wondering. Some days I feel more inventive than others, but when working on commissions, I sometimes feel pressured to be creative on demand. When that happens, I “change channels” and do something else to let my intuition have time to fuel me.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in Stratford, Connecticut, and lived in Connecticut until I was 10. My parents, three brothers, my sister and I moved to Florida for two years, then moved to Arizona, where I’ve lived ever since. Childhood was filled with motorcycles and sand-rails, cactus, rock formations, washes, lizards and coyotes as I explored the desert. I further escaped through comic books and science fiction, visiting worlds and people who did extraordinary things extraordinarily well.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I had a secret weapon to make my business a success: my wife. I don’t know how artists do it all themselves — there is so much to the business side. Fortunately, she handles all the marketing, customer relations and back office activities, hiring help, keeping track of everything, organizing events, planning for the future. She swears having a business coach explains the success, but she is the glue and the linchpin that allows me to keep focused on creating.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
If you would like to follow your dream, do not quit your job to do it! Pursue your passion or curiosity part-time at first. You might find you don’t really like it, that it is harder than you thought, or not that much fun after all. I’ve had many people say I have inspired them to pursue their art, and those who quit their jobs to pursue their dream almost always end up unhappy, broke or both because of the intense pressure to succeed. First try it on the side. After a while, you will know if you would like to do it full time, and will probably have enough business built up to make the leap.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
As an artist, the danger of having creation become a dreaded chore is a real problem. I’m very aware of how important it is to keep that sense of playfulness, especially with what I do — many of my works convey a sense of whimsy that just can’t be faked. That being said, I have a very active “responsibility gene,” so commissions especially weigh on me. When I feel pressured, I let my inner child out to play by doing something else, anything else. That may be as simple as sweeping the floor, reading a book — I read a lot — or surfing the Internet. I just need a break so I can relax and get back to running through the grassy fields of my mind.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I really love keeping my own hours. That being said, I work far more hours for myself than I ever did for anyone else. I often work weekends and evenings and, as often as I say I’ll take off time during the week, I seldom do. I do, however, go for multi-day, long-distance motorcycle rides — they let my mind fly, and the aesthetic of the road has deeply influenced my sculptures. I also love the sense of accomplishment and knowing that everything I earn is for my family.
The only real downside I experience is just deciding where to focus my energies. A lot of offers and options come my way, and I have to be careful about not getting spread too thin. I keep a checklist that helps me — if an opportunity, even if it’s one I create myself, doesn’t contribute to my goals in at least three ways, it’s at best suspect.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Because I was already working part time, I had some understanding of what creating full time would entail. The challenge of engineering a kinetic sculpture from scratch, the demands of working with dangerous equipment, the working conditions were known. I did get better pacing myself, though, to help avoid burnout.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
During the recession I did wonder if I should go back to driving a truck — not a lot of people were buying art then. I used the time to rethink the business, now that it was evident that it was one, not just a side gig. I hired an art consultant who was helpful in organizing aspects of my practice as well as identifying markets, and I just kept making sculptures. When the recession ended, I had great sales. Yet it was challenging to hang on during that time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Recently I was commissioned to create a sound sculpture for a high-end home in a nearby tony town. I walked into the house and one of the patrons, whom I’d never met before, asked me, “Have you ever been here?” I’d been to many beautiful residences before, and this did look a little familiar …. It turned out that the previous owners had purchased one of my sound sculptures but had taken it with them when the house sold. This is, as far as I know, the first time I’ve ever created two sound sculptures for the same location.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The first time I did a presentation to a committee selecting an artist for a public commission I was speechless. Literally. I forgot everything I had practiced and basically said, “Please choose my work.” I learned to be better prepared, but more important, I began to realize that they are just people, too, and to simply and honestly convey my passion and competence.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Through social media and particularly YouTube I’ve made friends all over the world, reaching out to people I may never meet in person — although I actually have met many online-first friends through the years. I do my best to answer their questions and help them achieve their dreams no matter who they are or where they live. I’ve also donated work to a variety of organizations to help them raise money for their causes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Being creative is hard. I break the rules of the art world that tell artists to find their style and stick with it because my mind is always wondering. Some days I feel more inventive than others, but when working on commissions, I sometimes feel pressured to be creative on demand. When that happens, I “change channels” and do something else to let my intuition have time to fuel me.
- Being an artist is being in business. I really just want to make art. I can see, though, that selling the work allows me to make more.
- Sleep is overrated. I find myself worrying a lot more than when I worked for someone else. People are depending on me. It was a lot easier to just show up for work and let someone else worry about keeping all the balls in the air.
- Personal discomfort can be overcome. I have to do a lot of things that aren’t particularly comfortable. Working in my metal studio in the summer is a certain kind of hell. Sometimes I come home looking like I’ve been dipped in a vat of saliva then rolled in metal shavings. I’ve learned to weld and cut metal — the hottest part of the job — in the morning, then do my prep and other jobs in the afternoon, to leave my shirt untucked to allow some of the heat to dissipate, and to take a lot of breaks.
- Don’t become your own biggest fan. While it’s great fun to be recognized and appreciated, I always treat others with respect. You know, the way I’d like to be treated. Whatever I know or have done, there is always room for learning and growing, so I enjoy meeting people and sharing ideas, which is a wonderful aspect of social media.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d love to inspire the “Be Curious” movement. I’m always wondering, “What happens if I do this?” “What happens if I do that?” Some of my greatest successes so far have come out of simply following my curiosity, and I’d love to encourage others to do it, too. Author Elizabeth Gilbert points out that following your passion is hard — first you need to know what that passion is and then pursue it. It’s much easier to follow your curiosity, something I do every day as an artist. It’s creativity’s best fuel, and is available to everyone. You just need to trust your curiosity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My biggest life lesson is probably “Don’t touch the red metal.” What I do requires total mental and physical focus, whether it is creating with metal or coaxing my 8-foot-tall 3D printer to produce what I have designed. In the metal studio, though, if I’m not paying attention, I can get badly hurt. This lesson can easily be applied to life: Be mindful of what you are doing. It is the most important thing you are doing in that moment, so give it your all.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
M.C. Escher is dead, so we’ll rule him out.
I would love to visit with Barack and Michelle Obama. I admire and look up to these fascinating people, who have accomplished things no one believed were possible, against odds most people would have never taken, and done it with grace and dignity.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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