Duane Jones recalls his struggle to find his place in the workforce and the need for more career education at the university level
When local artist Duane Jones speaks about his nomination as one of the most inspiring immigrants of 2021, he uses a humbled tone, almost like he finds it hard to believe himself.
“Somehow, I got nominated as one of the most inspiring immigrants in the Maritimes,” Jones says. “And I actually won the award, or was one of the winners. I was just deeply honoured.”
Jones is the founder of the Art Pays Me brand, which has grown over the years to become Jones’ personal art firm, as well as a podcast where he features fellow artists from around the Halifax region.
“Art Pays Me initially started off as a t-shirt brand,” Jones explains. “Basically, the idea behind it is celebrating artists, but in the broadest definition; people who use their creativity to make the world a better place, to make a living for themselves, to speak out on social justice issues, or whatever the case may be.”
Jones says Art Pays Me is far from where he envisioned his future would take him, even though back in high school in Bermuda he was told he had the talent to pursue a career in graphic design.
“My high school art teacher told me my art style kind of looked graphic in nature, and that I might be a good graphic designer,” Jones says. “I didn’t know what graphic design was, but I went for it because I didn’t really have any other options.”
If you, like the young Jones, aren’t familiar with graphic design, is a broad term describing taking information and knowing how to present it in a visual way. That means becoming familiar with the semiotics of shapes, colours, fonts, and other elements to impart a message without so many words.
That’s what brought the then-19-year-old Jones to Halifax in 2000. He was advised the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, or NSCAD, was one of the best art schools in the country.
However, once he graduated, Jones discovered the curriculum was lacking in at least one department: preparing grads for the job hunt.
“I found this is a common thing at most art schools, so this isn’t a knock at NSCAD, but we really didn’t have those big career conversations,” Jones says. “Or at least, I didn’t. My assumption from day one was that I was going to graduate and get a job at a creative agency, like a design agency or an ad agency, and that would be the end of it. But the reality is you graduate, and it’s not that simple. Some people get jobs right away, some people don’t.”
Jones was one of the unlucky ones who didn’t find their dream job straight away. He did spend some time as the art director at NXET Magazine, but the publication was short-lived and opportunities both in Toronto and back home in Bermuda were not forthcoming.
It was around this time that Jones started the Art Pays Me apparel brand and the name of the brand was more aspirational than factual at that point. But the venture was also an experiment, to see what an artist could do when you trim out the middle-man.
“I had to start a business, because there was no other option,” Jones says. “I started to feel like, what happens when you take the client out of the process? When artists decide to lead themselves? Those ideas that wind up on the cutting-room floor, what if I put them into my own products?”
Jones says he was partially inspired to try venturing out on his own thanks to his time at NXET.
“With that magazine, when I was hired, there literally weren’t any employees. It was just this dude, who was also an immigrant, actually,” Jones says. “Watching him, he let me sit in on some sales meetings, and I saw him broker partnerships with night clubs and bars and all those kind of things. I realized, this guy was flying by the seat of his pants, making things up as he went along.
“You just assume, when you hear about business people and entrepreneurs, that they’re these superheroes that have everything figured out. But the reality is a lot of them just don’t know what they’re doing. They just… figure it out. They have this ability to not worry about [the small stuff]. They just have this confidence that they will be able to figure it out.
“It definitely gave me a little more confidence.”
As Jones did more and more work of his own, he began catering to clients that sought him out for his style, rather than himself seeking clients for a living. While Jones still works his day job in information management at Dalhousie Medical School, the name of his brand is a lot less aspirational than it once was.
Jones also serves on the Board of Governors at NSCAD, and between that role and his podcast, he’s hoping to provide the career guidance and vote of confidence he wishes he had been given as a recent grad.
“The podcast has been a way to sort of do that indirectly,” Jones says. “I recently did feature some students on the show.”
Those students are Kris Rippas, 21, and Emily Sheppard, 24. Both recent Fine Art grads from NSCAD, they’re working together on a project inspired by the green burial movement.
“We’re doing custom burial shrouds,” Sheppard tells MECE. “They’re kind of a really old idea of wrapping up a body, before coffins and all the modern ways of preserving bodies was a thing. The alternative death movement is a big thing right now.”
“So far, it’s mostly just been on the side,” Rippas says. “It’s more of, like, an art practice, as opposed to a business. We’re in the early stages of our art career, so there’s still room to grow.”
Graduating on the cusp of COVID, Rippas and Sheppard have the benefit of knowing their expected post-grad career paths are going to look a lot different in reality and they’ll need to find a lot of their own opportunities. But having someone like Jones is a great boon not only by helping them get their names out there, but just for setting an example by showing that an artist can build their own career on their own terms.
“Seeing someone in the community who is seeing gaps and filling them kind of gives hope to all the other people like us that are just coming out of art school and trying to figure out what the next step is. I think it’s…” Sheppard says, pausing a moment to consider her next words carefully, “…inspirational.”
Immigrants as entrepreneurs
While Jones’ experience (creating a business of his own as an artist because finding a position somewhere is challenging) isn’t unique to immigrants, Jones does believe newcomers to Canada have extra hurdles to clear when it comes to finding employment.
“At the time, (I think they might have changed the rules now, because I see all these folks working at, like, Tim’s and places like that) when I was applying for a work permit, you had to prove no Canadian was more qualified,” Jones says. “You had to prove you were more qualified than every Canadian for that particular job. So if there’s a graphic design job up, I have to prove that I’m the best graphic designer in Halifax. And you know, that’s subjective. The employer really had to want you.”
For a brief period, Jones did work in Toronto on a contract basis, while he hit the pavement looking for a permanent job. He details a surprising encounter he had while being interviewed for a position.
“I did have one interesting interview where a white guy, a creative director, he said, ‘You know, as a black guy in this industry, you’re going to have a hard time,’” Jones says. “In Toronto? In the most diverse city in the world? Telling me I’m going to have a hard time as a black guy? I was just like, wow. That blew my mind.”
Even starting his own business faced challenges brought on by the rules of immigrant work permits at the time. Initially, it wasn’t Jones who founded Art Pays Me; on paper, it was his wife, Natasha Nurse-Jones, who started the business, and he was her first hire.
Speaking to Rippas and Sheppard, who are Canadian-born and not immigrants, it’s clear the educational system could still improve in educating all students on the topic of career-finding after graduation, although there have been improvements.
“NSCAD gives you the opportunity to gain those skills if you seek them out,” Sheppard says. “You kind of have to put the work in to seek it out yourself, I think. Just by going through your degree, you don’t get that information by default.”
“I think it’s a little bit short-sighted of post-secondary in general,” Rippas says. “Not everyone is going to make art for the galleries. Some people are going to go into commercial spaces, whether that’s freelancing their work or doing commissions.”
For Jones’ part, he’s doing his best to be the font of guidance Canadian and foreign students alike need in order to succeed. He leaves us with a few parting pieces of advice.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of a community,” Jones says. “I didn’t work hard enough to build relationships here, I didn’t think I was going to stay. Build relationships with people in a community as much as you can.
“That experience in Toronto made me appreciate Halifax a little better. I realized I had already started to build some community in Halifax… I just wish I did it earlier.”