Being an Artist in a Capitalist Society: How Did I Get Here?

Poet Nisha Patel leveraged what she learned as a Business student into a full-time job that encompasses her love of writing and connection.


During her undergraduate degree in the Alberta School of Business, Nisha Patel never imagined that she could work as an artist after graduation. After all, while she doesn’t regret her choice to get a Business degree, it was a choice she made out of fear: fear that studying what she is passionate about, politics, would not be enough to elevate her in the political world. Understandably, being passionate about politics is rooted in Nisha’s desire to do something impactful. Having loved the arts from a young age, becoming a self-taught professional writer and artist has allowed Nisha to accomplish this goal. “I've always wanted to be able to speak to people on an emotional level. How I do that has just changed.”

Fast forward to six years after graduation, Nisha is now an award-winning Indo-Canadian poet, artist, and public speaker, the eighth Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton, the Regional Writer in Residence at Strathcona County and St. Albert, and has recently published her debut poetry collection, Coconut, earlier this year. To top it all off, she’s also now pursuing graduate studies at Queen’s University. Talk about breadth! Needless to say, Nisha is a wildly busy person and I could not be happier that I had the chance to chat with her about her experience navigating her life as a professional creative.

As someone who grew up dreaming of writing and reading my whole life, I never really believed that it would be possible to live a life led by my passion for language arts. This unfortunately created a dichotomy in my mind that unless I was working in the field of writing full-time, there was little to no value in creative pursuits. I was both surprised and relieved to hear Nisha say that “you don't have to be a full-time artist to make good art.”

I felt a bit silly being so surprised by something that makes so much sense. But I was glad to be reminded that it’s okay to have multiple hobbies. People are meant to be complex. “Being a full-time artist is difficult," Nisha says. "It's incredibly rewarding but you are no less an artist or a writer if you choose to do this as a hobby or a side project.”


On the topic of making a living as an artist, Nisha shared some valuable insights regarding the nature of being a professional artist in a society that commodifies everything, including people. Balancing creating for one’s own desires versus creating for, you know, making a living, is something that every professional creative has to toy with. Luckily, Nisha was able to use many of the skills she had gained in her BCom degree in her work as an artist.

“Being a contract artist or a freelancer is in many ways very similar to being like a business entrepreneur," Nisha says. "The main difference is that the product is you and your ideas when you’re a freelancer." From being able to market herself and keeping on top of her busy schedule to managing the risk and uncertainty that comes with starting a business, Nisha has learned to adapt what she offers to the rest of the world. As a creative in a capitalistic system that values the product over the person behind the product, being able to leverage what she learned in school seems instrumental in being able to turn her love for writing and connecting with people into a full-time job.

“Until we're able to switch that mindset of buying a product from artists instead of investing in their intelligence and their expertise, we're really not going to always have artists who are producing work they're always proud of.”


While it can be easy to focus on Nisha’s number of glowing accolades, I think it’s also important to highlight how Nisha was forced to address how to properly balance her work with her mental and physical health. Late into her undergraduate degree, Nisha was diagnosed with a mental illness and was later on diagnosed with diabetes. These shifts in her life have been instrumental in teaching her how to rest and helping her come to terms with the fact that there are hard physical limits to what she can do in a day. “I can't do all the things that my brain wants me to do, and that's okay.” Speaking with Nisha was also a good reminder for me to pay attention to what my body is trying to tell me when I’m neck-deep in projects and deadlines. 

Another way that Nisha takes care of her well-being while juggling multiple projects is through the support of people around her, like her partner. “We treat each other with the level of care we don't often afford ourselves," Nisha says. Still, there have definitely been times when finding comfort in her community has proven difficult, and Nisha shares her tried and true advice for finding "your people" in your community: “Just do the work that is most vibrant and important to you. That's the work that eventually draws the right people in.”

It is definitely an understatement to say that Nisha’s passion for her work is strong. For Nisha, it is important that she “give it everything [she] can and see how far [she] can take this thing that [she] loves.” Her love and dedication to her art is something that moved me when I first spoke with her and is something that still moves me now. It is definitely something that I will carry with me on my own journey towards living a life led by my own passions and desires.

“'I'm going to try to do [art] for as long as I can. And maybe that road ends next week, maybe that road ends 10 or 20 years from now, but I'm going to pursue it until I can't pursue it anymore.” Now if only I could bottle up her determination and turn it into a soup. It would be a soup that I need greatly.

Hear Nisha discuss creative careers on the U of A Alumni podcast What the Job?.


About Francine

Francine is in her fifth and final year of the secondary education program with the fun combination of being a physics major and English minor (she swears there’s more overlap than it seems!) She is very importantly also an avid lover of bread and cats. When she's not spending time working and studying, you can catch her reading a book, playing video games, or finding various ways to be a loaf.