Young, beautiful, talented Madison Parker has just graduated from Rowan University, a painter with a degree in fine arts. Diploma in hand, she smiles proudly, her eyes vivid with hope and great expectations.
Eighteen months later, she is toiling in a small-town copy shop, designing business cards and pizzeria menus, enduring the petty harassment of an obnoxious boss.
At night, when she's not too tired, she practices her art, drawing inspiration from her muse, Charles Willson Peale, whose self-portrait is tacked to her bulletin board. But her dreams are wilting. Seeking a day job as a graphic designer, she has applied to every ad agency and magazine in the Philadelphia area and been invited to only one interview.
Such is the plight of the 20-something artist in this brutal economy. Or so suggests Michael Licisyn in No Footing, an independent feature film that he wrote, directed, and edited.
Set in and around Philadelphia, and made on a shoestring (about $10,000) by a local cast and crew, No Footing has engaged young audiences at screenings this fall and won several awards at film festivals, most notably "best feature" at the Philadelphia Filmathon in October.
"It's an amazing work of art, especially considering the limited budget," says Stephanie Yuhas, executive producer of the Project Twenty1 Film & Animation Festival, which sponsors the Filmathon. "It's extremely relevant for artists in general and for Philadelphia-based artists in particular."
Yuhas, 28, who attended the University of the Arts, where she majored in animation, related to the movie "on a deeply personal level" and calls it "required viewing for creatives."
That sort of reaction delights Licisyn (which rhymes with decision). Having devoted three years of his life to the movie, which premiered in December, he is glad that its recent awards are giving it new life.
Film festivals in Detroit, Seattle, and Texas have invited Licisyn to enter the movie, he reports, emboldening him to seek a distributor.
The essential appeal of the movie, Licisyn believes, is that it's a Zeitgeist film - it tells the now story of a generation, and especially those young artists struggling to make a living while honoring the dreams that make living worthwhile.
"When the economy crashed, the jobs affected most were arts jobs," says Licisyn. "The community of indie filmmakers around here is living this life."
So are many others, which is part of the movie's appeal.
"I have a lot of friends who are artists who saw it and said, 'This is me!' " says leading lady Jensen Bucher, who plays Madison, a "starving artist."
In truth, no artist hereabouts is really starving. Many are finding rewarding jobs, and whether it's more challenging for artists today than for other newly minted college graduates is arguable.
In fact, artists may be better equipped to navigate treacherous financial straits than their left-brain counterparts, suggests Carmina Cianciulli, assistant dean for admissions at Temple University's Tyler School of Art.
"The thing artists have developed as part of their education is creative problem-solving, and if they're able to use that skill, they should be able to find employment and support themselves as artists or in a field where they can apply their talents," Cianciulli says. "Art students should feel optimistic. They just have to rely on their own creativity. Some of them don't realize the power they have."
Artists can't just sit back and wait to be discovered, however. "The ones who are finding work grasp the concept that they need to be self-promoters," says Elisa Seeherman, director of career services at the University of the Arts.
Moreover, they need to accept the reality that artists typically hold multiple jobs. Moonlighting is the norm.
It may not be the life they envisioned, Seeherman said, "but they're on their path and pursuing their passion."
If nothing else, No Footing is a product of passion, a true labor of love. The cast and crew all volunteered their time. (The only compensation Bucher received was a gas card.) And the movie was made by artistic people who themselves are examples of the very phenomenon it depicts.
Aspiring filmmaker Licisyn, 27, lives with his parents in Turnersville, N.J., and does freelance video work for a medical publishing company to pay for his car and health insurance and defray his student loans. He put up $7,000 of his own money to bankroll the movie, and spent an additional $1,000 for film-festival entry fees. "If I wanted to live on my own," he says, "I wouldn't be able to make movies."
Aspiring actress Bucher, 26, after a romantic breakup, is also back living with her parents. She took courses in painting and fine arts at Bucks County Community College and acting classes at the Walnut Street Theatre and with casting agent Mike Lemon. Relieved of rent, she's paying off bills with money earned working as a secretary at a Doylestown law firm, where she's allowed to take time for classes and auditions.
Aspiring screenwriter and producer Tommy Avallone, 28, was No Footing's problem-solver. He helped market the test trailer that attracted the first (and only) outside investor, a friend who wrote a check for $3,000. Avallone says his forte is "getting people involved and making sure everything gets done." He lives with his fiancee in Mount Ephraim and provides video content for the websites of five CBS-owned radio stations in the region.
Aspiring movie-score composer Nate Graham, 27, is a musician and songwriter who grew up in Malvern and now shares an apartment with two other roommates in Brooklyn as he tries to "eke out a living" as a musical performer. He has a cameo in No Footing, singing and playing the piano, but more important, he contributed five songs, including "No Footing," which inspired the movie.
Graham wrote "No Footing" in the fall of 2005, during his senior year at the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, after contemplating a dreadful prospect: "I was going to get out of school soon, and I didn't know what I'd be doing for a living, or how I'd be able to make a living doing what I wanted to do, which was composing music."
In the summer of 2006, he was performing the song during an open-mike session at MilkBoy, an Ardmore coffeehouse. In the audience was Licisyn.
When Licisyn heard "No Footing," he was smitten. A couple of months later, while touring the gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, "geekifying" over the work of Charles Willson Peale, he found himself humming the melody. Suddenly, he imagined a young artist, seeking solace and inspiration, wandering the museum with Graham's tune as the soundtrack. It was the germ, and eventually became the pivotal scene, of the movie.
Colleen Rudolf, 29, a sculptor and painter who lives in Fishtown, says she could relate to the movie "because I've struggled with some of the same things."
Rudolf, who grew up in Manhattan and cherishes the sense of community in Philadelphia, earned an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which figures prominently in the movie. Until recently, she had a studio in a warehouse in Kensington, and for more than a year she supplemented her income from sporadic freelance commissions by walking dogs. It was a job she enjoyed, but the unpredictable schedule began affecting her work. "I'd be on a roll, really excited about something, and then I'd have to stop to walk someone else's dogs."
Rudolf has now created a studio in her house, where, in addition to working on experimental art, she draws and paints dog portraits (www.portraitsbycolleen.com).
"In order to make a living, you have to make concessions," Rudolf says. "At the same time, you have to remind yourself every day what's important and what inspires you and make sure you hold on to that stuff. If it starts to slip away, it's really hard to get it back."
Madison's plight is not unique, Rudolf believes, and the movie deals with themes and questions that are universal.
"It's not just artists who go through that. A lot of people out there have that desire for something more. It's a very human thing to want more, to be on this quest for meaning."
If you go
The Mainstage Center for the Arts will show "No Footing" at 8 p.m. on Jan. 29 at the Dennis Flyer Theater at Camden County College, Blackwood, N.J. Tickets are $8 and may be purchased at www.mainstage.org. For more information, visit www.nofooting.com.