It takes a while to get the end of the world. Helen Glazer would know.
Three years ago, Glazer left her cozy, three-bedroom home in the suburbs of Baltimore for the frigid climes of McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The trip took nearly two days and involved stops in Dallas, Sydney, and Christchurch, New Zealand.
When she finally flew into Antarctica on a military transport plane, dressed head-to-toe in special cold-weather gear, she was exhausted but thrilled. “I was just like, ‘I can’t believe I finally got here!’ I just put so much into this,” she says.
Glazer was part of the National Science Foundation’s Artists & Writers Program, which sends a handful of artists, illustrators, filmmakers, writers, and musicians to Antarctica each year for exploration and creative work. She lived out of a research base for nearly two months, photographing ice and rock formations while learning things she’d never before thought about, such as how to tell when ice is too thin to walk on and how to set up a tent in freezing weather conditions. It was an experience that shaped her profoundly. “I had no idea what I was getting into, really, but it was even better and richer than I had expected,” she says.
Glazer’s feelings echo those of so many creatives who have experienced life off the beaten path: It can be a hassle, but the rewards often outweigh the inconveniences.
For wildlife artist Deborah Ross, who has spent years bouncing between New York City and Africa, the allure of living and working in remote locales is strong. Much of her work has been based in Madagascar, where she’s worked on a variety of projects, including illustrations of lemurs and workshops for students. She estimates she’s been there at least six times over the past few years, and will spend another four months there in January. The only part she dislikes is the travel itself – it takes about 20 hours in the air, and another eight to 10 hours driving before she gets where she needs to go. “Dramamine is a wonderful drug,” she jokes.
From a creative perspective, Ross feels the wildlife is unbeatable. She describes it as a sort of “candy land” full of friendly animals and incredible insects. The moths are her favorite – there are bright purple ones, huge golden ones, and tiny spotted ones that she says look like Kandinsky paintings. But what she also loves about spending time in Madagascar is that it allows her to use all of her skills. “When I first went there, I was amazed that it was somewhere that used everything I had. I had to use my wits, my talent, my humor, my people skills. I found the country just delighted me,” she says.
That’s not to say her experiences have always been easy. Ross remembers being asked to do an illustration for a river cruise. She didn’t realize it was mandatory to paddle, or that she would have to dig a hole anytime she needed to go to the bathroom. It was all so labor intensive, and she was so consumed by the whole process that she didn’t even have time to paint, which was the whole reason she was there. “It was ridiculous,” she says.
One of the major things that have changed over the years is her ability to work efficiently. Most of that is a result of technology. When Ross first began going to Madagascar in the late ’90s, it was a hassle just to make a phone call or send an email. She recalls the process of working with the German Primate Society on an article – she would use someone’s computer to write out a message, and then the person would have to drive into town to find a dial-up connection so the message could be sent.
Nowadays, she doesn’t have to worry about any of that. Her post at Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio, in the northeastern rain forests of Madagascar, has hot showers, fresh sheets, and – most important – high-speed Wi-Fi. “I just hook up my computer and scanner and I can do tons of work,” she says.
For Glazer, living and working in Antarctica also proved to be a relatively smooth adjustment. She describes life at the research station to be somewhat like college – she had a roommate and ate in the shared cafeteria. While the internet service was somewhat limited, she was able to start a blog to keep in touch with people. And she was actually able to make local calls to the U.S., as the line was routed through Denver. “I would talk to my husband once a week on the phone, which was nice,” she says.
The creative benefits of working in Antarctica exceeded Glazer’s expectations. It wasn’t just a flat, white landscape, as she initially imagined it would be. In having the freedom to learn the land and live in a vastly unexplored territory, Glazer found all sorts of geological structures and patterns that blew her mind. She remembers, for instance, walking around a permanently frozen lake where the ice was evaporating and refreezing into an array of intricately etched designs.
“I still don’t know if anyone else has photographed those things, but I was fascinated by all of it,” she says. Upon her return, Glazer recapped her experience through more than 30 framed photographs and several sculptures in a solo exhibition called “Walking in Antarctica” at Goucher College. While she was ultimately happy to return to her family and friends in Maryland, and the creature comforts that came with it, the experience of living and working there continues to stay with her three years on. In fact, she’d like to go back. “I have my feelers out to see if there’s a way to do it,” she says.
While Madagascar and Antarctica are extreme places to live and work, there are creatives all over the world able to pursue their craft in regions outside of well-trodden locales. The explosion of technology has been instrumental in making the world much smaller than it once was, and it has fostered a culture of remote workers that continues to grow. Right now, more than two-thirds of people around the world work away from the office at least once a week, according to a recent survey by Switzerland-based serviced office provider IWG.
The trend has also been a boon for freelance workers. By 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce is expected to be freelance, according to a 2017 report by freelance marketplace Upwork. The beauty of it is that much of that growth is by choice – 63 percent of those surveyed by Upwork said they started freelancing by choice, not necessity, up from 53 percent since 2014.
For people like visual designer Vasjen Katro, the ability to work remotely has opened up many opportunities. Katro, 29, lives and works in his native Albania but does 98 percent of his business all over the world. With clients such as Adobe, Apple, Facebook, and Converse, he’s often juggling multiple gigs spread over multiple time zones. That sometimes means conference call at 3 a.m. “To my parents, what I’m doing sounds completely weird,” he says. “For me, it works perfectly and it’s why I love the internet.”
Katro, who lives in the capital city of Tirana with his girlfriend and their dog, finds working with international clients not only creatively inspiring but also financially rewarding. He generally earns higher rates than he would if he were to work only with local clients. And he’s able to save more than he would in many other places: In a recent cost-of-living ranking of 100 cities in Europe, Tirana came in at No. 86, while more established design hubs such as Geneva, London, Oslo, and Berlin were in the top 10 of cities with the highest cost of living.
Aside from the late-night conference calls, much of Katro’s day-to-day life is the way it would be in any other city. He starts his day with a coffee and a 10-minute trip to his studio, where he works on client assignments and “Baugasm,” a personal passion project that involves creating a poster a day and showcasing each one on Instagram. He also makes it his business to travel often for conferences and his own pleasure – recent trips include the U.S., Canada, Austria, and Italy.
“[Travel] is what keeps me alive,” he says. “Albania is a small country. I wouldn’t stay here more than two months without going somewhere.”
While he has no immediate plans to leave permanently, he says he’d like to live somewhere else for a while – not only for a change of pace, but for a bit of added convenience. “I would love to just order something from Amazon and get it the next day,” he says with a laugh.