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So Do You Have A Day Job? – An Artist’s Leap of Faith

January 20, 2013

“So do you have a day job?”

I was recently asked this question. It’s a common question for artists to hear. The subtext could be any number of things, perhaps ‘If you’re full time, then why haven’t I ever heard of you?’ Or ‘How can an adult with children and a mortgage take time away from real life to do this?’ Or perhaps ‘I want to paint, but I’m afraid I’ll fail.’ Or maybe even ‘I hate you for doing what I have always wanted to do.’

Whatever the subtext, and no matter how many times I hear the question, it still shocks my system a little. Perhaps it’s because I disagree with the idea that artwork is better if it’s made by a full-time artist. I have many friends that teach or have professional careers in addition to their art, who make stunning pieces I would be proud to call my own.

But the stigma remains. And indeed, one of my earliest career goals was to make art my living. And so, with some trepidation for not knowing which of the subtexts I’m giving answer to, I respond, “Nope. I don’t have a day job. This is what I do.”

Gary Ernest Smith

I recently had an opportunity to visit with a hero of mine, Gary Ernest Smith, at Authentique Gallery in St. George.

This weekend, I was reminded of the miracles of an art career by a long-time hero of mine, Gary Ernest Smith. Gary is known for his scenes of farms, fields, and farmers. His work is a marvelous blend of modern composition and surface, as if Maynard Dixon were painting in the 21st century. Gary’s paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are sought after by collectors far and wide.

But it wasn’t always this way. Gary reminded me of the time when he had two children, a third on the way, and thirty cents to his name. He barely had enough money for gas to get him around town to shop his artwork from place to place. How did he have the fortitude to continue on under those circumstances, rather than run back to the comforts of a traditional job? Gary’s philosophy is to believe there are no other options aside from the desired career. He persisted, hustled, and things began falling into place. And this type of thing has happened to him repeatedly throughout his career. “You have to remember,” says Gary “where you were right before results start to happen.” Clearly his belief in a higher power is a driving force behind his faith in himself and in his artwork.

And that made me think about my own story.

During the first months of my career, one artist counseled me, “You’ve got to send your wife to work. That’s the only way you can make it.” Well, frankly, we tried for a few weeks. Amy worked temp jobs, but nothing seemed to stick. We lived in a little basement apartment and kept our expenses very low. And so, with my first large paycheck from the sale of a painting (it was $8000, but it felt like $200,000 to me) we brought Amy home. Not that she doesn’t work, mind you. It’s more than a full time job trying to keep our current business organized, and Amy does a marvelous job.

Fugitive Art Center studio window

The outside window of my old studio space in downtown Nashville.

In 2001, I decided to escape various pressures in the local art world to paint certain things, to do things a certain way, and to become known as a by-default religious artist. (“How could you take such an artist seriously, if he has only lived and worked in Utah County?” some people asked.) So we decided to move to Tennessee and keep our expenses low by staying with Amy’s folks for a year or two. The day before we left Utah, we awoke to the horrifying news that terrorists had flown airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. We arrived in Tennessee with no connections in the art world there, at a time when everyone was on the edge of their nerves. No one wanted to spend money. It looked like we were on the verge of war with Iraq. I rented a studio space in downtown Nashville. It was a mildewy building with substandard climate control. There were days in the winter when I was too cold to paint, and I just curled up on my junk couch and slept beneath a blanket. But finally, after seven months there, I had enough work to put up an art show. A friend of Amy’s parents was a builder. He offered to host an art show in one of his fabulous modern loft condos downtown. We set up the show and invited everyone we could think of. The turnout was great! The sales were zero. Meanwhile, our bank account was dwindling towards empty. Days passed, and an email came down through the Visual Arts Alliance of Nashville about a new gallery opening in Franklin, Tennessee. I invited the gallery owner to come see my show (other galleries had declined my invitation.) She came over, and we decided to take the whole show over to her new gallery. An opening reception came and went. Still no sales. One client was going to buy a painting until his wife discovered I was LDS and put an end to his purchase. Finally, when, from my perspective things were as low as they could be, a lady who had recently won the lottery came in and purchased one of my large pieces. We were back in business! And things started to grow from there.

Was that the last of my challenges? Of course not. Two years later, we moved back to Utah into the house we had purchase from my parents. I remember going to buy groceries for the first time (we had been living with Amy’s parents for two years and had benefited from their generosity in many ways, including groceries.) I felt sick to my stomach. How was I going to afford groceries for our growing family on top of the expenses of paying a mortgage and utilities? Well, with hard work and faith, things started to happen. Sales in Tennessee plus sales in Utah made it possible. Just like Gary says, after you do all you can do, miracles happen.

“But what about all those people that had to help you out along the way?” you might ask. Yes, Amy’s parents were generous to host us for two years. My parents gave us a great deal on their old house. My brother-in-law bought me a meal at a Village Inn once because I wouldn’t order anything on that “expensive” menu. Perhaps people even bought paintings out of pity. In the end, though, I dare say we have had to rely on the help of others less than many who have had traditional jobs, who, because of layoffs or transfers have had moments when they too needed help. My point here is not to boast, but rather to encourage those who are entertaining the thought of striking out on their own.

So, three things for you and me:
1. Reexamine your subtext when you ask “Do you do it full time?”
2. Remember where we were before the miracles happened.
3. Encourage those around us in their leaps of faith.

Thanks, Gary, for reminding me.

Kirk

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2013 5:52 pm

    Thanks for writing this Kirk.. so interesting to see how others like yourself make your way as a full-time artist through the world. I’m also an LDS artist, father of 5 and with a stay-at-home spouse. I don’t do art full-time, but my path is sort of similar. I’ve gone through my career (I’m 42) always trying to figure out how to spend more time painting, but not quite ready to totally leave security of other work. We did actually try it once, for about a 9 month period back when we only had 1 child and no mortgage.. It was a challenging time of learning and trying to figure out who I was as an artist. I’m really glad we took that leap (and we ended living in my parents house while they served a mission) – glad because I learned so much about what kind of artist I wanted to be.

    My path as led me to gain other skills and interests – I began teaching and learned to program and build websites.. and that (eventually) led me to go out on my own full-time as a web developer. So for the past 5 years I’ve worked from home mostly building websites, but it does give me the freedom to work on my art more than I had before.

    I’m always amazed at how generous the Lord is.. he blesses us when we keep his laws, and listen to his promptings.

  2. January 20, 2013 8:10 pm

    I liked this article, thanks for your honesty. Plus your wife sounds like a huge factor in holding things together! Shout out to all the spouses!

  3. January 20, 2013 9:56 pm

    Awesome words of encouragement Kirk! I love hearing your story and Gary’s too! You are a true inspriation – to quit all my jobs – except being a mom and a painter!

  4. Jan Harris permalink
    January 21, 2013 6:41 am

    Not an artist but a spouse….loved the article! Sometimes I have felt very isolated in our situation. Thanks for sharing your feelings.

  5. January 21, 2013 9:30 am

    Exactly. And from personal experience, I would add “tithing is income insurance.” Mal 3:10

  6. Josie Park permalink
    January 21, 2013 12:02 pm

    So interesting. My husband (Gary W Roberts) is a full time artist. He gave up his day job quie late in life to persue his passion. I became the bread winner to support him and this way, he was able to concentrate on his art without worrying about feeding the family. Luckily our kids are grown and fof our hands. Now after more than 5 years, we can confidently say…it has been worth it. It just takes time and patience and a ‘never give up’ attitude.

  7. January 21, 2013 2:49 pm

    Loved this post. Although we are not in exactly the same boat, we have seen many miracles as my husband has worked his way to find ways to support us while doing something with his passion for literature and librarianship. We’ve benefited from much help along the way and have seen the hand of the Lord guide us through the decisions we needed to make. Thanks for the great post.

  8. Kathy Clement Cieslewicz permalink
    January 21, 2013 2:54 pm

    “They don’t call it artWORK for nothing.” Kathy Clement Cieslewicz
    You are an amazing person. You know I love ya and your art and your family. Keep up the great WORK!

  9. January 21, 2013 3:46 pm

    I will never forget on our wedding day that a close relative asked me what my new husband was going to do for a “real” job to support our new family. I proudly answered he is a artist, he will be doing that to support our family.

    Howard has always been able to work as an artist since then, sometimes in the video game industry, sometimes illustrating for different projects, and now he gets to do a little more of exactly what he wants to do as an artist.

    It has been an interesting journey and we feel like that are many more unknowns ahead of us. But in the end, my husband has provided a wonderful life for our family and the payoff is that he has been able to create through it all. It does require a great dal of faith, but we have been richly blessed, I wouldn’t have it any other way….

  10. alice hemming permalink
    January 21, 2013 8:16 pm

    We are grateful to be beneficiaries of your enormous talent and your depth as a human being. Cheers from your Maryland fan club.
    Alice & Val Hemming

  11. January 22, 2013 10:59 am

    Thank you for this article Kirk! I am where you were in 2001 with a small family and a passion for painting, but very little money. I need to hear stories like this to help encourage me to have faith and keep pursuing my dreams. I, like you, have had to rely on the kindness of others and little miracles along the way to keep me afloat. Thanks again for your empowering story.

  12. January 25, 2013 4:40 pm

    So timely for where my husband and I are headed right now. He’s starting a software consulting company, and it’s like jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down. ;o) Faith, indeed.

    You know, it’s time our culture let go of the stigma against non-corporate, non-employee jobs. As a stay-at-home mom (who homeschools, even), there are still those who look down on me because I don’t have a “real job”. A job where my time is bought & paid for by someone else in a corporate structure. With so many artisans and micro-businesses, you’d think that the “real job” song and dance would have disappeared by now. Hmmmmm.

  13. January 30, 2013 11:33 am

    thanks for that article Kirk, after 12 years of almost making it as an artist, I still think its worth it.

  14. Felicia Barnes permalink
    February 2, 2013 8:06 am

    Thank you. I check your blog at least once a week. You don’t post often, but when you do I always find it is worth reading.

  15. mariahcw permalink
    February 11, 2013 1:42 am

    Loved this post as an artist-musician. Can I buy a print of the angel with the harp?

  16. MDearest permalink
    February 18, 2013 11:46 pm

    Lurker here. Thanks for writing this encouraging post. I just wanted to share your Gary Ernest Smith hero worship. I can look at his work in a local gallery whenever I need a shot of inspiration. (I wish you had a gallery here too.) The last time I was in the Manhattan temple, I was examining the original artwork, and they have one by GES, an image of the First Vision. At that time it was hanging in an office area. The temple president had no idea what he had. I don’t know if it’s still there or if someone has relocated that treasure.

  17. April 1, 2013 7:45 pm

    My husband is asked this all the time, for years. I am going to send this to him, he will sure relate.

  18. May 7, 2013 9:16 am

    I just found your wonderful blog. Your art is awesome and you are inspiring. Your insights have sparked my desire to find balance in my life and make more time for my art. Cudos!

  19. Emilie Campbell permalink
    July 10, 2013 12:15 am

    Your story is so similar to our own and to so many others like us. Loved reading this.

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