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