What Makes for a Good Day Job as an Artist?

As an artist, is it better to earn your living in a field related to your creative work? Unrelated to your creative work? Solely through your creative work?

In our conversations with artists, we’ve asked: What’s the best/worst day job you’ve ever had? Artists’ answers often provide insight to the conundrum of how to make money while thriving as an artist.

Among some of the “bests” artists have cited are jobs with some connection to their artistic practice. Elizabeth Hughey, a poet, said that her best day job was “traveling to International Book Fairs (Frankfurt, London) to sell the rights to translate books into different languages.” Similarly, Tara L. Masih said that working for Bedford Books taught her “all the skills that helped me branch out as a freelancer and then develop and edit (The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction).”

On the other hand, working in a related field has its pitfalls, possibly draining creative energy best reserved for the art. Photographer Paris Visone counts working as a wedding photographer as tied for worst with selling sausages (her tongue, I would guess, only partially embedded in her cheek).

Recently, I was discussing local children’s book creators with a librarian at a Cambridge Public Library, and during our discussion, I handed her a book I wanted to check out: 39 Uses for a Friend, which is illustrated by Rebecca Doughty (Painting Finalist ’10). Rebecca, it turned out, was not only local – she was, at that moment, behind the library counter. I learned that Rebecca works part-time as a librarian for the Cambridge Public Library system. She told me that she was no longer creating children’s books, at least for now. Why did she choose library work over creating children’s books – work more closely related to her painting?

“Over the years I’ve had many different kinds of jobs to support my artwork,” Rebecca said in a subsequent email exchange, “and always preferred those I didn’t bring home with me at the end of the day. It was by chance that I illustrated my first children’s book, and then being in the publishing world took on a life of its own. Eventually it was too difficult to have two creative lives, both self-generated, and both requiring all my energy. There was also the uncertainty of working contract to contract. So I had to make a choice, and painting came first. For me, life is happier when commerce isn’t involved in the making of things, and the studio remains, as much as possible, a free zone. I also missed the social aspect of going to a job outside the studio, and was lucky to find part-time work at the Cambridge Public Library. Now I work in a lively, not-for-profit place surrounded by books. It’s possible that I’ll make a book again someday, but, for now, this is simpler, and saner.”

Of course, unrelated work is sometimes too unrelated, or just plain stultifying, exhausting, or otherwise soul-crushing. Some of the “worst” jobs: picking Styrofoam peanuts out of fields of mud (William Pierce), stamping cigarette cartons (Scott Tulay), or detasseling corn (Kathleen Volp).

Often, making money solely through artistic work is seen as the ultimate goal, but this can have its own challenges, such as the potential for work to be shaped by commercial necessities or the sheer difficulty of making ends meet.

Perhaps writer Michael Downing put it best: “Writing is definitely the best/worst day job I’ve ever had.”

So, what day job has worked for you (or, what hasn’t)? What do you think makes for a good day job as an artist?

Read about the best and worst day jobs artists have discussed on ArtSake.

Image: Rebecca Doughty, DRAG (2009), acrylic on wood, 9×8 in.

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