The Day Job Conundrum

There are two reasons I am a late night painter and not a full-time painter. Reason number one is simple: money. Reason number two is complex: doing art full-time is brutal on the psyche. For a moment, let's put reason number two in a little box, pandora-style. We'll talk about psychic wounds another time. Let's talk about money instead.

So, if you're a young person, starting out as an artist, you must come to terms with this zen conundrum:

Art takes time and costs money.

I'll give you a minute to take that in. In case you were wondering, Art with a capital A is not free.

Okay, so you get a job.

After a few weeks at the job, you run into this conundrum:

If I work to make money, I have no time to make art. Everyday, I beat myself up for not pursuing my dreams.

After a year of working, you say screw it and quit the job so you can make art. Then you run into this conundrum:

Being poor sucks! I can't afford art supplies and I'm angry all the time.

As an artist, whether you are just starting out, or mid-career, you keep running into something called reality. In this state of reality, you cannot make a luxurious wage as an artist in the United States. A few superstars flout this maxim, but let's assume you're not a superstar. Here are some real ways you can go about getting enough money and time to be an artist:

  1. Inherit a lot of money.
  2. Marry a rich person and be the artsy spouse.
  3. Retire on a pension.
  4. Negotiate to work less than five days a week. (We'll come back to this one.)

Here are some of the ways you thought you could be an artist, but you really can't.

  1. Get an MFA and teach.
    • Why not? Because there are no teaching positions and you will have gargantuan debt.
  2. Work in an ad agency around other artsy people.
    • Why not? Because the vibe is electric, but the work is banal and eats your life.
  3. Live in a barn in the country like Jackson Pollack.
    • Why not? Because he drank himself to death.

Here's my story of learning about reality:

When I graduated from college, I decided to try the type of reality they have in California. I bought a one way ticket to the Golden State from New Haven. Frank, my boyfriend of the time, persuaded me to move to San Francisco, promising beauty and "artists." I really wanted to be artistic and special in some way. I wanted to be famous and have people actually want to talk to me at cocktail parties. There were so many events at my college, Yale, where I felt like a bumpkin with a capital B. I wanted to be whatever is the opposite of bumpkin. Sophisticated. Genius. Worldly. Moneyed.

I didn't want to spend my life working away at a dull job and climbing the corporate ladder. Some of my friends were going to law school and med school; I thought they were insane. Eighty hours a week writing briefs. A hundred hours a week doing rounds. The suits, the debates, the endless memorization, the glass ceiling. Not for me, I thought.

As I packed my bags to move to San Francisco, I told myself that I wouldn't be like the other people I saw, who just became corporate right away. In my mind, I hatched a plan to work three days a week. I could work like crazy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then make art from Thursday through Sunday. That's how I would be different and special.

When I got to San Francisco, Frank drove me from the airport into the city. I looked around frantically for the surfers and the beaches. It was November and pouring rain. The grey sky pressed down on Frank's creaky Corolla as we cruised past row after row of bleak, slammed-together houses. At last, we came around a curve on the highway and I saw skyscrapers, bridges and a dark bay.

"Where are the palm trees?" I asked, as my heart sank in this dystopia.

Frank laughed. "That's Southern California."

"Is Southern California different? It is always this cold in San Francisco?"

"It's colder in the summer." He laughed again. Then he smiled gently at my distress. "You'll get to like it, I promise."

Frank was anxious for me to come to dinner with his parents. I had already met his soft-hearted, goofy sister, so I expected a soft-hearted goofy family. On the way to dinner, Frank told me that I had to be very careful not to touch him while we were at his parents' apartment.

"They're Catholic," he said. "They don't touch. My parents don't display affection to each other."

"Your sister is very warm and kind," I said. "She hugged me."

"She's the black sheep."

I didn't believe any family could be that way, so I just ignored him. Who doesn't hug their spouse? I gave his mother and father a big hug when we got there. His father had recently had a stroke that affected his speech but not his intelligence. He narrowed his eyes and smiled at me, intrigued by this new creature Frank had brought with him.

I didn't even realize I was touching Frank when he moved my hand away from his leg while we were sitting on the couch.

"Stop it," he hissed.

"Huh?" I said, not realizing I had put my hand on his knee. I squeezed his hand and smiled.

"Stop," he said.

I looked around at his family, clueless to their cues. They were quiet. We sat in the living room and tried to have a conversation with Frank, his brother, the black sheep sister, and his mute father, while his mother prepared dinner in the kitchen. We talked about Frank's job; he was a programmer in a big Silicon Valley firm and everyone was pleased with that. He was working on a bug, he said. We all agreed a bug sounded very challenging.

At dinner they asked me what I thought of the city. I described all the places I had gone, my bus rides through the Haight, Pac Heights, Russian Hill, Chinatown, and the Financial District. So far, I was doing okay, except for touching my boyfriend too much in the living room.

Then I told them I was going to work three days a week and paint. Frank's brother,  an accountant who could do math perfectly well, asked me how much I thought I was going to make per hour.

"I have no idea," I said. "$10? I think that should do it."

"Grunt, grunt" said Frank's father, pointing his fork at me shrewdly.   

"I think he's asking what kind of work you do," said Frank's mother.

"I'm an artist. A graphic artist."

"Do you have any interviews lined up?" said the accountant.

"No, I'm just looking in the paper under artist," I said, smiling.

Glances were exchanged.

"Where are you looking for apartments?" asked the black sheep.

"Uh, the Mission," I said. "I'm thinking $600 a month."

"That's a good price," she said. "That's what I pay."

"Yes, we know," said Frank's brother acidly. "You could have gotten something for half that if you had any sense of money."

"My apartment is beautiful," she said, her eyes glittering, "and yours is sterile."

On the ride home, I put my hand on Frank's knee and vowed to prove I could work as I pleased.

I believed my three-day-a-week plan was possible for the first twelve days I spent in California. I believed it right up to the point where I tried to get a job as a graphic designer with my two-color brochures I'd done in New Haven. One Art Director said my portfolio looked "gutless." Finally, I walked into a copy shop downtown and got a job laying out flyers for $10 an hour. The copy shop made me take a personality test, which revealed that I would always put family before work. Since I had just moved 3000 miles from my family, I scoffed at this paper psychiatry. I was a big city girl, I told myself.

When my first paycheck arrived, I was forced to do the math that Frank's brother had done in his head at the dinner table. Working three days a week, I could make $600 a month. The cheapest apartment I could find was $425 a month. My rent would therefore be two-thirds of my income. Gulp. I looked at the paycheck and felt the rigid embrace of reality squeeze me. $600 was not enough. I did need to eat, have a phone, and pay for health insurance, rental insurance, and my student loan.

Not only could I not afford to work three days a week, but more to the point, no one wanted to hire a worker for three days a week. They all wanted someone for five days. And, furthermore, the only place that wanted me was the copy shop.

Like many a fool before me, I took the job and told myself it would just be for a little while, until I got something better.

Frank was impressed that I got a job within 10 days of moving to California. I was making as much as his roommate, who was a paralegal. Frank, however, was in a whole different class; he was making $38K a year straight out of college. (This was 1990, when about six people knew what email was and there was no Internet). To us $10 an hour people, Frank was making the equivalent of six figures. Frank, however, was an excruciatingly exact person with numbers, which I'm sure made him a fantastic programmer. I knew our relationship was doomed when he came home from grocery shopping and told me I owed him thirteen dollars and eleven cents. I gave him fourteen dollars and, to my surprise, he went into his change purse and counted out change. I looked at the 89 cents in my hand and thought, "Who does this?" A man whose family does not hug, apparently. When I moved into my own apartment, I broke up with Frank.

San Francisco was hard at first. I took the bus to work. The rain was constant. My paychecks were small. My room had a window that looked out on a brick wall. My roommate's boyfriend left hair clippings all over the bathroom and declined to do any dishes. One night my roommate reached into his pants and began scratching vigorously.

"Do you itch?" he said.

"Uh, no."

"I itch," he said, flipping the cable to MTV.

"Maybe you should go to the doctor," I said. "Wait, don't turn the channel, that's Madonna."

Later in the week, he came back with a bottle of something called Quell.

"I got scabies from my boyfriend," he explained. "He had a fling in Baltimore. I hope you don't get it too."

"Thanks for thinking of me."

During this time I was tormented by many thoughts. The first was that I had done terribly wrong by Frank, a sincere, good-hearted man who probably hated me now. The second was that I was lonely. The third was that I was not doing a damn thing that was artistic. The people at work were fun, for sure, and they taught me how to use the color copier to make a free monthly bus pass, but the work was hardly inspiring. We made postcards, flyers, and resumes. The pressman was always getting high and the counter guy was hell-bent on having as much unprotected sex as possible so he could die young and beautiful.

"I met up with my Latino lover last night," he said, smiling.

"Did you use a condom?"

"Nope," he said. "Yum."

He was dead in two years, like many others I knew. Part of the city was beset with plague and part was in no danger at all. The art world was half AIDS-themed rallies for justice and half regular old California plein-air art with barns and vineyards and royal palms. The city was cheap in 1990, and alive with artists of all kinds. All over the Mission and the warehouse district were dance studios, theaters, cultural centers, art studios. I wanted to become an artist.

The first artistic thing I did was sign up for writing classes at UC Berkeley Extension. I rode the BART train for 40 minutes across the bay, which seemed like going to another state. From downtown, I walked uphill for a mile, past architectural disasters from the 70's and people in desperate need of grooming. Berkeley was industrial, depressing, and filled with threadbare hippies hanging around the BART with their guitars and joints.

"This is the famous Cal?" I thought as I stepped over a homeless person on my way into the building.

The first thing I noticed about the class was that I couldn't make myself write much. I left every class inspired, pumped even, but nothing happened at home. There were several things going on, which every writer or artist with a full-time job and a girlfriend/boyfriend/family can attest to.

  1. I was tired after working all day. I said, "I'll do it tomorrow."
  2. I wanted to spend time with the person I was dating. I felt guilty saying "I'm going to write tonight so I don't want to see you."
  3. I didn't know what to write about because everything came out sounding weird when I put it on paper.

So I'm no Annie Proulx. I remember reading where she blew off her friends during some major holiday and just wrote like hell in a room all weekend. Yep, not me. I was like a hundred thousand other young people who set out thinking they could be an artist while working. I got nothing done and beat myself up. "Why didn't you write more, fool? You're going to die unknown, working at copy shop."

In the midst of this paralysis, another "artistic" thing happened. I fell for a woman. She was tall and blond, with John Lennon round glasses. She worked at the copy shop. We all went out for the holiday party and she set an entire pack of matches on fire and breathed all the smoke up her nose.

"Wow," I thought, watching her face in the flames, "who is that woman?"

When I found out she was a painting student at San Francisco Art Institute, I was further enamored. A real artist! I hit on her until she reluctantly accepted me. She suspected, correctly, it turned out later, that I was not really a lesbian.

Because we were so young, we had nothing to do except hang out. She needed to paint for her classes, and being in love, I sat and watched her. At first, I passed the hours doing nothing, then I realized that I could simply paint with her. Cecily could knock out a great painting each time and, being competitive, I wished to rise to her level. We each had a little watercolor kit that we would carry around and paint with everywhere.

Cecily came from a type of family that I had never seen before: educated, worldly California artists. I had seen plenty of Southern and New England families headed by doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, and pastors, but I had never met a family of painters before. Her parents both taught at universities, and they had a wide circle of painter friends and patrons. Her mother's idea of an outing was to attend a Thiebaud retrospective. They took me to graduation at the San Francisco Art Institute, where everyone was admiring a prizewinning mobile of chicken bones. There was art all over Mrs. Martin's house in Sacramento, strewn about as casually as other people would have family photos, vases, or samplers.

I mention this because it's a crucial part of being an artist: being surrounded by artists and art-making places, and the love of looking at and talking about art. Cecily's family did all these things as easily as they breathed. To me, this was at once inspirational and deeply jarring; I found myself questioning whether I knew anything about anything. For example, I grew up in a dry county in Tennessee. There wasn't even wine at the restaurants. There were no art galleries, except if you drove to Atlanta. Driving to Atlanta was something one did once or twice a year, to find out what the social climbers were up to.

In my hometown, everyone I knew had a 9-5 job. Nobody had part-time assistant professorships in art. Life was equally contained in New Haven; everyone was working 80-100 hours a week so they could humble brag about the exhaustion of making partner. The whole east coast seemed to follow a prescribed pattern: If you were from a certain middle-class type of family, and wanted to climb into the upper classes, you went to a big-name private college and then you got a job doing something respectable. You wore your college sweatshirt proudly. You did a clerkship, you bought a house, you had kids, you wrote to the alumni newsletter about how you'd been promoted to Vice President of Sales for the Eastern Region.

Cecily's family wasn't playing this game. Cecily's mother was unimpressed by Yale. She didn't worry that I was not a man. She had no interest in my father's job or religion.

What did the Martins care about? They cared about going to a beautiful place to have an exquisite dinner and talk about or look at great art. They cared about driving up the coast to a little cottage to paint. They cared about being free do to whatever the hell they wanted to do, thank you and please leave them alone.

I write this to you, young aspiring artist, who might be coming from a small town in the South or the Midwest, or maybe coming from a working-class background. A small town is a wonderful place, filled with many loving families knit together in the path of life. The sweetness of small-town life, with slow Sunday afternoons after church and an uplifting high-school drama production of Our Town, simply cannot be replicated in the city.    

However, the stuff that nurtures art—painters, art professors, studios, galleries, and collectors with thousands of dollars—these things do not exist in a small town. To be an artist, you might be forced to make your way to the East Coast, the West Coast, or at least Chicago, and there you will discover a thing called culture shock. You will find you know absolutely nothing about anything at all. And you will have to get a job and an apartment and, on top of that, try to be an artist in a place where it seems that everyone else already knows how to be successful.

This was my fate when I arrived in California. I soldiered on in my new environment, trying to understand why people voted for a man as physically unattractive as Nader. I tried yoga and witchcraft. I got my chart read. I drank Merlot.

In the beginning, I took writing and painting classes sporadically, getting nowhere. I kept trying to take a week off here and there to make a lot of art. Let me tell you: That does not work. You cannot write or paint anything out of the blue and alone. You need a nurturing, steady environment.

After three years of working a lot, my lucky day came when a company offered me a salaried job. As I sat in the interview, I thought about Frank's brother, laughing at me when I said I would work part time. Screwing up my courage, I asked if I could work four days a week. Since it was California, they said, sure whatever, dude, and bingo, I had one day a week to paint.

You may laugh at that, but let me ask you: do you have one day a week to paint? I read somewhere that only 10% of art school graduates are working artists. Why is that? Well, the other 90% are probably working all the time to pay their rent and are too tired to make art when they get home. Or they are broke because they work at the art store and can't afford an apartment. Squeezed if you do and crushed if you don't.

For ten years, I worked four days a week. On Friday afternoons I went out painting plein air in San Francisco. Did I appreciate the catbird seat I was in: an unmarried woman with low debt and lots of free time to paint in a beautiful city? No, of course not. I beat myself up constantly. I compared my part-time work to everyone I knew: my classmates who were now lawyers and doctors. My co-workers with fancier titles. Everyone seemed to be moving up the ladder, except me, the part-time painter.

I wish I could have told my younger self that working four days a week was a genius thing to do, and that I should hold steady and enjoy what I have. After all, a hundred years earlier, I would have been squashed into a corset, nursing five kids, and scrubbing clothes on a washboard. During the 1906 earthquake, the San Francisco police rounded up unmarried women survivors to keep them from corrupting the local men. Ninety years later, I sat in the park, painting watercolors on my day off.

So this is my advice on how to solve the equation of art = time + money. Try to negotiate a day job that's only four days a week. If that sounds like something only the privileged can do, then consider any strategy that will buy you an hour a week for yourself. As an artist, after all, you can only tolerate so much reality.