“Starving artist” is a common trope for a reason; we’re often starving. And I think that people get pretty squeamish when talking about money, especially artists because we’re afraid of fitting that stereotype. I’ve certainly had my run-ins with bank overdraft fees, so I get it. My goal with this post is to share a little of my personal story about how I’ve actually made things work as an artist. So let’s keep it real: I have no idea what I’m doing and I’ve managed to do it since 2013.
Maybe I’ll share the ins and outs of my story in a chronological fashion another time. But for the purpose of this post I’m just going to share five specific realizations and strategies I’ve used since then that have helped me make things work.
Think about work/trade living situations.
When I first decided it was time to get serious about art, I couldn’t pay rent. Which, is kind of a problem. But something people don’t talk about very much is that rent isn’t the hard and fast rule that people think it is.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This isn’t about doing things the easy way or getting out of anything. It’s about allocating your resources and deciding how you want to spend your time. Once you start looking down this road, you’ll find artist residencies, work/trade living situations, jobs that include housing, van life, etc.
You’ll have to put yourself out there and be a little aggressive sometimes. I’ve lived in some wild situations, and since I own virtually nothing, it’s been easy to go from opportunity to opportunity as they’ve presented themselves.
Now I know that we aren’t all that mobile, and we don’t all want to move that much. That’s okay. All I’m saying is if you’re at a crossroads, consider and investigate other ways of living. It can be either a short-term plan, or a long-term strategy.
One of my best friends found an incredible living situation where she feeds horses in exchange for a beautiful apartment. I’ve found multiple jobs now that included housing for part-time work, leaving me free the rest of the time to focus on my art. And I know many, many artists who have lived for months or years in residency programs or fellowships.
Again, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This isn’t about going out and looking for handouts or favors. It’s about opening yourself up to another way to solve the problem of a living situation. There are alternatives out there if you’re interested, and it might be a life changing, awesome thing to investigate it.
A great place to start if you’re interested in this is: www.artistcommunities.org
It’s a (reasonably) comprehensive list of the residencies and fellowships available to artists around the world. I have found many opportunities through this site, including a job that lasted two years.
Cut way down on expenses.
This one is obvious. It sucks, but it’s obvious.
It’ll look different for everyone. For me, it’s looked like avoiding lots of debt.
Over the past five years I have identified and paired down all my needs to a specific dollar amount. I know exactly how much I need each month to survive, and how much I need to thrive. And I’ve been real with myself about what my needs are and what I can and can’t do without.
To be clear: not much gets under my skin. I also have no pets, kids, school loans, car loans, or cell-phone contracts. Not everyone is that untethered, nor should they be. My needs are very simple and most of what I like in life is free or very cheap.
Not everyone will be as low maintenance as I am. Some people will be lower. Either is totally fine. Whatever the case, I think if you want to pursue a creative life, you may need to make peace with some budget cuts at some point. And you’ll probably need to get creative with your finances too.
There are billions of resources out there on how to handle your money better, this isn’t one of them. It’s just my personal experience that budgeting well opens up a lot of doors.
Don’t say “no” very often.
I think one of the things that’s propelled my life more than anything is that I just don’t say no very often. If you give me a book, I’ll read it. If you invite me to a seminar, I’ll be there. I open far more doors than I close, and I have always been amazed at what happens to people when they say yes more often.
Don’t get me wrong. Some things are just stupid and you don’t have to invite every moron with a creative idea into your life. “No” is an awesome word and I love to shut the door on dumb ideas. But, if you’re not sure about something, just try it out.
From my experience, our lives are mostly shaped by conversations with other people. So don’t just hole up at your desk. When you see a door that looks interesting, open it. You can always close it later if the room turns out to be full of idiots.
Definitely closely related to the last idea, but in my mind it’s different. From what I can tell, the world belongs to people who just show up. I struggle with this one a lot, but I’m definitely getting better.
When you’re having a conversation with someone about your art, be there. Have answers, have prices, have a plan. Make it easy for people to interact with you and get shit done with you. Half the time that you end up employed it will be because people just like dealing with you. The quality of your art matters, but if you’re an incredible artist who sucks to talk to, people won’t hire you.
So show up fully, be clear, and don’t flake out. If you say you’ll do something, even if it’s small, do it. Communicate clearly and ahead of time if you need to change the plan. Be consistent. Be easy to deal with. Just show up and be as tangible as possible when talking art and business. It matters.
Don’t be bothered by doing other work.
This has been a huge one for me. When I set out to be an artist, I envisioned making all my money with my brushes.
But about three years in, I realized that I don’t actually like making art full-time. I have a cap, about 25 hours a week of painting and I’m good. After that, it becomes a grind and I begin to resent the thing I love most. Rather than let that set in and experience burnout, I began experimenting with other jobs that interest me and bring home the bacon.
Maybe you want to paint full-time and make all your cash with art. Hell yeah! You do you boo.
But I think it’s important to recognize that if you start to get burned out, or you’re like me and you realize that you want to diversify your time a bit more, that it’s not a failure or a letdown. Being an artist looks like a lot of different things. Some people make money with it, some people don’t. And some people, like me, make most of their money with it, but not all.
Once I opened that door in my life and began to peek through, I grew a lot as a person. I became a yoga teacher, directed an artist’s residency, started directing community art programs, and found myself pursuing whole new avenues in outdoor education (one of my big interests). Basically for me, when I was trying to make art my only gig, I was stifling myself.
Everyone’s different, but I just wanted to throw this one out there. It’s not a failure to not be a full-time artist. It’s not a failure to make sick art and work a “normal job.”
When I was directing an artist’s residency, I noticed that so many of the artists seemed to be ashamed that they weren’t full-time artists. And I get it, from the outside, it isn’t obvious that an art career can exist in varying degrees. It looks like an all or nothing pursuit, and if you’re not in the “all” camp, then you’re probably nothing. But that’s just not the case.
So for me, a huge part of my journey has been recalibrating my expectations and making peace with what I actually want. If your art starts to feel like a boundary, break that shit up and try adding something new to the mix. You might be the world’s raddest ski instructor, but you’d never know it if you spent all your time drawing. Your life is bigger than your art. Let yourself grow in whatever direction piques your interest and trust yourself to continue creating along the way.
Alright, there they are, five strategies that have helped make my life work. None of these are gospel, they’re just what’s worked for me so far. Use or discard as you need. It’s a hard thing to create a life doing what you want, and sometimes it might not go smoothly. Don’t be too afraid to biff it sometimes too.