I have always had an affinity for art. Notably visual art, such as painting and sculpture, but also the artistry of words, and of movement in dance. True artists make huge sacrifices for their craft, devoting uncountable hours to practice, revision, and the perfection of each element. This is admirable – awe-inspiring, sometimes – and those who make these Herculean efforts become exceptional artists.
However, they aren’t always paid for it. Yes, yes, I know the whole “starving artist” thing is a stereotype, but like so many it has deep roots in reality. For me, it has a personal flavor.
Two of my grandparents were artists all their lives. That’s how they made a living. They were good, too; professional quality work, because of course they were professionals, and they were always, always working. Yet it never seemed quite enough to make ends meet. They made do, of course, like everyone who grew up during the Great Depression and matured during WWII. But the stress and strain of living paycheck to uncertain paycheck drained them. Their talent never wavered, and a passion for art was with them to the end – they were both still working on paintings the day each of them died – but their zest for life had been dampened by hardships. The hardship of being, if not actually starving, certainly struggling artists.
I remember when I was very young, even before I could read (much less write), I was always drawing. Proudly, I told my grandmother I would like to be an artist. She shook her head and said, “No, dear, anything but an artist.” This from a woman whose whole life had been devoted to art. In her admittedly brutal way, she was trying to discourage me from committing to such a difficult (sometimes painful, always uncertain, occasionally transcendent) career path. Art was always part of me, and continues to be, but after many twists and turns it turns out I followed her advice. I am not a starving artist, as she was.
Instead, I am a part-time one. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with what that means, and that it’s okay. However, the reality is most artists are also – some might say primarily – “something else.” My dance teacher works in an office; another fabulous dancer does her 9 to 5 at the DMV. (Oh, the horror!) Most painters I know are either retired, or weekend/vacation artists who paint in their extra time. Writers, naturally, are the same. You can find us hunched over laptops in cafes, typing madly while occasionally remembering to sip our cooling cappuccinos. Or, as I tend to do, sitting in front of computers in the evening, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, maybe some little snacks, waiting for inspiration to flow from our minds into our fingers (ideally the kind that requires no thinking at all, because the story has already taken on its own breath, it’s unexpected life, and is now out of my hands…). All of this outside of typical working hours.
This is why, as I’ve said before, it’s so important to keep that balance between art and day job. Luckily for me, I enjoy my job (at least, most days). It’s hard, and it takes up a lot of time – 40 hour weeks are not something I know much about at this point in my life – but that’s okay, because it’s my career and I am invested in it. Because I have to be, but also because I want to be.
We’ve all gotta pay the bills somehow or other. But that does not make our art any less important, or of lower quality, simply because we artists are part-time. Would my grandparents have been exceptional artists if they had also been, for example, lawyers or secretaries? Perhaps not, but probably so; just maybe at a different point in their lives, or in a different context. Art is in a person’s blood and bone. Nothing – not even 11-hour workdays – can stop it. But I think my grandparents would agree: if you have to choose, it is better to be a part-time artist than a starving one.