By 1883, Paul Gauguin had quit his job as a stockbroker and had left his wife and children in order to pursue a career as an artist. Gauguin’s avant-garde work was not a money magnet, hence soon enough, he was faced with the prospect of finding a day job. The search for a decent wage and low cost of living took Gauguin to Panama, where he would work as a laborer on the disastrous French effort at constructing the canal, for $4 dollars a day (about $100 a day in 2015 money).
Making a living as an artist is difficult, and most artists need day jobs to supplement their income. In order to gain perspective on this long tradition, I interviewed three Atlanta artists, Romy Aura Maloon, Brendan Carroll, and Heather Greenway, about their thoughts and experiences with having to work a second job (any artist will tell you their first job is always art) in order to make ends meet. And for clarification, I’m of the opinion that an artist is something you are on the inside; it is who you are, not what you do or how you make your money.
Maloon works as the events coordinator at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. While technically part time, she sometimes works over 40 hours a week when an event is on the books. Despite the hours, she gets great job satisfaction from her job. She told me, “In addition to artistic connections, I enjoy feeling like I am a part of an institution that is committed to contemporary art.” And it certainly beats retail. Maloon told me sad tales of working a retail job while in high school, concluding, “Retail was not my thing; at least in hospitality people are having a good time; in retail people are trying to fill a void with junk they don’t need.” She feels fortunate to have a day job that relates to her art-making practice that is primarily composed of site-specific installation. She says: “At the Contemporary, I spend a lot of time thinking about layouts and floor plans, which I always do when creating large scale work.”
Maloon says that it is difficult for her to devote her time and energy to so many pursuits and that when she can be fully immersed in her work, as when she was in college or during a residency, her art is “stronger, more cohesive, and more plentiful.” Still, Maloon notes that having a day job to provide financial security can be beneficial to artistic growth. Maloon says that she never feels the need to “manipulate [her] work” in order to make it “fit into a marketable ideal.” My conversation with Maloon eventually turned a bit philosophical: “I hate that we as a capitalist society assign worth based on monetary value … Until recently, I grappled with calling myself ‘an artist’ because my work is not the main source of my income at this point. But for me, the income source is not the point of making art.”
Brendan Carroll is a very busy man. He has just switched to part time after working between 45 to 50 hours a week as the preparator, registrar, and shipping manager at Jackson Fine Art. He is candid when he tells me that “the day-to-day labor of any job is difficult for me to find satisfying. But when I look at the work in retrospect, romantically, I am deeply satisfied with having learned a good deal about photography, gallery practices, and the skills of a preparator.” And, echoing Maloon, he said it beats his old job, which involved moving furniture. “The physical demands of lifting extremely heavy things in 95 degree heat for hours on end, while being eyeballed by suspicious home owners, and being paid terribly—it sucked.”
Carroll is a painter, and I was curious about how that might color his view of working at a photography gallery, whether it informed his art or not. He told me, “It interests me that I find myself ruminating on the idea of photography, struggling with the same problems that painting faces: how to describe the experience of a culture that predominately receives and defines reality through moving digital imagery in a medium that presents still physical objects.” But, of course, he would rather be painting.
“I can’t think of anything I truly find satisfying except painting in my studio,” he said. “The only job I want is to be a full time painter. It’s what I have been trained to do, it’s what interests me, and it’s what I do best. Everything else is simply something that allows me to paint . . . I paint every night after work and all day on Sundays and Mondays.” I do not think Brendan’s Carroll’s schedule is any kind of an exaggeration, either. We had planned to meet on an earlier date, but had to reschedule because he felt that he had gotten behind in his painting. Carroll’s devotion to his studio practice reminds me of something Picasso once said, that “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Greenaway works part-time as a server at a small family-owned restaurant in Grant Park. Surprisingly, between her wage and tips, she makes enough to support herself and her art practice. When I asked her how she balances her day job with her art job, she reminded me of the fickle nature of artistic inspiration, saying “I’ve had spans of time when I didn’t work, and it was just as hard for me to make art without my day job than if I had a day job.” Social interaction through her day job is important to Greenway and may even help balance her art practice. Greenway told me that “sometimes I can get too caught up in my own mind, so it’s nice to have some distractions.” She says she has never been good at sticking to a routine or schedule, so she tries to when she has the time. “Since I work out of my apartment, everything is accessible and ready to go when the inspiration hits,” she says. “I’ve got to say I feel pretty lucky having a day job where I am surrounded by other creatives.”
Our talk had me thinking about the superabundance of MFAs entering the job market. Where will all we MFAs be employed? A professorship would be ideal, but I can attest to the difficulty of getting one of those gigs. It used to be that a person with an MFA or MA in art history was practically a shoo-in for a museum job. However, with the proliferation of museum studies programs, even those jobs are becoming difficult to break into.
Many of my former professors have encouraged me to pursue part-time jobs in order to have more time to paint. For most of my 20 adult years as a practicing artist, I’ve followed their advice. Ironically, however, the most prolific I’ve ever been, outside of school, was the one time I held a full-time job for a short five months. And working part-time has had its consequences: unable to find a rent I could afford when my landlord sold my apartment in Philadelphia, I abandoned a lot of my artwork, pulled up stakes, and moved to Atlanta. After months of not finding work, I’ve taken a job at an art supply store, where I use my MFA and 20 years of experience with art materials to earn an unlivable hourly wage. On this wage I can not afford Atlanta rent either, so I’ve been moving from relative’s house to relative’s house every couple of weeks in order to minimize my impact. Somehow, I am still optimistic about the future, and I cannot ever give up on my artwork, partly out of determination, but also out of instinct. I am an artist the way a duck is a duck; it is not really a choice.
When we left Gauguin, he was performing back-breaking work on the Panama Canal. His workday started at 5:30 in the morning and ended at 6 in the evening. Exhausted, he produced no art, and eventually left the doomed French project to paint in Martinique. But the jungles of Panama had given Gauguin the dual gift of malaria and dysentery, which landed him in a hospital. Lacking money for food and medicine, he was forced to return to France in order to recover. Although Gauguin may not have realized it at the time, he was actually quite lucky. During the eight-year French effort on the canal’s construction, over 20,000 people died, some by accident and violence but most from the same diseases Gauguin contracted. Maybe we all are lucky. While we may have every right to be discontent, it helps to keep things in perspective. And besides, the future is far from dim. I’m still convinced, even after all these years of adversity, that with continued hard work and perseverance my efforts will be rewarded in the end.