I grew up within a family of freelance artists: A writer, a musician, a fine woodworker, and all their friends and associates. This meant that I had great exposure to “starving artist syndrome,” where one’s quality of life suffers due to lack of sufficient, steady income. It is somewhat painful to watch people doing their dream job, yet trying their best to make ends meet — and missing the mark.
Meanwhile, their art studios were full of interesting, beautiful works that had yet to be discovered by appreciative clients with full pockets. This can be a recipe for artist frustration, which usually does little for creativity’s flow. On the other hand, starving artist syndrome taught me about survival, sacrifice and faith. This is what I learned.
Never say no.
Unless you have something better, more rewarding financially or otherwise to work on, consider doing it, especially if it’s creative work. What could it be? In my case, it has been many things that were not my ideal choice of work. In my formative years, I’ve done everything from pulling weeds to painting window frames. More recently, I’ve been tutoring students, organizing computer files and selling books.
I’ve read guides about making a living as an artist or bootstrapper, and this often comes up, this idea of not saying no too quickly. Try to think creatively about business, not just your artwork. A true entrepreneur will usually consider and weigh the possibilities of any offer before saying no. If you look at it carefully, and decide that saying yes is going to stress you out a lot, then don’t do it. But if survival hinges on it, bite that bullet and dive in!
Embrace sacrifice and move past it.
I’ve found that much in life, especially when it comes to career, is quite transient and temporary. Perhaps doing this task or side job is not ideal at the moment, but it’s not likely that you’ll be doing it forever. Sacrifice and compromise can be necessary evils when we want to live out the dream of working in a creative field. It can’t hurt to pay the bills while you strategize your next move. Be a creative business practitioner, and you might be surprised at what you learn.
Every place I’ve worked, from low to high, whether they compensated me well or not, has always been totally thrilled to have a creative person on board. And if I hadn’t tried those chores, I wouldn’t have learned the cheapest way to ship my art internationally, how wholesale schedules work in publishing, or how to build a website from the ground up (NOT the most creative tasks, in my opinion).
Showcasing online can be low-maintenance and effective.
Recently, I have found another perfect way to earn from and expose my creative endeavors more broadly. I opened a shop on Etsy. It does the work on the side for me, while I am teaching, illustrating or designing. It showcases and promotes what I do in an additional forum, and brings more people to my website.
For a long time, I thought it would cheapen me to make my fine art and otherwise high-end graphics available and affordable to the masses online. I worried that getting involved with retail could be a big mistake. So far I’ll admit, selling stuff is a fickle scene. I’ve thought about canning the whole thing.
Then someone close to me asked, “Why stop, if it’s paying for itself and not causing you any trouble?” I realized that my Etsy shop is not a replacement for something else, or turning over a new leaf — it’s just bringing more eyes to my artwork.
I began with Etsy thinking I’d sell prints of my completed mixed-media pieces, but my most popular items are the result of a random creative spark one weekend afternoon, when I wasn’t even trying to design anything. If I had said “no” to Etsy, I never would have discovered that I can get Jim Morrison, John and Yoko, Jimi Hendrix, a favorite book, a tiny cup of joe or a can of Campbell’s soup into curiously tiny glass vials, which my customers covet and enjoy wearing around their necks.
Photo by Mariah Fox.