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What’s Your Day Job?

April 25, 2010

And does it help or hinder your art practice?

For many artists, a day job is a necessary evil. A means to paying bills and buying our supplies. For some of us, a day job is only a memory.

Quitting the day job and taking up art full time seems to be a common goal, or at least a fantasy, of many artists. The consensus is also that quitting is a huge leap of faith. At some point we have to make that decision: jump or don’t. Give up a steady income, choose a life of uncertainty and pursue the dream. Or, stay on the safe track, do what you can and make the best of it.

As my other half is getting closer to finishing school, I start wondering about the possibility of giving up my own day job.

The Story of My Day Job

When I finished art school, I had no clue about what was available job-wise. I had some half-arsed ideas about graphic design, illustration, working at a gallery or something related to my field. I started applying to every gallery and museum in my very limited geographical area. That didn’t work. No one was hiring, unless it was a part-time, temporary, student position.

I expanded my search to graphic design companies, print shops and anywhere else that looked like they might deal in creativity. I soon found, however, that my education in visual artscouldn’t compete with an education in graphic design. I knew enough Photoshop to get by, but little else.

I ended up working as a customer service rep at a small print shop, the idea being that I could slowly take on some of the graphic design work, building skills and portfolio at once.

I hated it.

I could probably go on for days about why, but I’ll give you the basics. First of all, it wasn’t a nice working environment and my co-workers weren’t helpful or welcoming. Secondly, my job description consisted mostly of running hundreds or thousands of photocopies. Thirdly, business slowed down a lot after the first few months and I found myself in the production area doing mindless, horrible jobs like spiral binding books for eight hours straight. I’m not exaggerating.

At the beginning, though, the main designer went on holiday and I got a taste of graphic design. What an eye-opener! I would spend the day staring at a computer screen, importing clip art and pasting in company information. There was barely a smidgen of creativity involved. It was all very clean and formulaic: plug this in here, that in there, and you’re done!

Obviously, a designer working at a bigger firm will have more creative license and more interesting projects than an endless series of business cards, but this experience made me realize that design was not for me. I also realized that graphic design is just glorified retail. It’s all about selling something: selling your design services, up-selling products, and designing materials that will sell your clients’ products.

This was when I decided that I wanted to be an artist.

I wanted messy, I wanted hands-on, I wanted creativity, and I wanted freedom!

Of course, I’d still need a job, but I no longer wanted a creative job. I wanted a job that would allow me the time and freedom to pursue art on the side.

I thought long and hard about being a teacher, but I wasn’t completely sure about it. It would be another two or three years of education and after just finishing four years, I wasn’t ready for that.

I settled on being an education assistant, or teaching assistant. I work in the public school system, helping special-needs kids. I get breaks at Christmas and in the spring, I am finished every day at 3:30, and best of all, I get summers off.

The job itself is interesting work. It’s challenging and can be very rewarding, but it’s not something that I take home with me. I don’t do any prep or marking. More importantly, I’m not selling anything or dealing with customers.

Since being involved in the education system, I am more grateful than ever that I didn’t become a teacher. I love the idea of being an artist that teaches, but I do not want to be a teacher. The politics and the bureaucracy are not for me. Teaching really is a thankless job, and the responsibilities seem to increase while the support decreases.

And that’s the story of my day job. It seems kind of a random choice, and when people find out that I’m an artist, they often ask me, “why are you here?” It really is the best of both worlds for me: it’s a job that I can tolerate (even enjoy on some days), it pays the bills and it gives me plenty of time for art.

What’s your day job? How did you end up there? Does it help or hinder your art practice?

And for those of you who have given up your day job: What made you decide? How did you do it? Any regrets?

Please share your experiences, I’d love to hear your story!

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From → Art General

12 Comments
  1. My day job is a graphic designer that I am slowly getting away from. I work only 20 hours a week. My husband is graduating from nursing school and will be able to help me paint full-time. Although, it totally takes away too much time from my portrait painting, I am grateful to have a freelance gig that allows me to get paid well for 20 hours and the support of my husband. Once I can dedicate myself full-time I really believe that my career will blossom since I will be able to dedicate myself full-time.

    I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Hi Nadine! Your portraits are amazing! Thanks for sharing your story. How do you like graphic design? I think I disliked it so much just because it was such a huge disappointment. I really thought it would be the perfect way to incorporate my training and my creativity into a job that would pay the bills. It’s great that your husband is so supportive and that you’ll be able to phase out the day job. I hope that in the next year or two, I’ll be able to transition from part-time to full-time artist. Best of luck to you!

  2. Your story and mine are almost parallel. My partner works full time, so I have allowed myself the luxury of finding my passion.
    Substitute art gallery (small oil town, not art savvy) and frame shop for your graphic design shop and we’re pretty much even steven. I’m a substitute teacher’s assistant, mostly in the special needs room, where I have lots of leeway to do art with the kids. The fact that I am only a sub means that I can plan other art teaching projects, such as teaching in my community independently and home school groups in various towns close to me. When I’m not doing that, I work on my own stuff.
    Permaculture design and local food production are my seasonal work for spring and summer. This work also satisfies my creative muscle. I am happy.

    • Thanks for the comment, Margot! Our stories are very similar, it’s really cool to hear from another teacher’s assistant. I’m glad that subbing is working out so well for you. That’s my plan as well. When my partner starts working, I will hopefully go on the sub list and work as much or as little as I need. I like your idea of working with home school groups, that’s an area I hadn’t though of! Kudos to you for finding a balance that works for you!

  3. Great story Miranda!! I had no idea that you worked as an aide during the day. That’s not an easy job by any means–but I completely understand the idea that you leave your job at work. For years I worked in the restaurant and bar industry just for that reason–I’ll have to tell you–it was lots of fun, hard work–and I made some of the coolest connections ever. Now, well, I teach art full time–but soon that will be changing. I’ve decided to teach part time next year–and pursue both my painting and creating teaching opportunities that feed and nourish my soul–more then suck out all the energy out of me, like my full time day job tends to do!

    But for me, honestly, I will never just be a full time painter or simply a full time teacher–the two work together magically for me–and that’s just the way it’s gonna have to be!!!

    Big hugs!

  4. My current day job is doing marketing and web content management for a training and development firm. It is my second career, because before that I spent almost 10 years in the museum world as an educator, volunteer coordinator and finally curator. It’s funny, but I didn’t start pursuing art until after I left the museum world! I am now back in school taking classes in graphic design/ web design and looking for my third career!

  5. I also took to the world of teaching and have been in love with the benefits and the experience.
    I am a photographer and am now teaching photography part-time as well. I find working directly for and with other creatives inspires me!
    The steady pay is nice to have month to month to help balance the boom and bust cycles of freelancing. Thanks for your article!

  6. Oh wow! I SO relate to your post. I got my BFA w the original intention of teaching and decided that the reasons I wanted to teach art were not going to happen in the public school system, at least for me. I also thought graphic design was my path to take and like you found out that it’s a lot of hours in front of a computer doing a formula. I ended up going to cosmetology school & while I love doing hair there is still the desire to support myself by doing art. For the last 4 years I’ve been the sole caregiver to my gma and got into creating again. I’d totally put the art/crafting supplies back up on the shelf because it wasn’t a way for me to earn a living I thought. I’m going back to hair here soon but I really want to move past the crafting and back into my art. I’ll never get to check off ‘having my own art show’ on my bucket list wishing it to happen. And I’ll never be able to be a full time artist if I’m just dreaming of it and not creating work. I thought my career had to define me for so many years but really it just has to provide me a living to be able to do the things I love.

    • I’m glad this article struck a chord with so many people! It’s interesting to see how many of us have similar stories and ended up in education!

      Connie, I’m glad you stopped by! I worked in a restaurant too and loved it. The only thing better about my job now is the hours! Your plan for next year sounds perfect. It’s great that you appreciate the way your job and your art work together. We all need variety in our lives. Good luck, I’m looking forward to following your progress on your blog!

      Melanie, it’s really interesting that you didn’t turn to art until you were out of that industry. Over the past few years I’ve seen a few gallery positions come and go, some I even applied for. But in the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered if working in an art environment would sap my creative energy and leave me too drained to do my own art. I remember hearing an artist give a talk while I was at school. He worked as a graphic designer for awhile and eventually his art began looking like websites. Sometimes, if you have to have a day job, maybe it’s a good thing that it’s not art-related!

      Lady Miss Susan, I agree completely. I want to teach, but not in the public school system. I admit that sometimes, when I sit in an art class and watch the teacher I think, “that should be me!” But all in all, I don’t want the other stuff that comes with teaching. I’d much rather do my own private classes! That’s awesome that you’ve rediscovered your craft, I really think everyone needs a creative outlet in their lives. I’m sure getting back into art is the next step, you sound very determined and that’s the most important thing! All the best 🙂

  7. Hi Miranda, great post and conversation here. When I started painting I was a full time waitress in a ski town. I would snowboard all day, waitress at night, and paint in all my spare time. Snowboarding and watercolours were my shared passions but one day when I stayed home from snowboarding to frame some of my paintings I realised that my passion had shifted more to art! As I got busier with my art I slowly cut back on my waitressing until I phased it out.

    In 2005 I moved to Kelowna to take a diploma in Graphic Design. For me the decision was more about exploring my creativity and learning how to make my own website more than about switching careers. I was still focused on a career as an artist.

    When I graduated the school offered me a teaching position. I agreed to work but only a few classes a week. Teaching was fun and rewarding but it was also extremely time consuming. I spent many hours preparing my classes and marking. This was all time I wasn’t paid for; time I would rather spend in my art studio. Your job sounds ideal since you can leave it at work. It’s fantastic that you don’t have to mark anything or do prep.

    I gave my notice to my teaching job last March so that I could paint full time. It was awesome to spend so much time in the art studio. A year later though I realized that I’m not making enough money to support myself so I have taken on some freelance graphic design contracts, mostly to build websites for small business owners. It’s fun and helps pay my bills. I am also going to schedule some watercolour workshops to teach this spring and next fall. I love working for myself and I find that graphic design is a great compliment to my art career. I also find it very creative, which is a bonus of working privately for my clients rather than for a print shop! 🙂

    I’m grateful to live such a creative lifestyle. It’s an awesome way to make a living.

    • Hi Kendra! I’m so glad you weighed in here and added your story. You’re an inspiration to us all! It’s great that your two professions are so flexible. When there’s less art you can pick up more design, and when there’s more art you can let some of the design go. I’m glad you’re able to mix some creativity into your web design; at the end of the day, it is a creative process, just not how I thought it would be! Good luck with your workshops this fall 🙂

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