A few weeks back there was a lot of buzz about the actor, Geoffrey Owens, being spotted working at a grocery store. This was supposedly a big deal because Owens was on a popular US sitcom nearly 30 years ago. Now I actually met Geoffrey, back in the early 1990’s, when I was studying acting, and living and working in New York City. He was very nice. He even gave me his phone number and told me to phone him if I ever had any questions or problems. I never did call him, but I appreciated his generosity. I also appreciate the conversation started because of his “outing” as an artist with a “job-job”.
“A “job-job” is the expression some actors, writers and other artists use to describe the “regular” employment often necessary for sustenance as we practice/pursue our crafts. The need for this type of employment has no gender, colour or age limit attached to it. Any artist, at any time, can find him or herself in need of a “job-job”. There is nothing unusual about this. It’s just a fact of life for most artists. And there is no shame ever in this fact.
To pursue an artistic life is to live the life of your dreams. And while your dreams may fuel your creativity and spirit, they may not always provide all that is needed to sustain you in this material world…There are many questions an artist has to ask him or herself before choosing to be an actor, writer, dancer, filmmaker, photographer, painter, musician etc. The biggest question might be – why? The other biggest question might be – how will I support my endeavours? Of course, there are a tiny percentage of folk who manage to make a living solely as an artist, and never need to get other kinds of work to support themselves. But they are definitely the exception.
A Toronto Star article, printed within the last decade, stated that of all the actors who were members of ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists), over the course of a year, 54% had income from performing, and 46% of those members had zero income from performing. The average annual income for all ACTRA members was $6,127. The average annual income for members with performance income was $11,269. And 67% of all ACTRA members reported having to find work outside of their discipline to survive economically. With those kinds of stats, how can any artist be shamed for having a job that allows them to have shelter and food, while continuing to pursue their dream, passion, calling…craft?
“When I say ‘work’ I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”
- Margaret Laurence
We only have one life (as far as we know). If some of us choose to live that life leaving open the possibility of working as a professional artist, why would anyone shame us for earning an honest living while trying to make that a reality? Also, as artists, what we bring to the table is our life experience. What better way to experience life than to actually engage in it as a regular person – working a regular job? You then get to bring that authentic life experience to your next gig; or to your writing; or to whatever your canvas is. And you really appreciate it whenever you get paid for doing what you love. There’s also a certain excitement to living a life where there’s always the possibility of leaving the “job-job” – if not forever, at least for periods of time.
I think sometimes (often) artists want to hide the fact that they don’t make their living solely from their art form. The problem is, the demand for artists is small relative to the supply of artists. You can always create work. Which I’ve done, and which I continue to do. Just know that you will find yourself tasked with somehow marketing that work. The other problem is, only artists (particularly actors) seem to have to be “stars” in order to be considered successful. If you’re a cook in a restaurant, no one expects you to be Julia Child. If you’re a nurse, you don’t have to be Florence Nightingale to get respect. If you’re a computer programmer, no one asks you why you’re not Bill Gates yet. And anyway, we don’t even have a star system in Canada. So, it’s all completely asinine and useless to waste time stressing about it. Instead, we should feel free and proud, if we want to, to proclaim to anyone who will listen that we have made the (perhaps hard) choice to live as artists. And sometimes (or often or even mostly), we support ourselves honestly, and with integrity, working “job-jobs” in pursuit of our artistic goals.
I personally have had all kinds of jobs: working in restaurants, retail, lawyers offices, call centres, book stores, a bakery once…I’ve worked part time, and even full time, while I pursued artistic endeavours. I’ve been the grateful recipient of a number of creation and production grants. And I’ve had exciting periods when I made my living solely working as an artist. I appreciate, and I’m humbled by, all of those experiences. They’ve all fed my work, my soul, and my stomach. And they’ve all added to the totality of what is my own unique existence.
The Victoria, BC born painter, Emily Carr (1871 – 1945) is a somewhat controversial artist. I’m aware of that. (A different subject for another time perhaps.) But she is also an example of someone who found a way to make money when her art wasn’t paying the bills. Apparently, by about 1913, Carr had produced a vast body of very interesting work, but not enough encouragement or support to be able to eat off the low sales of her art. So, what she did was, she built a small apartment house in Victoria, and spent the next 15 years supporting herself by managing that building, and hardly painting at all. However, sometime around the tender age of 57!!! her earlier work started to get recognized. She then met encouraging members of the Group of Seven and, reinvigorated, she started making art again.
I tell this little tale about Miss Carr to say this: There is no one way to live a life. You may or may not become “well known” in your lifetime, or ever. Your art might appeal to millions, or to only a small group of people. The important thing to remember is this: working “job-jobs” (or creating a “job-job”) while pursuing artistic goals (or temporarily putting those goals on hold) is a time-honoured tradition that has been practiced by artists for generations. And there is no shame whatsoever in that honourable tradition.
Thanks for reading…