Artists: Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Really!

On 15 March 2013 by Alisa Damaso

My desk at my day job as an assistant editor for a professional communicator association’s member magazine. It’s not much, but it’s mine!

“There are so many creative people out there doing things they were never meant to do in order to earn a living. We even have a name for it: the day job….and it has been as necessary for them as it was for me to support the real work that could not support them.” — Peter Clothier, ‘Persist’

It’s damn near impossible to be an independent creative these days without a steady income, unless you’re in a high-demand field like graphic design or professional photography. Having a day job isn’t necessarily giving in to The Man, if that’s what your bohemian self is worried about. Renting out your time enables you to pay for materials to continue doing what you love. Plus, there’s tons of potential to learn awesome new skills that you can apply to your personal projects.

You’ve read our review of ‘The Artist in the Office‘ by Summer Pierre, now check out what some artists in the workforce had to say about their day jobs. These creatives share what it’s like to balance the life that feeds their souls with the one that puts food on the table.

Jelena Kiric, photo by Mathew Cohen

Musician / Discarnate Motions
Los Angeles, CA

Having a day job isn’t always like the movie Office Space. Some artists actually enjoy their 9-5 hours. Case in point: Jelena Kiric. A musician since the age of 12, Jelena spends her weekdays doing tech support for a small online data backup company. “Right now it’s just a means to support my real passions,” she says, which are music and art.

Jelena is a painter and composes music for her metal band, Sign of Sirin, in which she plays lead and rhythm guitar. She learned how to play from her older brother, who’s a guitarist himself. “He bought me my first guitar for my 14th birthday after he saw that I wasn’t going to put his down anytime soon,” she laughs.

Jelena hopes to reach success as a musician, whether it be through her band or playing with other talented performers. “My ultimate goal as a guitarist is to tour the world,” she says.

However, she’d have no problem if her day job turned into a legitimate career. “I’ve always been computer savvy and could definitely see myself getting deeper into that field,” she says. “It’s definitely not a bad job.”

We may not be able to always get a job doing what we are passionate about, but as long as you are still doing what you love, that’s what counts.

Working in such a contrasting field from art and music gives Jelena perspective. She’s able to use different parts of her brain and think more critically, exercises that “can give you a boost when you get home after a long day,” she explains.

Having a day job has taught Jelena to become more organized and manage her time more efficiently, which enables her to work on personal stuff. “I’ve learned to really appreciate my free time and utilize it,” she says.

Jelena realizes that there’s no set path for creatives. “We artists get the short end of the stick in that sense, but for a true artist the satisfaction always comes from creating something awesome,” she says. True self-expression means creating something you’re proud of, not whether people like it or not. “We may not be able to always get a job doing what we are passionate about, but as long as you are still doing [what you love], that’s what counts.”

Discarnate Motions will be recording their EP in June 2013. Check them out on Facebook.

Mike A Young

Writer, Publisher
Northampton, MA

Mike Young started writing in the 2nd grade, when he penned and illustrated a five-part storybook about a computer virus that helped kids solve their small town’s mysteries. Today, Mike is a writer, publisher, and founder of the literary magazine NOÖ Journal.

At his full time day job, Mike is curriculum manager for Sessions College, an online art and design school. He updates and tests courses, writes syllabi and assessments, works on new courses with the site developers, and more. “[Sessions has] been around since 1997, and it’s not scammy or depressing like some other online colleges I’ve taught for,” Mike says.

Through his work for Sessions, Mike has learned useful skills that benefit his personal projects like graphic design, web design and web programming. “I get to work with these courses that are built by professional designers and programmers, so I get to learn new techniques as I go,” he says. Sometimes he learns even better techniques than ones he’s researched on his own.

Working with the college has also sparked Mike’s motivation. 2012 had been a hard year for him and for the first time in seven years, he didn’t put out an issue of NOÖ. But because of the Sessions courses, he’s developed a new appreciation for the “audacity and playfulness in graphic design,” and NOÖ [14] was printed just in time for AWP 2013.

“It’s been a bit of a slog transitioning from the [traditional] academic lifestyle to working a 9-5 office job,” he says. “But it’s nudged me to be a better manager of my own time, and it makes the off-time feel real. Unlike academia, where I would always be stressed out afterhours about grading or planning for my next class.”

It’s been a bit of a slog transitioning from the academic lifestyle to working a 9-5 office job. But it’s nudged me to be a better manager of my own time, and it makes the off-time feel real.

Usually, if a job isn’t as stimulating or enjoyable as you hope, at least great co-workers can make up for it. “Probably my worst jobs haven’t ever been due to the job itself but to the people I’ve worked with,” Mike says. The best jobs, on the other hand, are most rewarding immeasurable ways. For example, Mike ran into one of his former students, who told him that before taking his class he hated writing, but now he loved it and was now blogging for the New England Patriots. “That felt really good.”

Seeing results from your work can be inspiring. But sometimes inspiration comes serendipitously — Mike draws his from the bewitching push and pull of expectations, pressure, and surprises. The most recent jolt came after the AWP conference in Boston, MA. On the cab ride back to his room, he says, “I got this cab driver who almost killed me twice, was eating something that smelled really good with two forks, and was singing along to French versions of 60s folk hits like “Sound of Silence” [where] at the end of the dramatic songs he would take his hands off the wheel and do conductor hands for the finale. So he inspired me to feel many things about the world and our experiential plod through it. He was a new pair of sunglasses for my heart.”

Like most creatives leading double lives, Mike struggles with managing his time as a writer, editor, publisher and curriculum manager. “I will go a few weeks where I only sleep five hours a night, and then I will get sick and crash and recover enough to let myself do it all over again,” he says.

However, Mike’s biggest challenge, like most writers, is dalliance; constantly editing, rewriting and fiddling with his work, and “[m]uch preferring to hide everything away in intricate little gingerbread castles than to just pour molasses into people’s mouths,” he says. To get through this, he does a trick that he discovered while learning to play tennis. After a really bad game, he hit the ball against the backboard for hours, exceeding comfort and trying to engrain this new motion into his muscle memory. “And I think that’s sort of the holy grail for most writing,” he says, “this arcane self-abandonment feeling, where you know it’s still you with all your breath, but somehow the breath turns into something you are moving through rather than something that is moving through you.”

The latest issue of NOÖ Journal is now in print. The online version launches soon, so check back for updates!

Lillian Maring, photo by David West

Musician / Grass Widow
Oakland, CA

Drummer Lillian Maring has been playing in bands since her late teens. After becoming heavily involved with the DIY music scene in Olympia, Washington, she went from playing local shows to touring along the West Coast. You may have seen her current band, Grass Widow, on season 2 of Portlandia.

For the past decade Lillian has focused on her music career while working various cafe or retail jobs on the side. Because of her touring schedule, it’s important to find places flexible enough to accommodate her weeks- or months-long absences. Catch is, those kinds of places don’t pay more than minimum wage. “It’s hard to keep any positions outside of that realm because better paying jobs want you to be more invested,” Lillian says.

Even though Grass Widow makes an adequate amount of money to keep the project going, she says it’s not quite enough to support each of them personally. So Lillian works part time at a coffee shop and lives a very modest lifestyle. “My actual financial situation has always been a secondary focus that I squeeze in between my creative endeavors,” she says. “It’s a trade off, where I forfeit things like insurance, vacation time, savings, weekends, [and] sometimes basic necessities, but I maximize my pleasure and satisfaction through the [personal] work I’m doing.”

In addition to her small earnings, she’s making money in other ways, like running her Etsy shop and guest writing for blogs. The band have even started their own label, HLR, another role that Lilian says doesn’t guarantee wages, but is a step in a direction she’d like to go.

My actual financial situation has always been a secondary focus that I squeeze in between my creative endeavors. It’s a trade off, where I forfeit things like insurance, vacation time, savings, weekends, and sometimes basic necessities, but I maximize my pleasure and satisfaction through the personal work I’m doing.

Income isn’t the only benefit a day job provides, though. Lillian gets a sense of satisfaction from staying busy. Stepping outside your personal schedule and into a structured one can be a welcome break from your internal monologue. “I like working for other people because it gives me a well balanced perspective on the relationship between employer and employee, as well as the full spectrum of what happens between the birth of an idea through the minutia of tasks involved in getting it done,” she says. It also gives her a chance to think; she gets tons of ideas at work and makes to-do lists for her off days, supercharging her productivity.

However, as with any creative effort, there are big challenges. For one, the U.S. isn’t necessarily supportive of the arts. “In other societies art and performance are valued more and it’s easier to maintain a lifestyle focused on your work,” Lillian says. “But I definitely appreciate the struggle in some ways; it puts a fire under our collective asses.”

Another challenge is the Internet, which poses a conundrum for musicians: Although it gives artists more opportunities to gain exposure, share their work and self-promote, it’s also easier for people to pirate that work. “By not paying for music, a person is basically devaluing the artist and jeopardizing their ability to eat, pay rent and produce [more] work,” she says. What’s more, music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify are cannibalizing the industry, paying hundredths of a cent to an artist for each play while losing money themselves.

There hasn’t been a more important time to support musicians. “Coming from a small town and remembering what it was like to be a desperate young person cut off from society” Lillian says, “gives me a sense of purpose and pride in making my art accessible.”

In many ways, the musician is already living her dreams: national and international recognition in a band, touring the country, and “being a strong voice as a female artist,” she says. A few of Lillian’s goals involve growing Grass Widow’s label and eventually moving her online store into an actual boutique where she’d open up the space for community events.

Grass Widow are currently on a West Coast tour. Check for tour dates near you!

Kat Bermudez at her pop-up shop, Lolita Chiquita

Entrepreneur / Lolita Chiquita Shop
Los Angeles, CA

Working for someone else while running your own business can be pretty frustrating. You might want to do things your way, which isn’t always possible. That’s why being your own boss is so rewarding — it’s exhausting, but it’s work for passion and you get to run the show.

Such is the life of Kat Bermudez, founder and owner of Lolita Chiquita Shop, where she sells handmade lolita jewelry and accessories online and at trade shows. She’s an almost-full time medical biller and coder by day, and a crafting machine by night. Thus, Kat lives in two worlds: one where she’s an employee and another where she’s the boss.

Lolita Chiquita came together around the time Kat had started college as a liberal studies major. As a fanatic of the unique, she dove into teaching herself about alternative fashion. “I stumbled upon Japanese Lolita fashion and fell in love with it,” she says. You can tell by her crafting style that she’s very influenced by lolita, harajuku and kawaii.

Before she started her business, Kat struggled with trichotillomania — a disorder involving pulling out hair during panic or anxiety — and to overcome it she crafted more than ever, designing clothes and accessories for herself. “After trichotillomania took a turn for the worst, I had by then lost a good amount of hair and was bummed that I couldn’t adorn myself with my hair pin creations,” she says. But after her parents gifted her a wig, she felt invincible. Soon, she began to craft like a maniac and wore her elaborate hair accessories to work.

Never let your life’s obstacles stop you from creating — they should be the forces that allow you to keep going.

“People at work were buying my creations right off of me so I decided to start selling at craft shows in 2009.” Two years later she opened her Etsy shop, which has seen significant success in the past year alone. In fact, her income from Lolita Chiquita actually surpasses her job’s paychecks.

“My day job is far from interesting or stimulating,” Kat says. She sits in an office away from her coworkers and listens to music while she keys in codes for each patient. Listening to tunes is definitely a perk, but human interaction is important to her. “Some days I sit in the reception area and volunteer to answer phones when we’re short one co-worker.”

When Kat gets home from work she heads to her bedroom-turned-studio to create something. “When I get tired of making jewelry I play the piano for about an hour,” she says. It’s a sweet release from the repetitive tasks of the day. The great thing about having her own business is the freedom in her schedule, although she has little time for leisure. On her day off, her phone will prompt her that she’s made a sale and “it feels like I’m still working no matter where I am,” she says. “It takes a lot of schedule balancing and organization.” And living at home definitely helps ease the stress of working nearly 24/7.

Since a day job isn’t always your chosen career, the best thing you can do is reap whatever benefits you can from it. For example, Kat’s accounting job has helped her with her own shop’s bookkeeping. “It helps me to understand all the things you need to run a business,” she says, “and Excel and Quickbooks are helpful [before] tax season.” Kat’s also learned that customer service is extremely important. With every product she sends out to customers, she includes a handwritten note on a kawaii greeting card and sometimes even a little gift to show her clients that their business is appreciated.

Kat is proof that whatever obstacles come your way, you should never let them stop you from creating. Challenges “should be the forces that allow you to keep going,” she says, and that’s what she intends to do.

Get cute with Lolita Chiquita on Etsy.

Ian Amberson, photo by Kaliisa Conlon

Musician, Visual Artist
Oakland, CA

Ian Amberson has been playing with Shannon and the Clams since the band started in 2007, and he’s also a crazy-talented visual artist. He’s been in the workforce since the ripe age of 13 and, he says, “crappy, random, disparate stains have since landed on my rag of a resume.” Apparently, he’s also a poet. Here’s our Q&A with Ian.

Killer Creatives: How long have you been a musician and visual artist?

Ian Amberson: I guess since the wee-most age I’ve been trying my hand at 2D art. Went to art school for painting in Oakland, tried to forget who I was growing up in Idaho, and, like Narcissus, fell frozen before the deep, placid seduction of music. Well, it wasn’t that dramatic.

KC: List your previous day jobs.

IA: It’s been a bit of a bunch of stuff. I played the role of reluctant barista, library circulation desk assistant, maintenance worker, fabricator at a acrylic supplier, small-time mover, assistant to a puppeteer, and a spell as a gardener. I’ve done medical studies, which can be really lucrative or extremely disturbing.

KC: What have you taken from those experiences that have been useful in your personal creative work?

IA: Concerning jobs in production, the hands-on experience working with new materials and sets of standards always changes how one practices a form. I don’t think it really affects my approach to music, but the work ethic and focus to the details from fabrication has reinforced my concern for detail and interest in putting more control into things like recording, album art production, and making flyers.

I think about my job as little as possible when I’m not in my employer’s domain, and I think that separation is vital. I’ve always looked for work removed from my own artistic interests.

KC: You recently went on a European tour with your band. Would you say you’re living your dream?

IA: It was awesome! The experience was unforgettable. We went with our friends, Las Ardillas, who are all excellent, hilarious people. I was bummed about not getting more of a sampling of the scene in Europe as 95% of the shows were booked with just Las Ardillas and the Clams.

While it was super fun, I never really had set an ambition to tour Europe. Touring is something I have struggled accepting and resolving with my bandmates. It isn’t the most creative method for making music. Bars and clubs are usually hypnotic, dark places where one deadens complex thought and lets the Dionysian spirit run rampant. It also interrupts your life in burdensome ways. I would rather double up the amount of recorded work the Clams release than roll the dice on touring.

KC: What’s your biggest challenge as an artist, and how do you overcome it?

IA: My biggest challenges are probably promotion and confidence. I come from a long line of secretly talented introverts, famously self-dismissive loners, and peacemakers. I don’t know if it is the remnant of some cult of Puritan modesty or what… I think I have trouble letting my artistic brash egotism run free. It’s the push/pull between the self-centered artists seeking personal fulfillment and the socially-aware democratic practitioner. It’s hard to decide where you lie between Salvador Dali and Thomas Hirschhorn.

KC: Any last thoughts?

IA: I think about my job as little as possible when I’m not in my employer’s domain, and I think that separation is vital. I’ve always looked for work removed from my own artistic interests. I wish we lived in a more artistically philanthropic society, but for now creative types just have to keep pushing on. Luckily on the music production side, things have been growing drastically cheaper and access to capital seems to be a little simpler (e.g., Kickstarter, boutique labels, etc.). Hopefully, the Internet will continue to be an indie savior.

To see some of Ian’s visual work, check out his portfolio. You can also check out Shannon and the Clams at their website.
2014 UPDATE: Ian is no longer with Shannon and the Clams. 


  • The Artist in the Office’ by Summer Pierre — Check out our review of this awesome and uplifting book. Learn how to balance your day job with your personal projects, replenish your creative juices with fun activities, and make a habit of listing the positives in your life!
  • You Are Not Running Out of Time by Rahul Bijlani — This is an awesome essay on taking your time to hone your skills. Life isn’t a race; work at your own pace.
  • The ‘double jobbers’ making a living while working in the arts by Kathy Sweeney — U.K. artists share their thoughts on what it’s like to work day jobs while pursuing their careers. Check out these interesting stories and helpful advice from a painter, a playwright, a novelist, an actor and more.
  • Part-time Jobs for Creatives That Help Your Business Sense by Speider Schneider — Let’s face it: it’s almost impossible for creatives to make ends meet without a day job. There are lots of gigs out there that won’t hurt your creativity, if that’s what your bohemian self is worried about. If anything, you’re more likely to learn super helpful stuff you wouldn’t learn on your own.
  • Don’t Give Up the Day Job: How Artists Make a Living by Laura Barnett — The economy, job market and student loan payments are big reasons artists join the workforce. The Guardian interviewed a few UK artists who work day jobs to make ends meet, and although their daytime gigs may not be creative, they’re learning new skills, connecting with other creatives, and putting food on the table.
  • Art and the ‘Day Job by Daniel Grant — If you think creating art full time isn’t possible anytime soon, keep at it. You’re not alone. These are stories from artists who are a handyman, a cook, a corporate art curator and a school teacher.

Alisa Damaso

Alisa Damaso is an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer based
in the San Francisco Bay Area. She enjoys the magic of the outdoors,
watching campy horror movies, and singing songs about food getting
stuck in her teeth. Her hand is married to a pencil and she never leaves
the house without a sketchbook.

Twitter LinkedIn    

5 Responses to “Artists: Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Really!”

  • Ali Akhavan

    Thank you Alisa! It’s comforting to know the perspectives and paths different artists took to survive in the American life, while pursuing their art.

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