Ever since my conversation with Melanie Rothschild last week, I’ve been thinking about this: how the work we do to make a living intersects (or not) with the work we do because we have to, because it’s the work of our heart and soul. Lucky indeed is the artist or writer or musician who can make a living doing only the work they love. Lucky, and very, very rare. For everyone else, there’s that other work, the work we know we’re lucky to have and that we love but that doesn’t quite fulfill those dreams that wake us from sleep, those ideas we long to bring to fruition if only–if only!–there were 48 hours to every day.
You know what I’m talking about: the pianist who pays the rent playing lounge music at corporate cocktail parties, the painter who sends the kids to college doing commissions, the writer who puts food on the table churning out copy for print ads. It beats having to take a day job at the bank or the insurance company, but it’s not what you dream of doing. One artist I know calls this other work her “bread-and-butter work.” It’s work she enjoys but that is completely separate from the intricately detailed, elaborate-and-time-intensive pieces of beauty that are her SoulWork.
Some artists keep the two separate. Some try, with varying degrees of success, to bring the bread-and-butter work as closely in line with their SoulWork as they can, infusing everything they do with the passion they feel for the deeper work. This sounds ideal, but is it feasible? If you’re making work to stock your Etsy shop or fill your booth at the spring and summer shows, how much of your soul can you realistically pour into each of those pieces, especially the production work? How much time can you really spend on a 100-word blurb for an ad in Field & Stream?
What it comes down to, in many cases, is time and how it overlaps with what you value most. If making enough to pay the rent is your top priority, then that’s where you have to focus the hours you have. Perhaps it like a sort of alternative hierarchy of needs,as conceived by Abraham Maslow.
For the artist, the basic need, the one at the bottom of the pyramid, would be simply to make stuff, any kind of stuff. Making something is at the core of who you are, and although the ideal would be to paint images from your dreams, if you can’t do that, you at least have to make cakes or stencil your walls or doodle in the margins of the budget report.
Next: making work that you define as art, in whatever way that works for you. If you are a painter, your next level would be getting to paint. You might not get to paint what you dream of painting, but you have some time and sufficient materials that you get to spend time painting. Maybe not enough time, and maybe not on 8′ x 20′ surfaces, but still: you get to paint.
Next: making art that is successful in your own eyes. This is where you have the time and energy to focus and begin to do work that is meaningful to you.
Then: making art that is successful in the larger world, either commercially or critically. For some people, this Esteem level isn’t necessary. For a lot of people, actually. Many artists really don’t give a rip whether or not anyone else likes what they do. For working artists, though, it’s not an option. Successful art is vital to them.
But what comes at the top, where Maslow has self-actualization? Would it be making SoulWork? Or would there need to be some component of exterior success? Would the ultimate “success” mean that it’s the work of your soul *and* also work that supports you financially? Or would it be soul work that is critically acclaimed and will be a Lasting Legacy, something that will live on long after you’re gone? Is creating SoulWork enough, all by itself? It would be lovely to think so, and I hope maybe it is: that creating the work you know you are meant to create and doing it successfully, so that you can step back and look at the finished pieces and go, “Yes. That’s it.” is enough.
Is it, though? Living in the society in which we live, we are all conditioned to have certain ideas about what constitutes “success.” While it would be nice to believe we’re immune to those cultural ideas, few of us really are. Let’s talk about it. Tell me what you think: what’s at the top of your pyramid? What would make you feel you were truly successful, honestly?
I suspect the answer is different for different people. Some need to have that outward success in order to feel they’re doing work that matters, while others need only to know they’ve done their very best work, no matter what anyone else says.
Ricë also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.
MORE RESOURCES FOR MIXED MEDIA ARTISTS