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"An Art Career is a Wasted Career!" but is it?

by Laura Eccleston

24 Apr 2024

1,012 Views

"An Art Career is a Wasted Career!" but is it?
I was lucky to have been born into a very creative and artistic family. Long before I could walk my father was drawing and painting, my mother was knitting, sewing and embroidering, my maternal grandmother was also an artist who was also very experienced at making her own clothes and knitting, my maternal grandfather was coding his own computer games in his spare time, even my paternal grandfather was also an artist, although he had sadly died before I was born. So, of course it was no surprise that I had the creative gene and lucky for me it was considered normal and accepted in my family, but there was a reason as to why, and to why none of these people above had made it their career.

My father had never been allowed to pursue his artistic dreams as a boy, even though his father was an artist. His mother had wanted him to get a "proper job", just like his father had to, so he was forced to leave school early, get a job rather than finish his exams and go to art college. He was sadly the victim of this common misconception that art is just a waste of time and that you'll never make any money from it, but why does this thinking exist? Why are artists seen as such failures in life?

I even had a conversation with a French woman once about how art careers are frowned upon in France. I'm not sure if this is true, but she was adamant that it was better to pursue a career in science or engineering otherwise you would be seen as a flaky, useless strain on society. I kindly informed her that even those fields require some form of creative thinking. It amazed me this thinking, considering how many wonderful French artists there are. Isn't Paris the dream city for artists? but this idea that an art career is a wasted career lies within so many people and so many cultures. It's almost endemic, but why?

I was often known as the arty one by friends in school. I even won a few art competitions, but even as a child I too believed that I would never make it into a career, that it was just for fun, but why was this? My parents were supportive after-all and kids would come up to me at play time to get me to draw them teenage mutant ninja turtles (this was my specialty at the age of 7) and in secondary school I started making friendship bracelets to sell to the other kids and I did well, until the headmistress banned them, which put me out of business (it went against the school uniform policy! booo), but I never took my creativity seriously so when it finally came to leaving school I began to panic.

My parents had signed me up to an Art and Design course at art college, but all I remember thinking was how was I going to turn this into a "real job". I don't think my parents even knew the answer to that, but it was all I could think about as I was drawing my reflection from the inside of a spoon (true story). I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was convinced that I couldn't make any money from it and that that was the most important thing in life.

It's like this is the primary thought for doing anything in life. How will we make money from something? How will we make a living?

Even today I get comments like "it's great, but what are you going to do with it?" or "why don't you sell it?" as if this is the primary reason for doing anything in life. When did making art just for the sake of making art die?

Everyone had told me I wouldn't make any money from my art until I was dead. Not very practical. The same stigma my father had experienced from his mother still hadn't gone away and because I believed it too, I made the wrong decision to change my course, not go to university and eventually I stopped doing what I loved the most, painting, and I stopped playing with yarn. It was time to give up. It was just a waste of time right? I had to do something practical. This was my thinking, but I was so wrong and it led me down a very dark road.

Fueling this idea of course are the many famous artists who supposedly lived in poverty throughout their lives and how it wasn't until they died that they finally became rich and famous. This basic concept is why we have this perception, that art is a waste of time, but an artistic life is much more nuanced and complicated than just saying "if you paint, you'll be poor" and "if you're poor, you'll be miserable".

Vincent Van Gogh is a good example. People often think he lived in poverty, that he traded his paintings for food, and yes, he did eat cheap food and yes, he probably did this, but he wasn't as poor as we have been led to believe. He was actually sponsored by his brother who was the manager of the Parisian branch of the Goupil art dealership, and this wage was actually much higher than most factory workers received in those times. In fact many artists, like Van Gogh also had to buy expensive art materials. They were not cheap like they are comparatively today, so many artists would often live a simple life to support their passion.

Many famous artists also suffered from mental health issues or disease and were considered too progressive in their art, which all affected their ability to make money or get noticed. Van Gogh was hospitalised in a mental institution for a time and struggled to sell his art. Amedeo Modigliani died at the age of 36 due to his tuberculosis disease and alcoholism, and his paintings of nudes often struggled to find an audience. Paul Gauguin left his family in Paris and moved to Tahiti, thinking it would change his life, but like many others his art struggled to find an audience and his poor health due to venereal disease led him to a great depression where he even attempted suicide. Rembrandt also died in poverty, but this was due to a deep depression from losing his wife and all his children throughout his life-time. Earlier on in his life he was actually quite successful and famous, running a large workshop with many pupils where his art sold well, but because of his personal life he went on to suffer from bipolar disorder, excessive spending and clinical depression leading to him becoming bankrupt and dying in poverty. 

But we skip over these details. We just assume they died in poverty because they were artists and that they had failed in life, but every artist's situation is different and whether they die in poverty has nothing to do with the creative process. Many factors can influence an artist's ability to make money. Many artists were so wrapped up in their artistic process that they didn't have time to think about money or how to use it well. They lived during a time of much disease and opinions on art that were very old fashioned. Women too struggled with sexism. Artist's are also notorious for not believing in themselves or their abilities and end up living a life of great struggle to produce anything they're willing to even show someone else, but it doesn't mean they're a failure or not successful, or even happy for that matter!

"Even though I’m often in a mess, inside me there’s still a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge.….As time passes, other things are increasingly excluded, and the more they are the faster my eyes see the picturesque. Art demands persistent work, work in spite of everything, and unceasing observation." - Van Gogh

Doing something with love and passion should be our primary reason for doing anything in life. Not whether it makes us money.

Of course we all need to pay the bills, but if we deny ourselves access to our creative hearts we will suffer untold mental anguish in the long term. We should always strive to do what we love, regardless of whether it makes us money because it will simply make us happier. In fact, you'll often find that if we do something just for the primary reason of creativity and for the love of it then often opportunities and situations will arise from that, which in turn will make us money or lead on to more opportunities that could lead to money. We just need to be open to them. Many artists are not because they are convinced they are not good enough.

I left college with a diploma in Graphic Design in the end. It was still something creative, but most of my course was focused on CD cover design, photography, computer design, a real mix of things of which I wasn't particularly passionate about any. I enjoyed computer design the most so I started a career in that, but I'll never forget the moment another student said to me that I'll just end up working for the local newspaper because I had decided not to go to university, as if that was a bad thing, but in our thinking it was. It was thought that if I skipped getting a full degree that that would somehow mean I would fail in life. I was determined to prove him wrong.

I spent a good decade or so working in the field of graphic design and subsequently web design. It was a novelty at that time because the internet was so new so I found it easy to find a job, especially as a woman. Companies thought that was a novelty too so I moved to London and made a whole career out of designing websites and logos and things like that. It wasn't the local newspaper so I had proved to my college friend I had "made it". I had a well paid job, an attractive CV (resume) and lots of experience, but I hated it all. It was not a creative experience at all.

There were many times I was sat in a job interview for the most mind-numbingly, non-creative type company and trying to find enthusiasm for why I wanted to work there. "I need money" I had wanted to scream. Where do I want to be in 5 years time? "Happy" I eventually started to say. Thankfully that was often seen as a positive answer, but really deep down it was me screaming at how bored and uncreative my life was. Why you may ask, I was a designer after-all, but the environment was all wrong.

One time I even found myself working in a converted garage with no windows, no natural light, just artificial lighting in the most grey and dreary office you could imagine and I was expected to design amazing things and be creative. It was the most uninspiring and uncreative environment I have ever worked in and I couldn't understand how I had got there. I would often question the people around me, "why do you like working here?" "why do you like London?" They couldn't understand why I was so depressed, so ungrateful for having this amazing job and opportunity. It was all about the money and the prestige.

Of course I was grateful for the money, I had to eat after-all, but considering most of my earnings went on just living and travel expenses to get to the job in London in the first place, I was merely surviving. Not much different to those artists after-all, but doing something I hated. At least they were doing what they loved.

So I quit. People thought I was mad, but I just quit. I had reached a very dark point and had finally snapped. I had to make a decision and I chose the brighter side. I started working as a waitress, doing some freelance work and various odd jobs until eventually I found the courage and belief in myself to start HappyBerry.

Now HappyBerry may not make me rich and famous either, it has certainly not been easy starting off in this new direction, but I'm surviving and I'm happy and this is what life should be about. I just want to be creative and to be creative in a way that lets me breathe. I get to paint and I have sold many paintings both offline and online over the years. I get to play with yarn every day and I get to be creative and try new things when I want to and share that with others, which in turn brings in a lot of joy to my life as well as a little money here and there, so it is absolutely possible to make money from your creative passions, it just might not make you rich, but that depends on your definition of rich. For me I am much richer in my life than when I had that top office job in London.

You just need to have the courage to believe in yourself. You need to follow that drive inside you to create. You need to wake up every morning and trust in what you're creating and just do it! because if you trust in yourself, then others will too. Don't worry about making money, start slow, seek opportunities and it will build in a way that is right for you. Do a side job if you have to, just like I did, just as a means to get there, but never give up or listen to the naysayers. Never let others dim your light or your creativity!

The myth of the struggling poor artist is just that, a myth. If you are doing what you love and you truly believe in yourself and your abilities then you are already a success.

See more of my art here: www.instagram.com/lauraecclestonart and here: www.youtube.com/lauraecclestonart

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