Complementarity and cross-pollination: Celebrating the day job

Day jobs. It seems that we love to hate them. For years I resented my office job. I wanted nothing more than to quit and make mosaics all day. If I could do that, I thought, it would mean I was a success. Life would be perfect. (Ha!)  I think Mark Manson dispels this myth perfectly when he says:

“[W]ho says you need to make money doing what you love? Since when does everyone feel entitled to love every fucking second of their job? Really, what is so wrong with working an OK normal job with some cool people you like, and then pursuing your passion in your free time on the side? […]

Look, here’s another slap in the face for you: every job sucks sometimes. There’s no such thing as some passionate activity that you will never get tired of, never get stressed over, never complain about. It doesn’t exist.”

Slowly, over the past year or so, I have been undergoing a shift in mindset. A shift to contentment. To finding joy and satisfaction with where I am in life, rather than obsessing about where I think I want to be and constantly feeling frustrated by where I’m not. Don’t get me wrong: I still have very high expectations for myself with respect to my mosaic work, but I have decoupled my measure of success from whether or not I make my living at mosaic.

I think it’s interesting that this mental shift has come at exactly the same time that my mosaic work seems to be picking up steam and starting to enjoy a VERY small inkling of traction. In other words: it happened at precisely the moment when you’d think that this progress on the mosaic front would be fuelling my resentment of my day job because the dream seems even more within my grasp. But it’s completely the opposite.

This gradual mental shift (which, looking back, seems embarrassingly obvious) culminated a few months ago when I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. There were so many sections in that book that resonated with me (far more than I had anticipated)—it was certainly a case of the right book at the right time—and one of them was a chapter on day jobs. In it, Gilbert tells her readers how she stuck with her day job even after having published three well-received novels, and that it wasn’t until her fourth—Eat, Pray, Love—that she finally allowed herself to quit her day job and dedicate herself to writing full time.

“I held on to those other sources of income for so long because I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. […] I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. I’ve seen artists drive themselves broke and crazy because of this insistence that they are not legitimate creators unless they can exclusively live off their creativity. […]

I’ve always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic. That’s everyone’s dream, right? But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare. Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of inspiration.”

Cuddly dog and cozy afghan: Perfect accompaniments to reading "Big Magic" over the holidays

Cuddly dog and cozy afghan: Perfect accompaniments to reading “Big Magic” over the holidays

Those words of hers (and others in the book) were a lightbulb moment for me. Things clicked into place. With this outlook fully and firmly entrenched in my way of thinking, I started considering all the interesting and positive ways that my day job actually influenced and supported my art. And the list was not insignificant. It was in this context that I decided to write this post.

As a first step, I put out a call via various social media channels to my fellow mosaicists with day jobs, soliciting their input. (A big thank you to all those who participated!) Very quickly I started receiving a steady stream of replies from people who bemoaned their day jobs, wishing desperately they could quit and do mosaic full time.

“I work as a seasonal tax preparer and told my boss I only wanted part time this year but now I regret going back at all! Going to quit after the peak […] because all I think about is mosaics!!! I even dream about it. Total addict.” (Robin Moyher)

“I work a full-time job and try to work on mosaics at night and weekends. However, it’s very, very hard as when I come home at night […], I am so tired. I want to quit […]!” (Becki Miles Whittington)

“All I ever learnt from my crappy admin day jobs was how much I preferred making mosaics. I found my succession of part-time jobs gave me the perfect excuse for not being successful as an artist – I could always say ‘Well, I would make that but I don’t really have time.'” (Heather Stevenson)

I was disappointed, thinking that they had obviously missed the point. But the more I read these replies and thought about them, the more it motivated me to write this blog post. So this post goes out to all those who are feeling frustrated or stuck or less than (i.e., not a Real Artist) because they don’t make art full time. The compilation below is my small attempt at encouraging those with 9-to-5 gigs to not sneer at their jobs with contempt, but to think about the various ways these jobs allow them to bring some pretty neat skills, perspectives, and knowledge to the table.

Escape and satisfaction

While not exactly a way that day jobs benefit mosaic work, enough people mentioned this that I think it’s a good place to start: the obvious benefit of art being an escape or release from the drudgery of the 9-to-5 grind. A place to exercise your autonomy and creativity, replenish your soul, and give yourself a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

“It makes me slower at finishing everything! But it certainly relieves any stress from Mr. Corporate America.” (Michelle Lowe)

“I work with numbers all day. The mosaics use the other side of my brain.” (Kim Caine Rexford)

“I started making mosaics when my three children were very young. Every day seemed exactly like the last—a stream of dressing, meal times, changing, cleaning, re-dressing, more cleaning, dealing with childish quarrels and frustrations, bathtimes and bedtimes. I had little time for mosaics, which were new to me but immediately became a source of great pleasure and excitement. One of the things that I found most satisfying at that stage is that mosaics gave me a sense of achievement. I might get through a long, difficult, lonely day of childcare and feel as if nothing had happened except that we’d all survived, but if I also managed to add a few tesserae to a piece that I was working on, the sense of progress that gave me was a source of huge satisfaction.” (Helen Miles)

Helen Miles' very first mosaic, made in stolen moments when her children were still very young

Helen Miles’ very first mosaic (the letter ‘m’ in Arabic), made in stolen moments when her children were still very young

Materials

Sometimes our day jobs are sources of mosaic materials, be they unusual or simply useful. I have written before about how some of my colleagues are rock fairies, leaving random gifts of rocks, sticks, and rusty metal on my desk. But others have jobs where their actual work materials can be translated into a mosaic context.

“I have a technical job, so it makes me look at the scraps at work in different ways. I am looking at […] doing a tech piece, with pieces of old memory sticks, cat5 cable, etc… It makes me really look at how I can recycle things.” (Lorie Redding)

“I was an operating theatre nurse…amazing the amount of mosaic-friendly stuff to use that would otherwise get thrown away…I really miss those abdominal sponges!” (Jane Silk)

Discipline

Time is, arguably without question, the limiting factor for those of us who have day jobs. Even with my new outlook, I will admit to getting frustrated over my lack of time. As such, we quickly learn to make smart decisions about how we spend our time (I’ve written about this before)—the activities in which we engage, how we structure our day, and the projects we undertake (oftentimes editing them down to their fundamental essence, resulting in tighter, more focused work than we might otherwise produce). We also become, out of sheer necessity, highly disciplined if we hope to accomplish anything substantial. And discipline is never a bad trait to have.

In Tami Zweig Macala’s case, her former day job as a costumer emphasized the need for “a really strong work ethic and a need to be constantly doing something,” and Ronni Polfer’s thinking was along the same lines: “I have to learn to discipline my time and finish one project before beginning another.” Donna Van Hooser felt similarly:

“I think the most important thing I learned being in [a corporate] environment was discipline and time management, especially being aware of my capabilities and adjusting the process to fit the deadline. […] One thing that I would tell myself while working was, ‘If you have one day to make a card, make a card that takes one day.’ I know that sounds obvious, but you won’t believe how many people would get behind or not meet deadlines because they didn’t adjust. They would spend half the time complaining about not having enough time. When I have a certain amount of time to make a mosaic, I need to adjust how I do it in order to get it done in time. I have learned to trust my instincts, and to try not to over-think or over-work a project.”

Skills and knowledge

Given that we nine-to-fivers spend a big chunk of our time at our day jobs, it’s almost inevitable that what we do there—the skills we master and the knowledge we gain—will in some way infiltrate and inform our mosaic work.

In my case, obviously the knowledge I have gained (and continue to gain) in my work on the climate change file has directly influenced my mosaic work on the subject (more on that in the Inspiration section below). But I have also acquired or honed more practical skills at my job that have served me well so far in my mosaic pursuits. The best example I can think of is my ability to write. As a policy analyst, I write a lot. I have to be able to explain often complex issues in plain language. The writing skills that I have developed at work have absolutely benefited my blogging, especially the posts that accompany each mosaic in the Fiddling While Rome Burns series (which I see as an essential complement to communicating the full message of my climate mosaic work).

Stacia Fink Goldman also spoke of how the writing and marketing skills she uses at work have benefited her mosaic work: “I’m a freelance marketing/advertising/PR writer. My skills have ABSOLUTELY benefitted my ability to make my mosaics a business and promote it—and write awesome proposals.” Some of the other tangible skills and traits that fellow mosaicists with day jobs were able to identify included patience (Kathleen Stewart) and team work (Donna Van Hooser). In the case of yoga teacher and naturopath Patricia Laura Sobrado, her yoga practice helps her see the world differently and reinforces the importance of doing art without expectations, whether people like it or not or buy it or not.

Rachel Sager had some thoughts on how her earlier incarnation as a massage therapist gave her valuable business insight:

“If you must have a day job to sustain your lifestyle as an artist, I highly recommend massage therapy as a career choice. After twenty years of doing both art and massage, I have a healthy appreciation for what each does for the other to support me. […] I will always be grateful for the serendipity of landing my first massage job at a high-end private club that put me into direct contact with a demographic of clients who 1. were genuinely interested in art, 2. could afford to invest in my art, and  3. had unique business experience and were willing to share it. The biggest takeaway I hold dear from those years is that business, any business, is about relationships. Your success in any field is directly connected to the strength and quality of the relationships that you sustain. My active massage days are mostly behind me now, but I continue to benefit from and foster those relationships, several of which even became mentors.”

Finally, Marian Shapiro spoke of how her experience as a self-employed computer consultant has informed her mosaic commission process:

“In a previous life I […] made my living making custom databases for not-for-profit organisations. For the past 12 years I have been making mosaics, with about 70% of the work being on commission: private, public, and commercial. One of the key things when making databases for people was to ensure that what was in my head, the client’s head, and what came out at the end of the process were as much as possible all the same thing with no unpleasant surprises on either side.

It’s exactly the same with commission work. You get the odd client who wants a surprise but most people want to be involved at some level and know what they are getting. After a few unpleasant experiences, including spending three days designing something for someone who then decided they didn’t want to go forward, and buying materials for projects that then didn’t happen, I worked out a structured commission process that includes charging a design fee, proper payment schedules, regular reporting to the client, and so on. I have a page on my website about commissioning work and a standard document I send to clients when they first inquire and that is also downloadable from my website. Over the years I have made amendments to it as situations arose that I hadn’t foreseen, but the principle of having a standard process (and sticking to it with no exceptions) has served me well.”

Marian Shapiro's "Field of Poppies"---a commission she nearly didn’t take because she was unsure about how to work with the clients after the initial site visit. The piece has appeared in books and magazines and was a finalist in the architectural section of Mosaic Arts International in 2013.

Marian Shapiro’s “Field of Poppies”—a commission she nearly didn’t take because she was unsure about how to work with the clients after the initial site visit. The piece has appeared in books and magazines and was a finalist in the architectural section of Mosaic Arts International in 2013.

Freedom

I may be the only one to mention this angle, but I think it deserves to be included: my day job gives me an immense amount of freedom and latitude in my mosaic work to explore the issues of my choosing. If I had to make my living from my art, I very much doubt that I would have thrown myself head first into a series about climate change. Because, let’s be honest, one wouldn’t intuitively think that there’s a booming market out there for mosaics about such a sobering topic. But because my work as a policy analyst keeps me fed, sheltered, and clothed, I have the freedom to work on a subject like climate change, simply because it’s important to me to speak out about it, without worrying about the consumer demand (or lack thereof) for this sort of art.

breaking the hand - start of breakdown

Because of my day job, I have the freedom to make mosaics about light and happy topics like ocean acidification

Inspiration

In my case, the file that I work on as a federal public servant (climate change adaptation) is directly related to my climate change series. Over the course of a normal work week, I am in constant contact with the issue, building my knowledge through a steady work-related diet of news articles and reports, some of which generate a little spark of inspiration and I tuck away as ideas for future mosaics in the series. My job is the source of so much inspiration, in fact, that my list of future climate-related mosaics far outstrips the time I have to make them. I will never lack for ideas or inspiration.

For Rachel Sager, it was the actual work environment that served as a source of inspiration:

“[Massage] puts me in a dark, quiet room on a regular basis. That simple reality has resulted in scores of artistic conversations that I have had with myself. I can makes lists of the art that was inspired and shaped in my head while I am quietly working with my hands on another human being. The cave-like atmosphere of a massage environment, the slowing down of breath and speech, has done more to further my art career than any business class. As an introvert, the hibernation of the cave and the one-on-one format of social interaction is where I thrive and recharge.”

Rachel Sager's "Allegory of Free Will" -- one example of her work that was shaped in her head in the cave-like massage environment

Rachel Sager’s “Allegory of Free Will” — one example of her work that was shaped in her head in the cave-like massage environment

For others, there was an even more direct link to inspiration, as they were already engaged in creative day jobs. Donna Van Hooser, who worked for 27 years as a designer/illustrator at Hallmark Cards, had this to say:

“Working daily with so many creative people, it was easy to get inspiration for my mosaic work. I feel very fortunate to have had the corporate experience, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I was home working on my mosaics during the day. […] It’s funny, because I did primarily kids’ cards during my time there (lots of bunnies, bears, and mice wearing clothes), so a little bit of whimsy snuck into my mosaic work. Storytelling was very important to me. If I had to pick one of my mosaics that was mostly influenced by this, it would be “What, This Old Thing?”, which is a robin dressed as Queen Elizabeth. So much of my personal work was conceived at my day job…”

Donna Van Hooser's "What, This Old Thing?"

Donna Van Hooser’s “What, This Old Thing?”

And Siovhan Hutcherson and Heather Vollans had the following to say:

“I work full time in an Italian lighting company now, 8 – 5+, to keep the roof over the head. I dream of being a full time artist! In my day-to-day reality, the press of the daily slog does slow me down, production wise, with my mosaic art […]. One project could take weeks because I can only dedicate evenings and weekends (and sometimes I do have other things to do!). But at the same time, working in a company that’s business is designing unique and high-end light fixtures from the heart of Italy, I do get exposed to the publications of the field of interior design, and I find that very inspirational. The color palettes of the layouts in these magazines, patterns and such, do wash through me… Moreover, it shows me what’s possible.” (Siovhan Hutcherson)

“I worked as a decorative painter for years doing faux finishes and such – great influence in what I do now!” (Heather Vollans)

Some final thoughts

So, my fellow nine-to-fivers, here’s what I’m hoping you’ll take away from this post:

  • It’s absolutely OK to be frustrated with your day job and to want to make mosaics full time, but please resist the temptation to construct some idealized view of what it would be like, where everything will be 100% perfect and sunny. As Mark Manson says, every job comes with a shit sandwich.
  • Be ambitious and driven, but cultivate contentment. Dream big, but don’t focus on where you’re not, because the resentment and frustration that comes with doing so is toxic (and I am very much speaking from experience here). Sometimes it helps to focus on the pleasure of creating, as Siovhan Hutcherson wrote: “[R]eality is hard, but I do what I love for the love of the art, the mosaic process itself, so I make as I can, and rest when I need to. […] We all hope to sell and make at least SOME income from it […], but if i never sell another thing, I will still create…because it’s a very basic part of who I am.”
  • Find something to appreciate about your day job, even if it’s as simple as putting food on the table while you work toward your dream. Think about what transferable skills, knowledge, or experiences you can acquire while you’re there that will serve you well in the long run.

Remember: We day jobbers are a tenacious, disciplined bunch and we have a lot of interesting perspectives and skills to offer. And we can, without question, live a creative life, make beautiful, impactful art in the evenings and on weekends, and we can actively contribute to the dialogue within the mosaic community and to pushing our medium’s boundaries. So there. Pep talk over. Carry on!

PS For extra credit, read Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on hobbies, jobs, careers, and vocations. You’ll be glad you did.

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16 Responses to Complementarity and cross-pollination: Celebrating the day job

  1. Helen Miles Mosaics January 30, 2016 at 1:49 pm #

    So interesting and informative. Love the postive approach and the notion that everything we do feeds into our artistic expression. I will go out and order Big Magic NOW! Thanks for this.

    • Julie Sperling January 30, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

      Thanks Helen! And yes, definitely get your hands on a copy of Big Magic post haste! It’s great.

  2. Michelle Lowe January 31, 2016 at 10:16 am #

    So well said! Thank you!

    • Julie Sperling January 31, 2016 at 10:59 am #

      You’re most welcome, Michelle! And thanks for contributing!

  3. Aparna January 31, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    You’ve given me some food for thought, Julie, and I’m not even an artist. Thank you!

    • Julie Sperling January 31, 2016 at 10:57 am #

      I definitely think it’s applicable beyond art, Aparna! Glad it gave you something to mull :-)

  4. Carolyn January 31, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I have always admired your work and that of those mentioned in your article. For many of us, it does boil down to the availability of time. I agree wholeheartedly, even though I come from a different perspective. Without a regular paying day job, the responsibilities and obligations of life, and unwarranted though pervasive guilt for indulging in any kind of intentional soul-nurturing frivolities before 5pm, still provide a source for resentment. I, too, have read Big Magic and will continue do some work toward an attitude shift. Came across your blog post on a Sunday morning and will now escape to create. Hope you can do the same.

    • Julie Sperling January 31, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

      Thanks Carolyn! I hope you were able to spend some quality time (guilt free!) in the studio today! I will be making my way there later today and am looking forward to it.

  5. Wendy buffrey January 31, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

    I look forward to the day i retire and can spend more time doing what i enjoy more, but for now i will carry on 9 to 5 so i can enjoy a pressure free retirement, if my work sells thats fine if it doesent thats fine. I just carry on collecting items in the mean time. So at the moment i am not a mosaic artist but i am the curator of an eclectic collection of wonderful possabilities.

    • Julie Sperling January 31, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

      Oh Wendy, I absolutely LOVE that job title: “curator of an eclectic collection of wonderful possibilities.” It’s perfectly perfect. That’s what I want to be when I grow up :-)

    • Edna Teller January 31, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

      Hi Wendy, May I use your job title and share on social media? Loved it!

      • Julie Sperling January 31, 2016 at 7:25 pm #

        It’s so great, isn’t it Edna? Wendy definitely needs to market that genius phrase. I can see it on t-shirts, mugs…the sky’s the limit ;-)

  6. Susan W Kemp January 31, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    What a great post! Thank you for putting into words some of the things I have been thinking, plus a lot more. Well done.

    • Julie Sperling January 31, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

      Glad you found it helpful, Susan! (And glad to know I’m not the only one thinking these things!)

  7. virginiamosaics February 2, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article, Julie… thank you! I remember seeing your request for quotes and really didn’t think I had anything it add, but I will add one thing… for me, as a Realtor, a profession that seems to be more tedious with every passing year, I feel so blessed to have my art. It has brought me through darkness and it continues to help me stay aligned.

    • Julie Sperling February 2, 2016 at 10:46 am #

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Virginia! I totally hear you: art can be such a lifeline when day jobs get a bit tedious and soul-sucking :-)

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