As part of my mission to debunk some of the myths around creative success and discover what it really takes to manage a creative lifestyle, I’m going to be posting interviews with arty types to find out what makes their lives tick.
It’s true that I do a lot of different things, and I think you almost have to do a lot of different things to be financially successful as an artist. But it’s honestly not as overwhelming as it sounds. Things seem to ebb and flow – for a while I’ll find a ton of teaching jobs flooding in, and then perhaps those dry up but are replaced with a spike in photography jobs, and then maybe that fades but I find myself picking up a great directing gig or two.
I do have a couple of “anchors” in the year – projects I go back to repeatedly that I sort of plan my year around. For the last four years, I’ve spent my Decembers donning Victorian garb and singing with a professional Christmas caroling group. This past summer I spent ten weeks in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, directing plays and musicals at a performing arts camp for teens and tweens, and I plan to head back there for the next several summers.
Throughout the rest of the year, I go with that ebb and flow – both of the opportunities that arise, and of my own whims. If I do a lot of work in any one area for too long, I start to get burned out on it and have to do something different for a while. I think that plays a lot into what opportunities I notice as well as which ones appeal to me.
As far as how much time I spend, it can vary so much that it’s really hard to quantify. During the summer when I’m at the camp, I’m putting in 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week for 10 weeks (although it feels more like playing with awesome kids in the mountains than it does like work). When I’m singing in December, I may gig for a total of 40 hours for the entire month, and still make enough to pay the bills and even carry over into the new year.
Different types of jobs have a different time to income ratio. If I’m teaching a class or directing a show, I may be getting a decent hourly rate for my in-class time, but I’m also putting in 1-2 hours outside of class prepping for every hour in class. Private voice and piano lessons have a better payoff, as I’ve been teaching those for so long that I can more or less just show up and teach with very little need for prep. Photography gigs (particularly weddings) can be lucrative, but only come along infrequently. Same with on-camera acting work like commercials.
You mention in your theatre bio that you spent eight years in the sales department at UPS, and that you loved it. What happened to your creative endeavours during that time? And what happened to your budget when you decided to leave UPS behind? Have you had any other day jobs, or does your creative work support you?
I am one of those “middle-brain dominant” people, someone who thrives equally in both right- and left-brain activities, so working a corporate gig for a few years actually nourished a very important part of me.
I did let my creative side slide more than I would have liked during that time, though. I was pretty involved with a contemporary worship band at my church and did teach some weekend voice lessons, so my musical muscles were still getting at least a bit of a workout. But I literally went that entire eight years without doing anything related to acting (unless you count my sales work!), which I think is one of the reasons I sort of “snapped” on a trip to NYC and realized I had to get back to the performing arts.
My experience on that New York trip was so intense that I might have left UPS immediately, except that I was dealing with an ongoing back injury and wasn’t willing to walk away from health insurance until I knew that was addressed. It ended up taking another year to get everything fixed up, so during that time I aggressively paid down debts and banked up savings.
I left UPS in a really good financial situation, and was able to use that to not feel so pressured as I found my way in the performing arts world. It also enabled me to buy things I needed like new headshots, some refresher acting classes and voice lessons, and lots of camera equipment (something that started as a hobby but ended up becoming another means of income).
Since I left UPS in July of 2007, I’ve almost entirely supported myself with gigs either directly related to my creative thing, or at least utilizing my performance training (things like tour-guiding and public speaking). This past year was a little rough with the economy, and I think I worked five or six days of temp jobs in 2010, plus a three-week part-time thing helping with the US Census in May.
How do you maintain energy for your creative work? What do you do to look after yourself? Do you have balance in your life, or do you think it’s a myth?
I think one of the benefits I have as an artist is that I do have the business savvy and the whole left-brain thing going on, too. I have seen my self-employment as running my own small business – as opposed to a series of disjointed short gigs – since day one. I’m doing all the business-related stuff like marketing and business plans and accounting, and I find that balances my creative side and what I do there.
The hardest thing about being self employed is the temptation to always be working. The same goes for having a career that doesn’t feel like work. It’s really easy for me to put in a 14 or 15 hour day and not even notice that I’ve done so, because I’m enjoying what I’m doing. But enjoying it or not, that’s still not healthy and I try my best to check in with myself and make time for friends and for fun. There are times I’m good at this, and times I’m less good at it. :-)
At the moment you’re working on a very special photography project – tell us about that!
A friend of mine from college, a dance teacher, introduced me to this amazing fledgling organization here in Chicago called Donna’s Good Things. The “Donna” of Donna’s Good Things was a precocious and exuberant little girl who took dance classes with my friend for a couple year – all the while struggling with a pretty aggressive cancer. She lost the fight with the disease at just four years old.
After her death, Donna’s parents started Donna’s Good Things as an official way to continue the spirit that Donna inspired in everyone she met. For example, when Donna was a resident of the oncology wing at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, her parents threw a New Year’s Eve party for the other patients and their families. Donna’s Good Things continues to host the party now as an annual event.
Donna’s Good Things, in its brief existence, has already provided scholarships to children whose families could not afford dance classes, and personal DVD players and iPads to children facing terminal illness. They also sponsored the renovation of the dressing room at a local arts center.
Although it’s gotten some exposure here in Chicago, Donna’s Good Things is still a young group. I was moved to do something to help, so I’ve decided to run a special fundraiser for the month of January. I’m selling prints and canvases of some of my photography work, and 50% of all the January profits will go directly to Donna’s Good Things. My initial goal was to raise $5000 for the group, and I’d love to still get there, although I will admit there’s still a long way to go!
Thanks Tobi, and good luck with the fundraiser!
If you’d like to buy some gorgeous art and help Tobi reach her fundraising goal for Donna’s Good Things, take a look at the photographic prints she has on offer until the end of January. Catch up with Tobi on Twitter if you’d like to know more!