Nose to the grindstone: Artists and their day jobs

Updated: Jun 19


Artists seem to lead parallel lives, especially at the beginning of their careers when they are finally realizing their own approach to art. The transition into the full-time profession as an artist sometimes comes with maintaining their sense of security through a day job while trying to navigate the art world, and for good measure since throughout history they have had to keep trying to make-or-break into the market with many challenges. We take a look at various artists who had a day job and explore their unusual career trajectory that came with it:


Vivian Maier's remedy for memory


Courtesy: Artsy

It took a local auction in Chicago which revealed the genius of Vivian Maier to the world in 2009 when her story became viral online. Maier had spent 40 years working as a nanny, first in New York and mostly in Chicago. She would take her wards along with her around the city with her Rollieflex at her hip. From her self conscious-self portraits to her striking compositions of people from all walks of life, Maier showed an enviable range as a street photographer, influenced by photographers like Diane Arbus and Henri-Cartier Bresson whose books were found among her belongings.

She was described by the people who knew her as a "real life Mary Poppins" who couldn't say a hard word to children and was a feminist and anti-racist. This translated directly into her work as a photographer where everything and everyone was of interest to her as her subjects have been called the "etceteras of society". Intensely private, she made no efforts to showcase her photographs in galleries and publications: more than 150,000 of her negatives had been stowed away in boxes and her posthumous fame flaunts her keen eye and compassion for people around her.


Caldering metal


Courtesy: Sotheby’s

Born into a family of artists, Calder had been trained as a mechanical engineer and spent most of his life working variously as a hydraulics engineer,a mechanic/repairman on a ship, and as a draftsman for a New York company. He also had been trained in the military as a naval guide with his lifelong fascination with the circus also beginning around this time.

Calderon's artworks have been endowed with "movement as the fourth dimension" and in his 'mobiles' as his friend Marcel Duchamp named the kinetic sculptures moving with motors show his firm understanding and combination of the mechanics of powered contraptions and the aesthetics of experimentation through using offbeat materials for his creations. His attraction to abstract art ultimately as we know it in the form of his large scale public installations are an example of the instance of beauty when science meets art in the intersection of his brilliant mind.


Capture the flag


Courtesy: International Centre of Photography

After his two year stint in the American army stationed in Korea, Jasper Johns spent a lot of time working small jobs to make ends meet. He had worked as a messenger, a bookstore manager, a shipping clerk, and along with his partner the artist Robert Rauschenberg, he designed store window displays for luxury companies like Tiffany and Bonwit Teller.


Arguably, Johns' painting of the American flag remains the most famous artwork from his oeuvre, finally selling for $36 million dollars at Sotheby's. His Flag (1954-5) was painted in a technique borrowed from the ancient Egyptians in which pigments are suspended in hot wax to give off sharp and endowed images with a textured impasto effect, and Johns painted over newspaper headline clippings making the work more enigmatic and symbolic of multiple narratives within the American identity. Inculcating the patriotic iconography within pop art and abstract expressionism, it has been widely speculated that Johns' military career and McCarthyian era targeting of communists and LGBTQI people in the US were directly influential to this painting's genesis.



Culture vulture


Barbara Kruger is a favorite around these parts because of her arresting style and her deft redefining of cultural critique through combining text and imagery to question power and how it affects our daily lives. Her long career as a graphic designer for Conde Nast, along with freelancing as a book cover designer and photo editor shaped her creative sensibility and gave her future work her signature striking quality to draw in the viewer. She maintained in many interviews that she employed this rhetoric in a specific manner: in an industry where one could be fired for not making the reader pause, it became necessary for her to improvise a method where she could use her training as a graphic designer in her artworks at a formal and visual level, but the subjects had been polemically opposite.


Her cropped monochrome images overlaid with bold typeface text highlighted in red, white, or black are particularly inviting with the raucous and provocative phrases appropriating the meaning conveyed by the image itself. Her interest in semiotic and feminist theory also manifested in her scathing comments on gender and consumerist culture through her artworks while simultaneously questioning the influence of advertising in art.





Good old Rothkie


Courtesy: Sotheby’s

Mark Rothko's colour field paintings have been claimed to be too simplistic and that even a child could make them. This criticism does not take into account his superlative technique and sense of style to provoke the reaction he seeks from the viewer. His early career was marked by great financial hardship and he finally secured some stability when he was appointed as an art instructor for children and adolescents at the Brooklyn Jewish Centre where he worked for over 22 years.

This close mentoring had attuned him to children's authenticity and ability to convey emotions, along with an intense freshness of ideas. He had been vocal about appreciating children's art and had created a rudimentary pedagogic model to teach art to children. Popularly known as 'Rothkie' at the Centre, the experience had been directly influential for his notions of primitive art and led to the distilling of similar ideas which would be evident in his immensely popular artworks in his later career.


The moon and the sixpence


Courtesy: Saatchi Art

Mild mannered French stockbroker Paul Gauguin notoriously became Paul Gaugin the artist in a radical transformation. Born into a liberal middle class family, after his military preparatory school, Gaugin served in the French navy for two years before returning to Paris where family connections helped him secure a job as a stockbroker. He had been a successful businessman for 11 years, and would frequently deal in the art market, purchasing paintings from emerging artists. In his spare time, he would also paint and found like minded artists and dealers who supported and encouraged him, going on to show his artworks at Impressionist exhibitions and he sold a few of his own paintings.


After the stock market crashed in Paris, his income decreased quickly and he decided to pursue painting full time. However this process got dragged out and in the face of extreme poverty Gauguin took up menial jobs for sustaining his family, once disastrously as a tarpaulin salesman. Ultimately in 1891, he cut ties with his family and moved to the French colonies in Tahiti where he settled with the native population, eschewing the restrictive Western society, its morality, and his hypocritical facade of propriety and duty. He also abandoned his past style and chose to borrow from Tahitian culture to develop a new primitivist approach to art.


Que Serra Serra


Courtesy: Artnet

Richard Serra had a strong working class background and he traces the very site of his influences to be the San Francisco shipyard where his father worked as a pipefitter. Today he is well known primarily for his minimalist sculptures using large scale assemblies of metal sheets and rolls, and the sale of one of his sculptures was of $1.65 million at Sotheby's in 2008.


However during less prosperous times, Serra had established a small furniture moving company to finance his artworks which had been increasingly becoming expensive. His company known as Low-Rate Movers also employed many other now famous artists including Philip Glass, Chuck Close, Spalding Gray, among others.


Glass animals


Courtesy: Interview Magazine

Dealing with popular art and sculptures of everyday objects, Jeff Koons' artworks have been sold for upwards of $ 90 millions in 2019. With regards to his humble origins, Koons had decided to work separately from the art market in order to finance his first series of artworks as well as for the assurance that he didn't need the art market necessarily. In the 1980s he started working as a Wall Street commodities broker. He also had manned the reception membership desk at MoMA and tried political canvassing for a while.


Toeing the line between elitism and public art, Koons' sculptures have been criticized as being luxury consumer items owing to his connections with the art world who champion his work unconditionally. Adding to that his notoriety as a charming and seductive stockbroker also contributed to his maverick image. However, his art has always been inviting critical attention, debate, and acclaim since the late 1990s. His collectors are usually befuddled by his pitches and a critic has commented that Koons' vision surpasses the goals of his curators and collectors. Not a bad reputation to have, right?



As we try and connect the artists to their day jobs in non-creative fields, it has to be acknowledged that these jobs contribute to the development of their personal aesthetics which are implicit in their artworks. More often than not, these career choices seem to build upon their sense of patience and passion which ultimately dictates their position with regards to the society they are in. Sometimes, these professionals aren't far removed from the art world. For example, with reference to an exhibition of artworks by workers at David Zwirner Gallery, the organization's spokesperson had commented that many people who work in art galleries and museums go on and "make art history". Many artists also are affiliated with universities. Others treat their job as a safety net and possible bank to fund their art. Either way, the persistence and courage of the artists is to be lauded, and these serve as a further example that sometimes passion for art has to be supplemented by other roads to achieve professional fulfillment.



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