In Praise of the Day Job

Jen Hewett - In Praise of the Day Job

This is a piece I wrote for Mabel Magazine last year. The editors have kindly allowed me to re-post it here, with some edits.

For the last six years, I’ve been a fairly successful working artist. And for the last five years, I’ve had a day job. (However, this piece isn’t about how I found my day job, because that involves connections, experience, luck, and an employment scene that is very particular to the San Francisco Bay Area.)

When I quit my last full-time, non-creative job in 2010 so I could develop my art career, I didn’t want to plunge into life as a full-time working artist. Because I knew I couldn’t support myself that way for the first few years, I took on part-time work as a human resources consultant. Two to three days per week, I work on-site with my consulting clients. The rest of the time, I work in my studio, ship orders, and participate in shows.

A few days in the studio each week may not seem like a lot to many, but it’s been enough for me to launch new collections every six months, work on annual projects (like my 2014 52 Weeks of Printmaking, and my 2015 Print, Pattern, Sew projects), prepare for shows, teach classes, and experiment with new media and new concepts.

Would I like more time? Certainly. But I also believe that having a day job has allowed me to get this far – and to keep on going. Why?

A day job pays the bills.

Yes, this is obvious. Money is why we keep our day jobs. It’s a whole lot easier to create when you don’t have to worry about paying your bills. In order to create, I need to be fed, have a roof over my head – and pay for supplies. All of my materials – ink, screens, film, fabric – cost money. And I have to pay for them first, before I can create much of the work that I sell.

A day job allows you to create work for work’s sake, rather than for the money.

Two years ago, I decided to launch my 52 Weeks of Printmaking project. Every week, I created a new print and shared it online. Some of my work was really good, some of it was fairly mediocre. But that didn’t matter. I wasn’t planning to sell most of the work, so there was no pressure to create things that I thought would sell.

That may sound counterintuitive to many, especially in a society in which our worth is often judged by how much money we make. But experimenting is an important part of any creative practice. And we need the freedom to experiment and fail, without having to worry about the financial repercussions. Experimenting means playing a long game, sacrificing potential, immediate rewards in favor of developing skills and growing a practice.

Which leads to…

Desperation doesn’t create great work.

My best work has come when I haven’t had to worry about the money. There have been times when, desperate for money (because I’d cut my consulting hours, or because my taxes were higher than expected), I quickly created work that I thought would sell. And, probably because that work was slapdash and not fleshed out, it did not sell well. Now, I spend three to five months working on each collection, which I release twice per year. And guess what? I regularly sell out of those collections.

A day job teaches you to show up over and over again.

If you don’t show up to your day job, or if you slack off regularly, what will happen? Well, if you work for one of my HR consulting clients, you’ll likely get fired. Being successful at your day job requires you to be somewhat disciplined. There are tasks to perform, people to interact with, deadlines to meet. If nothing else, a day job requires you to figuratively sit your butt in a chair and work, despite your mood or external circumstances. Today was crappy and unproductive? You still have to show up tomorrow, and the day after that.

People often seem to think that if they just had the right materials, or the right ideas, or a ton of talent, they’d make it. But in the end, it’s really about creating and sharing a lot of work. Is there a better way to create a lot of work than to treat your creative practice as a job, and show up, day after day? I don’t think there is.

A day job gives you perspective.

It took me fifteen years of experience to get to the point where I could leave my full-time job and consult. During those fifteen years, I had a couple of entry-level jobs, started (and closed) my own business, did a lot of grunt work, finally got to do some strategic work, worked on some cool projects, made a lot of mistakes, had a few big successes. I dreamed big, and then I put in a lot of work.

Someone once asked me how long I thought it would take for her creative business to make a million dollars. I responded, “maybe a couple of years, maybe never.” We live in a world that loves stories about overnight successes. Social media shows us pictures of pretty studios and finished collections without talking much about the work that goes into them. And that’s okay – like a glossy magazine, social media only presents a snapshot of the story. But working a day job reminds you that there is a path, that you have to put in the hours and develop your skills in order to make it to the next level. Being an artist is no different.

One day, my art income will regularly surpass my day job income. That’s when I’ll know that I can quit my day job. Until then, I’m happy that my two incomes give me the freedom to explore, make mistakes, and grow.

Photo by Stefanie Renee Lindeen

There’s Only One of Me

There's Only One of Me by Jen Hewett

When I left my day job at the end of July so I could focus on my art career, I’d thought that this move would free up some of my time so I could create more. However, the opposite happened – opportunities quickly came along and filled my schedule. I suddenly realized that busy may be my new reality.

I am not complaining about this at all; after all, to quote my friend Lisa, I chose this. But it does mean that, once again, I have to very consciously choose how I spend my time. For now, I choose to focus on creating new work and on seizing opportunities. I choose not to respond to every email (I get a lot of those) or reply to every social media comment (I get even more of those). There is only one of me, and I can only do so much.

I know I’m not alone in this. I follow a well-known food blogger/cookbook author. I love this blogger’s writing voice, and admire how much very good work he’s able to crank out on a regular basis. Most of all, I enjoy his un-styled Instagram posts of his meals.

But whenever he posts a photo, he gets a zillion questions, most of which fall into two camps: “Where is this?” and “Recipe, please?” One day, a follower posted, “Why don’t you ever respond to my questions?”

Before the blogger could respond, another follower said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Leave the man alone, and let him work. If he responded to every question, he wouldn’t have time to create new recipes, or write his blog posts and cookbooks.” And that is the nut of it. For a lot of us, social media is a tool we use to share and promote our work; however, social media is *not* our work. And every minute spent responding to a comment or answering an email is a minute that has to come from somewhere else.

I am immensely grateful for my following. I know that people follow me because they like my work, and I fear alienating them when I don’t respond to every comment or email. However, I am just one person, with a set amount of time. Many of us – writers, artists, business owners – are solo acts, making the best we can with what time we have. Perhaps social media makes our lives seem leisurely, but the fact is that we work just as much as everyone else. We struggle with deadlines and work/life balance just as our followers do.

Which, I suppose, is a very long-winded way to apologize up front for not answering every email, or responding to every comment. Though I try, there is just one of me, and I’m making the most of the time I have to make the work that I share – and to make a living. I hope you understand.

Life in a Small Studio

Jen Hewett Studio: Life in a Small Studio

A couple of weeks ago, I paid off my 2013 California State taxes. I was on an installment plan, paying monthly, but I’d gotten a nice chunk of money from teaching a private class. Since I’d already paid all my other bills for the month, I figured I’d write a check to the state.

I mentioned this to a friend, and she said “Isn’t it great that you’re using money from doing something you really love to pay that off?”

Oh, duh. I hadn’t thought about that.

Jen Hewett Studio: Life in a Small Studio

In the past few months, I’ve supplemented my consulting income with money from teaching and from my limited-edition projects with Fringe. That has smoothed over the months (i.e. January – September) when I’m not selling a lot of art. For a few months, I’ve been pleasantly surprised when that money has allowed me to pay a bit extra on my credit card bills, or – amazingly – funded a short vacation. It’s happened without me really noticing.

And I’d teach throughout the entire year if I didn’t have to prep for holiday sales. Last year, I was caught off guard by a sudden spike in sales for Christmas. This year, I’ve vowed to get a bit ahead of the crunch.

So I’ve been printing. A lot. I spent the weekend starting to build up my inventory, and I realized something I’ve subconsciously known for a long time: I’m outgrowing my tiny studio. My drying racks have migrated from my studio to the kitchen and hallway; I cut fabric on the kitchen floor because my studio can’t fit a table wide enough for a 60″ wide bolt of fabric. This is all fine as long as my roommate is out of town, but it’s definitely not a long term solution.

Jen Hewett Studio: Life in a Small Studio

I’ve thought a number of times about getting a separate studio, but then I think about the bills I’m trying to pay down, and the taxes I’m trying to get caught up on. Another solution is to pay to use the shared studio space in the Big Studio (which I’ve occasionally done). It’s not a bad option, but I’d have to do my printing during week days, which would make me less accessible to my consulting clients…who pay the bulk of my bills.

So, for now, I’m stuck in a sort of limbo. I have a very functional room that doesn’t cost me anything extra. I think I can make it work for another year. But, oh, I’d love to have more space, where I could occasionally teach classes, and maybe even put in a second (or third!) table. I’ll save some money, pay down some more bills, and generally make it work. I’ll get creative.

Because getting creative is what we artists do.

Work and Love and Training Dogs

Jen Hewett Gus and Pillow

A little over a year ago, Gus and I graduated from Reactive Rover class. Gus was hands-down the most difficult dog in the class, barking nonstop and requiring bags of treats to settle down. He was never called on to complete exercises in front of the class. I was in tears by the end of our first couple of sessions. He was *that* bad.

But I stuck with his training, bribing him into silence on walks with chicken hot dogs, and teaching hm basic commands. By the end of our course, Gus had gone from the worst dog in the group, to the only one who nailed every single exercise (including ones I’d never taught him). When the trainers congratulated us on Gus’ complete turnaround, I cried again but, this time, for a different reason.

That was only the beginning, though. Once Gus had the basic training down, it was up to me to reinforce it every single day. Some days are easier than others – Gus won’t bark once on our long morning walks, or he’ll walk through a gauntlet of dogs, eyes on me (and my chicken hot dogs) the entire time. Other days, he’ll bark at flags and cyclists and every eight-year-old boy who crosses our path. He’s a work in progress.

And so am I, though I’m often more patient with Gus than I am with myself. I want to accomplish more, lead more classes, sell more things. I want to spend more time on my art practice. I want more press. And I want it all now. But when I take a step back, I can see that like training a dog, growing my art business happens incrementally, through consistency and discipline. My sales are steady. No, there is no graduation, no big retrospective of the past few years. Instead, there are small successes – a new collection, or a small bit of press, or an unexpected collaboration that opens a new market. All of this adds up. I just need to change my perspective.

The other day, while Gus was sniffing, rather than barking at, another dog in the park, a neighbor stopped me to tell me what a good dog Gus was becoming. “You’ve clearly put a lot of work and love into him,” she said. I have. And I need to step back and recognize that all the work and love I’ve put into my creative life is leading me exactly to the place I want to be as well.