Bohemian, quotidian, and doggedly committed: The piecemeal process of making a living as an artist in the Twin Cities


One day in fifth grade, the teacher said we had 10 minutes to draw a scientist, and we were to be as detailed as possible. We all diligently set to work. I was grateful for a creative exercise, though not sure of the actual point of the assignment. When we were finished, I proudly displayed my scientist: a man in a white lab coat mixing mysterious chemicals in a laboratory: the consummate scientist, right? Maybe not. I quickly learned that I had completely missed the point of the assignment when the know-it-all at the next table described her drawing. It depicted a female marine biologist in full scuba gear diving with the dolphins. I felt humbled and ashamed. Even at 10 years old, I knew that my male lab tech was a paltry representation of the world of science. Also, it was horribly sexist.

What if we were given this assignment today? What if we replaced “scientist” with “artist”? What kind of drawings would we all come up with? A few years ago, I may have missed the point again and drawn the typical, romantic depiction of an artist: a be-smocked and paint splattered artisan staring in consternation at a blank canvas in a sun-dappled atelier. But today I might draw a potter, his clothes splotched with telltale mud, holding a dish brush because he actually makes a living washing dishes. Or maybe I’d draw a painter sitting in a corporate office at her desk, quietly designing store layouts for a nationwide chain. Another permutation of artist is the insightful therapist who uses theater to counsel teenagers. As I’ve come to find out, the arts community in the Twin Cities contains all of these and more: artists of all stripes doing their thing, making their art, and making a living in whatever way they can. I’ve learned that the typical perception of “artist” is nowhere near the real thing.

Accepting the Capital A

Andy Sturdevant (center) during the Common Room Tour, August 10, 2011.

At Springboard for the Arts, a local nonprofit that puts artists together with the resources they need, they are all too familiar with different flavors of artists. (For example, they were Twin Cities Runoff’s fiscal sponsor.) Andy Sturdevant, Springboard’s artist resource manager, is one of the first to connect artists with the programs and people they need. “It’s sort of a triage,” says Sturdevant of his role. “I think there’s a large segment of the artistic population that just doesn’t know the services are out there.” Some artists are born with an entrepreneurial spirit that can help shape a successful artist. Springboard is there for the rest of us, supplementing the born and bred creativity with a little business savvy.

There’s a sense of injustice when you can tell that someone thinks they know everything about you by the job you do. But the term “artist” carries cachet, often associated with gallery showings or a teaching job—or, it can be associated with the cliché of the part-time barista who doodles between shifts. The staff at Springboard don’t judge the artists who come in asking for help. There is no test to determine if someone is “good enough” or a “real artist”. “We say here that anytime somebody takes the trouble to call themselves an artist we’ll take them at face value on that,” Sturdevant explains.

Sometimes I get the sense that “artist” is a dirty word. Or it’s certainly something you don’t call yourself; you’re only an artist when someone else refers to you as one. It took me a long time to call myself a writer, mostly because for a long time I felt like an impostor. But just like overcoming an addiction, the first step is admitting it. If you write, you’re a writer, and if you make art, you’re an artist. If you can admit you’re an artist, you’re one step closer to making it a definitive part of your life.

Sturdevant is an artist in his own right, having earned a BFA in painting and more recently running the art and culture variety show Salon Saloon with Works Progress. He has been with Springboard for about a year and a half, but has been working with artists for most of his professional career. Though not originally from the Twin Cities, Sturdevant has become cozily ensconced in the local arts.

As is the case with many artists, the art is what sustains a happy, healthy person, but there has to be something to sustain more basic functions like shelter and food. Sturdevant’s case was no different. “I was also doing administrative work at the University on the side just cause that’s what was paying the bills, which is the way you gotta do it sometimes.”

Working with artists has afforded Sturdevant some insights into how others work and go about making a living for themselves. “For as long as I’ve been working with artists, I’ve known a lot of them to have professional positions outside of their practice, and that can be a really positive thing.”

Where to Go When the Funds Are Cut

Some artists have found a way to combine work and art, like Adam Arnold, a theater artist, therapist, and director of Blank Slate Theatre in St. Paul. Separate from his work running Blank Slate, Arnold works as a therapist. “There are really three parts of my life,” explains Arnold. “There’s teaching and directing and acting with the theater, then the other part of my life is strictly therapy, and the third part of my life is when those two come together,” which is where Blank Slate fits in.

Blank Slate Theatre is a community theater group comprised mostly of teenagers from the Twin Cities metro area. The kids who attend Blank Slate are encouraged to express themselves in the hopes that the acting training and artistic guidance will lead to personal growth.

Arnold is grateful to have such a space for artistic expression in his life because it allows him to switch frames of mind, to take off his therapist hat for a while and forget about what can, at times, be a tense vocation. “Therapy can be stressful, especially places where I’ve been where it’s been kids in treatment, kids who have broken a lot of laws.”

Blank Slate grew out of Arnold’s work at a treatment center for youth, where he was asked to lead weekly acting classes. The classes were a huge success until the center was bought by another company that did away with art therapy. “They cut music therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, yoga, movement therapy, wilderness therapy and just kind of made it all about talking. So, many of us left, and that’s when I started Blank Slate Theatre on its own.” After Blank Slate got off the ground, Arnold was able to reinstate his work with drama therapy at the treatment center. However, not all arts practitioners are so lucky. In an economy where there’s a job opening for every 500 or so applicants—and those who do have jobs are scrutinized to within an inch of their lives—art is often the first thing to get checked off the budget.

Paving and Painting

St. Paul artists Bruce Tapola and Melba Price have a lot of experience hustling to be able to do their art and work at the same time. Though he recently had an exhibition at the Soo Visual Arts Center, for years, Bruce Tapola worked construction and odd jobs before getting a teaching gig at St. Cloud State University. “When I was working, it was lots of cruddy work,” says Tapola about his earlier experiences working construction. “It was heavy, low paying. I was really tired of it.”

Beyond that, Tapola says it was difficult not being acknowledged as an artist, even though that’s where he was putting most of his effort: “It’s not great for your self-image after a while. You sort of get beaten down a little bit. You think of yourself a certain way and you’re putting all this effort into something in a very legitimate way but there’s no acknowledgment of it. Your self-image and the world’s image of you really end up at odds sometimes, you know, you’re just another dirty worker guy.”

That all changed when, ten years ago, Bruce was offered the job at St. Cloud. “The second that I have this job that has this title that people know what it is—‘oh, you’re a professor’—everybody’s totally comfortable now with it.”

“And as an artist that’s the respected job,” interjects Price.

“Yeah, well, that’s the thing,” continues Tapola. “All of a sudden you’re like some art professor. It’s ridiculous and at the same time it’s just a major relief not to feel like a loser, I guess.”

Artmaking as Nightspa: “It’s Not So Hard If You Enjoy It”

It’s common for younger artists to work odd jobs and get work where they can while still doing their art. As a college student, Andy Sturdevant was advised by a professor to get a job after graduation that wouldn’t require a lot of “mental commitment” so that he could use all of his off time to focus on painting.

Sturdevant still believes that there can be value in that type of lifestyle, which is a notion that artists have subscribed to for a long time. There’s no shame in working for a living, but there is shame in letting it define and consume you until the artist’s spirit is all but extinguished. “There’s a lot of people in arts administrative positions that really have a problem with separating their personal practice from what they do at work. I think when you have a job where there’s a very clear demarcation it can be easier,” he says, to create unique, thoughtful work.

Bruce and Melba’s daughter, Oakley Tapola, exemplifies this type of work-art situation. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2009 with a BFA and is comfortable with her career progress. “As far as things go, I think I’m pretty on-track for my goals. I’m comfortable with the pace. There’s time to succeed no matter what age you are, so I hope to remind myself of that if I start to feel depressed when I see people my age that have amazing professional art careers already.”

Matt Sairio, her roommate and fellow artist, agrees: “It’s easy to look at all these artists who got really big when they were young and became a big deal, but there’s just as many really good artists who no one really gave a shit about until they were well into later life.”

Both Matt and Oakley work: Matt, 40 hours a week at a pizza restaurant, and Oakley, at various establishments in the metro area. Some might find a life of juggling several different work schedules mentally exhausting to the point of not being able to make art, but Oakley is not one of them. “You just have to really love it,” she says. “It’s not so hard if you enjoy it.”

Sairio sees his art making as a respite from his job. “The artwork can become your spa after work, you’ve been looking forward to it all day. It’s a way of releasing all the pent-up frustration from your job.” For many artists, it’s easy enough to get away from work concerns by just doing what they love to do: create. There are lots of benefits to working part-time, low-rent jobs for young artists. Most importantly, there’s nothing to stress about.

“It’s nice if you work at a place like a restaurant or something because unless you’re a manager you don’t have to bring your work home with you,” says Sairio.

“I just see it as like I’m stealing money from them,” Oakley explains, laughing. “Like I’m just absorbing their money and then I can snake away.”

Artists who work crummy jobs to pay the bills have a unique perspective as opposed to non-art-making workers: “People who make art don’t consider their other job to be their career and they have distance from it, so they’re an artist primarily,” says Oakley. “The people who are actually making work consider that to be their job and the other things kind of fall by the wayside.” The joy and meaning in life for many artists comes from their art, the job is just what keeps the joy sustainable. Sure, it’s not the most glamorous lifestyle, but if it keeps you in art supplies, what’s so bad about it?

Selfishness or Self-care?: Creating the Whole Person

Teens perform at Adam Arnold’s Blank Slate Theatre

This sense of perspective is shared by Adam Arnold, who believes that having a way to actively get away from his work is much better than a passive existence. “It’s important to have a life outside of that and not just a life where you come home and you plant down on the couch and watch TV for six hours, but to really have an identity and a purpose,” he explains. “That’s what theater has given me. Being an actual person—having a life—is important.”

The idea of the “actual person” is not new and not limited to artists. Everybody has a sense of what makes them whole, of what keeps them from putting all of their eggs in one basket. For some, the trifecta of gym-tan-laundry is enough to make a complete, well-rounded individual. For artists, the creative outlet is essential to survival. There is no “whole person” without artistic expression.

Melba Price and Bruce Tapola feel the same way about art at this point in their careers—it’s not really about monetary success or garnering a lot of attention. “It helps me be more than the sum total of my parts,” explains Price. “It’s just kind of about how I want to spend my spare time. At this point it has to do with just how I feel about myself personally, and that’s the thing that helps me grow. I’ll have spells where I don’t feel like working or making anything and those are hard times.”

There’s not much we can do about the outside world. Sure, we can donate our time and money to worthy causes. We can write our local representative about some inequity or outrage, but that’s about it. What we really have control over is our inner lives. Artists know this and expend the greatest amount of energy where they feel it really matters: on their art.

“I have no illusions about this thing that I do being a great contribution to the world, at all. It’s totally narcissistic. Although I do believe that the actual activity of doing [art] somehow or another sort of silently and collectively feeds into a more peaceful existence that we can all have,” says Price.

For Tapola, it’s simple: “It’s a pursuit that’s in direct opposition to the pursuit of fucking money. It’s not about commerce and it’s not about all these things that, to me, almost the entire rest of the world finds itself being about now. It makes my life meaningful to me. You just sort of feel this kinship with this invisible tribe of creative people throughout time, and that’s really sustaining.”

A Relatively Supportive Artistic Environment

The sense of artistic community, of connectedness, is something that Andy Sturdevant sees a lot in his work with Springboard. Being so involved in the art world, though, he hears a lot of misconceptions about artists. “The greatest myth, as far as my work at Springboard is concerned, that we come up against is this idea that artists are sort of wacky outliers that exist on the fringes and do their weird little fringe-y things that don’t involve that great mass of people, and it’s very insular and not engaged in the real work of building communities or building relationships,” which he says is largely untrue of Twin Cities artists.

Whereas this perception might have been true for certain groups of artists at certain moments in history (I’m looking at you, surrealists) it’s not something that crops up much these days. Because of the economic climate, most artists mill about with the general population, camouflaged in their day job personas until they can get to the studio to create. The flagging economy is also a reason many artists are drawn to the Twin Cities: the cost of living is relatively cheap and the climate is relatively supportive of artists.

“One thing that makes Minneapolis and St. Paul different from a lot of other parts of the country is the funding, the foundation support,” says Sturdevant. He doesn’t see this funding going away anytime soon, but he thinks it’s important for Twin Cities residents to support foundations and endowments for the arts any way they can. “Supporting the work of those organizations, supporting the work of the artists that are funded by those organizations, going to see the dance performances that are funded by the Jerome or going to see the exhibitions of the McKnight artists and really engaging with those artists. People need to stay involved and make it clear to the community that this is something that’s important to us, that this is something we value.”

Melba Price and Bruce Tapola moved to St. Paul from Chicago in the early 1990s almost directly as a result of receiving grant money. “The NEA gave regional arts grants and I got one of those at about that time,” explains Price. “It was about $5,000 but that seemed like so much money to Bruce and I, and it was just enough money for us to pick up and move.” Some people might tend to see the move from Chicago to St. Paul as a step backward, but for Tapola and Price it seemed like the natural choice. “We just set our sights on the Twin Cities because we had heard from a couple of people who were artists that it was a great environment for artists and nice for families,” says Price. St. Paul’s relatively affordable real estate was also a draw. “As artists we’re always looking for someplace where we don’t have to work like dogs to be able to just cover our living expenses, so that we don’t have time for anything else in our lives.” Not struggling to make a living has helped Price and Tapola continually focus on their art work with out getting bogged down by other concerns.

Price has garnered a number of grants over the course of her career as a painter and has sold a few pieces to the Walker Art Center—but during the day she’s employed by Target, working in the architecture and design arm of the company. However, she says, her art is where most of her energy is spent. “The ’atta-boy, pat on the back ‘you did great work’ kind of stuff, it doesn’t matter to me so much there,” she explains. “The place where I’m looking for those kinds of cheers is really for my art, and I’ve managed to get a few of them. So, if I don’t get them at my job I don’t feel so slighted.”

Art has always been the focus for Tapola and Price. “That’s all I’ve done, ever,” says Price. “For both of us, too. We always managed to prioritize our lives so we could do that.”

Working It out in the Meantime

There are many reasons why artists do their art, and there are many reasons to keep at it. Matt Sairio believes that an integral part of being an artist is a certain sticktoitiveness, the ability to keep going even when it would just be easier to quit. “Who knows what other potential masterpieces are out there that never got completed because someone decided to take the job at Target and go on the management fast track. I’m not saying those people are assholes because they did it, it’s just one of those things that if you really believe in the whole art thing then part of that is being prepared to get less than the recognition you want for it for a pretty long time.”

“A pretty long time” is an understatement for many artists. Most creative people go their whole lives without garnering any recognition for their work beyond the admiration of friends and family, and that is enough for some. The drive to create and produce is what keeps artists doing what they do even if no one is watching.

For instance, Oakley is happy to improve herself as an artist and take success as it comes. She has had some gallery shows already and is looking toward more in the future. “That can only increase with experience. Certainly I think I could always be more prolific and be making more work constantly and experimenting more.”

For the most part, Oakley’s focused on learning about her process and experimenting. “I just feel comfortable and happy and there’s always room to grow from that.”

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t sometimes get sucked into the intense pressure to succeed. “It’s good to have that drive but I feel like it can be really detrimental, though. You can spiral into a depression because you’ll constantly be comparing yourself to other people. Everybody has times that they’re really incredibly unsure of themselves.” The pressure to live up to some arbitrary or self-determined level of “success” can be crushing. It’s hard enough to juggle work and a personal life without worrying about whether you’re on the right track or if you’re doing it wrong.

The idea of having a day job that has no meaning is pretty depressing. I try to adopt the artist’s mentality and tell myself that I am not my job—what defines me is my writing and my volunteerism. But it can be hard to maintain this attitude when I start itching for more, wondering when I’ll get my break, when is it my turn to grow up and get my life together? Unlike an artist, I look too much toward the outside world for comfort and validation. I have to remember that as long as I know who I am, it doesn’t matter what others think they know about me. The crux of being an artist—no matter the medium—is to not let outside concerns define you and fall into the convenient perceptions placed upon you, to be yourself first and foremost.

Victoria Perkins was born in Louisiana and grew up in Guatemala, Zambia, and Peru (and Virginia for a little while in there). She now lives in St. Paul, where she is trying to become a grown-up lady.