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Artizenship, Part 4: Penny for my Thoughts

I—and you!—should never give away your art. An artist cannot feed himself on experience. She cannot purchase pens with a byline. They cannot rent a studio with favors.

(Illustration by Jeremy Benson.) Artizenship is a 12-part series exploring what it means to be a citizen of Napa’s creative community. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

If money were no issue, what would you do?

A manager of a green-grocer asked me this during a job interview. I was living with my parents between seasons working on a farm, and I had already spent a month or two pretending to write a novel and building LEGO “sculptures.” So I wanted, needed a job to feel like a contributing member of society—an upright citizen. To answer her, I exclaimed, with gusto, “Build and design furniture!”

She looked down at my resume and her notes, and underlined my degree: a BA in Creative Writing.  “I would have thought you’d say ‘write’,” she said with a tone that sounded like I was not getting the job.

The thing is—was then, is now, will be tomorrow—money is an issue, and I write. Money’s an issue!—I create! If money were no issue, you better believe I’d have a workshop full of state-of-the-art power tools. (And I’d still write!)

Starting, Striving, Starving

Call it a neurosis, but I’m still nervous to tell people I studied writing in college. I anticipate debates over the value of creative work—work my identity is wrapped up in, depends upon for its value. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had, about the impossibility of making money from poetry, or assuming I must want to teach—but, too bad the teaching market is sunk, too.

I became a writer because I was angsty and had a Livejournal. Maybe you became a sculptor because you were bored and had a glue gun. Did any of us start out by asking, “How am I going to get rich? I know! Block printing!” (No offense, you moneybagging block printers.)

For myself, once I accepted and romanticized the life of a poor artist, it has been a feat to change my mind, and accept the possibility of making money from my art. One of my first articles as a “freelance” writer was about a band in Saginaw, Michigan; when I turned the final piece into my editor, she told me an article of that caliber could be sold to a major magazine for hundreds of dollars—I sold it for experience.

Patronize me, please

I brought this up to Vi Bottaro, a fine art photographer, who was adamant that I—and you!—should never give away your art. And I think she’s right! An artist cannot feed himself on experience. She cannot purchase pens with a byline. They cannot rent a studio with favors.

This is a way to be an upstanding citizen of art: buy it. Pay your photographers, your graphic designers, your copywriters, your website architects. Go to art auctions and craft shows. Buy hand-printed cards (holla, block printers!). Take your favorite artist-activist out to lunch.

Gertrude Stein once told Ernest Hemingway, “You can either buy clothes or buy pictures. It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures.’” Supporting an artist is worth dressing like your dad for a month. So let’s.


Indeed, I did not get the job as a stock-boy at the green-grocer; I did not get any jobs that winter. Rather I wrote poems, I sewed bags, I painted pictures, I carved stamps, I built with LEGO, and I cold-queried every magazine in the tri-county area with my resume. Later I paid a percentage of what I made as a freelance writer to the IRS. That’s me: deadbeat poet, Creative Writing major, and contributing citizen. It was a great season.

Join the conversation. Do you feel guilty for taking money in exchange for your artwork? Should art exist only outside the influence of money? Is it okay to pay nothing to artists with little experience? What is your favorite way to financially support an artist? Bonus points to the sleuth who finds my Livejournal.