On not being poor vs. doing what you love

    “Screw cash. Do you know what it’s like to wake up knowing that you’re doing what you love?”

    People on Twitter quoting Gary Vaynerchuck at BEA

Over the course of the past ten years or so I’ve heard a few different people declare that they aren’t going to “be poor!” This is usually in the context of college majors, career choice or current job. I haven’t probed when it’s come up, but I’m guessing the sentiment is often the result of personal past impoverished experiences. If I recall correctly from a book of his I read five years ago, Dave Ramsey’s wife has a bit of this complex.

My wife and I are in a pickle, as I explained a week or so ago, and might be on the poor road very soon (if we’re not already). Just after moving to Arkansas in 2003 we were in a similar financial situation. Needless to say it’s not a fun place to be. We’ve given ourselves to the ministry we moved down here to serve with and making money, beyond what we need to live on, has not registered on the radar.

The question all of this is raising in my mind is as follows: Is American affluence driving people away from their gifts? In other words, does the cultural pressure in our consumerist culture keep people from pursuing careers they might enjoy and excel at, instead wooing them to pursue more secure and higher paying marginal careers?

It’s on my mind in a personal way as we think about what will come of the rest of this year, and the years to come. The hope is to move to a place with lower housing costs and more part-time work to supplement our continued service with the ministry. In theory, our living expenses would be cut to the point we wouldn’t have to maintain full-time employment, freeing up more time for both of us to work on our crafts.

It seems to us that our plans are pretty modest. We’re eager to pursue the things in life we’re passionate about — missions, sculpture, writing, the fiber arts. Despite these seemingly modest aspirations, though, I’m wondering if we’re actually going to be able to execute this plan. Learning the house isn’t worth as much as we figured and noticing yesterday that we haven’t paid off as much as I’d thought in the past four years were chinks in our armor.

I’ve never developed or cultivated an aversion to poverty, assuming we still have a roof over our head and food on the table. Regardless, our present circumstances have been testing our faith. I really like the so-called plan we’ve sketched out (on a napkin, so to speak) and hope it works out. If we can’t make it work, I have positively no idea what we’ll we be doing or where we’ll end up.

And while I won’t refer to that as “scary,” it’s certainly the kind of situation that makes most of us humans very uncomfortable.

About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

12 Responses to On not being poor vs. doing what you love

  1. Word Lily says:

    Perhaps this is why the arts are suffering? People wanting to avoid the whole idea of “starving artists” …

  2. I did the “starving artist” thing for a while. It was fun in my twenties living in a garage, eating cans of beans, not having any medical insurance, savings or a reliable vehicle. There comes a time in most people’s lives when you’d like to not live in a garage, wash in a bucket and go to the doctor. I would love to continue doing what I am best at- that is, sculpture- but the reality for me is that I can no longer afford to do it. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never make another sculpture again, but I cannot afford the materials or the space right now. Does this mean that I am a lightweight, that I don’t want it badly enough? Or does it mean that I’d also like to have a family and take them to the doctor periodically?

    I don’t think that it has to be an “either or.” I personally know many sucessful artists, but most of them either had no family until they had attained much success or had a wife who did EVERYTHING else but make the art. I do know one fellow of exceptional skill and charisma who has small children, a wife who does everything and a very sucessful career.

    Perhaps I am too materialistic, but perhaps I just got tired of the struggle. I know that I came out of the gate too fast and took on projects that were beyond my level of maturity. I did them and did them well, but I was a very burnt out 30-year-old.

    Being an artist is no doubt a difficult path.

    • pcNielsen says:

      We’re trying to make it so that it’s not an either or for us as well. Buying a house instead of renting means I’ll have some studio space without needing to rent an actual studio or pay to be in a coop. Besides that, where we’re looking at living we might be able to make our house payments significantly less than you can rent for, especially for the amount of space in a house with a garage and basement . . .

      . . . point is, we’ve thought through it all and think we can make it work.

      If we get some money for the house we’re in now.

  3. “Screw cash” is a noble thing to say until you are at the grocery store, the dentist or the optomitrist. Truth is, we do need some cash to live. How much is up to us and our local cost of living.

    Even for those off the grid, growing your own food and baking your own bread, where is the energy for making art?

    • pcNielsen says:

      Agreed and agreed. With respect to the quote, Gary would also agree. I’m guessing the point wasn’t really to live as a starving artist as much as the sentiment I tried to convey in this post: Seems like some people are giving up what they like to do and are good at doing because they’ve been wooed by consumerist America and can’t live without their iPhone and plasma TV.

  4. I do agree with you that many people forget about their dreams and gifts to run the rat race. I meet many people in retirement who say that finally they get to do what they’ve always wanted to. It’s a pity and a cultural poverty. Sadly, though, the way that our culture is right now it is very, very difficult to be an artist and have a family. I’d hate to give up either one, though. I’m thinking of seasons in my life. Gardens are wonderful, but they need to rest during the winter time. So, it’s ok for me not to make big sculptures while my baby is young. It’s another season of creativity for me. It’s a huge struggle for me, though, and most likely for all artists.

  5. jim janknegt says:

    I know it is hard to have a family and be an artist but not impossible if you are in it for the long run. I got a BFA and an MFA. Out of school I got in a really good gallery and had lots of shows and good reviews. I always worked an 8-5 day job and would paint in the evenings and on Saturdays. I got a lot of work done. When my wife and I had our daughter I made the choice to cut back on the amount of time I spent painting. I also had a job at the University at this time so got good benefits. I eventually stopped my connection with a gallery (I had been with 3 different ones in Austin as well as one in Dallas and one in Houston) because my production had dropped. I was mainly doing commissions and such. I am currently down to painting about 3 hours a week but I have kept at it. I am now in sight of retiring and my daughter is going to start high school so I am expecting my productivity to increase.

    Please don’t defer having children in exchange for art. It is just not worth it. Children are the best thing there is-period. And they don’t stay young for very long in the grand scheme of things.

    I have found this scripture to be true: Trust in the Lord, in all things acknowledge him and he will direct your ways. ( a paraphrase).

  6. jim janknegt says:

    I don’t know if you are familiar with Michael O’Brien, writer and painter, but he has a letter to artists on this theme that is worth a read:


    • pcNielsen says:

      Quoting: “For most of us, we can probably forget the idea of having a middle class standard of living with good pension plans. The way of Christian art as a full-time vocation demands sacrifice, and with sacrifice comes stresses and testing, which are increased when one’s family responsibilities are great.”

      FWIW — True enough, but I don’t think the fact should be limited to “Christian art” in discussions such as these.

  7. Don’t worry, I’m not defering having a family for art. I have a daughter arriving in a month! There are many paths to making a living at art and none of them are especially easy.

  8. Goodness!

    I was really surprised at the responses to this wonderful post! It was good to see different viewpoints.

    Back to your original question as I understand it: Is American affluence driving people away from their gifts?

    I think the answer is a big “yes.”

    And I’m not just talking artists here. And I’m not saying to put art or any other gift above family needs. I am an artist and writer, but I did little writing and no art while raising my children. And I still teach and take odd jobs to supplement my art/writing income as needed. We live in a small house in an amazingly beautiful location. We love it here, though living here restricts us in many ways.

    Our choice is to learn to live with less, get out of debt, and pursue the things we love most. That means it’s very unlikely we’ll ever have a big house or lots of money, but we are extremely happy.

    Our youngest son chooses to live in a big house, drive a fancy car, give his children all the benefits possible, and looks forward to fabulous vacations. That’s his choice and it is right for him. Yet, he also sees his parents (me and my husband) as being successful because we are doing what we want.

    I see many retirees finally doing what they wanted all along only to discover that they are so skilled that the COULD have done it all along. Though it’s good they finally discovered it, they would have been happier to have discovered it earlier.

    It’s more a question of fear than anything else. We are afraid we can’t make it by pursuing our gifts. But there are lots of ways of using our gifts. We can use our gifts to create, to teach, to serve…

    The book, The Creative Call, by Janice Elsheimer (not sure I spelled that right) deals with this very topic. It’s a great book.

    However, I would like to see you write a book covering this topic…perhaps in a workbook way like Janice did? You are a wonderful writer, you’re stepping out in remarkable faith and yet with a good plan and purpose, and many people will be shucking the old habits in the days to come. We are being forced to, so why not turn what the enemy means for bad into something good, which is God’s intention all along.

    Also, John Grisham wrote his first three books by getting up two hours earlier every morning while he was still a lawyer/father. He learned to survive on less sleep to pursue his dream and not give up other commitments.

    A single mom I know wrote an entire book by writing one page a day. And she got it published and published more!

    I bet there’s somewhere in most of our lives where we could include a bit of time, money and effort to pursue our gifts without sacrificing family. A friend of mine has her young son draw while she’s doing her art. I have my grandkids painting while I paint. Also, getting rid of the TV opened up lots of avenues for our family.

    Looks like I’m beginning to rant…I feel like there is a need for a book like this, I’d even be willing to co-author. I LOVE what you are doing, especially because of the fact that you are faith based and have a good plan.

    I’ll be praying for you.

    • pcNielsen says:

      I’ve read The Creative Call. I found it mildly useful; I had already figured out a lot of what the book talked about.

      I’ve thought of writing, though not necessarily on this specific topic. I’m glad you think I write well, and I do think there is a particular need for visual artists of faith to write about being visual artists. There are a myriad of books written from the Christian perspective on the arts but they are, for the most part, written by people who are not visual artists. Elsheimer, as I recall, is a writer. That doesn’t mean what she says doesn’t relate to sculptors and paints as well, but it is undoubtedly a different perspective. Others are musicians and theologians. I can only name three books written about art from a Christian perspective, and none are really in the same vein as Creative Call.

      A friend who teaches illustration/drawing at a Christian university is interested in something similar, a devotional of sorts for his students. I recommended Mako’s Refractions, even though I haven’t read it. I think the way it’s written could work for him.

      The problem for me is that I really don’t have enough time to be working on my own sculpture, let alone to actually work on a book.

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