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By Hook or By Crook


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She lets out  a laugh, one of those hysterical laughs we all get when we’re staring down a life in a single-wide with two kids and box after box of store brand mac-n-cheese.

Last year, a friend suggested I write a column about money – about how hard it can be to make money as an artist and the things we do in order to get by. She’s the single mother of two college students, and she’s currently making paintings that pay the bills. They’re not the paintings she wants to be doing, nor are they her best work, in her mind, but people like them. She’s creatively coasting. Most of us tell ourselves we’ll never do this, but that’s before we have to pay tuition or doctor’s bills. That’s before we have to wake up every morning to the heavy mantle of Sole Breadwinner.

As a newly single mother, I can relate to this sense of obligation. As I said last month, I’m looking for full-time work now, a move that will surely put a cramp in my creative style. The thought of benefits, however, make me as woozy with pleasure as ten latin lovers and a month on the Cote d’Or. Safety sounds just that nice.

Like so many of my middle class friends —lower middle class? just middle class? we Americans are so bad at this— I’m increasingly aware of how little protects me from a much tougher life than the one that I currently inhabit. From the outside looking in, my life looks pretty good. More than a decade ago, I was a perma-temp at this big software company in Redmond, WA. You may have heard of it. I saved enough money to buy a house when I moved back to Iowa. A little nest egg from my grandmother and kindness from my mom, means that since my separation I’ve been able to pay off some debt and even purchase the one and only new sofa of my life. (I’m sitting on it now. It makes me happy.) We eat a lot of grains and beans, but I still splurge for certain things; I’m well aware that olive oil and real maple syrup are indulgences.

I count my riches and practice gratitude every day. Two healthy kids and their adoring grandma, wonderful neighbors and friends, shelves of books (fewpurchased recently, but they’re just as lovely), and two little rented violins are all gems.

A life may be rich but also replete in worry. All of you freelancers and small business owners out there know that living paycheck to paycheck can be exhausting. Hounding clients to pay up takes up way more time than it should. Buying your own health insurance is never cheap. And while setting your own hours has its perks, working night after night can become a drag.

Alix Stephan's sewing studio. Photo by Aimee Dolich
Alix Stephan's sewing studio. Photo by Aimee Dolich

I’m complaining, right? I sound like a whiner. I definitely get the “world’s smallest violin” quality of what I’m saying. When I talked to Alix Stephan yesterday, owner and chief designer of the children’s clothing company Crabcakes in Lawrence, Kansas, about supporting her two kids via her sewing machine, she admitted that the things she pines for are laughably small. “I miss being able to afford a daily newspaper subscription and cable,” she says. “If that’s all I’m wanting for, life is pretty good.”

Like me, caring parents and trappings left over from a previous marriage have left Stephan’s life looking rosier than it is if you were to poke around in her bank account—an account greatly diminished by a lengthy and messy divorce. “I drive a Lexus SUV!” she says, laughing at the irony. “But it’s paid off. And old.” Meanwhile, she’s put her kids in all-day preschool and all-day kindergarten, something she never imagined doing. On her son’s first day of preschool, September 2, she declared herself officially full time, and began clocking in at the job she’d created in her sewing room.

Stephan began reassembling her kids’ clothes when they were babies, trying to make something from Kohl’s look more like something from the Dutch designer Oilily. “I didn’t even know how to sew; I just started adding things, and then taking them apart and putting them together differently” she says. Eventually, she got good enough that local stores were selling her clothes.

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When she and her husband separated, the former art major figured that she could either return to retail work, or try turning her part-time design hobby into a full-fledged business. Now that she’s invested in a nicer sewing machine and bins of fabrics, buttons and ribbons, Stephan is faced by one of life’s unforeseen emergencies (remember my fill-in the blank from above?), this one coming from the unlikely form of the government. In reaction to last year’s discovery of lead in children’s playthings, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) will take effect on February 10. (Go here to learn more about CPSIA and to sign a petition against it.) It requires all manufacturers of children’s products, no mater if you’re Mattel or Alix Stephan with a sewing machine in her spare bedroom, to test for lead.

Two Alix Stephan designs. Photos by Aimee Dolich.
Two Alix Stephan designs. Photos by Aimee Dolich.

“The tests are $600 per item,” explains Stephan. “One of my dresses can have seven different kinds of fabric, two different kinds of buttons, and several ribbons. That’s a lot of tests.” When I ask her what else she could do for income, she lets out a sigh and then a laugh, one of those hysterical laughs we all get when we’re staring down a life in a single-wide with two kids and box after box of store brand mac-n-cheese.

Chances are that the law will be amended and Stephan will adapt in a clever, sassy way; she’s already trying to figure out how to produce more adult clothing. It reminds me of a story I was told about the feminist postcard artist Stella Marrs. When she had kids, she was too tired to do new work but too in need of income to start a different line of work. So she recycled her old work in fresh ways and managed to get by on that until her kids were old enough to spread her wings again. In other words, she coasted.

In an on-line interview Marrs explains that if anyone put as much perseverance into selling bubble gum, as she’d put into her art, she was certain they could sell a lot of bubble gum. Her own determination came from having lived through Basic Training. “I was [in Basic Training] for the same reason that 99% of the women in my platoon were—they had nowhere to go, no other economic or personal options for survival. Basic training is a brutally destructive force to human will and cultivating any sense of personal responsibility to an individual vision. Which is the whole point of basic, to erase your sense of self to make you part of the killing machine. … Witnessing the efficiency and scale of this organization set up a reaction in me where I realized that ANY ACT OF CONSTRUCTION was in its self of HUGE VALUE. This was a very forgiving view for me to have about myself and art making. It freed me from the destructive self-judgment that happens when you start something and it isn’t ‘great’ yet.”

I love that: Any act of construction was in its self of huge value. I love it so much that I’m going to tape it above my desk and read it every time I get the poor pitifuls. I needed it last week, for sure.

On Monday, I had a story accepted by a big time magazine. I was thrilled, not the least because of big time big payment that was promised. But it was a short-lived thrill. On Friday, the editor emailed to say that the magazine was folding. I felt awful for myself and what seemed like such crummy luck. But I felt worse for the editors and the designers at the magazine; they’d lost a job. They’d lost safety.

While we may get paid for our art—we may even be able to parlay our talents into full-time work—the art making part of our brain cannot be fired. It doesn’t understand hours, nor does it expect benefits. It works for the sheer thrill of seeing two colors placed side by side or the sound of a high note in harmony with another voice.

As one friend whom I queried for this article wrote, “I was dropping off work for an open entry show this weekend and a few of the women were saying ‘It’s hard being artist, isn’t it?’ (Projecting about the rejection we make ourselves face time and time again, I suppose.) I couldn’t disagree more. Being a coal miner, a migrant, or a prostitute is hard. Being able to create art is a great privilege and I consider myself lucky.”

******

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this recent Judith Warner column that addresses the work/home/moolah conundrum.

And this article from Design Observer, offers advice on how to keep creating – and even get paid – through a recession.

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4 thoughts on “By Hook or By Crook”

  1. Great essay, Jennifer. I especially loved the quote by fellow-former Olympian, Stella. I feel lucky to live in a community where art making is valued as an honest pursuit and supported emotionally and, occasionally, a few folks like Stella can actually support her family financially from it.

  2. very well written, jennifer – and a great feature on alix’s work . i’m fortunate enough to know her in person, and her approach to life and her business is so inspiring to me. thanks for drawing attention to the CPSIA; hopefully the law will be amended to protect businesses like hers and keep our children safe at the same time.

  3. Glorious! There’s so *much* sewn into this piece, Jen! Great little anecdotes, and real pearls to meditate on. And I love that it opens with an hysterical laugh — it’s one we all know well. In fact, I think I feel a bout coming on …!

    Brava! More, please!

  4. I often think about the fact that when Joseph Campbell said to “follow your bliss,” he didn’t promise fame or fortune. He only promised that you’d have something wonderful to hang onto in good times and in bad. Whether you’re working full-time at a day job while raising kids or lucky enough to make enough of a living by your art, the important thing is to keep making/writing stuff.

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