Survival Skills for Artists

Gordy Grundy

Gordy Grundy

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to become an artist. The hours are long, the benefits are few and the pay is lousy. Even worse, it’s a lonely place; most folks cannot fathom our what nor why of it. “Success” in the arts cannot be quantified nor is the pursuit easily explained.

I don’t know why I am compelled to make art, but every day I’m trying to figure out how to make more. In a true American style, I have sought to find a system of survival that will allow more time and greater resources to do what I do best. My Design for Living is constantly being amended and shall never be perfected, yet the basic structure shall benefit my fellow artists everywhere.

Following is a list of survival skills and guerrilla tactics in order of greatest importance:

I) Moral Support — Find a bartender with an MFA. If everyone needs a shoulder to cry on, then you might as well make it an empathetic and educated one. I highly suggest that you conscript several. Should you ever get 86’d, it’s good to have a back-up.

II) Legal Support — Find a good criminal attorney. I am not suggesting that you keep one on retainer, but I do advocate a relationship that you can count on. Plug that phone number into Speed Dial. The hair on your chinny chin-chin is rather thin and easily plucked. Your lives are limited to nine. The American penal system does not provide art supplies. Natch.

III) Financial Indemnification — Money, or rather the lack of it, may be the greatest and most vexing roadblock to the free-flowing life force of an artist.
The following Flow Chart is a simple one: Art demands time. Time is money. Money is earned through time spent anywhere but in your studio.

As you can see, it is a vicious and endless cycle that does not offer many opportunities for relief. I shall endeavor to list several venues of escape. In order of greatest convenience and benefit:

(A) An adequate trust fund is not as suitable as a bountiful one, but I would refuse neither. An inheritance is, by far, the most preferable financial opportunity for an artist. You are beholden to no one except the dead. The demands of time and effort are limited to endorsing a check once a month.

Unfortunately, my prospects of a trust fund are nil. This unforgivable and cruel fact has often driven me to shake my fist at the moon and loudly curse the Gods, much to the dismay of my neighbors.

(B) Marry well. Many suggest that marriage is a wise and valuable option. I like the idea that sex is included in the package but I have my reservations.
Often times, ‘to marry well’ can demand more emotional grief and time at hard labor than a counter job at McDonalds.

(C) Go Third World. The coffee is better and the rent is cheaper.

(D) A favorable day job. This is easier hoped for than found. If time is money, then you want to make the most money in the least amount of time. (See Figure 23.1) Unfortunately, a law degree yields a higher hourly wage than an art degree. Fortunately, most states offer a minimum wage, which unfortunately does not buy spit.

Ideally, you will be lucky to serve your time under a sympathetic boss who has a love, appreciation and a support for the fine arts. He or she will be inspired (or at least amused) by your singular passion and lend assistance and resources in every way.

This is the exception to the rule. Most employers will view your artistry with suspicion, sneer at your ‘misguided’ values and do everything they can to thwart your quest. “I don’t care if you’re debuting in Belgium–Sweep the damn floor!”

IV) The Mindset of the Artist — From Aristotle to Anthony Robbins, every smart mind concludes, “Attitude is everything.” That cup can be sadly half empty or gleefully half full! Unfortunately, artists tend to dig a bit deeper and ask, “Full of what?”

The cranial synapses of an artist are not wired like that of a civilian. There are quirks and contradictions to most of us that make Life as carefree as dancing on a minefield. The world is marching one way and we are blithely skipping in another. How do we endure?
Attitude. The artist must foster and nurture a mindset to survive.

(A) No Absolutes: Fad and Fashion — I like to think there is a Valhalla of Beauty, an absolute in Art. I prefer to believe that there will be an epiphany or a revelation, a destination to any artistic journey. Such a glory does not exist.

The art world that I want to believe in is merely a concoction of a fantastic mind. The actual art world has as much resolve as next season’s wallpaper. It is a victim and a proponent of fad and fashion.

When I first realized this, I felt like a Believer who suddenly learns that the parish priest is a pederast. My devastation has since mellowed and aged into a steadfast resolve: Stay the course, lads. Stay true to your aesthetic. This is our integrity. This is our power and our strength. The dedication and perseverance to our Form becomes our ultimate joy.

(B) True Reward — As artists, we seek recognition for our work, yet this is a slippery slope to climb. It demands an investment into a judicial authority whose demeanor can only be described as capricious.

The work of Jackson Pollack was hailed as genius and slaughtered as stale, all within a very short period of time. A gnawing hunger for external recognition can never be fed. It is an emotional hole than will never be filled because the appetite grows larger and demands more.

A gaggle of psychologists will tell you that self-worth is the only panacea and they are right. The reward is in the work. As much as I bitch and moan about the storage, maintenance and preservation of my inventory, I am damn proud of that pile.
This private joy is our pay dirt. The act of creation is golden.

(C) Recognition — Your efforts are not wasted. Your time will come. You will be recognized. Your dedication guarantees it. As fad and fashion gallop and leap like horses on a slow moving merry-go-round, your turn to snatch a brass ring will come.

We must show graciousness for any attention that is thrown our way. We must be humble before every gesture. You may never show your work at MOCA, but you can be damn sure you’ll have a retrospective at a community gallery before you turn seventy-five. That will be a glorious honor.

(D) Patience and Longevity — Like aging hookers and old buildings, artists become respectable over time. Great success in the arts comes from the courage and single-mindedness of your durability.

The true reward is in your daily journey and the daring, impractical belief in your quest. Given the high attrition rate of artists, you will be ultimately honored for your longevity. Keep making art.

(E) Balance — A sailor’s legs are the greatest survival skill an artist can possess and the most difficult to acquire. We need to keep both feet on a pitching deck.

Artists are a species of anxious and warring contradictions. We are giants and we are dwarves. We are Ying and we are Yang. We are sorely selfish and genuinely generous. No one can beat their chest and roar in triumph as loud as we.

Conversely, no one can lock themselves into a closet as black, insular and deep as ours. In the minds own eye, no light shines as bright and there is no darker hell. We are invincible and we are worthless. We see the sadness in beauty and the genius in madness.

Long ago I proffered that ‘artists are the astronauts of our sociology.’ Test pilot Chuck Yeager may have nicked the sound barrier, but artists push the frontiers of the human experience. We laugh more and we cry more. We feel more and we see more. I believe that is what motivates us to make the choices that we make and the actions that we take.

We seem to embody all of the contradictions of humanity. This is the gasoline of our fire. The trick and the skill is to singe ourselves without self-immolating. To triumph with humility. To fade with dignity. To lose graciously and congratulate whole-heartedly. To pursue our own individual aesthetic with a plausible and steadfast integrity.
This is the balance. This is our self-worth. This is our lives.


GORDY GRUNDY is a Los Angeles based artist and writer. His visual and literary works can be found at His Disneyesque conceptual piece, the Fellowship of Fortuna begins at

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