The public shaming– and defense– of actor Geoffrey Owens, the Cosby Show cast member who was recently “caught” working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s in New Jersey by various news outlets, struck me. I think it hit the nerve of every creative person, as many of us collectively jumped to his defense. Maybe for those outside of the arts– particularly the news outlets that ran with this story, Geoffrey Owens looks like a complete failure. To a working creative? He just looks like one of us.
We all struggle with this idea of “success” as a creative, and what that should look like. Generally speaking– and I know this is radical for those who think “exposure” dollars pay the rent– we want to be paid fairly for our work. Creative work is work, but it is not valued in our society, so it is very difficult to get paid sometimes. Also, it is inconsistent and fleeting. I have had great sales years, and abysmal ones, and all in between.
As a result, creatives learn how to embrace failure, or move on from situations, or redefine our creative path again, and again, and again. Sometimes it involves finding a day job or a side gig for awhile to get through the downturns, which come and go.
This is not something they teach you in art school, so you learn by doing. You learn to balance your need for money with your need to be creative. It is incredibly difficult. I have worked a large number of jobs over the years that were related as well as completely unrelated to being an artist: receptionist, office assistant, social media consultant, art educator, retail salesperson, graphic designer, nanny, tutor, gallery director, office manager. And I continued to be an artist the entire time.
So, for a creative professional, there is literally nothing shameful about working at a grocery store.
(Also, my very first job was at a grocery store. It was honest, respectable work. I was a member of the union. I was proud to work there.)
There’s a hashtag that I see on Instagram called #creativelifehappylife. I used to use it all the time, but at a certain point, it stopped seeming genuine. Because, really, I am not in this to make myself happy. I am a better person when I am a working artist, but a lot goes into maintaining the life of a working artist. It is an investment of time, money, energy, passion, tears. It is sacrifice, risk-taking, and dedication to a craft. I keep going because I love it, but I don’t think it makes me “happy”. I don’t think happy is even the goal.
Being creative makes me whole; being an artist is a part of who I am. To stop would make me unhappy, but not because a creative life is an inherently happier place to be. To stop would be to deny myself my full range as a human being. It would be, essentially, a lie. This is also why I hate when creative work that does not consistently pay bills is shamed and called a “hobby.” This is not a hobby. This is a calling.
I think we creatives keep our side gigs and our day jobs when we need them so we can continue our creative lives. Our practice matters to us as human beings.
When I look at Geoffrey Owens, I feel immensely proud, as he continues his creative practice and finds ways to support himself. No creative should feel ashamed for the work they do, related and unrelated to their craft. All of it allows us to bring our unique vision to the world.
So, world, since you asked, here is my answer: rather than shame us, support us. Buy our art, albums, and writing. See our shows and concerts. Be our patrons.
We are doing this work because we love it, and we want to share it with you– and we can bag your groceries too if need be.
No shame in that.