The Creative Hustle: How artists make it pay. Interview 6 - The Visual Artist

Page 1

The Creative Hustle: How artists make it pay The Visual Artist Profile: 006 // Gender: Non-binary // Age: 52

I used to have a ‘proper job’ - at a local authority - with money that would go up in increments, and a pension would miraculously appear when I left the job. And then became unwell with ME and lost that job as a result. And then I had about 12 years of really quite serious ill health where I didn't do very much [work]. And then gradually, things have picked up. I began doing photography work, just as a thing I enjoyed. And then people began asking me to do it and began paying me - so I had to think about how this was going to work out with benefits. I had a Disability Living Allowance, and the security that comes with that. [In order to take paid work] I had to choose to give that up because the system is absolutely incapable of dealing with any kind of nuance. We've spent quite a lot of time getting advice and trying to work out whether or not I could do a thing called ‘permitted work’, which would allow me to work and still get benefits [but that wasn’t

possible]. I'm in a really privileged position that I had the ability to give up that security. That first year, I earned maybe £600. And then over the last couple of years, it's been more like £2,000 - £2,500 [per year]. As work has developed, I’ve suddenly gone from making £2,500 to about £8,000 [this year], because I have one big six month commission. I started off with just straightforward digital photography. There's a section of my work that has come from the independent knitting sector, because I'm a knitter and a spinner. I've worked quite a lot with independent [pattern and knitwear] producers. That's been a really fluctuating income because sometimes I work for travel expenses and accommodation, and other times it's absolutely straightforward - as in ‘this is the job, we will pay you X amount’. I have a standard rate of £250 a day, and £150 for a half day. Because it’s never really a half day, is it?

But I’ll say to people that if we're doing a block of days, it doesn't always have to be the exact rate per day. Because I have ME I won't work 9am to 5pm - I tend to work shorter hours across more days. In the independent knitwear and dyeing and spinning world there’s quite a lot of people who work part time or freelance because of mental health issues. And other health issues too. So there's a really good awareness of people who don't work standard hours. That standard day rate has only developed in the last year or so. Before then I was doing a strange mixture of ‘how well do I know this person?’, or ‘can we do a trade?’, or I’ll work for a friend and know that there will be no fee but we'll collaborate on something later. I did a lovely job a few years ago documenting somebody else's work in Shetland. And ‘all’ I got paid was a week in Shetland. So there were some things where I almost got paid in an experience - and that was a joy. This year I’m involved in a six month project with [Scottish arts organisation]. I’m working with a collaborator, and the funding for [this project] must have been arranged before they decided to open it up to collaborative duos. So we applied as a duo, but we only get paid the same fee as a single artist. And it's not a job share - we do the full job together. It should be two days a week with one artist. And we work one day a week with the two of us. But it’s the old story - we will never only do one day a week because not everybody's available on that one day. We've fed this back to them as a person with a disability, there's a very good reason that I work as a collaborative duo. We knew [when we applied] that there was every likelihood that we would only get the one fee [between us]. But it's such a good job. And again, that goes back to financial privilege.

I don't like not having an independent income. So in a sense, the more I earn, the better that feels. I've had to live with the knowledge that I've pretty much been supported for a large amount of time by my partner. And those decisions were made jointly. And now work is starting to kick off, and take on a life of its own, and opportunities are coming. But I'm very conscious that that's only because I had the ability to take a risk [to give up Disability Living Allowance], and that isn't possible for everybody. I find that very annoying; it makes me very angry. And also, I also don't like being valued for what somebody else thinks I'm worth. At the moment that's the only way we value anything. It's a real positive / negative thing, because it's great that people are valuing what I do, but there's almost a slightly grudging thing, which asks ‘what about all this stuff I tried to do all the other times, was that not worth anything?’. We’re in an industry that relies on word of mouth for so much. That's great, if you're the person [benefiting from that]. I didn't go to art college; to build the networks that I have I’ve actively elbowed my way in. There's a definite need to insert yourself in the correct places. I’m quite a middle class person who fits anywhere. And my old job was working with people, so I know how to do that. But I'm conscious that if this had been me 25 years ago, I wouldn't have [been able to] do any of this. Whenever it's possible, in future I’d like to take somebody out with me [on jobs] - things like job shadowing, work experience - so that other people who are trying to

get in [to the industry], can have the chance to be seen. Once you're on the list, it's great. But getting on it in the first place is hard. Sometimes [people don’t make] a connection between what I do and why that's worth money. Particularly because I work with textiles and knitting. [People think] ‘My granny was a knitter. Why would you get paid for that stuff?’. So there's a bit of a disconnect between the skills I have and what people think that's worth. [As a photographer], I’ll be at events [in my own time] and people say, ‘could you just take a couple of pictures while you're here?’ I've taught myself to find ways of letting people down gently. I've developed a system of saying I do so much pro bono work every year, and unfortunately, that's now already allocated. I think the main thing that controls how much work I do is my physical capabilities. So that means I do turn things down. I don't do weddings, because they’re really intense full days. It's a really, really tough job - a really skilled job. And I don't think I could do that. The other thing that will prevent me from getting work is the fact that I live in a small village. If people want me they have to pay enough [to cover] my travel expenses in my fee. If somebody has a

tight budget, I think that makes a difference [to whether they can pay that extra]. And if it's a last minute gig, they're not going to pick me, they're going to pick somebody in their local area. You might not always think that the creative industries would be obsessed with productivity, but we still are. It's [all about] ‘how much can you do?’ And many of the residencies and things that I look at would be great, but from a disability perspective I can't do a month solidly, or I can't do a long weekend [where] every day starts at nine and finishes at seven. In an ideal world we'd all be well enough to work like [that], because there's a great adrenaline in deadlines, and working really hard, and pushing through. But I did that recently because it was a wonderful opportunity, and then I was ill for three weeks - I had to go to bed. I wouldn't have swapped [the experience], but it's not sustainable. For a residency I'm doing next week - they specifically said ‘what are your needs? We’ll work around what you can do, instead of you trying to fit into what everybody else assumes is okay’. As a household, we are mortgage free, which is amazing. I live with a partner who took early retirement, so we have a steady, livable income - not an extravagant income - through his pension. We have a small flat that we were able to pay off when my partner took early retirement. Financially, we're in no trouble if I don't work.

The Creative Hustle is a research project conceived and delivered by Kathryn Welch (, delivered with support from Creative Scotland’s Stay, See, Share fund.