11 Celebrated Artists Who Didn't Quit Their Day Jobs

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Not all artists lock themselves away in a garret somewhere to tenderly shepherd their creations into being. Some prefer to punch a clock or run a business, stealing away to jot down a few lines here or a few notes there.

Most creative types work a regular job at some point, of course. But this list isn’t about folks working as waiters or barkeeps. No, these artists took pride in their 9 to 5 work, and most of them kept at it even as they wrote and painted and otherwise created the masterpieces we know today.

1. T.S. Eliot, banker

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His friends, led by Ezra Pound, thought the poet was wasting his time at Lloyds Bank in London. Eliot worked on foreign accounts there from 1917 to 1925—a span of time during which he published The Waste Land, among other essays and poems.

Eliot was desperate for financial security, and rejected an attempt by Pound and his friends to guarantee him an annual salary to simply write. Why would he take the guarantee of a few years' salary, he asked, when he could have a lifetime's guarantee of work at the bank? Eliot only left after he found another day job—as an editor at the publishing house Faber and Faber. He then worked there full-time for four decades.

2. Philip Glass, plumber and taxi driver

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The minimalist music icon supported himself with a variety of blue-collar jobs in his 20s and 30s. Even as he created avant-garde operas and musical "happenings," he worked as a cab driver and plumber. This led to surprising intersections. Said Glass in 2001: "While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. 'But you're Philip Glass! What are you doing here?' It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. 'But you are an artist,' he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish."

Even after the premiere of his opera Einstein at the Beach at the Met in 1976, the 39-year-old Glass went back to driving a cab. He kept at it for the next three years.

3. Anthony Trollope, postal surveyor

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This 19th-century British novelist isn’t the most widely read these days, but he was a popular chronicler of everyday life, and most of his books are still available. Trollope was doggedly prolific, writing nearly 50 novels, all the while climbing the rungs of the civil service. Many of his books were inspired by his journeys on behalf of the postal service. He also introduced the first pillar boxes (free-standing boxes where residents could drop off their mail) to Britain.

4. Wallace Stevens, insurance executive

If you’ve ever bought insurance from the Hartford (or known someone who did), you’ve come into contact with the longtime employer of visionary poet Wallace Stevens. There was scarcely a major literary prize that the enigmatic Stevens didn’t win—he stacked up two National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, and honorary degrees. But to most people who knew him in Hartford, Connecticut, he was simply an imposing insurance lawyer.

Earlier in the year Stevens died, Harvard had asked him to come teach on the campus, but he turned down the offer. He didn’t want to give up his post as vice president at the company. He used his two-mile walks to work (he never learned to drive a car) to compose poetry in his mind and would put it to paper when he arrived at the office.

5. William Carlos Williams, doctor

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He of the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens worked for four decades as a pediatrician in his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey. He used his experiences with patients as source material for his poetry and prose. But that wasn’t the only reason Williams kept his day job—he also wanted to write without any commercial concerns. (He kept long hours, too—take a look at his business card.) 

6. Toni Morrison, editor and mother

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The beloved author of Beloved, Morrison worked for 20 years as an editor at Random House. For several years, she was also raising small children as a single mother. Her secret to doing all that and starting a magisterial literary career? Getting up early.

“Writing before dawn began as a necessity,” she told the Paris Review. “I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning.”

7. Richard Serra, mover

A celebrated sculptor, Serra teamed up with fellow New York City art buddies in the 1960s to found Low-Rate Movers. Employees included painter Chuck Close, monologist Spalding Grey, and the ever-industrious Glass. They shared a van and mainly moved furniture. “It was a good job because none of us would work more than two or three days a week, so we had the remaining days to do our own work,” Serra said. In the 1980s, he became known for being less helpful to the public—a lengthy legal battle over one of his public sculptures, “Tilted Arc,” ended with it being cut into pieces and stored in a warehouse.

8. Charles Ives, insurance executive

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No, you read that job title right. Wallace Stevens wasn’t the only creative type to get a shot in the arm from the insurance business. Renegade composer Ives’ music really only gained popularity at the end of his life (he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1947 at the age of 73).

Before that, he was mainly known as the co-founder of the Ives & Myrick Insurance Agency, and a pioneer in the field of estate planning. Ives’ sometimes-thorny, nostalgic-yet-bracing compositions were seen as a hobby by those around him, even though he self-published a collection of his songs and mailed scores to performers, hoping to interest them in his work.

9. Bram Stoker, theater manager

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A former civil servant, Stoker was hired by famed actor Henry Irving in the late 1870s to manage the Lyceum Theatre in the West End of London. After taking the job, Stoker found himself inspired by the creative surroundings and wrote his first horror story. More frightful tales followed, and the novel Dracula appeared in 1897. But its success didn’t change his work life. Stoker kept on managing the theater and overseeing Irving’s tours until his boss died, some eight years later. 

10. Henry Darger, custodian

During his life, most people knew Henry Darger as the quiet janitor of a Catholic hospital in Chicago. But when the octogenarian was forced to leave his longtime apartment at the end of 1972, his landlord discovered an astonishing secret. Darger had written tens of thousands of pages of prose—a 15,000 page novel and a 5000-page autobiography, among other works—and created hundreds of watercolor paintings and collages

The deep strangeness of Darger’s work (all of the little girls he depicts have penises, and the novel imagines savage violence against children) needn’t concern us here. The art world has embraced him as an outsider genius. And maybe you’ll never look at that scruffy janitor in the hallway the same way again. 

11. Kurt Vonnegut, car dealer

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The Slaughterhouse-Five author managed a Saab dealership in Cape Cod starting in 1957. Then known as a science fiction author, Vonnegut thought it might be a way to make some extra money as he worked on various writing projects. Unfortunately, the Saabs of the time were not attractive automobiles. They required the driver to add a can of oil to the engine with each fill-up. “For whatever reason, straight women did not want to do this,” Vonnegut wrote.

He was forced to close the underperforming dealership shortly after. Wrote Vonnegut in 2004: “The Saab then as now was a Swedish car, and I now believe my failure as a dealer so long ago explains what would otherwise remain a deep mystery: Why the Swedes have never given me a Nobel Prize for Literature.” 

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August 19, 2013 - 12:17pm
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