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11 Celebrated Artists Who Didn't Quit Their Day Jobs

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Thinkstock/Getty Images/Erin McCarthy

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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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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