May 21, 2024

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5 Artists on the Day Jobs That Helped Them Launch Their Careers

6 min read

Art

Cath Pound

Installation view of “Day Jobs” at the Blanton Museum of Art, 2023. Courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art.

Artists have often been forced to hold down another job in order to make ends meet. For many, being able to leave these second roles in order to focus full time on art is the ultimate goal. For some, however, a day job can be a source of inspiration. A new exhibition, “Day Jobs,” on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, reveals how this work can, in fact, encourage creativity.

The show spotlights several artists—from art world superstars such as Andy Warhol to newer talents including Jay Lynn Gomez—who have found artistic inspiration in industries like law, caregiving, media, and fashion. Whether introducing an artist to intriguing new materials, or offering them insights into a previously understudied aspect of society that inspires a whole new body of work, the exhibition shows that sometimes, it’s worth sticking around at the day job.

Below, we highlight a few of the artists featured in the show, and explore how their former day jobs have influenced their current practice.

B. 1959, Wichita, Kansas. Lives and works in Ajo, Arizona.

Tom Kiefer worked as graphic designer and business owner in L.A. for 20 years before he decided to sell up and move to Arizona to pursue his long-term interest in documentary photography. To help pay the bills, he took a part-time job as a janitor for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which had a major impact on the direction of his practice.

In 2007, he asked for permission to recover the canned food carried by migrants and asylum seekers from the trash to donate to the local food bank, and was horrified to discover what else was being taken from them. “It was the beginning of a profound shift in my understanding of what was actually going on,” he said in an interview with Artsy. “Confiscating a Bible, a rosary, a child’s shoe carried as a memento were, in my view, intentional acts of dehumanization and cruelty.”

By 2014, Kiefer decided to leave his job and go public with his photographs of the confiscated items, which poignantly highlight the dehumanizing ways that immigrants are treated. “Sharing the work with people continues to be a foundational and impactful experience for me and for those coming across the work, who are deeply moved, saddened, humbled, and outraged that these actions take place,” said Kiefer.

B. 1978, Worcester, Massachusetts. Lives and works in New York.

Genesis Belanger, Big Sleep, 2019. Photo by Pauline Shapiro. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly.

Genesis Belanger is known for her surrealistic ceramics that wittily critique consumerist culture. But it was working as a prop stylist assistant in New York that lent her firsthand experience of the power of advertising. “It was a surprise to realize that all those images that we see are fully constructed, even the ones that are supposed to be inside people’s homes,” she said. “Now, of course, I think we’re more aware of that, but back when magazines had a bigger role in culture, I think it was less clear and I was pretty impressed with the ability of these constructed images to induce desire in the viewer.”

Even though Belanger wasn’t “necessarily behind what they were doing,” she said, the job did allow her to see value in the beautiful objects she already liked to make. “At least when I was in graduate school, there was this polarization between beauty and content in art, and beauty was considered frivolous and unimportant,” she said. “What the job showed me was that beauty is actually immensely powerful. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful tools used to sell us almost everything in our world. It was really freeing for me to realize that I could make complex but beautiful things and that wasn’t frivolous. In fact, it might be a really fantastic tool for communication.”

B. 1961, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Mark Bradford, Same ‘Ol Pimp, 2002. Photo by Paul Hester/Hester + Hardaway Photographers. Courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art.

Mark Bradford has frequently referred to his mother’s beauty shop in Los Angeles where he worked as a hair stylist as his “first studio.” It was there that he came across a box of end papers that he used to perm women’s hair scattered across the floor. Attracted by their translucency, he began experimenting with their use in his paintings, arranging them in irregular grids, sometimes soaked in hair dye or scorched with a blowtorch to create darkened singed edges.

These unusual materials would be the inspiration for his signature style, which he refers to as “social abstraction.” “I learned my own way of constructing paintings through the end papers—how to create space, how to use color. And how to provide a new kind of content. They were the beginning for me.…It all began in the beauty salon,” the artist explained in the Blanton exhibition text.

In a 2015 interview, Bradford described their unique appeal: “End papers were 50 cents for a box of 200. I couldn’t afford to pay 20 dollars for a tube of acrylic paint, but I could go to Home Depot and get paint they’d mixed wrong for a dollar a can. I liked the end papers. I liked the social fabric they represented.”

B. 1986, San Bernardino, California. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Jay Lynn Gomez, Benjamin and Adela in the Jeff Koons exhibition, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Danni C. Pascuma,

Jay Lynn Gomez, Self-Portrait, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and the Blanton Museum of Art.

Jay Lynn Gomez once worked as a live-in nanny to a Beverly Hills family who also employed many other workers to aid their lavish lifestyle. While out and about, Gomez would notice celebrities being photographed dropping their children off at school, but her fellow nannies would be cropped from the paparazzi shots that appeared in the papers. Other domestic colleagues seemed to be equally unacknowledged, even disposable.

“There was a housekeeper who would come in every Thursday until one day she didn’t,” Gomez said in an interview with Artsy. “Nobody told me about it or answered my questions. The family didn’t confirm that they’d fired her. She reminded me of my family and yet she was so easily replaced.”

She began to paint figures of these unseen workers onto pages torn from luxury magazines that she found around the house, and she initially wanted to keep the work hidden from her employers and fellow workers. However, after two years, Gomez started a blog to make her work public. “Once I set up the blog it was a pretty quick transition from thinking of myself as a nanny painting, to thinking, ‘Hey, I can be an artist,’” she said.

Although the job was initially taken out of necessity, Gomez credits the experience with allowing her to find her artistic voice. “I consider it my MFA,” she said.

Sara Bennett

B. 1955, Toronto. Lives and works in New York.

Sara Bennett, TIANA, 25, in the library at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Sara Bennett’s journey from public defender to artist began in 2009 when she was working as a pro bono attorney for Judith Clark, a woman who had been in prison in New York State for 29 years and wouldn’t be released for another 46 years, unless she could persuade New York’s governor to grant her clemency.

Although Bennett hadn’t used a camera in decades, she decided to take portraits of women who had been incarcerated with Clark “and have them write about her influence on their lives, as a way of humanizing her,” she explained. Bennett created a self-published book of 15 portraits, Spirit on the Inside: Reflections on Doing Time With Judith Clark, and sent it to a newly formed Commission on Re-Entry, as well as state legislators, the governor, and others with political sway.

“People were surprised at the seeming ‘ordinariness’ of the formerly incarcerated women and curious about their life stories,” Bennett said. “It was that reaction that made me realize the power of photography as an advocacy tool and set me down a now almost 10-year path of chronicling New York State women with life sentences, both inside and outside prison.

“As a lawyer, I helped one person at a time, case by case. But as an artist, I have an opportunity to show the scale and enormity of the carceral state.”

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