“So.. what do you do for a job?”

Stephen Templer. Cafe Sketch
Artists reflect on how they navigate the loaded conversation starter, “So, what do you do for a job?”

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In a recent story, Jack Trolove spoke openly about the difficulty of claiming the title “I’m an artist” in response to the question “So, what do you do for a job?” – a favourite conversation starter in the world of New Zealand small talk. There was a huge response to this article. It resonated with artists at its core.

To keep the conversation alive, we approached a number of artists asking them how they respond to this question in their daily lives. The 10 responses below are honest, some light and others dark, there are hints of frustration, some sadness, mixed with a lot of personal pride and determination. Beautifully written, these artists tell tales of maneuvering awkward social situations, the hard realities of disappointed parents, learning how to read a crowd and reveal the internal battle of what it’s like to have people constantly question what you do.

For those of you reading, if these stories strike a chord for you feel free to comment below and keep the conversation flowing.

We asked… How do you respond to the question.. “So, what do you do for a job?”

And this is what they replied:

Shona Moller

In the early days, I would say I was a teacher, an ex-primary teacher, now teaching art. Nearing twenty years ago, this seemed to be a more acceptable answer than “artist”. That meant you were tertiary educated, reliable and possibly could contribute some funny classroom anecdotes to the conversation. “Artist” sounded like a dole-bludger. It sounded like mirrored skirts and armpit hair. It certainly didn’t sound like “let’s exchange numbers and meet up again for coffee.”

I thought perhaps after a given number of paintings, fifty say, or one hundred, the word "artist" will come more naturally.

For awhile I tried painter. “I’m a painter, I...paint,” I’d say. But next would come the inevitable, “Fences?” “Walls?” “Houses?” And the let downs when I had to say that no, I couldn’t pop around and give them a quote on a kitchen freshen up. “Cavases,” I added, a little sheepishly. And then I’d get this suspicious look, bordering on offended, as though I’d deceived them somehow, deliberately made them look in idiot or offered them a deal on a set of bedsheets, only slightly used.

Maybe it’s a timing thing, I mused. Or a numbers game. Perhaps, I thought, after a certain amount of years of professional practice I wouldn’t feel like such a twat saying “artist”. Or perhaps after a given number of paintings, fifty say, or one hundred, the word “artist” will come more naturally.

Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern at these dinner parties, these events. I can go incognito. If, on the off chance, people have heard of me or my work, they imagine a much older woman; older, and for some bizarre reason, bigger. So they tell me I’m not me. All the time! “Oh, wait on,” they say, “you’re not Shona Moller,” without the inflection of a question. If I’m only one chardonnay up, I sensibly convince them I am. Otherwise, I have a bit of fun. “Oh god no,” I say, “she’s much more talented than I am, although she really should stick to her knitting. I mean, what is up with that weird shit she’s been painting lately?”

I totally get the dilemma creatives face when asked what it is they do, particularly in the early stages of their careers. Not only because I have lived it, but because I’ve very recently launched my first novel. It’s scary as it sounds. “I hear you’re an author too,” people have begun to say, with mouths that smile but eyes that say “over-achiever”. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout into their faces, “NO! God, I am not an author. I’m only just an artist, only just started being comfy with that title after eighteen years. And one book does not an author make!” I want to tell them, “I’m that artist chick, who writes a bit; younger and smaller than your average bear.”

Since the early days, replying with “I’m an artist”, with any amount of pride has become a little easier. It still sounds pretentious as hell, at least in my own head, but I’ve managed to embrace my artistism. And if you are also needing to brace and breathe before replying to the inevitable “What is it you do?” question, say “Artist,” loud and proud! Because, I believe, to be one isn’t necessarily to paint, or write, or dance or sing or even really create. To be an artist in its truest sense, is to be a thin-skinned sensitive soul. It is to be intensely observant, to care deeply, to tread carefully on this planet. To raise courageous and resilient children. To readily and unabashedly show emotions. To share joy and love with abandonment, and to have a unique way of viewing the world. And these traits, in a world where so-called leaders lob missiles and tweets that are just as dangerous, should be celebrated, fellow artist... They should be celebrated.

 

Jacob Rajan

Yes, it’s a struggle. I know especially within my Indian Community, there’s always someone who comes up to me after a show and with complete sincerity says: “That was great -so what do you really do?” I mean, it’s funny with an Indian accent but it still kinda hurts.

But then I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge, on some deep (or shallow - depending how you look at it) level there’s an inbuilt, unspoken understanding when you’re an actor: If you have to say you’re an actor you haven’t made it as an actor. I know it’s horrible and it’s stupid and it’s tied up with celebrity and I try not to listen to it but there it is. Nobody has to ask Robert De Niro or Judy Dench what they do? No Indian would go up to Dev Patel after a show and say “That was great - so what do you really do?”

For now, when people ask, I say: “I’m an actor.”

 

Stephen Templer

This questions obviously comes up a lot in conversation when meeting people for the first time. My answer varies a great deal, not so much the pool of words I use, but the confidence of these words expressed out of this pool. Whether Im proudly emerging from the pool on a hot day in speedos or meekly emerging clutching a towel hiding my pasty body.

In other people's faces it is a certain blankness or puzzled look or even condescension at times.

You generally know quickly when meeting people whether the world they live in has a broad and open minded creative view of things. So to say you are an artist or illustrator/street performer gives you a sense of pride and you can see this reflected in a certain shared belief that the arts is a legitimate profession.

In other people's faces it is a certain blankness or puzzled look or even condescension at times. When this happens I feel an instant pressure and start to pour out a shopping list of things and projects I’ve done in the hope that one of these will connect with them on a level that they get some kind of understanding.

When being introduced to a girlfriend's father I’d find myself "admitting to be an artist, coming clean" and trying emphasise some kind of financial stability which ends up in some kind of embarrassing scene from an awkward comedy.

But as I get older I get more confident about describing what I do. Sadly I do use the term 'illustrator' most of the time as I feel this has a more "real world” connection people can relate too. I fear that the word Artist for a great deal of NZ means, a bludger, lazy and a bit useless, obviously far from the truth. My protestant upbringing in rural NZ does weigh upon me and I feel like I have to justify the work I do to some people.

I’m on tour as I write this rant with my Sausage Circus Bicycle Sound system and I’m listening to two blokes catching up next to me in a cafe in Oamaru. The main topic is business, real estate and money -  making deals around flicking off bits of land etc. I imagine being introduced to these two lovely gents and them thinking "Why would you do that? It doesn’t make financial sense. Do you sell sausages? Can you transport anything on that bike? People pay you to do that?”

My answers would be very unsatisfying I imagine… “It was just an idea I came up with and got excited by... I didn’t really think about making money... I just wanted to make a beautiful weird bike... No, its got nothing to do with selling meat.”

I make some assumptions and the gents might love what I do and think we need more vibrancy, colour and free thinking in this Tory dominated atmosphere, and shout me a coffee and listen to my stories of art adventures and great deeds.

I think most of my fear around letting it slip that I’m an Artist is my own hang ups and I should be proud to be an artist in these shaky islands.

 

Kelly Spencer

When I first started out I would tell people 'I'm an illustrator.' But, if I was speaking to someone who I felt wouldn't understand the notion of art as employment, the type of people I just couldn't be bothered justifying myself to, I would tell them 'I'm a designer'.

I still primarily say illustrator, and sometimes artist. When I'm feeling comical I'll say 'I draw pictures', and other people often introduce me as 'an artist'. The artist title doesn't always fit. It's not that I feel I don't deserve it, it's because half of my work is commercial and directed by someone other than myself.

It definitely took a few years to feel comfortable describing what I do, but I always felt proud of it because I value doing what I love so so so highly. I was never interested in doing a job which didn't give me joy.

The one issue which continues to really grind my gears however, is when I tell people what I do, or what I'm working on currently, and they ask whether I'm getting paid for that.  Like, imagine you're at a social event, you ask someone what they do for a job, they tell you they're a real estate agent, and you say "Oh wow, and do you make enough money to live from doing that?". I'm sure most of these folks are well meaning, and often impressed, and that's really cool, but can we just filter this idea out of society already please because it's really patronizing.

 

Ned Wenlock

I respect artists too much to claim to be one, I had a choice early on to go down the route of being an artist or being a commercial artist and I chose the latter. Many commercial artists I do consider artists, they have a view on the world which is unique and their output is singular. Being commercial makes you humble as your work is often at the whim of others. I take pride in what I do but I don’t consider myself an artist.

 

Flox

When people ask me, “So what do you do…” I panic! This is such a deep question, and in my situation, cannot be answered in a single sentence (without lying of course)! I’d say what I do, is not “typical” and can’t be put into one category.

It’s like, ok mate…have you got an hour?  Cause that’s about how long it would take to really get you to understand the true sense of the answer. Not to say, I don’t like being asked, and that I’m not proud of what I do!  It’s just that I actually want to tell people the whole truth, and sometimes it’s just not a go!

Being labelled a street artist is quite restricting, people assume you’re some sort of Banksy, a general assumption of course..

Imagine if you could answer this question in visual form.  Like, if you could shake someone’s hand, in the future, and they get a full download of who you are professionally!  Ha ha, future tech! Or for now, maybe I need to make some memory sticks to hand out? I think a picture speaks a thousand words, and it’s possibly a much more accurate way to go when describing who I am, and what I do?

At the end of the day, I answer that question with “I’m an artist”… with confidence xx

 

Mardo El-Noor

I am the ambiguous 'creative practitioner', the vague 'hybrid-creative', the unresolved 'visual communicator'. 

In his book Religion For Atheists, author and philosopher Alain de Botton ponders this question in a way I relate to. How could a profession define a person who is far more than just merely their 9 to 5? Is it really that blatant we assess the value of people based on what they do because we could infer how much they make?! Is it not because our brains are loaded with preconceptions about what kind of people do what kind of jobs?

Shamelessly, I think it is, and most of us are guilty of doing that. It's how our brains operate. We tend to place people in boxes with labels. It's how our brains taught themselves to operate in order to work more efficiently through our evolutionary process. Big, loud, fast? Label it PREDATOR. Colourful, sweet, juicy? Label it FRUIT.

No one could relate to the labelling conundrum more than artists. Would I let my daughter marry an artist? Would I have artists for tenants? and most importantly, would I call myself one?!

The short answer is 'No!' The long answer is 'Fuck, no!'

I am the ambiguous 'creative practitioner', the vague 'hybrid-creative', the unresolved 'visual communicator'. Or, as my parents introduce me: the dentist - even though I graduated from dental school 17 years ago and have not practiced for a single day in my life!

 

Fleur Woods

After leaving life in the corporate world I found myself with this new job description… ‘Mum’. I thought this was infinitely special so was a bit crushed when people's eyes glazed over at my husband's work 'dos' when I told them that being a Mum was my day job. When I moaned to my husband about this and my lack of identity he said, “tell them you're an artist”, to which I replied, “I can't do that!”

I'm pretty sure if someone tells me they're a dentist or a teacher I don't then try to ascertain whether they have earned the right to that title.

But sure enough at the next work do I replied, “I'm an artist”... which was met with more interest but also a distinctly skeptical facial expression and then a barrage of questions trying to identify if I was in fact an actual artist or just some kind of egotistical hobbyist.

Because I wasn't sure if I had even 'earned' the title I was ill-prepared for this type of questioning. I'm pretty sure if someone tells me they're a dentist or a teacher I don't then try to ascertain whether they have earned the right to that title. So I started to question my right to the title and also why we don't readily accept 'artist’ as a job title.

I don't know that I've quite worked it out yet but the difference is that these days I just don't care if someone believes that I deserve to be an artist. I know how hard I work and just like many small business owners would tell you it is more than I will ever probably be remunerated for (a whole other topic!!!)

When someone asks me what I do I just simply say that I make art, inevitably most people will begin the ‘are you a real artist’ assessment process of questioning but I guess because I've been doing it for longer now I can generally answer most of them or if I'm feeling patronized I can move the convo along. I wish I'd known when I was just starting out that being an artist for a living means whatever it needs to mean for you. I don't know too many other professions where people question your salary and your ability in the same breath but I guess it just shows how hard a role it is for other people to define which has lead me to the conclusion that if I'm happy with my definition of what being an artist is for then that's really all that counts, there are literally no rules.

 

Taryn Beri

I transform people irrevocably. I carve their skin. I adorn them with their ancestors. I help women to choose their dream lives. I run four businesses - all different facets of the same prism which is me. I sell art. I coach women to choose themselves. I teach women not to settle. I empower women to own their inherent worthiness and to step into their kuinitanga (queendom). I organize exhibitions around the world. I host art salons. I help people to lead healthier lifestyles. I make people sound fancy on the internet and help them market and promote their art. I do what I want every day and always endeavor to use my natural gifts, strengths and talents to the maximum!

 

Sharu Delilkan

Working a 9-to-5 job has never been a good fit for me.  I have tried working in the corporate world and taking on full-time jobs on and off throughout my career and every time I’ve done so I’ve ended up ended up feeling hollow and unfulfilled.  This includes working for a wage in various fields such as journalism, business PR consultancy, corporate copywriting and communications.  Mostly I chose to go back to fulltime employment to ensure that I had a guaranteed income to rely on.  Conversely every time I’ve decided to work as a creative entrepreneur/artist I feel totally nourished and content.  Over and over again I’ve found that the emotional and intangible benefits of working in a creative role far outweigh financial stability.

I remember in the mid-1990s when I decided to open my own entertainment company to manage rock bands in Malaysia, my family was extremely supportive.  However every time my parents’ friends came over to visit and they introduced me to their mates my dad would say, “What is it that you do again? Can you explain that to our friends?”  The irony was that they used to come and support all the gigs I organised.  In fact they even helped bankroll the music single that I produced independently which topped the radio charts in Malaysia.  Like everyone else they found it very hard to acknowledge my career because I wasn’t following the traditional path of becoming a doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer or teacher.

I know that I’ve probably disappointed my parents countless times, who sold their house to pay for undergraduate journalism degree in the USA, particularly because today I’m a Creative Producer.  I run my own theatre company, Sharu Loves Hats which is definitely not the traditional path that most Asians take.  But if I had to do things over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.  I’d still continue to work in a career that makes me happy – that has meaning and purpose.  And hopefully along the way I can make a difference in the long term, and contribute towards the ecology of Auckland’s performing arts.

In order of appearance...

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

17 Oct 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.

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