I never liked the expression "Keep your day job." It's directed at artists who supposedly lack the talent to sustain themselves. Very few make a living doing the work for which they have spent decades training. Those are just the stats and they have almost nothing to do with talent.
It if weren't for the various things artists do apart from their art, much of the art on Houston's stages and walls that you and I enjoy and sometimes cherish would not be there. So let's take a moment to praise the cleverness by which artists sustain themselves. Day jobs are complex, sometimes unsteady, other times inflexible and often not exactly during the day. We don't talk about making a living enough in the arts. The subject of money makes us jumpy, and rightly so, as there's less of it during these recession days.
A huge thank you to all the artists who e-mailed me with day job tales and to the four industrious artists below who shared the precarious line by which they straddle the work/art continuum.
Lindsey Sarah Thompson: High school teacher by day; dancer by night
I have always enjoyed the way Lindsey Sarah Thompson navigates the sneaky switchbacks inherent in Jennifer Wood's choreography, where I have watched her as a member of Suchu Dance since 2004. She's so fluent in Wood's wild and wooly movement vocabulary that I find my eye often lured in her direction. I figured Thompson made her living as most dancers do in this city, either by teaching pilates or what seems like a hundred dance classes per week. That was until my son came home last year announcing, "Mom, do you know that a Suchu dancer teaches at my school?" What?
Thompson looks at home at the still shiny new Cy Woods High School, where she teaches photography and electronic multi-media. She finds it best to separate her two lives, and rarely shares her dancing life with her students. "It's simpler that way."
She has missed dancing in only three Suchu shows in six years — once when she started this job two years ago. "I was a deer in the headlights," she remembers about her adjustment to teaching life. But working a traditional job with health benefits is a must for Thompson. "I am a Type I Diabetic," she explains, pulling up her shirt to show me her insulin pump.
For now, she's carved a sustainable situation for herself, where she balances high school teaching with dancing the amorphous waves of motion that is Suchu. Thompson is in rehearsals for Suchu's yet untitled all-new show opening on March 18 at Barnevelder. That, and getting her students to develop their film.
Elliott Cooper Cole: Web designer by day; composer/performer by night
Elliot Cooper Cole's name came across my desk when I was helping a nonprofit look for a web designer. He came highly recommended. So I was a bit surprised when I saw him listed as the composer and a performer in John Harvey's Night of the Giant, a production of Mildred's Umbrella. Cole's elegant, approaching pretty music both complemented and contrasted Harvey's dark Gothic tone. I was even more surprised when I found Cole on stage in Main Street Theater's production of Master Class, where he played Maria Callas' tolerant and patient pianist with a delicate wit.
Cole delights in being all over the musical map. Listen to his hip hop piece, The Rake's Progress, at The Oracle Hysterical and his melancholic song cycle Babinagar. Right now he's working on a score for Electra, another Harvey collaboration at University of Houston on March 26-28 and 30; the Selkie Project, a new theater piece with Divergence Vocal Theater; setting up house concerts for his chamber pop group; and finishing a new work for Le Poisson Rouche: Ensemble ACJW.
Cole effortlessly glides between web designer and composer. "It's quite fluid," he says from his bedroom, which doubles as his office. "Neither are very steady. It doesn't feel sustainable, but it is."
When Cole graduated from Rice University with a degree in composition and cognitive science, he realized, as many artists do, that he needed the so-called day job. "I needed a trade," he says. Web design turns out to be mighty handy for an artist, too. "I am not a visual person, but I have learned how to be one," he says.
Suzanne LeFevre: Personnel manager by day; viola player by night
Suzanne LeFevre knocked my socks off during her viola solo in the middle of Ginastera's Variaciones Concertantes at a River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) concert. Then she did it again at Mercury Baroque's "Generation Purcell" concert a few months later. LeFevre also works as the personnel manager at ROCO, where she hires the musicians, along with all the details and logistics that go with that. ROCO has cultivated a musician-centered environment. Once a year they even play conductorless.
"Not only do they need to be fine musicians, but they have to have a certain personality," says LeFevre. "It's not just another gig in town."
As a freelance musician, it's hard to predict workloads. Last weekend LeFevre needed to strap a pair of wings on her viola to fly from ROCO to Romeo & Juliet, a collaboration between Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and Mercury Baroque. And that was after a week when three musicians had to be replaced due to blizzards and other mishaps.
Having a day job came up for LeFevre during the 18 months she spent living in Belgium. With no permit she was not allowed to work. "Playing the viola was the only thing I knew how to do," she remembers. "I needed to broaden my skills. Classical musicians need to learn all that they can about their business."
LeFevre describes the job as organic and constant. She's up on union rules and now knows her way around an Excel spreadsheet.
"It gets a bit tricky when I put my musician hat back on," she admits. She will be doing that Sunday for her recital at Dowling Music, where she will play Mozart, Schumann, some tango and the "Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for Viola and Clarinet" by Rebecca Clarke. "I love, love, love this piece," she says. "It's a dark piece, but that's why I play the viola, or what keeps me drawn to it."
Ned Dodington: Nonprofit director by day; artist by night
I ran into Ned Dodington's work, quite literally, when I nearly collided with his hanging green grassy pods sustained by a drip IV. Poly-Lawn-Dale, at Lawndale's Grace R. Cavnar Gallery through Feb. 27, is a whimsical colonization that subtly questions our awareness of what's natural and constructed in our environment. Revealing its engineering makes the process transparent – and downright funny. I left wondering about my own unconscious IV support, the one under the trees in my back yard, and the large insect that has taken residence under my desk. A humble Dodington spoke at the Lawndale opening about his interest in "recontextualizing the natural and cultural." "Nature has never been natural," he muses in his artist statement.
As co-founder and co-director of the Caroline Collective along with Matthew Wettergreen, Dodington has a high tolerance for blurring boundaries between form, function and established beliefs. He also runs C2Creative, a nonprofit that offers guidance and support for start-ups and also works at PDR, a corporate design firm which allows him to move toward his status as a fully fledged licensed architect.
The day jobs offer peace of mind, needed experience and a way to pay the bills. "I like being hungrier," he admits. As for the jobs factoring into his art, he replies. "No, not yet, but some day." Next he plans an exhibit of work of artists working in similar ways, and down the road, a book.
But for now, happy hour at Caroline Collective calls. I get in my car, yet another IV, while he walks. Dodington doesn't own a car. Makes sense.