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  • Writer's pictureRon Gallen

Underearners (artist department): Sarah's Story

If you were to meet Sarah, you would not mistake her for an executive or someone working in finance. At first sight, it is hard to imagine anything except that she is an artist.You can sense it in the way she walks down the street.You can feel an otherworldliness, an ethereal glow about her. She spends a lot of time on what can only be described as another plane.

I have never met a more sensitive soul. Ever since she was a very young girl, Sarah knew she wanted to be an artist. There was no denying her gift. Teacher's began sending notes home to her parents as early as the third grade, describing her talent as a rare thing. She was not like the other kids. Not that she would have had the slightest desire to be like the other kids.

Sarah is a little bit fragile when it comes to making her way in the practical world. She certainly never became adept at handling money. Nor did she give very much thought to earning it or how to use it to take care of herself. I think Sarah didn't really regard money as something absolutely necessary in life. She immersed herself in her art. She became accomplished.

Once she completed her studies, she found a subsidized (thank god) live/work studio. But the subsidy didn't include a stipend of any sort, and she had no real income and no real plan. There was no money for food--or even for paint. Uh oh. She says she was scared for the first time. Huge chunks of reality began crowding in. She got a temp job, filing. Even with Sarah's modest needs, navigating New York on the income from a temporary filing gig is forbiddingly difficult. The long hours of mind-numbing work and the long hours of worry about money drained her of her energy for her art. Drained of the energy for her art? How could that ever have happened?

The following ten years were a struggle to keep her art light burning. The spiral of shame and self-doubt that began with that first temp job did not go away. Debts grew. Her marriage to a like-minded artist saw its own difficulties. He wasn't much better at this money thing than she was.

Sarah was desperate for her life back, the life of art school and having her meager needs somehow always met. Life felt sheltered and charmed then. How did everything go so wrong?

When I met her she couldn't figure out how to make any time for her artwork whatsoever. Her struggle now, her only struggle now, was to pay the bills. She definitely had no idea what to do about the debt she had built up over ten years. Bill collectors at the door, she was a wreck. The matter of how to live with a spending plan that leaves room for you passions, your desires, your art, is the same for artists as for anyone. The difference is you feel like it shouldn't have to be.

The challenge of integrating an artistic vision with the practical realities of earning a living can be daunting--but they are by no means mutually exclusive.

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