Is It Possible to Live on Art Alone?

woman in brown long sleeved shirt wearing eyeglasses holding paint brush

As a huge fan of the hit Discovery show Mythbusters, I was surprised to learn that Mythbusters Build Team member Kari Byron had written a book called Crash Test Girl. It took something like two weeks to show up in my box (thanks extremely slow postal service) but it was well worth the wait. I was going to write a more traditional review for this book, but it’s so filled with juicy delicious nuggets of wisdom that I’ll be writing several articles based on Kari’s crash-tested advice on a wide variety of subjects.

In the very last chapter, which talks about lessons learned about creativity, one particular bold-faced statement really stood out to be as something I really needed to talk about at length.

“It is possible to survive on art alone.” – Kari Byron, Crash Test Girl

I’m living proof that you can indeed live off of your art. Whereas Kari’s skills are in painting and sculpture – which helped more than you’d think on Mythbusters – my artistic talents are purely in writing. Apparently, Kari isn’t half-bad as a writer, either! Her point is that while she was on what most people think of as a science show – really it was a reality show where they built wacky odd gizmos and blew stuff up – art and science actually go together.

Yes, I made a career of my art. But, the art that led to my career wasn’t essay writing and it wasn’t poetry. It certainly wasn’t my hilariously awful attempts at comics, either. The art that would pay the bills was writing articles that ranked well on Google, trended on social media, or both. That may sound like a job more than an art, but beyond it sounding technical, it’s actually a craft you have to practice at quite a bit.

Forcing yourself to write around specific keyword phrases, especially phrases that were extremely specific to a certain search intent, is actually extremely difficult. This is why even with all of the powerful AI writing tools that exist, you still need actual, living, breathing human beings to edit and finalize online copy. You can write for search engines, but the real art is in doing so while also writing for humans. Believe me, it took me years to figure that art out. 

Once I did, I actually succeeded at making explosions, just of a non-literal kind. These included exploding the online reach and overall sales for several different companies. While I was drastically underpaid, it allowed me to create something useful for people, and I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish during that time.

While, in hindsight, I should’ve sought out much more lucrative opportunities considering the skillset I was developing, it was my own fault for not fighting for what I was worth. Actually, I’m thankful for those experiences because I began to realize that I was shackling myself to SEO and keeping myself from writing things just because I didn’t know what keywords to use. I’m still working hard to find that balance now, even when my art no longer needs to be my lifeline. I create now simply to create for my own sanity, and sense of purpose.

Before Mythbusters, Kari herself had quite the wild ride, and it made for a heck of a book. I won’t spoil any of it here, but what I can say spoiler-free is that Mythbusters was the perfect show for Kari, because she got to use her strengths as an artist to solve science and engineering problems. Like me, Kari has always taken the crash test approach to life, using the scientific method to constantly test hypothesis and come to often unlikely or unexpected conclusions. 

After finishing that book, I realize that her and I, along with many other creatives I know, really aren’t that different. We both tried to succeed the traditional way, getting a degree then settling into a career with strong future prospects. Instead, both she and I crashed our way into opportunities we couldn’t have imagined being successful.

Where many people fail with living on their art is that, like myself and many other artists I know, we try too hard. Yes, it sounds counterintuitive. By trying too hard, I mean we try to make art that we think others will like and buy so we can keep food in our tummies and a roof over our heads. So many writers are convinced that they need a publisher to be a “real” writer. Many artists believe they have to be a part of a studio. 

No, the best way to succeed is to own your art and make the art you want to make. Again, that sounds counter-intuitive. Yes, you may have to take jobs you really don’t enjoy to make sure your needs are met. Sure, the gig economy has its faults. But, taking charge of your art and not giving in to what others think you should do with it is the first and hardest step you must take. 

It’s very scary to fail, and no doubt you will fail a lot. The trick is that when you succeed, you really capitalize on that, so that you can buy yourself more time and resources to find the next success. You can’t just stand pat with that success, either. For example, after Kari and her co-builders Grant and Tory were let go from Mythbusters, Kari had to become a freelancer, which she still is today. 

That’s what I did as a SEO specialist, too. Sure, without any formal degree, I struggled to find any employers willing to take a chance on me. Most of those who would hire me paid me basically minimum wage for skilled labor. Because I had bills to pay, I swallowed my pride and took the positive angle that at least I was being paid to create. My art, although most people don’t see what I did as art, is what kept me eating and having a place to live.

But, you don’t have to be a traditional artist to live on your art. Sure, it’s easier than ever for visual artists, photographers, musicians, and writers to strike out on their own and build a nice living. But it doesn’t matter what it is you’re good at; if you have a certain skillset that leads to creative solutions, you are, in fact, an artist. As long as you are building something, whether it’s physical or abstract, that can improve the lives of yourself and others, you are an artist. 

Probably the best example I can think of in my own life when it comes to living on your art is Thomas with her photography. In particular, her photos of abandoned places have long been a main source of traffic to her website; but what you must also know is that website has been live in one form or another since 1998! That’s the best way to own your art if I ever saw one.

Human beings were born to create, something I’ve written about on multiple occasions. Kari echoes this same sentiment in her book’s final chapter. I’m extremely grateful that she wrote Crash Test Girl, the very existence of which came from a random conversation she had with an author. Every chapter in it gave me something to think about, and a few bold-faced statements to quote and write about, too!

No matter if you’re a fan of Mythbusters or not, you should definitely give Kari Byron’s Crash Test Girl a read!

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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