VAM 36 | Making art while earning a living

How does one balance an artistic practice with the need to pay the bills? In this guest post for the AGM blog, VAM 36 juror Kim Lee Kho, who is also an artist and “recovering” designer, writes about her experience.

Making art while earning a living
(from a ‘recovering’ designer’s point of view)

“If you want to starve, be an artist.” That was the mythology in my family, was it like that in yours? The irony was we were populated by artists (except for my dad the engineer), but all with very common beliefs that a) you could only be a serious professional artist if you made your living from your artwork; and b) that was impossible!

The truth is artists earn their bread in countless ways. Some have another profession or trade, most have a variety of skills, and some, like me, have art-related paying work like teaching, jurying and lecturing. 

Before returning to art, I had a whole other career: I spent over 20 years as a graphic designer and art director, mostly owning my own studio, first alone, then with my husband/partner. Creative professions like design are an obvious choice for artists looking to earn a living, and for good reason. Design allowed me to use and develop my eye, my conceptual skills, ability with visual language and the design thinking that helps me so much now. It also taught me a lot about marketing and other business skills – areas traditionally weak in artists.

There were drawbacks too: if you’re successful enough to be busy, the deadlines come at you so quickly and often you hardly know which way is up; the creative work is very other-focused, targeted at particular audiences, meeting specific client needs; the timelines rarely allow for deep development of ideas; and not all clients understand or even value what you do. 

The biggest problem? I had no time for my art. On the rare occasions that I did have a little, art was the last thing I wanted to do, because it was too related. I needed a break!

Design is all about deadlines (well, budgets too). Deadlines can be great – essential even – for energizing, motivating and increasing your focus. But creativity loves time, to wander and refresh itself as well as to make work. So once you aren’t 25 years old anymore, a sustainable creative practice of any kind needs rhythms of greater and lesser output. Not getting that leads to burnout, something artists and designers alike can experience if they’re not mindful. 

So make your living, at whatever (related or unrelated to art), but make time too. Nurture yourself and your creativity, and you will make more art.


Kim Lee Kho is a visual artist and artist-instructor with over 20 years’ experience as a graphic designer and art director. Her art practice includes painting, drawing, photo-based mixed media and sculpture. In 2013 Kim was awarded an Ontario Arts Council Emerging Visual Artists grant for the creation of new work. She has participated in exhibitions, residencies and mentorships in Ontario, Alberta and BC, and shows at the Renann Isaacs’ gallery in Guelph. Kim is on the faculty for Fleming College’s diploma, certificate and summer programs in Haliburton. She also teaches regularly at Neilson Park Creative Centre, as well as being a workshop leader, lecturer and juror for community art groups throughout southern Ontario.

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