Overcoming the Stigma of the ‘Starving Artist’

“My parents told me, ‘Oh, that’s lovely, you’ve got a talent for art,’ and they encouraged me until my sophomore or junior year in high school. Then they were like, ‘Okay, that’s a lovely hobby, now what are you going to do for a living?'”

"All the World's a Stage". Digital photography, copyright 2010 Amy Buchheit All Rights Reserved.

Painter/photographer Amy Buchheit had been programmed with the notion that serious people don’t pursue art as a profession. She shared her story with me in her home studio in Vancouver, Washington, at the end of my cross-country road trip across America interviewing creatives on camera. You can see my video with Amy at the bottom of this post.

What you won’t hear in that video, unfortunately, is the long and winding path Amy took to get where she is now, a full-time professional photographer and painter. That path began after high school, when she decided to follow in the family tradition and enroll in the U.S. military.

“I heard over and over again, ‘You can’t make a living as an artist.’ That was a big thing. And I know that that’s not unusual. Many people who are artists have heard that. Some of them were able to move past it, and then there was me. I had no evidence that wasn’t real.”

"Wasp in the Lotus", digital photography, copyright 2010 Amy Buchheit. All Rights Reserved.

After her service was complete, Amy worked in a series of jobs, none arts-related. She excelled, not surprising given she is smart, hard-working and full of enthusiasm. But it was unsatisfying for her. Finally, after years of internal struggle, she found the courage to enroll in art school.

Now she is a professional artist. Finances are tight, but her exposure is strong. Some of her work was being shown in a major exhibit when I visited with her last summer, and she is now being exhibited in two other shows.

She has no regrets. “I’m glad that I pursued the path that I did,” she told me. “I have a lot of back skills that I can use.”

Part of her mission now (and this is mentioned in the video) is a desire to give back, to encourage young versions of herself to pursue their dreams, with seriousness, ambition and passion. She also feels we all need to change how we perceive artists in today’s society.

“There’s this perception of artists as freeloaders, a perception of this hippie culture, of slackers, but for most of the people I know who are professional artists, it is just the opposite,” she said. “They work really hard. You have to. Most of them have at least a part-time job, and they do their business.

“I had somebody say, ‘Oh, I wish I could just sit around and paint all day,’ and I started laughing and said, ‘So do I!'”

Have you had to fight the stigma of the ‘starving artist’ in your own creative life?

17 thoughts on “Overcoming the Stigma of the ‘Starving Artist’

  1. For me it’s more the stigma of the ‘tortured artist’. Writers who drink themselves into oblivion, for example. It’s another way to make the artist’s life not work. To create from joy and connection to one’s own voice, that’s a true challenge. 🙂


  2. Amy Buchheit is the most dedicated, serious, enthusiastic and incredibly hard working artists I have ever known and I’ve known quite a few incredibly gifted artists, myself being one of them (if I may say so myself)! HA! I’m one of those people who believed the myths and stigmas. I might do something with my art if only I had the determination Amy has in her pinky finger. So nice to see an article praising that kind of spirit.

    C. Fellinger


  3. kellypratt

    Patrick, your timing is impeccable! I’m facilitating/participating in an online group that is working our way through THE ARTIST’S WAY (http://www.thegratefulgoddess.com/2010/12/the-artist-way-12-week-online-workshop/) – we’re just finishing our 2nd week which is “Recovering A Sense of Identity” – and what you’re talking about is exactly what Julia Cameron discusses in her book – in this chapter – the ‘poisonous people’ etc. that can keep us from pursuing our art.

    Personally – I had very supportive parents – but it was my own feelings of inadequacies that kept me from truly pursuing life as an artist – although I was lucky enough to have a period in my 20s as a dancer in a regional company – but even then believed I wasn’t good enough to REALLY be a dancer-even though i was one!! Amazing, that even if the people around us are supportive, we can do all the sabotaging ourselves!

    Now, in my 50s, i’m finally finding my artistic voice – but it’s not easy – i still do plenty of self sabotage – and am still a “shadow artist” as Cameron has defined us – that is, someone who’s in the company of artists but still a bit too afraid to jump in myself… but I’m getting out there… little by little!

    thanks for keeping this issue and creativity on the forefront! love your blog,


    1. Hi Kelly! Just to be clear, I think my parents were supportive in the ways that they understood. Neither my mom nor stepdad, with whom I lived, were in the least bit artistically inclined, nor did they have artistic friends to my knowledge. They, like most people, had heard the cultural conversation present in the US – you can’t make a living as an artist – and therefore passed that along to me. They did it out of care and concern that I have a good life, it came from a good place. And, since I had never met an artist making a living at it (other than as an art teacher, where they dabbled in their own work), I had no evidence that what they were saying wasn’t 100%, no kidding, THE TRUTH.

      I think that is what happens to a lot of budding artists. Well intentioned people are the ones who (often unintentionally) squash the dream.


    2. Kelly, thanks so much for the kind words, and glad to be of help. I’m also glad my friend Amy has clarified her situation.

      I too had supportive parents, Kelly, but for me it was various personal demons that kept me on the periphery of creative fields rather than pursuing them head-on. Your dancing story hits home to me — my original creative passion was singing, and I finally put it aside when I realized I wouldn’t be a breakout star. I blogged on that awhile back: https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/the-zen-of-teaching-creativity/

      I love The Artist’s Way (the name of my blog is a derivation of that title, incorporating my road trip), but I think you need to ask yourself if you are as much still a “shadow artist” as you think you are. I would think the fastest way of shedding that way of living is shedding that self-perception. Just a thought.


  4. kellypratt

    Patrick, good thoughts. And you know, the “shadow artist” label is, in my opinion, kind of a catch 22 – I love being in the “shadow” of artists and creatives of all kinds! I think it only becomes in issue when I use being around other artists as a substitute for my own creative pursuits. Being with “my tribe” of other creatives is inspiring for me …


  5. Patrick,

    Ooph. I’ll try not to swear. You bet I have the issue of “you’ll never make any money at it” regarding my art, creativity and anything other than “productive” (thing like manufacturing, jobs directly related to GDP, but also ironically church/synagogue work). How is being an artist not productive? How is my art not valuable? So much of what you’ve written here sounds so familiar.

    OK. Stepping off my soapbox.

    I look forward to the day when the creative dreams I have are realities.

    Bless you,


    1. Stan,

      Thank you so much for your comment, it’s very moving. It also seemed to confuse WordPress, which tagged it as possible spam! I’m going to assume it’s not because the software also wishes to be a dream killer for you.

      Thank you as well for sharing via link the lovely poem you wrote to Anita. I’m so pleased I’ve come to know both of you “virtually” in the last few months!



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