Manage your passion and earn for living: A conversation with Janet Echelman

Last night, I stumbled on a TED Live Conversation with Janet Echelman, a renowned sculptor. Despite my hesitation (timidity, to be precise), I braced myself and took that opportunity to write her a question about my long-time unanswered dilemma.

After almost 1 hour of waiting, I was lucky that she replied to my question. Below is the original excerpt from the session, I hope her answer might help you too (I deleted the preamble greetings and salutations—like ‘hello’, or ‘thank you’—just to make it straight to the point).

Janet on her TED Talk. Photo taken from   this source  .

Janet on her TED Talk. Photo taken from this source.

I would like to know how do you manage passion and earn for living? Some artists doing their art really good and don't want to compromise to their client (or market), and perceive that when money comes into play, their art will not be ‘pure’ anymore. What's your thought about it?

Rocky, wow, this is a tough one. And EVERY painter/sculptor/actor/musician I know has this problem. For me, when I was just starting out after college, I decided that it was important for me to spend as much time trying to develop as an artist, and the thing I had more ability to control than earning a living was my own cost of living. So I moved to a village in Bali, Indonesia (Ubud), and I was living on about US$250/month. I would go back to the US where I'm from every year and sell my paintings, and with that I could return to Indonesia and spend another year pursuing my artwork full-time. It turned out that that was very important for me to develop. I really needed that time.

Rocky, I don't think that's a solution for everybody. It's just what worked for me at the beginning. And I still encounter that question all the time, whether to direct my energies toward something that appears to be more profit-generating vs. what appears to be more my creative desire. What I've discovered (and again, I don't know if this would be true for others), was that when I followed my creative desire, it ended up having a better financial outcome anyway.

For example, when I was painting during the first decade I was an artist, I worked with a gallery that told me that yellow paintings just wouldn't sell, and also that small and medium sized works were easier for her to sell. When I returned to my studio after that, all I could do was use yellow, and I am naturally drawn to canvases that are larger than the swing of my arm. There's an internal part of me that needs the artistic expression to be authentic, and it just won't take direction like “don't use yellow”. But in the end, I made a big expressive yellow painting, and of course, it was one of the best. And when my next exhibition opened, the ones that sold were the big expressive ones. So in my creative process, I just try to ignore external input like that.

But I do have to consider maintenance issues at every stage of my work. Those are external data points that are crucial for successful outcomes.

About pursuing the passion for full-time and earn for living is actually an issue that not many artists can overcome, especially in the developing country like Indonesia. I'm from Indonesia myself, lived in Yogyakarta and now I live in Sweden continuing my study. I also made a start-up based on my passion on arts, and at some point I feel that it is really hard to compromise with my own ego when it comes to those two issues. Perhaps finding the balance, as you implied in your answer, will take the entire life to be able to fine tune that.

Lastly—I don't know if this is still on the topic or not—it is also the ultimate goal of my start-up to help artists in the developing countries to be able to express themselves. Since they might have a great talent but no access to the society who appreciate it. And this conversation is surely helpful for those who struggle at the point you were.

It really is a coincidence that you are originally from Indonesia, which is the country where I spent my early formative years developing my artistic voice and learning from artisans.

Sometimes it’s easier to have work that is “mindless” and unrelated to art, to allow one’s energy to be saved up for art-making. That’s a very different approach to “commercializing” one’s art.

I know there are no easy answers to this conundrum of earning one's living and pursuing creative endeavors. There are great artists—the great American composer Charles Ives spent his life working in insurance, and only very late in life (after 70 I believe) did he achieve the recognition as the great contemporary composer that he was. The French painter Henri Matisse was trained as a lawyer before leaving that to become an artist. Sometimes it's easier to have work that is “mindless” and unrelated to art, to allow one's energy to be saved up for art-making. That's a very different approach to “commercializing” one's art.

I don't know if what I have written is at all helpful. If you have some specific questions, I'm happy to respond to the best of my ability.


Taken from TED Live Conversations with Janet Echelman: Creative vision — how do you develop and hold onto it, especially when obstacles appear in your path?

More about Janet Echelman, please visit her website at