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Playing CPA with MFAs

Skyrocketing rents. Unaffordable studio space. Mountains of student loans. The life of the Bay Area artist is not for the easily discouraged. Here, eight artists walk us through their taxes to explain how they’re hanging on.


Last year, Lee Lavy spent about $2,000 on supplies like plaster gauze, Derma-Gel, and concrete to make casts for a mannequin of his body. Next up: making a suit out of paint.

Photo: Courtesy of Lee Lavy

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Chris Fraser’s Revolving Doors, at SF Camerawork in 2015, served as a metaphor for San Francisco: a space that called for increased civility as more people entered.

Photo: Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris

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Like many adjuncts, Chris Fraser files for unemployment benefits between semesters.

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Stephanie Lie earned $34,481 in six months of contracting at LinkedIn, a boost from the $27,634 she made as an adjunct teaching three classes at Stanford and Berkeley.

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Lie's W-2 from adjuncting at Berkeley.

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If Lisa Solomon had paid everyone who helped crochet and install Sen:1,000 Doilies $10 per hour, she would have spent about $10,000.

Photo: Courtesy of the Ulrich Museum of Art

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Solomon kept a notebook listing each volunteer's thread color and address, then mailed tokens of her thanks at the end of the project.

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Solomon

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Freedom from Chase, 2014, a brass, marble, and wood pen set by Jeremiah Jenkins, sold for $600, less a 50 percent commission for the gallery.

Photo: Courtesy of Jeremiah Jenkins

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Jenkins's "Injured Spouse" allocation form from 2015.

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Josh Martinez’s Slippage (Vapor), 2014, suggests a landscape coming into and out of view. It pairs a photo taken near Ocean Beach with a cameraless image.

Photo: Courtesy of Josh Martinez

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A tweet sent out by Favianna Rodriguez’s social media manager, who gins up sales of affordable prints and posters from the artist’s back catalog.

Photo: Courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez

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Photo: Courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez

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Photo: Courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez

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After his parents died, Nolan Sheehan Jankowski sold their house and borrowed against the proceeds to go to art school.

Photo: Google Street View

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To be a San Francisco artist is to be a walking contradiction. It’s entirely possible to have gallery representation and a pedigreed exhibition history and still struggle to feed yourself. In a place where every startup is eager to name its price, many Bay Area artists devote their lives to making objects, environments, and performances that just don’t sell that well, or even can’t sell—on purpose. Still, they get up every day and do it anyway. Which got us wondering: How exactly are artists hanging on? So we asked eight artists to let us in on how their financial lives actually work by pulling out their most recent tax returns (some only had 2014 forms available at press time). It’s a diverse group—varied in gender, race, economic background, and life experience—save for age, which ranges only from 26 to 42. The older artists we contacted all declined, perhaps because they have lawyers? We jest.

The folks you’ll meet in the following pages survive by cobbling together livelihoods in adjunct classrooms, a bike repair shop, a tech company, and, very rarely, their own studios as their own bosses. Most consider themselves lucky to devote just 10 to 15 hours per week to art. Most regularly get asked to donate pieces or work for free. Some would probably make more money working full-time at Starbucks. And yet: None of them would trade it for your job.

Lee Lavy, 34

Lives in: Berkeley
Day job: Full-time art student last spring, then full-time fabricator at Performance Structures, a company that handles all of Anish Kapoor’s large-scale stainless steel sculptures
2015 income: $25,861
Where his time goes: 40 hours per week at work, 20 hours running his art practice
Monthly rent: $500 for a basement bed-bath with access to a kitchen upstairs
Debt: Makes a $400-per-month payment on $60,000 in undergraduate loans
Studio: None. Even an inadequate studio would set him back $400 per month, or the equivalent of his loan payment.
How close to the edge he’s living: Feels fortunate to have his current setup
Sacrifice: Living without his own kitchen
Dream job: Self-supporting artist
Reason for hanging on: “I feel strongly about staying in the Bay Area. There’s a pretty thriving art scene. People have made it work for a long time.”

The post-MFA comedown 
Lavy is prototyping a suit made entirely of paint, shaped using plaster casts of his body. Because his own apartment is carpeted, he casts in his girlfriend’s easier-to-clean tiled kitchen. Without affordable studio space, Lavy is working on a smaller scale than he did in school—see: casting his own body—and making paintings that fit on the desk under his bunk bed.

Chris Fraser, 37

Lives in: Rockridge
Gallery: Wendi Norris
Day job: Full-time adjunct, split between Mills College in Oakland and Sierra College in Rocklin
2014 income: $35,883
Where his time goes: Teaches four days per week; spends one full day in studio (plus thinking time on the road)
Monthly rent: $1,000 on a $2,000 one-bedroom shared with his partner
Monthly studio rent: $850 per month (as of November 2014)
Debt: Around $14,000 in credit card debt, largely from shows in 2012–2013
Setback: Sinking $8,000 into an artwork commission that was never realized
Lucky break: Fleishhacker Foundation awarded a $25,000 grant, spread over two years
How close to the edge he’s living: Feels lucky to be scraping by
Saving grace: A few months ago, his partner began covering nine-tenths of the rent
Why not hit the eject button? Sometimes ponders decamping to Antioch, but can’t abide the food or the cultural vacuum
Mantra: “There is no downtime. You learn to value all time.”

Portrait of the artist as an adjunct on unemployment
As an adjunct at two colleges, Fraser says, he was carrying “a full load for somebody making less than half the salary of a full-time professor.” To that juggling act, add a 210-mile round-trip commute to Rocklin’s Sierra College—a schlep Fraser made twice a week. To its credit, California recognizes the plight of adjuncts. But only in an exasperatingly bureaucratic way: by allowing them to file for unemployment between semesters, under a 1989 California Court of Appeal ruling. Fraser just about breaks even on art making (what he spends on materials he roughly makes back in honoraria and fees), so he counts on adjuncting to pull him through: “I’m relying on teaching to make sure the rent gets paid and the food gets eaten.”

Stephanie Lie, 38

Lives in: The Castro (in 2014; now Inner Sunset)
Day job: Web developer and software engineer at LinkedIn; adjunct art instructor at UC Berkeley and Stanford
2014 income: $89,223
Where her time goes: 40 hours per week at LinkedIn (year-round), plus 30 hours per week teaching (spring semester); in the fall, no teaching and about 12–20 hours per week on art
Monthly rent: $1,000-per-month room in a shared apartment
Debt: $350 monthly payments on $30,000 in student loans
Dream job: Tenured art professor
Survival tactic: Carrying whiteboard markers and erasers in her purse because there might not be any in her adjunct classroom
Constantly amazed by: The free food at LinkedIn
Saving grace: LinkedIn is flexible about time off and working from home
How close to the edge she’s living: Comfortable for now—but apprehensive of the cost of having a family one day
Why tech: Lie, who double-majored in art and computer science, is a systems nerd. She pines for the cybernetics heyday of the ’60s, when technologists and humanists weren’t so far apart.
Tech wars rejoinder: “I would like for everyone to be able to afford to live here, and this is what I do to be able to stay here. If I didn’t have this tech job, I don’t think I could afford to live in the Bay Area and do artwork.”

The artist on the tech bus

If salary (and the academic job market) were no object, Lie would be gunning for the full-professor track as a teaching artist. But as an adjunct in 2013, she faced the real possibility of not being hired back. Fearing a summer without work, Lie called an old colleague, who put her up for a contractor job at Linked In. She kept teaching on the side, but it was tech that offered stability—and funded her studio practice. In 2014, Lie recalls, “Working half the year as a LinkedIn contractor, I made more than I made teaching three classes.” The hardest part about the switch? Culture shock. “The first month, I had a major identity crisis,” she says.


Lisa Solomon, 42

Lives in: North Oakland
Gallery: Walter Maciel in L.A.
Day job: Adjunct lecturer at San Francisco State and Cal State East Bay
2014 income: $29,880
Where her time goes: Teaches three days per week; in studio two days per week
Monthly mortgage: Roughly $1,000, shared with her husband, a hospital manager at a veterinary business
Monthly studio rent: Gratis! It’s in her backyard.
Lucky break: She and her husband bought in Oakland in 1999, just before the last boom
How close to the edge she’s living: Feeling lucky to be doing fine
Saving grace: Solomon’s grandmother left her a small nest egg and encouraged her to build a studio in the backyard. “She had a lot of foresight, and luckily I listened to her.”
Reason for hanging on: “I like the sense of community. I like the weather. I never wanted to leave,” she says. “We’ve found a way to stay here. If we hadn’t bought the house, we might have left.”
Thankful for: Her unbelievable luck. “It’s definitely not because I’m better skilled or more talented than other people.”

For love and no money

In 2013, Solomon wanted to make a crowdsourced work with 1,000 crocheted doilies for an upcoming show. She put out a call online and found a small army of volunteer crocheters who wanted to donate their time and dexterity. She sank $1,127 into thread, crochet hooks, and postage to ship the supplies to 44 crafters, who ranged from the artist’s own mother to a bored army wife in Germany. In all, the piece relied on at least 890 hours of volunteer labor. The crowdsourcing approach produced a parallel set of admin duties: Solomon kept track of everyone’s thread color and address in a fat reference notebook, which she went back to when it came time to produce color-coordinated thank-you prints for each crafter. It was a project Solomon expected would bring in no income, but in 2014 the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University acquired it. The museum declined to state the price, and Solomon says only that it covered the cost of making the piece.

Jeremiah Jenkins, 35

Lives in: Richmond
Day job: Teacher at an Oakland middle school; online learning instructor at Evergreen Valley College
2014 income: $29,684
Where his time goes: Four days per week at school, one day at home with his daughter; works in the studio about 10 hours per week
Monthly rent: $1,600 (shared with his wife), though recently it hit $1,720
Studio: In the garage
Debt: About $100,000 in student loans
Setback: When his mother died during his last year of art school, Jenkins went through a rough period and stopped paying his student loans
How close to the edge he’s living: Teetering. “Our tax lady told us last year that if I don’t make enough of a profit this year, art would be considered a hobby and not a business,” he says. “Which is what my dad told me when I was going to art school.”
Dream job: Full-time college art instructor
Reason for hanging on: “There’s no place like the Bay Area. It’s almost like we’re addicts who can’t break the habit.”

An artist in collections

Because Jenkins is in default on his student loans, his tax refund (around $3,000 in 2014) is wiped out by his creditors. As the “injured spouse”—that’s the IRS’s unfortunate term for being attached to someone in debt—Jenkins’s wife is still entitled to her part of the refund. It’s a situation Jenkins daydreams about fixing faster than is feasible. “I have these moments where I’ll hear an ad for Santa Clara University—‘You can get your CPA certificate!’—and I have this fantasy: I’ve got a stable job making all this money, paying my debt. Then I flip around and look at myself, completely out of place and unhappy, and I just go back to doing what I’m doing.”

Josh Martinez, 33

Lives in: The Mission
Day job: Media arts teacher at the Harker School in San Jose
2014 income: $80,856
Where his time goes: 40–50 hours per week teaching, 10–25 hours per week on art
Monthly rent: $1,500 for his share of a two-bedroom with at-home studio
Debt: $700-per-month payment on $95,000 in student loans
Lucky break: Scored an affordable living situation
How close to the edge he’s living: Comfier than paycheck to paycheck, but a costly medical situation would be “a serious problem”
Reason for hanging on: “I want to be a San Francisco artist. It’s not the most fast-paced scene, but the artists here make fascinating things. From the baseball team to the smell of the fog to the intimate gallery community, I love it so much.”
Saving grace: Summers off
Dream job: Full-time artist
Mantra: “I love my day job and my art practice. It feels good to have both.”

The frame-it-yourself art show
After spending 14 months on a series about the feeling of being in a landscape, Martinez showed 13 photos at Chico State University. He was reimbursed $700 for materials, which covered nearly a third of the $2,142 that he spent—including framing, which Martinez did himself. Asked how many hours went into producing the photos, he says, “I don’t want to know what that number is.” But making art feels different from clocking in: “It’s not so much even a want—it’s like it has to happen. You can make a lot of allowances for time simply because it feels right.” Bonus: In 2015, two photos from the show sold privately for about $2,000, which Martinez netted commission-free. 


Favianna Rodriguez, 37

Lives in: Oakland
Day job: Artist
Side job: Founder and executive director of CultureStrike, an art and social justice nonprofit
2014 income: $78,900 (approximately $55,000 from the nonprofit, the remainder from her art business)
Where her time goes: 30 hours per week at her nonprofit, 30 hours per week at her studio
Surprising fact: Never finished college
Monthly rent and mortgage: Rent on live-in studio: $2,350; mortgage payment on her parents’ house: $1,967
Debt: Credit card debt of about $20,000
Lucky break: When she needed money for a down payment to buy her parents’ house, fans showered her with $35,000 during a five-day flash art sale
Secret of her success: Treats art making like running any other consumer-facing business. In 2015, Rodriguez sold $60,715 worth of art; she invested most of the proceeds back into her art practice.
Career pet peeve: “I get asked all the time to donate art and do stuff for free.”
How close to the edge she’s living: Not paycheck to paycheck, but cutting it closer than she’d like
Saving grace: She has health insurance through her nonprofit
Reason for hanging on: She grew up here; her entire life is here
Mantra: “Artists are entrepreneurs.”

An art practice that scales
Rodriguez keeps her studio staffed up. In addition to a full-time assistant, a part-time studio production manager, and extra hourly help when things get busy, she spends $400 to $450 per month on a social media freelancer. The investment pays off: “Whenever he posts a particular art piece, someone will buy it,” she says, referring to the prints and posters she sells for less than $100 a pop. “People don’t even know it exists until it’s on social media. I’ve spent all this time developing content, and he disseminates it,” Rodriguez adds, with all the savvy of a BuzzFeed internal memo.

Nolan Sheehan Jankowski, 26

Lives in: The Mission
Day job: Full-time art student and teaching assistant at the San Francisco Art Institute (spring only); bike mechanic at Pedal Revolution
2015 income: $24,856
Where his time goes: In spring 2015, school plus 30 hours per week at the bike shop; since graduating, about 37 hours per week at the shop
Monthly rent: $880 in a share with two roommates
Studio: None
Debt: Payments of roughly $1,000 per month on a balance above $100,000
Saving grace… Can pay down loans so aggressively because of savings
…tempered by painful loss: The cushion comes from selling the Milwaukee-area home of his parents, who died in 2010
How close to the edge he’s living: Comfortably uncomfortable. “The savings give me a year or two to get on my feet before I start paying the loans out of my wage.”
Perennial question: “Do I try to make this project work outside of a studio, or do I keep it in the notebook until I have a studio space?”
Performance piece that needs no studio: Self-imposed mission to climb every public monument in the city
Dream job: Teaching art
Reason for hanging on: “San Francisco has supported a lot of the artists I’ve been drawn to.”

Sentimental education

Before Jankowski’s parents died, when he was 21, he was planning to be a lawyer. Both of his parents had been art teachers, and after they died, he ditched his law school plans, thinking, “What’s the point of doing something like that?” Already carrying loans from college, Jankowski borrowed further to enroll at SFAI. Though he could have paid for everything out of the proceeds from selling his childhood home, Jankowski wanted to leave himself a cushion, banking that he could ramp up his income faster than the loan payments would wipe out his savings. Since making the trade-off, he hasn’t looked back: “I always felt like using the money from my parents’ house is for exactly this.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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