For many years, the minimalist composer Philip Glass worked as a plumber. He did this not only before he started composing but also alongside his music work. Once, while installing a dishwasher in a SoHo loft, he glanced up to see the art critic of Time Magazine, Robert Hughes, looking down at him in disbelief. “But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?” Hughes exclaimed. Glass explained that he was installing a dishwasher and would be finished soon.
I am a musician. For me, the most notable thing about that story is not that a renowned composer had a second job (after all, here I am writing for a magazine), but how Hughes, who writes about art for a living, could be so shocked about the reality of artists’ lives. Even those connected to the arts tend to think of creative people as floating untethered in some other world: writing, recording, or painting in their studio until they receive recognition, success, and financial stability in neat order. The truth is a lot messier.
Especially in smaller societies, many artists work across disciplines, juggling various careers that are difficult to summarise in an “about” section or fit into a nine-to-five schedule. I’d wager that your favourite Icelandic artists belong to this group, and that their art is likely not commercially successful. Yet even these artists themselves say that’s not always a bad thing.
“There is no artist heaven waiting for you on the other side. It’s always a hustle. Even when people enjoy a lot of success, in Iceland they usually need to make money in some other way. Take publishing: books are popular here, they’re bought and sold as Christmas presents, but the payment you get for writing the average book in Iceland is maybe enough to live on for two or three months.”
These are the words of Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson, who has graciously invited me for coffee to discuss his own myriad creative work. By phone, he reluctantly agreed to chat, but issued me a warning. “I don’t have all the answers to this lifestyle, it’s always just a big mess.”
So, what does Ragnar do? “My children have been asking me that for the past 20 years. ‘Dad! My teacher asked what you do, what should I say?’” he laughs. “I think the book I sent to print last week says ‘Ragnar Helgi is a writer and visual artist.’ But, you know… I also teach, I play music, I sing in a choir, I publish books, I design book covers… so it’s difficult to say.” Ragnar likes to see himself as a sort of creative handyman. “In French there’s this word bricoleur: it’s not a professional carpenter, rather more of a dabbler. Someone who’s just good with their hands and has a do-it-yourself approach. That’s sometimes how I think of myself as an artist.”
All of Ragnar’s pursuits are creative. “Essentially, I keep busy making things – some of them I get paid for, a lot of them I don’t. I’ve stopped thinking about that.” Earlier in his career, Ragnar tried to keep his jobs in separate compartments. “But in recent years I’m more relaxed about it. What is art, what is design, what is work? I don’t take it very seriously, the distinction between those things. I don’t find it a helpful distinction.” Perhaps for some artists with a non-creative day job, the distinction is more easily made. “Being a night watchman and a writer. That’s the classic combination, it’s almost banal. Sometimes I think that would be a good idea: when you’re completely burnt out, to do a non-creative job. But my life has somehow turned out this way, that the work I do for money is also creative work. I don’t know if that’s good or not,” Ragnar muses.
When all your work is creative, it’s easy for the edges to bleed. “One day I’m designing a book cover for a bestselling author, then the next day a friend comes and asks me for help making a poster for her no-budget art film. Sometimes I think it’s actually good how little money there is in the Icelandic art world. People just make things, and no one asks: ‘Wait, what am I getting paid for this?’ There’s nothing to fight or get jealous about because everyone is equally broke. But then of course people need to have something on the side to pay their bills and fill their gas tank.”
In some ways, Ragnar prefers having his own creative projects separate from commercial concerns. “I find the creative process more satisfying when you don’t owe anyone anything. I can just create what I want, or even just what comes to me, and then say take it or leave it. That’s a good feeling.” Focusing on commercial success can be a booby trap of sorts. “I think it’s best to not expect that your art will earn you a living. There’s too much risk that you’ll become bitter. That’s the only true peril in the life of an artist: thinking you’re not appreciated as you should be, that others are getting more than you. Then it’s important to focus on what you’re doing, what gives you joy. And that’s creating.”
This lifestyle is not free from financial challenge, however. “COVID was a nightmare for people like me: freelance projects dried up, art projects too.” While he admits that the prospect of a regular salary is sometimes appealing, Ragnar says he is often surprised at what a good life he leads. “I can’t say I’m a starving artist. I want for nothing, though I am sometimes broke.”
“There’s an imp on my right shoulder that’s always saying:
‘Be wise, do something practical.’
Then there’s one on my left shoulder that just goes ‘bleeehhh!’
Then they talk to each other and somehow it works out.”
For many creative people, having a single career is like wearing the same T-shirt every day – a T-shirt that’s a few sizes too small. They keep heading back to the changing room looking for a better fit. This is the case for Svavar Pétur Eysteinsson. “I’m always trying to be just one thing. But no matter how I try, it never works out,” he tells me. Svavar is better known by the name of his light-hearted music project, Prins Póló (Prins being Prince, and Prince Polo being a Polish chocolate bar beloved by Icelanders). Musician, graphic designer, and photographer are a few of Svavar’s current job titles. Past titles include farmer, guesthouse operator, concert booker, and veggie-dog-recipe inventor. “When I was little, I wanted to be a farmer. Cultivate the land, grow things, feed people.” His creative work seems to have a similar purpose. “I try to make things that are useful, or make people happy, or both.”
When I called him up to ask for an interview, Svavar asked me to come by the following morning. “I don’t like to plan far in advance, I’d rather do things right away. In my work, I never know what’s going to happen next. I wake up in the morning, go into my office, then maybe someone calls me and says: ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea,’ and we start a project. There’s a certain freedom to that. It gives you the opportunity to shake things up. But of course, it’s hard to make ends meet. There’s an imp on my right shoulder that’s always saying: ‘Be wise, do something practical.’ Then there’s one on my left shoulder that just goes ‘bleeehhh!’ Then they talk to each other and somehow it works out.”
The Prince recently went back to school to study photography. “I thought: ‘I’m going to be a photographer and nothing else!’ I tried it for a bit and I couldn’t. It was too restrictive. So now I’m all these things and also a photographer.” I conjecture that Svavar perhaps wouldn’t be happy doing any single job. He agrees that’s probably true. “At the same time, I really respect people who do one thing their whole life. There’s a cobbler in Grímsbær shopping centre. He’s been there for over 50 years in a room half the size of this one. I think he’s been there since it was opened. And he’s still fixing shoes and copying keys and enjoying it. People like him make me feel so calm and grateful. It’s nice for a person like me to see that stability. But these two kinds of people are equally important in keeping society and culture running, and there’s no reason to put one on a pedestal above the other.”
Iceland’s tumultuous economy might play a part in locals’ willingness to hop between careers. “It’s always boom and bust, boom and bust. When there’s some sort of bubble, people change jobs, and when there’s a bust they go back to school. Then they graduate and change jobs again.” But Svavar also perceives a shift in the Icelandic mentality over time. “I think people today are less content in their own skin than they once were. They’re always looking to change things up. Find a new path, get new clothes, a new kitchen, change their car. Fifty years ago, you found your place and you just stayed there. There was a lot of risk in taking chances. That’s maybe the difference between me and the cobbler: he’s not going to take any risks.”
“My life has been split in two for the last few years. I work as a reporter at Icelandic national broadcaster RÚV for half the year, which is a really wonderful job,” Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir tells me. “It’s very creative, fun, and demanding. Then the other half of the year I sit at home and talk only to the voices in my head. Which is also absolutely wonderful, but it’s a completely different job.”
Sigríður’s “voices” have so far produced three novels. The first sprung from an idea that she mulled over for 15 years. “I always wanted to be a writer, but I think I was just never brave enough – it was such a big step. And when I was younger, I didn’t think I had anything to say. I studied history in university and ended up as a reporter. And that suited me.” Working in the newsroom, stories are delivered on a strict deadline. “I was always turning in my projects at the end of the day. After a while, I wasn’t sure that I could sit down and write something long-form anymore. So, in 2016, I took three months paid leave from work. I thought: ‘OK, I’m going to sit down and write for three months and see what happens.’” What “happened” was her first novel, Eyland, published later that year.
While her books have been well received, Sigríður says her goal is not to become a full-time writer. “Not as long as I can continue working as a reporter. I’m incredibly proud of being a journalist, I think it’s one of the most important jobs in the world. I get to work with such smart and creative people and I’m still passionate about it.” Yet working as a writer gives her the space to develop ideas that don’t fit in the newsroom. “The material for all three of my books sprouted from something I was reporting on or investigating. In the news, you can only work with facts, things that are real. But some ideas stay with you, leave you with questions, expand in your subconscious. And since I can’t keep working on them as a reporter, it’s easier to transfer them to fiction and keep developing them there.”
Being a writer has other perks. “It’s a much more rewarding job than being a reporter. You get a lot of positive feedback. As a journalist you mostly get negative feedback: people accuse you of pushing an agenda, or taking the side of this or that political party. As they say: journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want published; everything else is public relations.”
In order to write her novels, Sigríður takes time off from journalism. “I think if I had a job that was totally different from writing, if I were an accountant or a mechanic, it would be easier to juggle both. But a lot of creative energy goes into reporting. After a full day of writing at work, it’s hard to go home and work on writing something else.” Despite these attempts to keep her two professions separate, Icelanders have noticed that Sigríður’s fiction has a peculiar way of seeping back into her job as a reporter. Her first novel Eyland describes an Iceland with its borders closed to the world, while her 2020 book Eldarnir is about an eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula. (Here’s hoping her next novel is about a world without deadly viruses.)
Sigríður is grateful for her dual life and doesn’t see it as abnormal. “We all have room for more than just one role in life: we are friends, coffee drinkers, parents, spouses… we have so many layers. I think it’s very normal and very healthy to want to develop yourself in more than one area.” It can also be a great challenge to learn something new. “As a reporter, I’m an old warhorse. I’ve been there for over 20 years and seen almost everything. As a writer, I’m a rookie. I’m still learning how it all works. And it’s really fun to be both at the same time.”
“I saw right away that art wouldn’t be a source of income for me. When I came home from graduate school in the Netherlands, I trained as a park ranger in order to be able to work during the summers.” I am sitting with visual artist Eygló Harðardóttir in her sunny studio, while she tells me about the 20 years she spent working as a highland ranger in the summers. “It was very grounding. Some years I worked at locations where I was all by myself. You’re alone in the mountains, in a little house; you sleep there, you wake up there. You don’t have electricity, you get your water from the river. You’re always aware of everything around you, all 360 degrees. rangers are hired to ensure that nature conservation laws are followeed, so you have to be aware of all traffic, animal and plant life. You keep a daily log of how the grass is growing, when the moss blossoms, which cars passed through: you know them by their tracks.”
She never took her art practice with her to the highlands. “You work ten hours a day, you don’t have time for anything else. I found it an enthralling new world, but of course, it’s also related to art. Being a ranger opens up your senses, it’s all about how you experience the environment around you.” It’s ultimately a much more structured job than making art, however. “You’re a public employee and you have to work within a specific framework. Whereas in art, anything can happen. It can fall apart if it has to, and you can start over. It’s not quite the same when you’re guiding people on a hike.”
When Eygló came home from her studies in 1991, Iceland’s art world was a bit different than it is now. “Today, it’s a lot more international. There’s more money. More grants, more artist salaries. More places to exhibit. When I came home from my studies, you had to rent exhibition space. Now the framework is more professional. But the grassroots have always been there.” Though there is more money in the arts, Eygló is not sure that translates into more artists who are solely dedicated to their craft. “I have never made a living directly from art. I have done so indirectly; I’ve gotten grants and artist salaries, which I’m really grateful for and have made a difference. And I teach. It’s a big struggle, for everyone. Not least for young artists. It’s expensive to rent a studio, to start out.”
So, what has helped her keep making art? “It’s been really important to participate in industry organisations, and I think teaching has been important. Then also maybe just stubbornness. To keep going. And the thing that keeps you going is that you’re always searching. As soon as you’re done with one piece, it leads you somewhere further. You’re never finished, there’s always so much left. Maybe that’s it: the curiosity to keep going.”
The night I finish this draft, I sing in a performance at Harpa concert hall alongside my choir: a group of writers, visual artists, musicians, and other creatives. We lead the audience through the dimly-lit space, carrying little flashlights in our hands. Afterwards, a fellow choir member tells me how happy she is that she quit her teaching job to write full time. I wonder whether I should quit mine – but only until another choir member, a filmmaker, tells me she’s looking for steady work. “It’s just so nice to have some regular income,” she sighs.
I think about Eygló’s words, that there’s always more discovery, more work, more play ahead in the life of an artist, and I wonder why we use the past tense when we talk about artists who have “made it.” The only artists are the artists who are “making it,” or even more precisely, artists who are making, within the messy bounds of life, bills, family, and dishwashers – without a clear or comfortable path, but with that little guiding light that’s just bright enough to illuminate their next few steps – and the rest of society’s, that follow.