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Portrait of the Artist Holding Down a Job

This essay is in collaboration with Ekstasis, an imaginative project by Christianity Today that seeks to revive the imagination and build a digital cathedral to lift our eyes to Christ in wonder.


Let us lament together, for a moment, over the trials of being artists who must have day jobs. Life is hard, down with capitalism, right? Our dreams enchant us with visions of what the creative life, fully lived, might be like: prolific and spontaneous creation; inspiration close at hand; space and time that echoes as it waits to be filled with your work of vast importance; a loyal audience waiting eagerly for you to toss them a scrap of your latest podcast, essay, or painting. Or, if you’re anything like me, your daydreams take you to a desk office in a windswept loft, the shelves lined with books you wrote, the stairs echoing with the footsteps of a loving partner bringing you a flavored latte (the last bit is probably just me).

The truths of our lives, however, are often different and so much more real. The 6:00 a.m. alarm inviting you to the gray office of your thankless job. The eighteenth spit-up of the day staining the clothes you just changed into. The doom scroll growing doomier, the baby crying louder, the ominous tone of the Microsoft Teams ping.

Artists have always struggled with balancing the call to create with the need to put food on the table. Philip Glass worked as a cabbie and a plumber to support his composing. Ai Weiwei was a carpenter, house painter, and professional blackjack player before his career as a contemporary artist took off. T.S. Eliot was a banker who took poetry very seriously on the side. Dorothea Lange worked in a photo studio for 15 years before she took the plunge into creating her own photographs. For those of us not there yet—for those of who may never be there, and for those of us who may not want to go even there, but still want to create and be inspired—what does it look like to embrace the call to the arts, here and now?

I think I got a small glimpse of it three weeks ago.


If you’ve been to an exceptionally memorable concert, worship service, or live show, you know the feeling of a communal experience where the air itself seems to turn from mere molecules into something laden with sacramental meaning. Inkwell, a recent foray from Ekstasis into the world of in-person events, aimed to be an oasis of contemplation and connection for those who are asking those questions of vocation, craft, and friendship. Kicking off in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood on a clear night in mid-January, the first Inkwell evening was meant to be a celebration of beauty and a call to “higher thinking and deeper feeling” in community with friends and contributors of the magazine, who came from across the UK and beyond.

The space featured a small photography gallery at the front of the hall, opening onto a stage where poets, musicians, and essayists shared their work throughout the night. Amidst a pause here and there for snacks and mingling, Inkwell’s lineup of readers traced similar themes: what seemed to be a delightfully Franciscan highlighting of the presence of God in the everyday, whether in the natural world, in the faces of our friends, or in the moments of suffering that puncture everyday life. It was also special to see both emerging and established creators celebrated alongside one another, and to see how the collective body of work created a surprisingly cohesive and utterly moving whole, from the music of Nathan Edgell to the poetry of Elle Redman-Williams to essays from Elizabeth Oldfield and Joy Marie Clarkson.

There was a poetic density in the air—not only was something special happening at Inkwell, but everyone there could feel it and knew it, too—long after tickets sold out, people kept streaming in. The room resounded with murmured responses or “amens” to hard-hitting lines of poetry or turns of phrase from an essay. Some, myself included, openly cried.

Inkwell was the sweetest reminder to continue putting a hand to the plough both in the work that earns me a living and in the work that truly gives me life. It also reminded me that, just like the Christian life, the creative life is not meant to be lived alone. To be in a room filled with others who long for beautiful Christian engagement with culture is the kind of soul food that will inspire me for months to come. The friendships and connections found in a single evening reminded me that to uplift the creative work of others, and to step into the vulnerability of sharing your own, is to put into action the C.S. Lewis definition of friendship that I probably hear too often: “What, you too? I thought I was the only one.” 

Inkwell created a space to see other creatives not as competition, but as co-labourers in the work of finding and bringing forth beauty in the world, like drawing gold from the soil of our lives. The body of Christ benefits from the richness of all its parts.

When I looked around the room, it occurred to me that Inkwell was a glimpse of the future I dream of—talking about creating and culture, rubbing shoulders with artists and writers, sharing my work and hearing others share theirs. When I told this to a friend, she said, “You’re already there!” She was right: I yearn for a future that is already present. As Joshua Luke Smith, one of the night’s poets, told us, “The life you long for is hidden in the life you have.”


In a recent New Yorker article cheekily titled “Portrait of the Artist as an Office Drone”, Anna Wiener noted that oftentimes the most brilliant work of our lives comes out of the time that we spend not working on our art—that is, in the livings we make and the callings we tend to outside of our creative aspirations. Perhaps the lines are more blurred than we first assume, and the routines of our lives truly are the places where inspiration gestates. What if the mundane is fuel for the brilliant, and sparkles with its own kind of worth? What if the artist’s life is already nestled, like a matryoshka doll, inside of my life, and I need only the persistence and vision to unearth it?

All around us is the beauty hidden in the everyday, like the leaven of God’s kingdom that permeates the whole. As Leonard Cohen famously said, we all have cracks in us—that’s how the light gets in. I may not have the full-time privilege of an artist’s career, but I have nooks and crannies of time: cracks where the light of inspiration gleams through, calling me to sit and take it in for a while, whether for a long rest or for the length of a single breath. And I may not have a cadre of artsy friends around me 24/7, but I have the privilege of Instagram DMs and fast trains if I’m only willing to reach out to those who inspire me.

After sharing her essay about the kindness of God in the pursuit of our dreams, Kayla Norris ended the night by asking us, “Do you have a dream that’s stayed a dream for far too long?” In the silence of a room filled to bursting with artists, one could almost hear the sound of a hundred dearly-held dreams conjuring themselves to life in our minds. “My question to you,” Kayla asked, “is how much do you want it?”


I’m writing this piece on my lunch break; at the end of this hour, I’ll return to the desk at my job and spend three hours uploading data into a spreadsheet. On getting home there will be groceries, bills, and meal prep. But when I crack open my laptop for one or two or five minutes, I will fill in the blank spaces of my works-in-progress with a word or two. Inspiration is here, in between the couch cushions and folded into the piles of laundry: not a luxury reserved for those who have “made it”, but a presence that saturates both the trenches and joys of what we’re called to. Inkwell reminded me to take up the pen with the knowledge that stewarding the call to create is all it takes to find the kind of life I dream of—and that when I look to the left and right, I’m surrounded by faithful makers who are doing the work in, around, and through the fabric of the everyday.


Julia Bartel is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews' Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. Hailing from Canada, she now lives and writes in Scotland, where she is working on a novel manuscript. She is a huge fan of any movie starring Oscar Isaac and is probably knitting something right now.


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Photo by Igor Omilaev on Unsplash


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