Being an independent artist has always been hard work. From the renaissance days of Michelangelo to the modern age, artists are misunderstood and more importantly, underpaid. Artists work for free, don’t see the fruits of our labor, and are often underestimated. Shoot, an artist sometimes starves or luckily thrives.

A market report of 1,533 self-identified US and UK artists via Artfinder shows some daunting findings. In the US, full three-quarters of artists made $10,000 or less per year from their art. Also, close to half (48.7 percent) made no more than $5,000. That’s getting paid less than minimum wage annually for a part-time job in California.

Data Courtesy of Artfinder

We live in a day and age where there are more opportunities than not to being successful artists. Yet, like any worthwhile journey, obstacles tend to block our paths. I got a chance to talk to a creative friend, artist, and colleague of mine, Ashley “Smash” Gallagher, about this subject. In this article, we discuss how she handled the pandemic, new projects that stemmed from it, and whether or not she believes the starving artist narrative is indeed fact or frivolous fiction. Here is her story.

Veteran Artist: Ashley “Smash” Gallagher
Smash posing with one of her many Frida pieces.

Smash is a San Diegan pop-surrealism low brow painter, pothead, and birdhouse extraordinaire. She has been painting for twenty years now and has had her work featured in local breweries and businesses alike. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit she was laid off from her job for nearly 14 years which she says, “was one of the best things that happened to me.” Many artists alike would agree that losing their mundane jobs to focus on their craft is a Godsend. Yet, there are always those looming feelings of reality that there is a loss of income. And without a reliable income, something many artists depend on, there is no fuel to the fire of desire for an artist.

New Artistic Ventures

Smash didn’t let those odds weigh her down. Instead, it was an opportunity for her “to solely focus on getting better at my craft and was able to explore new projects”. One of these new projects being a collaboration between Smash and her partner, Scott Harms. He constructs one-of-a-kind birdhouses with his craftsmen skills and she paints them. Instead of scrambling to find another job that would possibly hinder her creativity, she “realized this would be an amazing opportunity to fulfill our creative dreams!”
Harms hard at work creating a birdhouse for his partner, Smash.

Each of Smash’s birdhouses is individually crafted with love and passion by Harms. His passion for creativity is what makes this two a dynamic duo. After Harms creates these pieces he hands them off to Smash for the finishing touches. She handles the painting of each birdhouse with immaculate precision and artistry for her customers. Each piece, whether it be a birdhouse, painting, or pothead, will leave you satisfied with Smash’s work and be glad you invested.
A uniquely crafted birdhouse by Harms, painted by Smash.

When talking about Smash you cannot forget to address her infamous pothead series. This series revolves around terracotta pots painted as beloved characters and famous people. There is also a plant potted into each pothead giving your piece a unique characteristic. You’ll find anyone from music icon Bob Marley, to horror icon Jason Voorhees. There are no boundaries for these pots in that each one is a story in itself emitting nostalgia and smiles all around.

A few members of Smash’s Pothead series.

The Burning Question

When asking her opinion on the starving artist narrative she believes it is, “somewhat valid at least for me, as a painter. I feel there are still some whack-ass, cheap-ass folk who don’t realize the time and energy that is spent on a one-of-a-kind painting. Especially a piece of work that has been commissioned.” People undercut artists. Non-creatives don’t take into account the preparation costs needed to produce a quality painting. Smash herself explains, “I know my worth now, and sometimes you run into clients that want to lowball you.”
Oil paint on canvas

This seems to be the case for many artists. Our works go underestimated and we are expected to either work for free or for less than deserved. Artists that are first starting off tend to second-guess themselves by not asking for what they’re worth. Smash herself admits “as a young and inexperienced artist, I would always undervalue my work and would entertain these low ball offers! I’m becoming a better businesswoman the older I get.”
Oil paint on vinyl record

Final Stroke

The life of an artist is like gambling – you never know what you’re going to get. It’s the hustle in each artist that makes their stories unique and worth telling. Smash losing her job of over a decade, then having to resort to her art to make ends meet truly is inspiring. It’s all a matter of what we make of each situation and the actions we take that define our futures. Rather than blindly letting life take its course, Smash embedded the ethos of true artistry, creating her reality.

There is a starving artist in all of us waiting to be fed. Implementing the hustle and ambition as Smash has done, no artists should go on starving. Seize your opportunity and don’t be afraid to branch out by trying something you didn’t think would pan out. Sometimes the most unlikely moves call for the most likely of wins. Don’t lose your hustle and keep grinding!

Check out Ashely “Smash” Gallagher’s online venues below to find out more about her and show some support:

Are you an artist or know one with a story similar to Smash’s? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear from you!

This article originally published on GREY Journal.