10 Artists Who Held Boring Day Jobs For Most of Their Lives

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There are many people who dream of being an artist, writer, musician or film maker, but most don’t make it in their desired art form. It’s a challenging feat, and only a lucky few can create art for a living. These 10 people were incredibly talented and creative individuals who worked at the same boring job day in and day out for years. The lucky ones found fame and recognition late in their lifetime, while the others only received recognition after their death.

This list should be a lesson to any struggling artist — you never know when someone will appreciate the true value of your work. Carry on and never give up your passion, but maybe don’t quit your day job.

10. Don Dohler

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Don Dohler was a notable community newspaper reporter and editor in the Baltimore area for over 20 years. But before that his life changed forever on his 30th birthday in 1976. He was working as a payroll clerk when the business was robbed and Dohler had a gun pointed at him… and that’s when he realized he wanted to make movies.

Dohler worked on 11 movies — he produced, wrote and edited 10 of them, and directed seven as well. The movies were ultra-low budget horror and sci-fi films, all of which featured a lot of blood and a little bit of nudity (although Dohler was always uncomfortable with the latter). His 90 minute flicks were often distributed to the world through direct-to-video and cable companies buying his films at an incredibly cheap rate.

While his stuff was cheesy, his movies had a drive and charm about them that viewers found appealing. From 1978 to 2004 he developed a following and his fans included famed director John Waters, who compared him to Ed Wood, and JJ Abrams, who saw his movies as a kid and was influenced by Dohler’s do-it-yourself attitude to film-making.

Don Dohler showed that a good movie just needs a lot of imagination and even more passion. Dohler passed away on December 2, 2006 at the age of 60. His last movie, Dead Hunt, was released shortly after his death.

9. Charles Ives

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To many people who knew Charles Ives he was a successful actuary who owned an insurance company. He was a very forward thinking businessman — Ives was one of the key figures in the burgeoning field known as estate planning. However, on the side Ives composed radical classic musical and even paid musicians to perform it.

Born in 1874, he studied music at Yale and was a talented pianist. In about 1900 he started composing music that was just a bit too different for contemporary listeners. For example, he allowed the musicians to play freestyle at certain times and he used excerpts from other, well-known songs. He also mixed genres, and all of this made his songs quite polarizing upon release.

Charles Ives would eventually retire from both music and insurance. It wasn’t until his last few years that his music started to get some recognition. One of his major awards was the 1948 Pulitzer for Music, which he won for “Symphony No. 3.” But it wasn’t until after his death in 1954 that the true talent of Ives was appreciated — he’s now considered a musical genius who was way of ahead of his time. World renowned art school Julliard played his music over the course of 6 days on the 50th anniversary of his death.

8. Anvil

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Formed in 1978 and releasing their first album in 1981, Anvil is a Canadian heavy metal band who counts Motörhead, Slash, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax as fans. What set them apart from the rest of the metal bands at the time was just how heavy they sounded. During the ’80s they even toured with some of the biggest rock bands of all time, including Bon Jovi, the Scorpions and White Snake. A lot of people, including vocalist/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, thought it was just a matter of time before they blew up. Instead they watched all the bands around them find fame and fortune while they were relegated to the realm of “never-was.”

In 2005 Lips and Reiner were turning 50 but still played in the band, although mostly at their neighborhood bar. Then Lips got an email from a European fan, saying she could set up a tour where they would get paid €1,500 per show. The band, along with a documentary filmmaker, traveled to Europe and experienced a completely disastrous tour, very much like Spinal Tap. Also like Spinal Tap, Anvil travels to Japan at the end to find redemption when they discover a legion of fans.

All of this is encapsulated in the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The documentary is a critically acclaimed film about friendship and never giving up on your dreams. After the documentary was released Anvil  finally achieved worldwide fame.

7. Charles Bukowski

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Novelist and poet Charles Bukowski was hailed for his realism when writing about the dead end lives of his characters, including his alter-ego “Henry Chinsiki.” One of the reasons he so aptly depicted their lives was that for most of his own life Bukowski worked at a number of boring, dead end jobs.

Bukowski quit college after his second year and moved to New York to try to get a career started as a writer. However, after only getting a few short stories published, Bukowski’s literary career didn’t quite take off like he was hoping, so he got a job as a mail carrier and later moved back to hometown, Los Angeles. There he worked as a dishwasher, drove a truck and finally took a job as a post office file clerk. During his time at his boring day jobs he continued to contribute his column Notes of a Dirty Old Man to a few underground newspapers, and he published a number of poetry collections.

Finally, at the age of 49, Bukowski decided it was time to re-start his writing career. He was offered $100 a month to write full time from a independent publisher called Black Sparrow Press. A month after quitting his job with the mail service he completed his first novel, Post Office. He went on to publish six other novels, dozens of poetry collections and a number of short story anthologies in the later part of his life.

Ever since he quit the post office his work has been immensely popular, and incredibly influential on many different levels of pop culture. Most notably, Tom Waits cites Bukowski as one of his major influences and U2 dedicated a song to him. Bukowski’s alter-ego, Henry Chinsiki, has twice been depicted in film; once by Mickey Rourke in Barfly and once by Matt Dillion in Factotum. Hank Moody from Californication is also inspired by Bukowski.

Bukowski is an amazing example of how it’s never too late to give up everything and follow your dreams. He died at the age of 73, after publishing his final novel, Pulp, in 2004.

6. Herman Melville

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For decades, English students have had to suffer through the classic novel Moby Dick. While it’s a tough read, it’s also a rich and complex morality tale about how obsession can destroy someone. It’s a novel that’s resonated with people and is one of the most famous American novels of all time.

As such, one would think that the author, Herman Melville, would have been quite well off from the profits. However, Moby Dick wasn’t popular at the time. In fact, he made more money with his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, about his experiences as a captive on an island in the South Pacific. That book sold over over 16,000 copies, while Moby Dick sold just 3,700. His other books were even less successful.

Melville didn’t chase the elusive white whale known as fame and fortune, and instead got a job as a deputy inspector of customs at the Port of New York in 1886. He worked there for the next 29 years and retired at the age of 66. He died six years later in 1891. It wasn’t until 1920 that Moby Dick was re-discovered, and it’s now hailed as a iconic classic of American literature.

5. Vivian Maier

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Vivian Maier worked for almost 40 years as a nanny, but everywhere she went she brought her camera with her. On her time off she went around Chicago and took street shots, some of which are quite stunning and capture everyday city life in the 1950s and ’60s. But she never really showed anyone her work, and no one knew that she was such a talented and prolific photographer until just days after her death.

At an estate sale, realtor John Maloof bought a box of negatives for $400. He was co-writing a book on Portage Park and was looking for old pictures of the neighborhood. There weren’t any in the box, but he was amazed at how good the pictures were. He went back to the auction company, found out they had more boxes and bought them all, amassing a collection of over 100,000 negatives. A few months later he scanned the pictures and posted them on the Internet, unsure who the photographer was.

Maloof finally came across an envelope in one of the boxes that had the name Vivian Maier. He Googled the name, but only found an obituary — Maier had died days before at the age of 83. Her pictures would go on to be in dozens of exhibitions in the United States, Europe and Asia. Four books have been released and she’s been the subject of two documentaries.

4. Henry Darger

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In 1908 at the age of 16, Henry Darger began working as a custodian at a Chicago hospital. There he worked for almost 53 years, only leaving for a little while to serve in the army during World War I. Besides being a custodian, he worked up to positions of dishwasher and finally he wrapped bandages.

Darger would attend mass everyday, sometimes going to as many as five services a day. Everyday he would then go home to his apartment where he mostly kept to himself. He lived a solitary life, with few friends and no living family members. This could be the reason no one knew about Darger’s prolific art projects.

In 1972 he was forced to move out of his apartment due to his failing health. When his apartment was being cleaned out, an amazing discovered was made. They found Darger’s book, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. It was an astonishing 15,145 single-spaced pages long, making it one of the longest works of writing in human history. He also drew hundreds of pictures and watercolors as illustrations of the story, and he wrote over 8,000 pages for a sequel, plus another 5,000 page manuscript which starts off as an autobiography before going into a story about a tornado.

The story itself is hard to explain because of how expansive his work was, but basically it’s about seven little girls called the Vivian girls and their one brother. They are often depicted naked, although the novel isn’t erotic. Instead, the manuscript is incredibly violent. The story is about a rebellion against the evil John Manley and the Glandelinians, who enslave children and often kill and torture them in vivid detail. He appears to have been inspired by his desire to protect abused and neglected children. After his death his work was studied by scholars and his artwork can be found in galleries across the world.

3. Harvey Pekar

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Born in 1939, Harvey Pekar lived in the Cleveland area for his whole life. He dropped out of college after one year and had a few odd jobs before ending up as a file clerk at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital. He worked there until his retirement in 2001. Sounds pretty dull, right?

Maybe, yet Pekar is also one of the most celebrated underground comic book writers of all time. His autobiographical comic, American Splendor, is about how hard everyday life can be. The comic got its start when Pekar drew stick figures and pitched the idea to his friend, comic book artist Robert Crumb. Intrigued, Crumb began drawing for him and was the artist for the first issue in 1976. Pekar continued publishing American Splendor with different artists and it gained a notable following.

In 1987 an anthology of American Splendor was released to critical acclaim, winning an American Book Award. Things only got bigger for Pekar and he became a regular guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. However, he was banned after his third interview, which is considered one of the most awkward moments in Late Show history. Pekar started a rant about General Electric and Letterman tried to stop him because at the time Late Night was owned by NBC, whose parent company is GE. The exchange between Pekar and Letterman only got more uncomfortable from there.

In 2003, American Splendor was made into a movie starring Paul Giamatti. The movie is partly an adaptation of American Splendor and partly a documentary about Pekar. The film was loved by critics, winning a number of awards at film festivals including Cannes and Sundance. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Through his rise to fame, Pekar maintained the exact same clerical job he started in his early 20s. He was offered promotions, but turned them down. He continued to publish American Splendor while in retirement, releasing the last volume in September 2008 and his last collected edition in 2009. Pekar passed away on July 12, 2010 at the age of 70.

2. Sixto Rodriguez

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Born in 1942 and raised in Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez was a folk musician who released two albums and toured twice in Australia. However, after poor record sales he was dropped by his label, which itself folded a short time later. After that, Rodriguez quit the music business. He bought an old house in Detroit at an auction for $50. He worked in demolition and line work throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.

The thing is that in South Africa, Rodriguez was as apparently as big as Elvis. His records had gone platinum and some of his songs were considered anthems to the anti-apartheid movement. But none of his fans knew anything about him, and the story emerged that sometime in the ’70s Rodriguez killed himself on stage. The documentary Searching for Sugar Man details how two Cape Town men tried to figure out what happened to him.

Rodriguez was alive and well, and still living in the same house. He didn’t find out about his fame until 1997, when his daughter found a website about him. After the revelation he went and played six shows in South Africa. Searching for Sugar Man would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2013, only increasing Rodriguez’s popularity. Rodriguez is currently 72 and still lives in the same home he bought all those years ago, despite the increase in album sales.

1. Anna Mary Robertson Moses

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Born on September 7, 1860, in upstate New York, Anna Mary Robertson started working as a servant for a wealthy family at the age of 12. When she was 27 she married a man who worked on the farm and the couple saved up their money to buy their own land. They bought their first farm in 1887 before settling down in Eagle Bridge, New York. Together they ran the farm and the couple had 10 children, with only 5 surviving.

In 1927 her husband died and Grandma Moses, as she came to be called, took over running the farm until 1936. In her retirement, the 78 year old found that after years of hard labor she could no longer do one of her favorite activities, embroidery. Instead, someone suggested she take up painting.

Thus began her impressive career as a prolific folk artist. Most of her paintings were of rural New England, where Grandma Moses had lived most of her life. Often she sold her paintings for a few dollars, but then she started to get more and more popular and her paintings garnered $800-$1,000 per piece.

At the peak of her fame she was featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art before having her own solo shows that went on to break records for attendance. She even received the Women’s National Press Club trophy from President Harry Truman in 1949. On her 100th birthday, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller named it Grandma Moses Day and she appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Moses continued to paint until her death at the ripe old age of 101 in 1961, leaving an amazing legacy behind. Her painting Fourth of July is displayed in the White House, and it was also made into a commemorative stamp in 1969. In 2006, her painting Sugaring Off sold for $1.3 million. Not bad for a senior citizen who took up painting as a hobby.

Want to read about some more amazing artists?
We can show you some amazing street art from around the world, as well as some obscure creations that took over 1,000 hours to make.

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2 Comments

  1. With regards #2 Rodriguez, as far as I know none of his songs were “considered anthems to the anti-apartheid movement”. He was just really popular in SA, particularly amongst students, and pretty much everyone would have a copy of his Cold Fact album (legal or copied). Most of his songs are about drugs and sex. The apartheid twist was that because of sanctions and isolation his South African popularity remained unknown.

    The interesting thing is that royalties were still being paid on his album sales but none of them went to Rodriguez himself. This is one of the unexplored and ambiguous areas of the Searching for Sugar Man documentary. The film implied that the record company manager got all the cash from album sales.

  2. I was always inspired by the Rodney Dangerfield story. As a struggling writer and bit performer, he quit show business and became an Aluminum Siding Salesman. Then in his 40’s he went back to show business and became an icon. But technically Dangerfield was only a Siding Salesman for a decade.

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