In pursuit of dreams

Turning one's hobby into career rewarding, but not always profitable

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

It may be cliche, but when it comes to trying to make a living in the art world, the old advice of "don't quit your day job" definitely holds true.

Becoming a career, for-profit artist is not something that happens overnight. Even for an individual who has practiced an art medium for years, the transition from hobby to career is not something that's easy.

"If you're trying to get rich, this is not a good thing to get into," said photographer Bill Heath of Kenai. "There's only a few artists who make a full-time living in the area. It's more a matter of getting known, putting out quality work and being persistent. You can't give up. I advise having a second income of some sort."

Heath had photographed for years as a hobby before he tried to make a go at it financially. His past jobs include working for the Alaska State Housing Authority, as a hotel manager and managing a hiking and guiding business. For the past few years, he's been a stay-at-home dad, which gives him enough time and the impetus to seriously pursue photography.

"My wife could make more money than I could so I'm a full-time Mr. Mom, but I felt like I needed something else to do," Heath said. "Mr. Mom has its ups and downs. I think Mrs. Mom is the same thing. It doesn't ring real well any more, it doesn't have much prestige. I started (professional photography) to bring in a little income on the side. It gave me something to say that I did."

Heath started out in 1994 doing some stock photography work, which he sold at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center and through other outlets.

"Basically you go out and shoot photos you think other people will want to buy," he said of stock photography. "I had some minor successes in that, but there's a lot of stock photographers out there. There are very good photographers in this area and the competition's pretty stiff."

About three or four years ago he branched out into digital photography, which he has found greater success at,although that doesn't mean he's made it into a self-sustaining business yet.

"I'm at the point now where I cover all my out-of-pocket expenses and cover the depreciation on my equipment," he said. "I'm real close to that break even point. I can't support the family on what I'm making right now, but it's getting there. It's doing better every year. It's no longer a serious drain on the family. I've got to believe in it and keep going. If I give up I'll never get there."

Currently, Heath is concentrating on expanding his marketing efforts beyond the Kenai Peninsula and into the rest of the country. By the time he manages that, Heath estimates his business will be pulling in a profit -- after being at it for nearly a decade.

"You have to figure somewhere at the end of 10 years you would probably get there, if you're pretty dedicated and have a quality product," Heath said. "If you're not any good, you're not going to have any luck."

From his experience of turning his hobby into a career, Heath learned a few valuable lessons. One is to get involved in local arts groups, like the Kenai Photographers Guild and the Kenai Peninsula Art Guild. The central peninsula is a supportive environment for artists, he said, so people should take advantage of it.

Heath also learned the importance of patience.

"It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "You're going to be questioning yourself a lot. But if you put out a good product and believe in yourself and get a good support group, it helps a lot."

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