The New York Times
by Elizabeth Olson
Pursuing one’s passion for a living may involve taking a circuitous, costly and time-consuming route, but for some entrepreneurs, it is worth the journey.
For Dorothy A. Marcic, a business professor at Vanderbilt University, the turning point came when she returned to the United States in 1996 after four years in Prague, and decided to take voice lessons, something she had long wanted to do.
Today, Ms. Marcic, 57, no longer teaches and has opened her own production company for “Respect,” a musical she wrote about how women are portrayed in popular culture.
“It took a lot more time, a lot more money” than she originally thought it would, she said, “and it was a real risk.”
“You always don’t know what you’re getting into,” she said.
Nonetheless, she is preparing to produce another musical she wrote.
People can turn their passions into a business at any age, and do. Matthew Lautar, 32, of College Park, Md., knew he wanted to be a tattoo artist from age 17, and is in the process of becoming his own boss. Two decades ago, Theresa Kant, 46, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., found that she loved calligraphy, and much later turned that interest into a going concern. Lorinda Knight, 65, did not use her 1963 art degree from Smith College until 10 years ago when she decided to open a contemporary arts gallery in Spokane, Wash.
There is no precise information on how many pursue their passions, and even federal self-employment or small-business ownership data does not reveal whether passions or pragmatism are at work.
But there are a few indicators. The 2004 Census Bureau data lists 923,144 people as being self-employed in the arts, entertainment and recreation. And an AARP study, also from 2004, found that 5.6 million people over age 50 were self-employed, although the study did not break down the areas in which they worked.
A well-padded bank account or, at least, a pension can cushion the financial uncertainty that comes with pursuing one’s dreams — so many defer them to their later years. Then again, sometimes a true professional love arrives later in life, as in Ms. Marcic’s case.
That happened when she researched a talk about equality between men and women for a 1999 conference, and realized the story of 20th-century women could be found in the era’s popular songs.
She analyzed the Top 40 lists for each decade starting in 1900, tracing how women’s neediness and dependency in ballads like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” evolved to more independence in songs like Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and finally to women standing on their own, found in hits like Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”
She landed a book contract to write about her findings, “Respect: Women and Popular Music,” and she combined the music and narrative as a one-woman show that she performed around the United States and elsewhere for several years.
At first, she kept her day job, gradually going to part-time work before she quit. She loved the show, but she was losing money, she said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she said. “My bank account went down every month for five years.”
To recoup some of her losses, which she estimates at well over $100,000, she even thought about going back to teaching for a regular paycheck, but she said, “I wanted to be a playwright.” So she sought professional advice, then wrote a script for a four-woman musical, including herself in one of the roles, and put up $20,000 to attract a producer.
Finally, in July of 2004, “Respect” went commercial with productions in Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. The Cleveland production closed, but the musical is expected to open in Detroit and Atlanta in coming months.
Matthew Lautar’s route to his dream was a lot more direct. After drifting out of high school and into hard rock, skateboarding, graffiti and drugs, he became fascinated by tattoo artistry. At 17, intrigued with what he called making “fine art on skin,” he became an apprentice to a tattooist in Baltimore.
“I wanted a career where I do something stimulating,” he said, “and where I could be my own boss.”
In 1996, he worked for Great Southern Tattoo, in College Park, Md., then returned again in 2001 to work alongside the owners Charley and Sandy Parsons. He has put a down payment on the established business and is buying it on monthly installments. He said with more women coming in for tattoos, the practice has grown past its “thugs, criminals and bikers” image, and will continue to prosper.
The part he loves best, he said, “is creating my own designs.” While there are plenty who request the standbys of hearts, butterflies and crosses, he said many people ask him to draw individual designs.
“This is forever art,” he said, “and if I don’t do my job right, I’m going to have a customer who’s dissatisfied for the rest of his life.”
Theresa Kant, now 46, was not a lot older than Mr. Lautar when she stumbled on something she loved. In 1986, she was a young divorced mother of two on a tight budget when she decided to remarry. To create her own invitations, she took a calligraphy course at a nearby community college and found “I had a talent for it.”
She has kept her day job at a nearby auto plant, where she has worked for 24 years, but, she said, “my passion is calligraphy.”
Four years ago, she set up her own Web site, sayitwithstyle.com, and now draws commissions from as far away as California.
It is an art that she finds very calming — better than yoga, she said. “The movement of pen over the paper has to be smooth, and you can’t rush,” she said.
She loves the people and her administrative tasks at her 9-to-5 job, and she said she probably could make a living from her calligraphy, but has no intention of quitting her day job anytime soon.
“It’s almost like work is my social outlet, and calligraphy is my career,” she laughed.
It took Lorinda Knight a lot longer to find her work passion. She loved her work as an interior designer in Spokane, but when she read in the local newspaper that a contemporary gallery was needed in the area, something clicked — at age 55.
The gallery, in the downtown Davenport district, just had its 10th anniversary, but the road has not been easy, Ms. Knight said. Her first effort to bring in East Coast artists foundered because shipping expenses were prohibitive, so she turned to artists from the Northwest. Even so, business was slow to take off.
“I think we were here for four years before anyone noticed,” she laughed. Even the space she rented, with red shag carpet and green and orange wallpaper, needed a major makeover.
But she did not give up because, she said, “I get to be with this wonderful art; I love to install exhibits and advise clients.”
Four years ago, she doubled her space to show paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography and ceramics from regional artists, dipping into her savings to finance the gallery.
That passion is what binds people to such choices, even if they take years to become viable. Ms. Marcic, for example, said she was just now breaking even — seven years after she took a new career path.
Asked what lessons she would take from teaching management and apply to theater, she said, “It’s a whole different world, but I learned that if you’re not a good manager, or don’t have one, in whatever you’re doing, you’re in a mess.”