Jane Schafgans is a San Francisco native whose murals and mosaic work can be seen all over the city. She's been an activist for decades and has taken lots of odd jobs to make ends meet.
Jane spoke candidly with me about how being an artist has threatened her financial stability, and about how her Nicaraguan-Hungarian heritage has affected the way she views money. Before I could start recording, Jane was already sharing some gems from her past...
Now that I’m recording, tell me about your early jobs again.
So I worked as a model for private artists groups. Men who did cartooning for Thor, The Magneto, Hammer Thrower... I would be “the Babe” [holds up air quotes. Laughs]. I would wear things like fur boots. It was hilarious. I would assume the pose of power, and they would render me in their cartoons.
I also worked as a live model for the DeYoung Museum Art School, at State College, and at The Academy of Art. It was great. Until one day, I when I came into class at state.
They had me pose on stage in this sort of amphitheater. The instructor set up this scene with a skeleton, a window with curtains, a fan blowing the curtains, a chaise lounge, and she said “I want you to look dead.” I’m like,“This is so not my thing!”
But I did it. I get on the couch, not wearing any clothes mind you, and the minute I lay down, the window, the fan, and the skeleton fall on top of me burying me in this really creepy debris.
And nobody got up to help me. So I’m laying there trying to save myself and the teacher’s like, “Did anyone catch that?!”
Wait, catch what?
Like the movement. The thing that happened. I’d never felt like a thing until that point, and I thought, “I’m not interested in earning money as a thing so I think I’m going to stop.”
So I stopped. But it was such an ending, it was like the universe was just going, “Now Jane, I think it’s time to move on.” So I did.
Did you know you were going to be an artist from an early age?
No, I just knew I couldn’t do certain things. I couldn’t do one job only. I couldn’t do something sitting down. I couldn’t do something that didn’t involve a dynamic exchange between myself and other people. What motivates and excites me, as I learned over the years, is working with creativity.
What are your current income sources?
I’ve been working for 20 years as a freelance consultant for Scrap, which is a center for reusable art parts.
Then about 15 years ago I met a woman at Scrap who had a company that did themed parties for very rich children. So we started working together. We’re in these mansions with these people who have more money than God. Talk about financial disparity! It’s like the world of the blonde kids and then their Latina helpers.
I do that as often as I can because it’s really good money, it’s just really hard work. In the busy season I do the parties 3 or 4 days a week, and then Scrap a few days a week.
Then my 3rd profession has been Artist-In-Residence in different schools as a mosaic artist. I’ll work with a teacher on curriculum and talk with the kids about the whole process of a mosaic, then we come up with a mural design together.
Jane and a team of volunteers working on her most recent mural at S.Van Ness and 24th St.
Is it the school district that pays you for those murals?
It depends on the funding thing [pauses]... With artists in residence you have to pursue grants and try to get arts money in order to be lucrative or successful. It’s something I’ve never really had the courage to do. For me it’s been fear.
So what’s happened is I’ll get money from the PTA, or the school will get a grant and then they’ll disburse the funds to me. With artists you’re usually the last to receive whatever.
do you do any negotiating for your pay?
Part of my philosophy is that I’m not a capitalist with art. I want to make enough so I can feed myself and have a little extra. My main motivation is sharing the art with others in community and being as generous as I’m able to. I believe that that’s the way that society grows - through us being generous with each other.
When was the first time you were paid for your artwork?
It was like 1984 [laughs]. This girlfriend of mine, we constantly had these hair-brained schemes. One day we decided to paint t-shirts using some of the designs of Erté. If you’re not familiar, he was this artist who painted women draped in these fashion garments in the '20’s.
We went on this kick of splash painting. It was kind of a Pollack moment.
A woman came to visit one of my roommates, who I didn’t like - she was such a b*tch. Well, she wanted to buy one of our t-shirts, and I’m like, “No f*ckin way.”
So my friend, she gently leads me into the other room and shuts the door to make the exchange. I think it was fifty bucks.
That was my first reaction to selling something. If I didn’t like the person I didn’t want to sell it to them. And most of the time I didn’t want to sell it to somebody, I wanted to give it to them.
Asking for money is really hard. I still have a hard time accepting the exchange even though I understand goods and services, I understand time and effort. Certainly they should be compensated, but internally it doesn’t make sense. It’s just my sense of the world is that we shouldn’t have to do that but that’s not reality.
How do you set a price for your artwork?
Oh, it’s horrible. I can’t. I have a really hard time. I agonize over it. I ask people what they think. They tell me, “Calculate your hours, plus materials, plus whatever else.” I’m like, “Eek!” Actually I come up with nothing.
Have you ever set an hourly rate for yourself?
Oh I tried that. It’s ridiculous. Pennies on the dollar, that’s me! That’s the basic philosophy at this stage. I haven’t been able to. Like my masks [points to a display of her artwork], I think I was trying to sell them for about $200, as you can see they flew off the shelf. Actually, I sold one and she was really grateful. It was so cool. She really liked it! For the murals it was a different story since it’s a public project.
How are you paid for the murals?
It’s really all about the funds available. Then, of course, they try to get you for as much work and little money as possible. It’s just the basic story. So one mural that my co-teacher and I were working on, I think we got $8,000 to split for an 8’ by 5’ mural. I think we got a $500 materials fee in addition. It was nothing.
How many hours went into that?
Oh, weeks. Weeks and weeks and weeks.
The one I’m doing now, I’m working my other two jobs to pay for materials to finish this project until I get my last check which comes from them at the end of the month.
Are you usually paid separately for materials?
Yes, but with that one, what happened was in February I started the project at home. They told me that I should have it ready by April to put up on the wall.
So April rolls around, they’re not ready. July comes around, it didn’t happen. I finally started installing in mid October. Meanwhile, in the Summer I had nothing going on. Fall comes when my work really picks up, and suddenly I’m supposed to install that thing in the midst of two other jobs. The money I had had run out because I was living off of it. So that’s how my finances are. It’s like one sinking iceberg to the next. Which wasn’t how I planned it.
A close-up of Jane's most recent mural, while still in progress.
Have you had to compromise your creativity for the sake of selling your work?
I haven’t really come across that. What I do is I collaborate from the start with the person. Everyone is in agreement.
What’s the most you’ve been paid for a piece?
This one that I’m doing now [artist requests the figure not be published]. So when I do my taxes it’s a little bit sad. I’m so poor that they can’t even fine me for not having health insurance. I’m still hoping that will change at some point.
So you don’t have insurance?
I have nothing. No insurance.
What do you do when you need medical care?
I do acupuncture weekly, which has been great maintenance. I’m fortunately very healthy. I’ve gone to the free clinic on 11th and California. We’ve been really fortunate in the sense that we haven’t been wiped out or had our home taken away.
Do you own your home?
We are paying a mortgage. We bought it in 1993, so with five of us chipping in it’s totally affordable. We just refinanced though, for a 3-point-something interest rate, so we’re back up to 30 years now. We figure by the time we’re 90 [laughs]... I mean it’s never gonna be paid off unless something really big happens like one of us becomes super affluent.
As a freelancer, is it a challenge to cover your taxes?
It was a little scary last time we had our taxes done, but it kind of got offset by the deductions and expenses. I mean the expenses really balance out the profit that I should be making, so our accountant [laughs] was like, “You might wanna think about doing this differently.”
I mean, the way I manage it is really kind of primitive at best. It reflects the lack of willingness to be attentive to that. I’d like to be different but in a way I’m scared, to be that visible. I was raised by refugees. I was raised by people who came to this country with a lot of fear and a lot of reluctance to be seen. I come by it honestly.
What did you learn from your family about money management?
There’s a lot of fear about being seen and being successful. Success meaning more visibility. It’s a really interesting thing to have grown up feeling like no one should know, no one should see. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. My dad was raised in Nicaragua in the mountains. He came here to escape some bad shit. So there’s a lot of not wanting to be seen by authority. Even though they were saying “be the best you can be”, it was the fear that got translated.
If money weren’t an obstacle, would that change the work you do?
No. I don’t think I change my artwork to suit the financial. I’m doing what I feel. I try to always do that because otherwise I lose interest. It has to have some kind of resonance or it doesn’t work at all. Fortunately, it seems like that resonance has been appreciated. Even if it’s only for a little bit of money.
You mentioned losing sleep over money. What thoughts keep you awake?
I feel scared a lot. I wake up scared, or I go to bed scared and think, “How am I gonna do this? I’m getting older. I don’t have retirement. I’m gonna work till I drop dead. I don’t have a safety net. If I get sick or if I get hurt I’m screwed.”
So I know how close to the edge I am. I’m 60 and it’s like watching the sand in the hourglass as it gets close to the end. There’s a sense of, “Oh my God did I screw my life up? Could I have done this differently?"
"How can I make more money? How can I make it more successful [pauses] without sacrificing my principles and my wishes to be who I am.”
We’re lucky we have very little debt, the only thing we owe on is this house, but I can’t do a lot of stuff, I can’t travel. I get scared I’ve set a path I can’t get out of.
What helps you keep going?
I try to turn it over and ask how I can be of service. I’ve found that a daily practice of saying “yes” to things, not pulling back in fear, has been a helpful stance. It tends to dissipate the anxiety because I’m not in that state of “what if” and catastrophizing. I’m leaning in. I find now that I don’t stay as much in that paralyzed place.
Jane's newly completed mural at S.Van Ness and 24th St.
You describe a familiar dichotomy, where you’re trading financial stability for creative freedom and flexibility. Is that An accurate Depiction?
Oh yeah, and it’s been very willing. It was very challenging to do it normally, to get a straight and narrow job. I would just jump out of my skin and walk away. I couldn’t physically.This option is more difficult though because I’m forced to think creatively in order to survive. Not just to create stuff, but in order to make it work, I have to employ my creativity. It constantly needs attending, so it’s tough but very rewarding.
This interview is the first conversation in an ongoing series about creatives and money.
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