If you’ve been on my mailing list a while, you probably already know that I love my work and that I feel so very lucky that I get to paint for a living. But what I don’t talk much about, and what I’ve never written about before here, is that I’m also a small business person, a sole proprietor, a freelancer, trying to make a living.
Yes, I love my work, but when people agree to hire me to paint a mural, and we agree on a price and sign a contract, it’s work for me. I get up early, load my van, brave the freeways, schlep my stuff for setup, spend hours cramped in close quarters or in the wind and sun, clean up, schlep my stuff back to my van, and then drive back home – and maybe do that every day for two or three weeks in a row. I might love it, but I’m doing it to make money.
Thankfully, non-paying clients is a very rare occurrence for me. In my fourteen years in this business, I’ve only had three clients not pay me. One of these cases was a few years ago, and it prompted me to get some help revising my contract, so that it now says approximately this: “Even though I’ll put my heart and soul into this project, I can’t guarantee that you’re going to love the result – but you need to pay me anyway.” Most times, my projects end with big hugs all around, and payment in full delivered on my last day of work (as required by my contract, by the way – the payment at completion, not the hugs).
Recently, after almost two months of painting, I completed an ornate ceiling mural I was very proud of. As is typical with my projects, it was completed on time and on budget. I went above and beyond wherever I could. I created multiple iterations of designs and color samples, including a full scale sample. I integrated additional changes they made at no extra charge. I researched the best lighting solution for the artwork, and coordinated a contractor and electrician to do work that was outside the scope of our agreement.
Upon completing the project, instead of receiving a check I have heard one reason after another about why they can’t pay, or shouldn’t have to, or need me to come back again to change a few things, or still aren’t satisfied with that color in the corner. . . well, you get the picture. I even got the old “but you’re doing this for love” excuse – as if that somehow meant I shouldn’t really expect to be paid.
Not getting paid is especially difficult because it affects me both financially and emotionally. On an emotional level, when my projects end well, I get paid in full, I’ve got a sense of accomplishment from having completed the project, leaving another beautiful footprint in the world. I’ve also made it possible for my kids to go to camp, buy food from the farmers market, put gas in my car and help pay my mortgage.
When I don’t get paid, there’s no closure and the beautiful footprint I hope to leave feels stolen. I get an awful feeling of having been taken advantage of. And I’m stuck: due to the nature of what I do, the mural, for which they have not paid me, is now fully installed in their house. They’re seeing it every day, they’re enjoying it – and it’s not something I can simply “repossess” due to non-payment.
The worst part is that I’m now spending time and energy thinking about how to get paid, instead of my next project, or my kids, or the 4th of July, or any of a million other things that I’d rather be thinking about.
Writing this all down and sending it out into the universe feels cathartic. It may not magically make a check appear in my mailbox, but it hasn’t dissuaded me from wanting to pursue the matter either. These clients have my art, but I can’t imagine they are enjoying it with a clear conscience. I put my heart and soul into creating beautiful artwork for them in their home, and I fulfilled my end of the contract. I deserve to be paid, and I owe to the small-business person part of me to not simply drop it and walk away.
Wish me luck.
Civil Right Heroes Mural in Oakland
Markham Elementary in Oakland hired me to capture what best about their curricilum and students, and to inspire the school community to the value of education. I met with the principal and select staff to develop the vision. The main focus of the school is student literacy, and this collage style mural highlights the programs that develop that.
Morgan Bricca is a mural artist living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her clients run the gamut from professional creatives, including architects and designers to building owners, school administrators and community advocates. When she is not making art, Morgan enjoys sipping boba tea with her kids and taking naps on the couch.