“Are you going to pay me?” | Roger Whiting

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The Crisis Residential group home was not the easiest place to do a collaborative project. The Salt Lake County facility is a temporary residence for runaway teenagers. As such there were different teens almost every time I visited. This day I was finally installing the “Tree of Dreams” mosaic that I had been working on for weeks as collaboration with them and the Christmas Box House.

There I was with my feet firmly planted on the extension ladder, some eight feet high. An adhesive trowel was in one hand, and the other hand firmly gripped the ladder. I slowly made my way up the ladder and applied the adhesive to the wall. I then descended the ladder to return the trowel to a ledge, picked up a 12-inch stained glass mosaic and returned upwards. I carefully used both hands to align and adhere the mosaic to the wall.

Not wanting to descend all the way to the floor, I looked down and began to scan the room for a helper. One teenager was just resting on a love seat, so he looked like a good target.

“Can you please grab one of those mosaics on the floor and hand it up to me?” I asked politely.

“Are you going to pay me?” asked the teen slyly. I was taken aback. Really?

One of the teen supervisors stepped in on my behalf before I could respond, “This young man is coming in here as a volunteer to do this great art project with you. You should show him some respect.”

Now having two unexpected dialogue directions to respond to, I chose the one that was easiest to answer. I directed myself first to the teen supervisor, “Actually, the project I am doing is funded by a grant from the Utah Arts Council, so I am being paid for my time.”

The teen gained courage again at this first response, “Well, then are you going to pay me?”

I thought about it for a second, and eventually said, “No, I guess not.”

“Then why should I help?”

I was dumbfounded. This was a difficult question coming from someone who was obviously content sitting down. When I was a public school teacher I was able to cite my authority, to deduct points, to give reward incentives, etc. As a teaching artist however, I did not have a clear answer to his question, nor do I even remember how I responded.

Thinking this interaction through from a distance I realized that on a project with a rotating population my objectives are constantly changing to meet the daily needs of my students. Regardless, each new member of a project should have a sense of what he or she might gain by participating. Instead of being surprised by the teen’s expectation of payment, I should have been ready to explain the non-monetary value of the project. Here are some alternate responses I have thought of since our interaction:

“You will learn how to install tiles, which will be helpful if you ever own a home or work in a construction trade.”

“This work of art will be seen by other teens who are away from their homes for reasons that are probably valid, just like you are now. Hopefully the art will make this place a little happier for them.”

“Personally, I think it’s fun hanging tiles on a wall. Working with me will be, in my opinion, much more fun than sitting on a couch.”

“This project represents the artistic vision of children in the foster care home next door and the runaway teens who have been here before you. I have worked hard to arrange their work in a beautiful way and to add my own artistic vision so it looks really great. I think you will have reason be proud to have taken part in this art project.”

“I’d like someone to talk with while I’m working. I’m completely lame, and I think you’ll enjoy talking with me.”

Even with these helpful responses, the issue of pay inequality remains unresolved. Tasks such as bagging groceries and pumping gas are paid, and do not require as much mental and creative exertion as an art project. The educational value of a volunteer community project is generous by market standards. However, the typical sacrifices required to build skills in creative careers are nowhere near comparable to the typical financial rewards found for such sacrifices in many other careers.

I admire programs such as Urban Artworks in Seattle that gain corporate sponsorships in order to hire teens as apprentices for their projects. There are so few of these opportunities available to allow for skill-building while earning money. For teenagers with skeptical parents, an entry-level income can help them to convince their parents that joining a long-term art project is a step towards a viable career.

As a final response to the teen I could have added:

“I agree that it would be nice if you were paid. Unfortunately I didn’t raise money to pay helpers on this one. I guess you’ll just have to choose based on the other reasons I have explained.”

Perhaps I did not tailor the project to the teenager’s specific educational needs. His decision not to participate may have been logical, unlike my wonderfully perilous decision to earn a living as an artist.

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