The new documentary An Honest Living, which screens tomorrow night and again next Thursday at the Siskel Center, is not just a portrait of four individuals, but a love letter to our city’s arts community. Its subjects have pursued their creative interests for years while holding down steady day jobs. At some point, each one admits to wishing they didn’t have to deal with the daily grind—but then, who doesn’t? All of them are happy that they get to make art at all, and it’s this sentiment that dominates the movie. If you live in Chicago, you probably encounter it rather often—at fringe-theater productions, hole-in-the-wall gallery openings, rock shows held in bars and lofts, or at countless other DIY arts events. Even when I dislike the art at such events, I find it hard to leave in a bad mood. The participants usually seem grateful for having an audience, and what they lack in financial resources they often make up for with enthusiasm and evident hard work.
Director Jordan Freese devotes almost as much time to his subjects’ careers as to their art. He doesn’t do this for ironic effect, but to consider the relationship between art and work. Freese subversively suggests that the daily compromise of working can be inspiring, as his subjects place special value on their creative time because they realize how limited it is. He also suggests that having a day job can make one’s art more accessible, since an artist who knows what it’s like to submit to a less-than-satisfying job can relate to a wide variety of people. This comes through in the performance footage of two of the subjects, a lifelong musician who now works in home improvement and a burlesque dancer who works as a secretary in the financial district. Freese emphasizes how engaged they are with their audiences—they don’t seem to mind how few people are watching them, so long as they know those spectators are involved in the communication process.