Living art: Dedication and second jobs support artists' careers

Lisa Brimmer left the corporate world to pursue her true passion -- spoken word performance.
Photo By: Calista Dunbar
Pre-med might have been his goal in college, but Bryan Nichols decided to ditch lab work for a career performing and teaching jazz.
Photo By: Howard Gitelson
“I thought I was supposed to get my college degree, and then go climb the corporate ladder, but it’s not me.” -- Lisa Brimmer

Bryan Nichols is an accomplished jazz pianist from Minneapolis who makes his money from performing and teaching.

That wasn’t always his plan, though.

Nichols attended Iowa State University with a full scholarship, thinking he was going to be a doctor. He began to pursue a degree in biology and pre-med but eventually realized that he was not cut out to be a doctor.

“I wasn’t interested in lab work,” he said. “I wasn’t excited about that.”

Now his education is a joke he uses at parties, where he’ll ask strangers, “Hey, guess what I got my degree in?”

Nichols, 33, is one Twin Cities artist who decided to follow his dream instead of pursuing a more lucrative career. Although many people might consider such a move risky in today’s economy, Nichols said it’s possible with hard work. But when it comes to financial stability, being an artist has its ups and downs.


Lisa Brimmer, 26, knows that well.

Brimmer is a spoken-word artist in the Twin Cities. She attended the University of St. Thomas with a major in psychology and a minor in English literature. After graduating in 2008, she began working as a personal advocate in the health-care business, answering questions about insurance policies.

“It was what I thought I was supposed to do,” she said. “I thought I was supposed to get my college degree, and then go climb the corporate ladder, but it’s not me.”

In addition to being a spoken-word artist, Brimmer works as a waitress on the side to support herself.

“It can be difficult in this economy and in this country to build a life off of being an artist; specifically if it is the written word, it can be difficult,” Brimmer said. “The game’s tough … because you can’t just be a writer. You must be a writer and a waitress, or a writer and librarian, or a writer and all of these other things.”


Nichols makes most of his living as a performer, but also does some teaching at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis and in his home. It allows him to turn down gigs he doesn’t like.

“At this point I almost always play music that I want to be involved in,” Nichols said. “But a lot of people, if you’re not teaching, have to take a lot of stuff that maybe you don’t always want to do, but you have to. And I would rather not do it.

Although the number of venues for performers has decreased in the past 10 years, the music scene in the Twin Cities is still quite active, and neither Nichols nor Brimmer has much trouble finding places to perform.

Nichols often performs at the Artist’s Quarter in St. Paul, the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis and a newer venue, The Icehouse, also in Minneapolis. Brimmer can be seen performing at The Turf Club and The Black Dog Café in St. Paul, and at the 331 Club in Minneapolis. Other venues include the Red Stag Supper Club, Barbette, Café Maude and Studio Z.


For Brimmer, getting gigs isn’t hard because she works with jazz musicians.

The partnership allows her work to be heard by more people and create a diverse atmosphere that people want to come back to. Anything to get “more names on lips,” Brimmer said.

“Venues like it because we are bringing in artists that they have contact with,” she said. “We’re keeping a good relationship with the artists by booking them, and I think it’s mutually beneficial.”

The biggest challenge for these artists is just keeping their drive.

“It’s like being in a relationship,” Brimmer said. “I mean, you love it and you hate it and you’re frustrated with certain things about it.”

It’s really up to the artists to stay involved in the arts community, do new things and keep getting better at what they do, Nichols said.

“There are all these roadblocks and bottlenecks and stop signs and everything. So you’ve just got to have the fortitude to keep going, and just believe in what you’re doing,” he said.

“If you love it and it’s the only thing that will make you happy do it. If something else will make you happy, do it on the side.”