You Want a Job With That?

Audria Larsen has the perfect job.

Actually, she has seven perfect jobs. Or is it nine?

For Larsen, 26, there is no line between work and life and she's OK with that. For the record, she is a part-time bookstore employee at Barnes & Noble, a burlesque performer, a hoop fitness instructor, hoop business operator, a freelance writer for REVUE Magazine, an occasional model, headmistress of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art Class, and director of Shimmy Shack, a soon-to-debut burlesque review. She's also a full-time student at Aquinas College.

While Larsen's story may seem unique, it doesn't appear to be uncommon in metro Grand Rapids.

She is one of a growing number of people in West Michigan whom the social researcher Richard Florida might describe as the "Creative Class," his term for those who are paid primarily to do creative work -- from art and music to design, engineering, and scientific research. Florida contends that this population is growing dramatically -- he suggests it accounts for nearly a third of the U.S. workforce -- and that its attitudes and ideas about work are affecting how people view their jobs, their careers, and their community. One of the key motivating drivers for creatives, according to Florida, is that they look for places they can thrive.

Larsen seems to have found that here. A native of West Michigan, Larson grew up on the West Side and attended Montessori grade schools, a parochial middle school and Forest Hills Northern High School. A self-described free spirit, Larsen doesn't see herself so much as having many jobs but a singular focus.

Jumping through hoops...and loving it
Her passions are dance and theater, around which many of her jobs revolve. She is an original cast member of the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque group. Billed as "The Vivacious Miss Audacious" ("It plays off my name and describes my personality," she says), Larsen has gained a following for an act that includes hoop and fire hoop dance.

She has taken her love of the Hula Hoop several steps -- or perhaps twists is more accurate -- farther. She teaches classes in hoop dance and makes and sells her own -- Audacious Hoops are available in a rainbow of colors, including neon, with the option of an accent color or sparkle tape.

Her work with the Dr. Sketchy program involves performance art as well. Held at local bars and nightclubs, the program is an extension of theater. Models show up in creative costumes and patrons who pay $10 for the opportunity to draw, sketch or otherwise participate are affectionately referred to as Art Monkeys. The program, which is actually a franchise, requires a lengthy interview process, a franchise fee, and regular dues. It continues to work well for Larsen and she is hoping to incorporate it into next year's ArtPrize competition.

She does all this on coffee -- but just one serving a day -- and a seemingly bottomless reserve of energy. If and when she has time to sleep, Larsen's dream is to become the ultimate showperson, to produce better shows, more elaborate costumes.

Her boyfriend, Chris Eddy, 37, is a full-time musician Larsen describes as having "been a member of every band in Grand Rapids for five minutes." At present, Eddy's connections are with groups such as LSDudes, Night Toucher, and The Fainting Generals, and he's working on putting together a string band.

The pair have been together for three years and have collaborated on a couple of projects. They ran an underground breakfast restaurant during a recent summer. Attendees paid $7 for a vegetarian meal prepared by Eddy, who Larsen describes as "a fabulous cook. I played waitress and I was quite good at it, which is funny because I've never tried to do that for a living. The breakfast became pretty popular. By the end of summer we were getting 30-40 people."

All the World's a Performance
Show business remains Larsen's focus, however, and she is dedicated to making a mark in it. Much of her time and money is spent looking for ways to improve the look and appeal of performances. This includes her own show, Shimmy Shack Burlesque, for which she has become a one-person promoter.

"I make posters, write press releases, look for sponsors," she says. "I have a web site, but I don't have time to learn code. I could really use a personal assistant."

Even so, Larsen manages.

"You begin to layer things," she explains. "I try to keep weekends open."

But even the layers get filled. Larsen has recently been spending time with another dance troupe that is reorganizing and rehearsing. She is incorporating new elements into her act, including a fire hoop and stilt walking.

While her jobs may seem a bit unconventional, closer examination shows there is a business sensibility to all. There is a business plan -- even if somewhat open-ended -- and she regularly evaluates product, materials, venues, and expenses. And after a couple of long sessions filling out tax forms a few years back, she now relies on an accountant.

Would Larsen abandon her many irons if, say, a marketing or directing job offer came along? Probably not, she says. She's already doing what she wants and, most important to her, doing it the way she chooses.

It's Not a Job, It's An Adventure
Personal choice and self management seem to be the mantra of others engaged in multiple occupations.

It is for Rachel Finan, a fellow performer with Larsen in Super Happy Funtime Burlesque shows. Finan is a make-up artist who works more or less full time at the Smooch Boutique in East Grand Rapids. She does freelance make-up for film and theater, art and photographic modeling, holds personal training sessions in yoga, has directed and performed in plays at the Dog Story Theater, and recently became a member of the DareDevil Dolls, a circus performance troupe.

Finan, 38, grew up in East Grand Rapids and left town to attend New York University in the late 80s and early 90s. She earned a degree in fine arts and theater directing and started her career. Health and money issues bright her back to West Michigan for what she thought was a temporary stop. That was 15 years ago.

"I had roots here," she says. "It was an easier life."

Finan also discovered that she could make a living doing more than managing a theater.

"I'd always thought I would be running a house, " she says. "I always thought I would work in just one space."

She picked up work doing make-up and later learned yoga, studying with various teachers in the area. With a couple of exceptions, yoga has become a one-person operation.

"I had to branch off," she explains. "Studios can't afford to pay additional teachers."

Her work in burlesque has led to one of her more profitable sidelines. She sells designer pasties after the shows -- the custom-made accessories go for $10 a piece and have become quite popular. She is, by her account, "one of the only people who do this." Her basic materials, including sequins and feathers, come from a local crafts store. The tassels are imported from India.

It is just one of many things Finan has embraced in a career of which she says: "One thing just led to another. I always thought I'd be managing a house (theater). I never thought I'd come back here. I never thought I'd be doing aerial performances at 37."

The latter comes with her work as a member of the DareDevil Dolls, a group founded by Cassie Truskowski, aka Miss PussyKatt and a Top 40 performer in a recent edition of "America's Got Talent." The group practices in an area gymnastics center and already owns a lot of its own equipment.

"It's amazing," Finan says of the new experience. "We do tumbling, partner acrobatics, hoop, fire poi -- globes of twirling fire -- and fire eating. We did a big party at an art gallery in Detroit for Devil's Night."

There's not much that would draw Finan away from her present life.

"I never thought I would be making a lot of money," she says. "But I don't have too much debt. I've never wondered when I'm going to eat. And I'm able to pay all my bills on time."

The only job that might turn her head would be a chance to travel.

"If I had an opportunity to tour -- to travel around the world -- I'd do it.. I'd do it even for far less money," she says.

Until then, her plans are to keep on moving: "I know I have limitations, but I will keep going till I break."

The Music Never Sleeps
Josh Cearlock (with a hard "C"), 27, another East Grand Rapids native, started adult life as a film student at the Full Sail University in Orlando, Fla. His goal at the time was a career in the visual arts..

Cearlock discovered, however, that there were other aspects of the industry with equal appeal.

"I'd steal my classmates books and read up on audio engineering," he says. "I'd teach myself and audio eventually became a hobby."

After college, he had work on production teams in places such as San Antonio and St. Louis. The latter stop included a promotional tour featuring a product endorsed by the rap artist, Nelly.

"It was an energy drink called 'Pimp Juice,'" Cearlock chuckles. "It was pushed with 'Girls Gone Wild' type videos. We had a big bus, we'd film parties, and none of it ever saw the light of day."

Cearlock came home for a breather in 2005. He figured he'd rest up a while then head to Los Angeles to continue his career.

He never made the trip.

In fact, he almost never made any more trips. Cearlock was involved in a violent car accident -- he was thrown through the windshield of his car and was rushed to the hospital where he remained comatose for several days.

"They told my family there was little chance of recovery," Cearlock says. "They were told I was probably not going to wake up, and if I did I would probably have severe brain damage."

But Cearlock woke up two weeks later and while he'd lost his sense of smell and taste, his memory was intact and he had a new outlook on his future.

"I had one of those're here for a reason type things," he remembers. "I'd always been into the arts and I figured that's got to be my job."

Cearlock chose music, focusing on rap.

"When I started, I did a lot of what I thought was good," he says. "In retrospect, it wasn't."

A music career, let alone a fledgling one, is a tough go and Cearlock took on numerous jobs to make ends meet -- pizza delivery, restaurant work, handyman jobs and, eventually, a full time bartending gig at Cambridge House that he landed with help from a friend.

In the meantime, he and long-time buddy Matt Nunn formed their own music production house, 3Sense Group, and Cearlock, by now known on stage as Ed Nino, was getting serious about his work.

One of his stated goals was to change what he saw as flaws in how music, rap in particular, is presented to the public.

"There are so many loose ends to putting on an aesthetically pleasing show," he explains. "One of the main downfalls is that these shows are not well have 30 guys wandering around stage and they all have microphones."

Cearlock has invested energy in changing the perception and the reality of such performances and has taken on virtually every job possible within the business. He's become a promoter, stage manager, director, publicist, graphic artist, and videographer. The only aspect he steps aside for is recording engineer, which he leaves to Nixon, a well-known area rap artist who also records for 3Sense.

While his bartending and occasional side jobs provide steady income, music has become Cearlock's "never sleep kind of job. With things artistic, I don't consider it work.

"There's not many people my age doing what they want," Cearlock continues. "They want the money but they don't have the dream."

Recycling the Past or Creating a Better Future?
Given their diverse backgrounds and experiences, it might be easy to suggest that today's multitasking workers are simply throwbacks to the 60s, recycled examples of the hippie counterculture.

There are some basic differences, however. For starters, the economy was strong in the 1960s. Basic goods were cheaper. And people were more likely to "drop out" rather than conform..

While Larsen and friends do not play to convention, they aren't like their predecessors. They aren't dropping out. They are engaged with their environment and looking for ways to create a workable niche within it. And, perhaps surprisingly, they are all looking for a sense of order.

Jenny Shangraw, Information Resource Manager/Cybarian for The Right Place, a non-profit development organization promoting the Greater Grand Rapids area, suggests there is credence to Richard Florida's ideas about the migrating workforce and that multi-tasking may be a wave of the future.

"The median income in West Michigan has decreased," she explains. "People have to make up the difference from somewhere. They're finding they need to have more than one primary skill."

George Erickcek, Senior Regional Analyst for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, agrees that "more people are trying to piece jobs together. The data suggests part of it has to do with the recession, but it also suggests the way work is scheduled and structured is changing."

Erickcek, who also writes the quarterly Business Outlook for West Michigan, says most employment data references what might be identified as more conventional forms of employment -- such as writing, planning, and consulting -- but allows that other types of work contribute.

"It may be a small subset," he says. "But we all know people who do it, and it was a trend even before the recession."

Of course, independence comes with trade-offs. Contract workers and independents forego benefits for the freedom to call their own shots. Erickcek suggests the lack of health insurance, in particular, could have negative long-term implications.

However it unfolds, it's a delicate balancing act -- living in the moment while chasing the future. But Larsen, Finan, and Cearlock seem to be able to keep it working. And if you asked any one of them what comes next, you'd probably get the same answer from each:


G.F. Korreck is a free-lance writer, editor, and voice talent living in West Michigan.


Josh Cearlock, pizza delivery, restaurant work, handyman jobs and,  full time bartending at Cambridge House

Audria Larsen, employee at Barnes & Noble, a burlesque performer, a hoop fitness instructor, hoop business operator, a freelance writer for REVUE Magazine, an occasional model, headmistress of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art Class, and director of Shimmy Shack (3)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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