‘It’s been such a shift’: Doriana Diaz on trying to make a living through gig work

The young Germantown collage artist dreams of having a gallery to display and sell her art. For now, she’s piecing together a living through a variety of different gigs. Tune in to the second episode of the audio documentary “Thriving” to hear her story.

October 6, 2023

Doriana Diaz: “I really don’t wanna do this anymore. Help me.”

Doriana Diaz had hit her boiling point. 

Doriana Diaz: I was talking to my therapist about two years ago and I was like, ‘I really wanna work for myself and I don’t know how to do it. What do I do? Like, what do I do?’ Freaking out.

Doriana is an artist. She had recently graduated from Temple University and was working at an art museum in Philadelphia as an administrative assistant for the audience engagement department. 

Doriana Diaz: My dream job. I was so excited. It was consistent money. It was, you know, um, free health benefits. It was, like, everything that I thought I was supposed to be doing and I was desperate to work in the art field. I grew up in museums and I was like, this was going to be so great. And it was the worst thing in the entire world. I can’t even explain to you how bad it was. And I was overworked and underpaid and not respected and too young and too naive and taken advantage of and, like, really exhausted. 

She didn’t have the energy to create her own artwork. So a panicked Doriana sought advice from her therapist. 

Doriana Diaz: Help me. I really don’t wanna do this anymore. I don’t have any money saved. I graduated college a year ago, like, what do… am I supposed to do? 

How could Doriana walk away from the stable income her full-time job supplied her, and become a gig-worker? Someone who takes on art project after project and sells their own work to make a living — to pay their bills. 

It was risky. Inconsistent. She had no idea where to start. 

# # #

I’m Nichole Currie, and this is Thriving, an audio documentary about our economic future together. 

I’ve been following 10 Philadelphians for a year to learn what it takes to make it in America. After a pandemic and so much social upheaval: What are the obstacles and opportunities we all face to economically thrive in the United States? Each person we’re following tells us something different about our collective future. 

In this episode, Gig-working Creatives. 

We’re following Doriana Diaz, a 23-year-old in Germantown. Her goal is to work full-time as an artist. That will mean stringing together lots of different types of gig work to stay financially secure.

The only thing that I really would love to have accomplished by the end of the year or sooner is to solely work for myself or to solely work for people and projects that align with my spirit.

Doriana Diaz

A third of Americans contribute to what’s been called the $1.3 trillion freelance economy. And more than 6,000 Philadelphians earn full-time wages by piecing together money from their creative work with earnings in other industries.

Freelance or gig work has its upsides: control over your schedule, not answering to a boss, and for artists, the ability to be uncompromising about creative vision and mission. But financially, it can be a pain — inconsistent — and stressful. 

That was Doriana’s fear when she decided to leave her museum job to financially support herself as an artist. 

# # # 

Doriana has been drawn to the arts since she was a kid, and she found early inspiration in a legendary Philadelphia poet.

Doriana Diaz: The first time that I read Sonia Sanchez, I was about 12 years old. My mama had brought home a book signed by her called “Shake Loose My Skin”,  and I read that book over and over and over and over and over again until the pages were torn, stained, ripped out.

Doriana specifically admired the way that Sonia arranged her words.

Doriana Diaz: There’s a line from Sonia that is, “I am a carnival of stars”, and I think that blows my mind. Where she puts together words that would’ve never lived together before. It’s exciting and it’s chaotic at the same time, and I think I strive to feel that way when I create.

That type of bold contrast and surprising juxtaposition has been a major influence on Doriana. 

She’s a collage artist. She assembles images and fabrics from different sources, to live together as a holistic piece. 

Her work is sometimes plastered onto a large canvas. At other times, her work is small enough to fit on a journal cover.  

Doriana Diaz: Everything is deliberately sourced, whether it’s from books, records, CDs, things I find on the street. Things that I find in thrift stores, things that I rip off of clothing that I owned. 

Her artwork celebrates her heritage — she’s Black and Puerto Rican — and it also celebrates liberation in many forms. Doriana shows me the first large collage she ever made. 

Doriana Diaz: So I decided to call it “Declaration of Joy in Motion.” ‘Cuz I think that there’s something about my art, which is this idea of movement. 

It’s a large canvas, about the size of a poster, swirling with images of people in motion. Clippings of jazz musicians playing their instruments, dancers caught in movement, or people zooming through city streets. 

Doriana Diaz: I was just kind of trying to interpret my idea of what I wish I felt. Which was joy, was expression, while also trying to, like, reimagine, um, a space in my imagination where I wasn’t sad.

At first, collage work was just a form of therapy for Doriana. She never sold it or took commissions. But since she quit her full-time museum job to be a gig-worker, Doriana has to figure out a way to meet the right people and enter the right rooms for others to not only admire her work, but also buy it. Doriana knew it would take time to make these connections. So in February of 2022, she took an opportunity to ease the transition. She started a six-month, part-time job at a print shop. The job was simple. She printed images on T-shirts. It wasn’t her passion, but it afforded her two days a week of guaranteed work, and time to find other gigs. When I meet her five months later, in July…

Doriana is ready to take the full leap.

Doriana Diaz: Which is intense, but also I think it’s extremely timely. The only thing that I really would love to have accomplished by the end of the year or sooner is to solely work for myself or to solely work for people and projects that align with my spirit.

Doriana’s already gotten a 12-month contract with Black Women Radicals to create artwork that celebrates Black women and gender expansive people. It pays $800 a month — which pays most of her rent. But she has the rest of her bills — electricity, internet, groceries, art supplies, regular spending money, and more.  

She’s hoping to figure it all out.

A collage by Doriana Diaz features members of The Supremes against a red, orange, and yellow background.

Julie Zeglen: It’s really risky to be. Self-employed period.

This is Julie Zeglen, Technically’s managing editor. She’s a journalist who has spent years covering entrepreneurs and gig-workers. For this Thriving project, she has been part of interviews with dozens of gig-working creatives across the country.

Julie Zeglen: We think of gig-working creatives as people who might have some temporary or part-time job that they might not be emotionally invested in, but supports their creative pursuits in some way. People who, for instance, maybe drive Uber, but then they also are promoting their new media business on the side.

New technologies, new apps, have placed more people on this path in recent years. For these gig-working creatives, there’s a huge range of economic experiences.

Julie Zeglen: So you have people living in poverty, you have people making a ton of money.

And one of the reasons boils down to this. 

Julie Zeglen: In the US, there’s both no ceiling and no floor. Meaning that if you lose your job, in this case, if you’re a gig-working creative and you don’t have any work, there’s no guarantee of income, period, from the government. On the other hand, you’re making your own wealth. That’s part of the point here for these creatives. They are both in control of how they spend their time, what they do to earn money, and they, in theory, are in charge of how much money they make.  There isn’t a limit to how much they can make other than access to resources, access to people who will pay them.

These workers aren’t starting on an even playing field. It’s easier for someone who’s already wealthy to quit a full-time job and pursue less dependable freelance work. And paths to success aren’t clear. Work ethic plays a role, but so do privilege and chance: the right idea or opportunity that comes along at just the right time.

When Technical.ly spoke with gig-workers in Philadelphia to see how they manage this pathway, they said knowing the right people and building community was key. 

Julie Zeglen: So even though this is such an independent career that these people are pursuing by design, they also can pass each other tips about opportunities, right? And having a connection is how a lot of people find their next gig.

A young black woman sits on a couch in front of a black wall covered with posters and paintings. The woman has her hair tied up on top of her head. She is wearing a white turtleneck, a dark jean jacket, and gold hoop earrings.
Doriana Diaz.

That’s where Doriana is right now, in the summer of 2022. Looking for the right people, to find the right gigs — because her livelihood depends on it.  

Doriana got a gig to hold a collage workshop at the Bok Building — she had previously made connections there when she worked at the print shop that’s also housed at Bok. 

Doriana brings her own materials — magazines, old posters and clothing. 

She also got a commission to create artwork for an exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. It’s part of an exhibition proposed by a medical student to document Black doctors in history. 

Doriana got the gig by connecting with the museum’s curator. They ran into each other in Center City. And this was a case of being in the right place at the right time for Doriana. The curator was familiar with her work, but they hadn’t really had a chance to connect yet. 

The Black doctor project came up during their conversation and the curator thought she would be a perfect fit. 

Doriana Diaz: So I kind of delved into the archives, um, to sort of express this proposal that she gave to AAMP. I spent a lot of time researching Black physician archives between, like, the ‘20s to the ‘80s.

These are digital collages — not the handmade collages that are her forte. But gigs like this are adding to Doriana’s skillset and portfolio. The artwork took her one month to complete. The museum paid her $1,500. 

Doriana Diaz: I spent a lot of time researching and studying, and I feel immensely grateful for the opportunity to challenge my practice.

“There are moments, of course, where I feel afraid, I feel frightened of just being able to meet my bills exactly in the way that I want to be able to, but I’ve figured it out creatively.

Doriana Diaz

One of the easier ways to make money is to sell her artwork at markets in the city, and nearby states like New Jersey or New York. Some markets require vendor fees that can range from $25 to $50 — but Doriana works hard to find the markets that are free. 

She borrows her family car and loads it up with her artwork.

I go to a few of these markets with Doriana, and at first they’re a hit or miss. But she’s finding out she does well at markets that attract people of color — because that’s who her artwork celebrates. 

Doriana Diaz: Um, there’s some images of Motown sound with some books of different women within The Supremes…I have a Motown book and just some cassettes for decoration, but that’s kind of, like, how the table flows. 

After a month, Doriana has a clear understanding of the hustle and bustle that comes with being a gig-worker.

Doriana Diaz: It’s definitely a lot more than I think I’ve ever done, which has been a really incredible balance of seeking sort of, like, rest and restoration while also really feeling overwhelmed with support to the ability to be able to sustain my life financially through gig work and through freelance. And so it’s been such a shift and I, I think I’m still processing it.

Despite being so busy — Doriana is finding it hard to meet her bills consistently. Most of her gig work doesn’t offer direct deposit. She’s left waiting on paper checks for four, sometimes six weeks. At other times, the small things make a big impact — not selling enough tickets for a workshop, the cancellation of a vendor event. 

Doriana Diaz: I think that it’s not the security that I had to say when I was, like, working a 9-5 for sure. But it’s, it’s a different kind of level of fulfillment that I feel. And there are moments, of course, where I feel afraid, I feel frightened of just being able to meet my bills exactly in the way that I want to be able to, but I’ve figured it out creatively.

Nichole Currie: Can you give me an example? 

Doriana Diaz: Um, so there have been times where I’m, like, short on something and I’ll, uh, find somebody that can pay me to write an article. Or I will find someone who’s interested… I’ll hunt for someone who’s interested in the commission and make a collage for them to be able to meet it or host a class or something like that.

Doriana is figuring it out — but scrambling to pay her bills every month is stressing her out. After a long talk with her partner at the time, Mars, she decides that she does need some consistency in her life — but not a full-time job. Something that still complements her gig work — a backup source of income.

Doriana Diaz: Well my partner and I are really beginning to look into spaces here in Germantown where we can open up our own space.

Before stepping into the gig-work life, Doriana had always dreamed of opening a brick-and-mortar gallery — a place where she could sell her artwork, host workshops, and allow others to rent the space for events. But she envisioned this further down her career, like, a decade later. 

Doriana Diaz: ‘Cuz a brick and mortar is hard and it comes with its own challenges. I’m very young. I’m about to turn 24 in, like, a week, and there’s a questioning: Is this too soon? And do I not know enough?

But because the money from gigs is so inconsistent, she wants to make this happen now. She will call it Jazzbox — because her art is heavily influenced by Black jazz musicians. Doriana is aware that a store would add another expense, but here’s her thinking: Doriana wants to save enough money over the summer and fall, so that she feels comfortable to sign a lease in the winter. She hopes once the shop is in full swing, the profits she makes will cover the future rent payments. Doriana is looking at the bright side of this plan. 

Doriana Diaz: There’s also a beauty in it of, like, I’m really excited to be young and really wanting to push myself and push out, not only out of my comfort zone, but to really push myself to live the life that I want, and knowing that it’s a possibility and knowing that it’s something that I deserve has been a really kind of beautiful process. So we’re in the midst. Stay tuned.

I’m about to turn 24 in, like, a week, and there’s a questioning: Is this too soon? And do I not know enough?

Doriana Diaz

Toward the end of September, I finally walk into Jazzbox — five months ahead of schedule. 

Doriana and Mars didn’t manage to find a retail space. They just opened up anyway… in their own three-bedroom apartment. 

It’s kind of like a speakeasy. 

Doriana Diaz: Um, so we’re open from Wednesdays through Saturdays, um, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every week. And so today was our first official day where we were open for appointments. So this is, like, really exciting. 

Mars gives me a tour: Jazzbox takes up two bedrooms and the kitchen — where Mars, a trained chef, makes beverages for guests. They say their landlord is cool with the whole project.

Mars: Um, but yeah, so this is the home cafe. I really fell in love with preparing food and beverages with my hands and serving people and providing nourishment in that way. So when Doriana and I talked about opening up a space possibly, I knew I wanted food and drink to be included in that space. So we invested quite a pretty penny in some coffee equipment. 

Nichole Currie: You and Doriana were looking for a space, a retail space before. And this is sort of like that stepping stone now, like?

Mars: Yeah, for sure. We’re still looking for a space. We’re just trying to have it find us kind of. Um, so hopefully that space is looking for us and hopefully the community brings it to us. Um, but really, we were kind of just contemplating on the market. Right now, the market is really high, so it didn’t really make sense for both of us to pay rent in this apartment and then go pay rent somewhere else. 

Doriana and Mars were hit with a rude awakening when they began to look for retail spaces in Germantown. Doriana shows me current listings. 

Doriana Diaz: And it’s 4,900 square feet. For this particular property, it’s a little bit out of our budget… so it would be around probably four grand a month, which is not what we’re looking for.

Their budget is $2,500 — but price isn’t the only issue. Properties also disappear off the market quickly. Like this listing Doriana saw earlier this week. 

Doriana Diaz: It was a two-story building and it was about, like, 1,500 square feet, which will probably hit the mark to be around $1,500 to $2,000 a month, which is a lot more doable.

Doriana called the number on the listing. 

Doriana Diaz: Inquired about it and it had just sold. Yeah.

The rental market in most cities has been hit by inflation — and rents are incredibly high. On top of that, Germantown is undergoing major development. But Doriana still looks for listings. 

Doriana Diaz: Because Germantown is so rapidly being gentrified, it’s really hard to rent out a commercial space because things are being bought up at such a rapid speed. Because I’ll see something on the avenue, which is ideally where we wanna be, that meets the mark. And you, it’s the second you see it and call, it’s someone else has it. And so, uh, I’ve been thinking a lot about that and trying to understand how to kind of get, like, ahead of that.

It takes an incredible amount of grit and gut and, um, imagination to do this work.

Doriana Diaz

In December, Doriana takes another stab at moving Jazzbox into its own space — and out of her apartment. She hosts a fundraiser to support finding a permanent location. She barters with the owner of the Our House Culture Center in Germantown, and collages their bathroom in exchange for the rental fee of $700. The fundraiser is a silent auction with work from local artists, musical guests and food.

Doriana makes more than $4,500 from the fundraiser. She puts it all into a savings account that’s just for Jazzbox — hoping it could pay for their first couple of rent payments on a space. But even with the financial boost, the next few months are grueling as Doriana welcomes the new year — 2023.

Doriana Diaz: So walking up and down Germantown Avenue there’s a lot of… at least in the last few months I’ve seen, a lot of signs around like for rent or, or, businesses that no longer exist or…

Doriana is having no luck in finding a space. 

Doriana Diaz: That has a huge impact as well. 

Four months later, she gives up on finding a space for Jazzbox. She closes down the cafe portion, meaning her business partner Mars won’t be making food anymore. Jazzbox is now a dream she will table for the future. 

Doriana Diaz: It’s really hard. Yeah, it makes me sad. Um, it makes me angry. 

Jazzbox was supposed to be Doriana’s dream and safety net, wrapped into one. It was supposed to ease the fear of not making her bills with gig work. Now that the space is no longer part of the plan, Doriana pivots. 

Doriana Diaz: I understand that this is, you know, the deal that I made with myself after quitting my job that, like, those, those specific levels of stability, not to say that they’re not possible as a gig artist, but they’re harder to come by. It takes an incredible amount of grit and gut and, um, imagination to do this work. 

Four journals sit on a wood table. In the upper left corner, a black journal features a collage of clouds, the moon, and a Black woman. In the upper right corner, a yellow journal features an image of the back of a Black woman's head, with her hair braided into small braids and those braids twisted into a bun. In the lower right corner, a black journal features a collage of a woman singing. In the lower left corner, a green journal features a collage of another woman singing.

Doriana Diaz: I’m sending emails to people to work with them to inquire about teaching artistry, to inquire about, like, whole, even wholesaling my journals to different shops in different places across the country all the time.

She goes by city: Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, sending out inquiries, hoping there’s an opportunity to create artwork. 

Doriana Diaz: So it’s, it’s a lot of… it’s a consistent practice of believing in yourself enough to know that the work will speak for itself. 

But outside of the gig-work grind, Doriana has managed to find stability in an unexpected place. 

Doriana Diaz: I think that libraries are one of the greatest resources that you could ever tap into.

She actually began to look into libraries on her therapist’s suggestion. Her therapist told her: 

Doriana Diaz: “Just go to them, just drive to the branches and be like, ‘Hey, hi, I’m interested in programming.’ Or call them. Like, just reach out to them.” And so I reached out to every single school and every single library. And so she was the person who really was like, “just think about reaching out to them because they’re always, I mean, they get a certain amount of money from the government that they need to spend on programming. And you could be one of those people.”

By now, she’s worked at more than 15 branches in Philadelphia — multiple times. Workshops at the public library pay her $250 for a single class, but if she teaches a month-long series, they pay her between $800 to $1,000. 

Doriana Diaz: I’m like, thank God, because it’s, like, the simplest thing, but it just would, I never would’ve thought of it on my own. And I guess that’s the other thing about it, in life and as a practice, is we can’t do everything alone.

There are a few other things that are helping Doriana’s life as a gig-worker become easier. A huge one is budgeting two months in advance — it helps her weather the inconsistent income. Also, Instagram — she swears by it. New people have been discovering her artwork via her account. She also uses it to find grant and vending opportunities. 

# # #

When we first started talking last year, Doriana was taking the leap to freelance even though she didn’t know how to financially sustain herself. She worried so much about inconsistent pay that she even tried to open a retail store to give her some stability. But in the end, what’s really sustaining her art practice is herself — her persistence, her ability to make connections and take risks. Despite the pitfalls, she’d still choose it any day over a full-time job.

Doriana Diaz: The freelance life can be seen as a very reckless way of life, I think, from people, outsiders, maybe. But I think that it’s, yeah, for me it’s just been the most worthwhile thing that I’ve ever done. And the decision to bet on myself has been the best choice that I’ve ever made.

Thriving is brought to you by Technical.ly and Rowhome Productions with support from the William Penn Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and the Knight Foundation. 

Learn more about Thriving at technical.ly

Thriving’s executive producer is Technical.ly CEO Christopher Wink.

The series is reported, produced, and hosted by me, Nichole Currie. 

Our story editor is Jen Kinney. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Mix and sound design by John Myers. 

Special thanks to Technical.ly editors Christina Kristofic, Sameer Rao, and Julie Zeglen. 

This episode features music from Blue Dot Sessions and Philippe Bronchtein. 

Our theme music is by Flat Mary Road. 

Thanks for listening.

Series: Thriving