Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Triangle artists face lean times after recession

Poor economy brought fewer patrons, less income

- STAFF WRITER - Raleigh News and Observer

One month ago, Micah Mullen walked away from a comfortable corporate marketing job in the midst of a still-sputtering economy to work full time as a painter.

It's a 70 percent pay cut, though the hours are better. He and his wife have reined in food expenses, and with Mullen home, the couple can save on day care for their elementary-age children.

Still, Mullen knows it won't be easy. But he's determined to try.

"I don't plan on turning back," Mullen said. "I want to make this work, and I think I can."

Mullen is jumping in at an odd time for the Raleigh art scene. With more galleries than ever, the city's commitment to public art and the opening of the new Contemporary Art Museum downtown, the area is in the midst of what Raleigh Art Commission Executive Director June Guralnick calls a cultural renaissance.

However, individual artists are grappling with an extended period of fewer patrons and lighter wallets as the area struggles to bounce back from the recession. Local artists say they have had to work harder and smarter than ever before to make ends meet.

Mullen's geometric North Carolina landscapes are striking enough to stop patrons in their tracks, said gallery owner Nicole Kennedy, who sells Mullen's work in Nicole's Art Studio and Gallery on Person Street downtown.

"People look at his stuff and they're mesmerized," Kennedy said. "The more you look at it, the more you like it."

At the same time, Mullen has picked a tricky time for his career change.

"Leaving your day job - that's not necessarily a good thing to do right now," Kennedy said.

Even in the best of times, there aren't many who have the combination of talent and boldness required to take on the life of a professional artist. Only about 23,600 people held jobs as fine artists like Mullen and Garrison in 2008, the most recent numbers available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 60 percent of those were self-employed.

Most work on a freelance basis and may find it difficult to make a living solely by selling their artwork, according to the bureau report. Those with a steady salary earn a median annual income of about $42,000, which is Mullen's goal in the next five years.

Most local artists have been riding out the recession through a combination of newly acquired business savvy and a focus on honing their craft, Kennedy said.

"Most artists have had to take their career in their own hands," Kennedy said. "To expect galleries to make a living for you, unless you're a huge name, is not realistic."

Even established artists have had a hard time. Raleigh painter Richard Garrison quit his job as a public school art teacher to paint full time 16 years ago. He and his wife, an English teacher, were able to live comfortably off their joint incomes for more than a decade in a large four-bedroom house in Cary.

Then the recession hit. During the past few years, Garrison has been selling half the number of paintings he used to. He and his wife have had to dip into their savings, and recently downgraded to a one-bedroom condo in downtown Raleigh.

Last year, Garrison decided on a new strategy. His new focus on portrait painting won him two commissions last year that "probably saved me, financially," Garrison said.

Even those who kept their day jobs say times have been tight. Local artist Joe DiGiulio works full time in commercial and educational sales with Jerry's Artarama, as well as teaching workshops and creating instructional art DVDs. He and his wife call their backyard studio their retirement plan, a place to continue teaching art classes as the income supplement they will need to retire.

"I was surprised that (Micah) was going to go full time," DiGiulio said. "Three years ago, it was a completely different story."

Mullen has done his research. He knows the career change could mean a difficult adjustment period. He's been painting for years, and sold $20,000 worth of his work last year while working full time. With so much more time free to invest in it, he is confident he can double that number within five years.

His wife Eileen, a personal injury lawyer, supports his decision completely - because of his obvious talent, and the positive change she has seen in her husband since he found work he loves: He's calmer, more social and has more time to spend with their two sons.

"It is amazing to see the change in a person when they figure out what they want to be doing and what they're good at," Eileen Mullen said. "It really does make a difference to have fulfillment in your work life."

Mullen is treating his new career the same way he did his full-time corporate job. He starts at 8 a.m. every morning in his upstairs studio in North Raleigh, creating new paintings or on business calls, working to get his canvaases in more galleries across the state. On a whiteboard on one wall, he meticulously tracks how he spends every hour of the work day. To supplement income from paintings, he has instructional DVDs, which he sells from his professional website. He also has his own show in the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Nature Art Gallery through May 1.

Kennedy notes that North Carolina landscapes are selling better in the down economy as patrons seek the comfort of the familiar. That Mullen's work is a fresh, striking take on those scenes may be exactly the thing that will allow his bold career move to pay off as the economy picks back up, DiGiulio and Kennedy agree.

"I've seen enough lighthouses and ... barns and rolls of hay in the field from painters all over this area," DiGiulio said. "Micah's work is totally unique from anything you've seen before, so he can really carve out a niche for himself."

An artist's life has never been easy, but for those like Mullen, it's worth it to try, Garrison said.

"Why do anything other than what you love?" Garrison said. "If you love it enough, and you follow your heart, I think things will fall into line and you can make a living of it." or 919-829-4802

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mailbox Mosaics

The tornadoes that swept through Eastern North Carolina last weekend did a number on my mailbox. I spent Easter weekend building a new mailbox and creating a small mosaic garden at the base of the mailbox. Chips of broken plates and other odd ceramic pieces were embedded into two concrete pads. These pads were then surrounded by mulch and some small plants. The tiles need to be polished and the excess concrete and mud needs to be wiped off, but otherwise this project is complete.

This project is a stark reminder that I am not a young man anymore. Short handled shovels, pick axes, and mixing concrete took a physical toll on me over the last two days. I am anxious to once again get in front of the easel in an air conditioned space where the heaviest thing I will be lifting is a paintbrush.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hanging Rock State Park - Lower Cascade Falls

I liked this subject because the reference picture offered some colors that I normally do not use. My concerns arose when about halfway through the painting process I did not see these colors and the palette was looking quite similar to those in my previous painting of Pearson's Falls. The last part of the work that I did was the right hand side where the magentas and oranges are shown in the leaves. While these colors do provide good contrast, I feel the painting is still very flat. I like all the geometric shapes and colors that I used, but as I now look at the work in its entirety I might have used some better choices for shading to give this work more dimension.

There are four waterfalls at Hanging Rock State Park. The Lower Cascades Fall is at the bottom of the mountain and is what I feel to be the most spectacular of all the waterfalls at the park.

Hanging Rock State Park: Lower Cascade Falls - 18x24" Acrylic on Canvas

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Pearson's Falls

Pearson's Falls was the last waterfall we visited in our annual fall waterfall trip. This waterfall is located in the southwest part of North Carolina between Saluda and Tryon. It was a bright crisp autumn day - that allowed for some experimentation when painting the sky.

This painting took nearly 50 hours to complete - the majority of time was spent of the rock structures behind the waterfall. In actuality there probably should have been more water shown as this is a dense, roaring waterfall. However, after painting these rocks it seemed a shame to cover up all these tiny details. A rich palette of grays, dark blues and purples allows for sharp contrasts with the sky and waterfall.

Pearson's Falls - 24x18" Acrylic on Canvas

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fredrix Dixie Pro Canvas

Working in the art material industry for many years I have seen hundreds of products. Occasionally a product comes around that really stands out as a quality item. The Fredrix Dixie Pro Canvas is one of those unique items of exceptional quality. This is a 12 oz. cotton canvas stretched onto solid, quality wood stretcher bars. What I like about this product is I know I do not have to worry about the canvas failing during the painting process or years in the future. The tough heavy canvas allows for a variety of techniques with a brush or knife without any concerns of the canvas bubbling or wrinkling, and the solid stretcher bars assure me that this canvas will not warp even decades from now.

I painted the cotton field painting shown on a 7/8" width, but the Dixie Pro is also available in 1-3/8" and 2-1/2" width. A quality item that I highly recommend!

Cotton Field Off Highway 64 #4 - 12x16" Acrylic on Canvas

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nature Art Gallery Show Opening

The reception at the Nature Art Gallery at the Science Museum last night was amazing! I chatted with dozens of friends, met some great people and had a great time with my family. A special thanks to Karen Bethune who is curator of the gallery, she is one of the nicest and most efficient people I have come across. My paintings looked amazing in the gallery - congratulations to her and the great staff at the Museum. I am looking forward to working on future projects with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

If you did not get a chance to make the reception, my show "Carolina Mosaics: A Painter's View" runs through May 1st. The Nature Art Gallery is located on the mezzanine level of the gift shop at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh.