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My Story of TransformationFrom Corporate to Military Wife to Creator
I don't use the label "Artist"... I no longer identify as an artist. I will explain why, and perhaps at the end of my story, you will no longer identify as an artist too.
But before I can fully explain to you my transformation I think we have to start at the beginning. When I was born....just kidding :) - we'll skip ahead :).
My Story - My Book
Seriously though, I can remember when I was a kid I loved to draw and color. Whenever I got sick, I'd lay on the floor or the couch and color. It was one of those times when I was sick, that I had a major aha moment. I was coloring with granny on the floor and she ripped the page out from the middle of the coloring book to color it. I was stunned! You see, I would start a coloring book from the front and move to the back - you know, like a book. But Granny ripped that sucker right out without hesitation, then she ripped another one out to color as well. I guess she saw my stunned face and she said with a shrug "I'll make my own book."
(The picture is of Granny with my kids :), Granny lived to be 96 years old)
It was an "aha moment" in so many ways. That one moment taught me "I own it, make it mine", "just because that it is a certain way, doesn't mean that is the way it needs to stay." I ripped a page out too, put the book aside, and focused on the one page right in front of me
But I have to say, that aha moment didn't translate into the rest of my life until I was 40-something years old.
The mentality of moving in the order that was presented remained with me, and as such, I graduated High School, went to college to get a degree in Marketing, and went to grad school to get a Masters in Business Administration. Then I got a job with IBM and married my college sweetheart, Ben. I followed the standard path, I followed an unwritten book.
After a year with IBM, I transitioned to UPS where I became a senior programmer analyst. I got up at 6am, went to the gym, showered and changed at the gym, and stopped almost every morning at Starbucks for a coffee and cranberry orange muffin. And then sat in a cubicle for 8-9 hours a day.
I liked my job, I liked my coworkers. But something was missing. I didn't have something of my own.
One day, during my lunch break I went to an interior design store looking for artwork for our new home. (I often shopped at lunch to escape for retail therapy.) I stared at a reproduction print of a painting, debating whether to buy it for $250. The debate with myself was "surely I could paint that". In the end, I bought the reproduction and then went to Hobby Lobby to buy an oil painting kit and a Bob Ross DVD.
That evening I sat in the garage with an easel rigged up using a ladder, a small tv with the built-in DVD player that I had since I was 19, and my new paint supplies. I couldn't wait to dive into that DVD and paint majestic mountains! So here is what the DVD didn't say: how to apply the paint, the pressure, the mediums, color mixing, and so much more :) - so my mountains were total and utter crap.
BUT my head kept saying 'you can do this.'
My mom always told me "can't never could".
That phrase took me a while to figure out, but I got it eventually. The word "Can't" doesn't mean that I am incapable of doing something. Instead, it means one of two things is stopping me
1) I don't want to or
2) I need more education.
In this case, I needed more education. So I found a teacher.
Going to her house on Mondays after work was the best part of my week! It would take me 45 minutes to drive to her house in Atlanta traffic and 1 and a half hours to drive home at 9 pm. I painted every chance I got. I invested in a decent easel and took over a corner in the guest bedroom.
I would paint anything and everything.
I'd bring in my rolly cart of paint supplies, and a wet painting into my cubicle every week because I didn't want to leave them in my car while I was at work (car temperature fluctuations are not a good thing for artwork). And to my surprise, people wanted me to paint things for them. I was commissioned to paint a house for an anniversary present, a newborn, a bar scene, a landscape, and even a golf course.
Gallery - Good/Bad? ...meh another lesson
After a couple of years of instruction, I decided to do a show and get into a gallery. I just showed up and started talking with pictures in my hand of my artwork. She asked me to bring in several pieces, and I did. I signed a contract, we had the show, and we sold some artwork. That's the simplified version.
The long version, I learned a lot about working with a gallery. The 3 things that stayed with me were:
1) they maintained the relationship with my buyers and I had no clue who bought what and why,
2) the markup on the artwork was only necessary for the gallery to stay in business and
3) I still had to hustle. The gallery director would arrange for my artwork to be on display at locations throughout Atlanta, but I was responsible for transporting and hanging it. Per the contract, if I received any commissions as a result of the buyer seeing my work at the locations I still owed the gallery 40%.
It seemed like a really big scam to me. So I pulled out of the gallery after 1 year.
Instead, I found ways to market myself.
My first "art festival" type of show was "Wine South" in the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. At the time I painted a lot of wine glasses, liquor etc with dramatic lighting. My target audience was wine connoisseurs. This was when my marketing background came into play. I knew if I wanted to sell art,
1) I needed a list of buyers that belonged to me and not a gallery and
2) I needed to develop art that would speak to a specific audience.
And it worked.... For a time.
No Time To Create...
When Ben and I first married we decided to wait to have kids until we were married for at least 5 years. 5 years was up, and we got pregnant with Tyler. At that point, I wasn't aware of non-toxic materials like Gamsol so I stopped painting while I was pregnant and frankly didn't have the time for the next 2 years and then Emily came along too - all that 'me time' was gone.
The time to pursue art shows, galleries, and more was simply not available to me any longer. I had two focuses - work and family.
Once the kids got about 2 and 4 years old I found ways to start painting and creating again. I would paint during their naps. When I would travel for business, I would bring my sketchpad. I would take vacation days to go to a workshop and leave the kids in daycare. I would occasionally go to a paint and sip to just be around other people who wanted to paint. At that point, I hated my life.
Which, from the outside looking in, we were "The American Dream Family" - 2.5 kids (2 really), 2 pets (4 really), nice house, nice job, nice cars. But inside, I felt like I didn't belong, I felt like I was just there doing what needed to be done, doing what was expected... just doing. There were times, alone in a hotel with my sketchpad on a business trip, I wished I wouldn't wake up in the morning. I wished for a way to just paint all the time, I wished for a way to wake up excited about each day.
But from the outside, no one knew how depressed I was. From the outside, I was great at my job. I just got promoted to manage a team of project managers and implementation consultants at ADP. The kids were thriving in daycare. And that's about all that I remember.
No life belonged to me.
Ben Gets Deployed
Then in January of 2014, Ben said that there is a 90% chance he was going to be deployed to Afghanistan. But what I heard was there was a 10% chance that he wouldn't. After all, this doesn't happen to us.
Until about 12 days before he was set to start his deployment, it didn't seem real.
Suddenly, it was real.
Sitting at the JAG office, getting Power of Attorney and answering questions like "If you both were to pass, who would get custody of the kids?", "In the event of vegetative state, what would your wishes be?"...
Then I'll never forget the look on the JAG officer's face when he asked Ben where he was deploying. Ben replied, and the JAG officer stopped writing, looked at Ben, and then at me, and said "I'll be glad when this is all over." I didn't know at the time the place where Ben was going was being rocketed every day. The locals called it "Rocket City". I found that out when the deployment was over.
7 days before Ben left there were too many straws on my back and I broke.
I had been struggling at work with one of the ladies who wasn't performing. She was on a "PIP" (Performance Improvement Plan). Which meant I had to meet with her every day to ask her what is she working on - basically micromanaging the crap out of her. Neither one of us enjoyed it. I kept trying to help her from self-imploding because she was on her way out the door if she didn't get her act together. I felt super responsible for her - until she yelled at my manager's manager. I dropped to the floor when I heard that news. There was no helping her.
That afternoon, I was picking up the kids from a neighbor's house where they were playing. On the walk back, the other mom asked me "are you ready for Ben to leave?" That 10% of hope that I clung to that he wouldn't go just evaporated. At that moment I knew what a panic attack was. My world was spinning out of control, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't see, I dropped to my knees right there on the sidewalk, uncontrollably shaking and crying. I said over and over "I can't, I can't, I can't"....my neighbor called my parents who rushed over.
I don't think I'll ever understand how strong my mom is mentally and physically because my whole weight was on her hugging, shaking, and crying saying "I can't, I can't, I can't" and she just stood there and hugged me saying "You can, you'll be fine, you can".
Once I was calm - well calmer - I called my manager to let him know that I need to take some time off of work to adjust to what will be a new way of doing things. The way I just wrote that sentence sounds entirely too calm - I cried while I was on the phone with my manager, and I must say he handled it well :), I went on FMLA (family medical leave to adjust to military life).
Never in my life had I felt like so much was out of my control.
I don't remember much between those 7 days when I had the panic attack and Ben left for a year in Afghanistan, but when he left my life shifted.
Painting Became More Than An Escape
Emily was 5 and Tyler 7 years old. About 20 days after Ben left, they started school. And for the first time, I was alone in the house and I didn't have a job to go to. And the seed I planted in my mind 15 years before about painting full time began to grow above the surface.
I painted every day. From the moment they went to school until the moment they got off the bus, I painted my dogs and cats, more landscapes, lots of clouds, lots of glass, and lots of candles. I had 6 hours almost every day to paint.
I cooked, I learned to mow the yard, I did the budget, and I found a way to where I wouldn't need to go back to work after the FMLA time was up. Shortly after the kids were in school I was accepted to an art show in Monte Sano (well first I was wait-listed, but then accepted). And it was at that show, that the world of becoming a pet portrait artist started to come into sight.
But I couldn't let go of what I was, I used to be important. I used to earn 6 figures, I used to have a team....now I'm a mom who paints. It took me 9 months of painting and being away from work before I stopped identifying myself as "I used to be". And because I didn't want to be "just a mom", I declared myself "An Artist".
Labels...they give importance to those who deem them important.
Ben came back home safe, happy, healthy, and whole- mind, body, and soul (that was my constant prayer). Before our marriage, he was an Army Ranger. While he had operations, he wasn't part of war like his dad and his grandfather and he wanted to be part of it. When 9/11 first happened, Ben was called up within the hour and activated state-side for 2 years. He hated being behind the desk and volunteered several times to go over, but his computer skills were also needed.
When he came back from Afghanistan, he was thinner, more confident, and proud of being in a combat situation as part of his military career. And he was also proud he was able to contribute something neither one of us expected: his sacrifice gave me the freedom and independence to pursue something that made me happy.
In 2017, Ben was deployed again to Iraq. This time, we both were more confident. So much changed for me during his first deployment. I found a passion for painting pets for people. I found a way to give back to my community AND I met people in my community! My mind shifted to look at this next deployment as another page turning to a new chapter. I knew we could do this because we did it before.
In his 2nd deployment, the kids and I developed routines: junk food and movie night on Fridays is still a household favorite. I'd go to the gym almost every day and paint every day. It was fun! I looked forward to waking up every day! I had an established Pet Portrait business, Art Fur Paws. In 2018, I became the President of the Huntsville Art League and Ben came back home safe, happy, healthy, and whole - mind, body, and soul.
It was at the art league that I realized I have something that many artists don't have - technical knowledge and business background. So I started providing little workshops and networking with local businesses to provide educational workshops with the art league to benefit the artists. In general, I found out, that what came naturally to me didn't come naturally to everyone else because I lived and breathed it for 15 years.
Quitting Can Be A Good Thing!
In 2019, I resigned from being the President of the Huntsville Art League for many reasons. But the driving factor was I was finding myself in a similar position that I experienced before Ben's first deployment. I put too much of myself and my identity into a position, a label. I was proud to have the label "President of Huntsville Art League." A position that was unpaid, overworked, and underappreciated.
I've learned that life has many lessons and if I don't learn the first time I am bound to repeat the hard lesson.
So I quit. And whew - that was another meeting with the floor. (yep, I collapsed to the floor)
Quitting is not an easy thing for me. I was always taught that 'winners never quit and quitters never win'. But I've learned the hard way, that statement is simply not true for every situation. I cannot win when toxic people are involved. I cannot win when my ego drives the decisions. That moment of quitting was freeing me of both toxic people and my ego.
But quitting has even greater power than I'd ever imagined. In July of 2019, I did quit something else that hurt my ego to admit and was toxic for me - alcohol. After reading the Alcoholics Anonymous Book, I admitted to myself, that I was a "high-functioning" alcoholic. At the time, Ben was in another country and I decided I would quit drinking altogether. When he came home I was almost 2 weeks free (I make that sound easy...it wasn't). I didn't tell him I was quitting while he was away because I didn't want to admit I had a problem and frankly I didn't know if I could do it.
I was ashamed of my weakness. And I'll never forget what he said: "admitting you have a weakness is strength."
God, he is a good man. And I am extremely blessed to have him.
When You End A Chapter, A New One Starts
I journaled about why I was dependent on alcohol for months before I finally realized that it was my crutch to numb the fear of failure, and the perceived judgment of others. Journaling brought to light that I started drinking when I worked at UPS because of one thing - someone told me "You can't". From that point forward I believed I had limitations and I fought the fear of them being right with poison.
I have been free of the idea of "I can't" ever since I stopped drinking.
While I consider the art league experience mostly negative, a great deal of positive came from it that I never could've imagined, but I did hope for. I made life-long friendships with fellow artists. My friends, Julie, Rachel, Jim, Jennifer, Susan, and I would meet every week to learn from each other, and support each other as artists and business owners. They were the spark that generated the idea of the Positive Painters. A place where creatives of all genres can come together to share ideas, grow, evolve and support one another.
I started expanding my business from a Pet Portrait artist to teaching oil painting. My goal, I want to provide that spark in someone else's life as my painting teachers did for me. Because of my experience with the art league, I started expanding my business to provide educational moments and group coaching to help artists gain insights into managing a business. I am good at it, and I enjoy it!
I don't just love to create art, I love organizing people to come to speak to the group, I love seeing people succeed, and I love hearing about one of their first big commissions, getting letters of thanks - NEVER once did I get that in the corporate world!
Their successes let me know that I'm making a difference.
I AM NOT AN ARTIST - I AM A CREATOR
When I look back at all that I have done and I am doing, I realize that each step led me to where I am right now. I have been built from the ground up to do what I'm doing right now. I create art, I teach oil painting, and I help artists get the resources they need to run a business. At one point I believed myself to be an artist, and I started to identify myself as that, my ego loved it. But the truth is I'm not, I'm more than one thing, I am a mom, a wife, a leader, a follower, and with each, my label boils down to one thing - I am a creator.
I'm not sure what tomorrow will bring, but I do know this.
1) I can and
2) I will create my book.
AWARDS AND CERTIFICATIONS
In addition to various juried art shows, here is a listing of accomplishments I'm most excited about as a female artist:
- Powerful Women In Business Award 2021
- Best of Lessons.com 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024
- Huntsville Art League People's Choice Award
- Featured Artist at Huntsville Art League
- Featured Artist at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society Dog Ball
- Featured Artist Gallery Show at The Lambert Gallery of Art
- Featured Artist at the Linus Gallery