“So, will it be wine or coffee?” asks my host as we tour his home, an art gallery decorated with an air of enchantment. A white baby grand dares me to play a note as I walk by. Buffets of Easter bunnies perch in display across the kitchen walls. Near the entrance, the portrait of a man painted on a deer hide draws me in. I look deep into his blue eyes and hear him say, “I have a Gewürztraminer in a bare naked bottle.”
I turn to the real life version of the man on the deer hide and laugh in agreement. Wine will go perfectly with this tour.
When I meet creative types, there’s often a touch of the surreal involved. The ability to think outside the box is a trait entrepreneurs use to build businesses. And when you’re good at mixing business and art?—usually it means that sales add up.
I’m on a trek across the Okanagan to meet three prominent visual artists and hear their views on being successful in the Valley. Each has found different ways of getting there.
Wine Labels and Digital Dreams
Will Enns is a Summerland artist whose work is popular among wine connoisseurs. There’s a reason he has a bare naked bottle of Gewürztraminer. The owner of Sonoran Estate Winery, which uses his art on their labels, left it as a gift. He pours me a glass and we tour through rooms hung with his work; energetic portraits, romantic vistas, and lush memories whisked to life by Will’s palette knife.
He’s not a brush man; he prefers a more solid set of tools. Will is the type of student who becomes a master by doing.
“When people say, ‘Oh you’re so talented, you’re painting is so good,’ I say, ‘Well, that’s not really a talent, it’s a skill set. Drawing is a skill set. Painting is a skill set. But it’s a skill set that’s laid on top of a talent. The talent is creativity.’”
Spoken like a man capable of many things. He also paints digitally, rendering images from photographs, producing prints and high quality images for magazines and other publications.
But if painting is the skill set, I wonder about the source of Will’s creativity. He credits being raised in a time when childhood was light on safety measures. “I was nine and playing with power tools,” he chuckles, lifting his hands to show that he managed to keep all his fingers.
There’s an equally strong business side to his artistic mind, perhaps developed during years spent working the stock market. Will only recently developed his art skills, and it didn’t take long for him to tap into two of the strongest markets in the Okanagan: wine and tourism.
“When people come here they want to remember the holiday, they want to buy what reminds them of this place.” Will fills that need by painting the landscapes around local wineries, producing art for their labels, and trying unique ideas like a line of greeting cards featuring comical caricatures of “the people you meet at wine tastings”—beer swilling rednecks included.
I comment on how some local artists find they can’t make it work here, that they need to leave or switch careers to survive.
Will says, “I talk with artists at different times about the difficulty of selling art. I think it’s a difficulty that most artists experience to a certain degree, because art is the last thing people buy?—?because it’s the last thing they need—and it’s the first thing they don’t need. Let’s be honest. I don’t bother asking myself questions like, what makes me feel good today, I ask, what do people want to buy today, because if they don’t want to buy it, I won’t be able to sell it. It’s pretty simple.” We toast to his tip for success.
Dual Market Appeal
Nestled in a Kelowna neighbourhood is the welcoming home of an artist who has a pretty good sense of what people want to buy. At prices nearing $10K, he’s doing something right.
Alex Fong began messing around with watercolours in design school. While others beg for the medium to play nice (acrylics let me paint over my mistakes, watercolours laugh in my general direction), they willingly kneel to Alex’s hand. His work has a clear voice. It’s poetic, whimsical, and delightfully balances the play of light with the elements of nature. The images also have a deeper, connective quality, as if they came from impressions of our collective youth.
Although many of his ideas are born in the Okanagan, much of his support comes from beyond. Alex has always had local buyers, but there was a time when making ends meet was tough. So he went east to the market in Calgary. Patrons of the oil province soon agreed he was a good investment. All that attention helped things progress locally and Alex estimates that close to half his sales are now regional.
Wanting other artists to find success here as well, he dedicates time to developing Kelowna’s cultural district. A hard-working member of a number of committees, he was an integral part of the group that championed the Rotary Centre for the Arts.
Alex continues to contribute both ideas and art to big projects, but he’s also good at thinking small. A long-term dream is to create a dedicated space where children can enjoy and show art that is curated for them and displayed at their height.
“When you raise kids in a community, you want them to have as much good influence as they can possibly get. When they grow up they’ll just be better people,” he says with tender insight that belies the businessman and shows the heart.
His interest in art and the economy isn’t just about selling his own work; it’s about developing an infrastructure that supports the creative community as a whole.
Another Brick in the Wall
If you drive through downtown Vernon you can’t miss the collection of vibrant murals that are a history lesson on the community. Michelle Loughery, the local artist who led the project, doesn’t have a degree in the arts. She’s a self-taught citizen whose involvement in local arts organizations helped her to find her calling.
In consideration of the arts council budget in Sparwood, BC, Michelle decided to figure out how to create public art herself. She grabbed some students and started painting a mural. A man from out of town passed by and asked the price of a mural like theirs. They responded professionally, quoting him a nice fat number. The next day Michelle had a cheque and plane tickets in her hand. It was the start of a career that would soon raise millions towards turning urban walls into works of art and changing the lives of countless youth along the way.
There’s something a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll about Michelle. She has a way of making you feel relaxed and excited at the same time. She’s a prolific
fundraiser and it’s no wonder—you can’t help but want to fuel her creative fire. She’s built a business around bringing public art not just to the walls of buildings, but into the lives of kids. She runs a number of amazing grassroots projects and has been requested internationally to teach what she does so well: provide youth (especially high risk kids) with an opportunity to express themselves in a way that is non-threatening, large scale and high impact, all while sharing heritage and culture.
“Our young people are our most precious resource and a driving force for our societies,” says Michelle. “A key objective of my work is the empowerment of a community or group members.”
It’s been life changing for her too. Her slogan, “Take it to the wall,” is about how mural painting is bond-making. Confessions, opening up, hearing your own thoughts more clearly—these are all part of the magic of a group mural. There’s a gravity to it that pulls you in closer to yourself and to each other.
Michelle takes me outside a coffee shop to a bare brick wall and gets me to lean in close. We stand talking, not face-to-face, but wall-to-wall. “Art is a business like anything else and artists need to learn the skills to fund their work if they want to succeed,” she says. Two minutes in and I’m ready to pay to paint the whole wall.
Artists like Will, Alex and Michelle are an integral part of our local economy, but turning creativity into a career can be tricky. As I learned from these three visual artists, to make a lasting mark you need more than just skills and talent, it’s an eye for business that lets you behold the way to success.