Arts » Feature

Art Is Enough

Local painters who make a living at their craft


The message on my machine said: "Call Tommie Robinson -- he disagrees with your comment in the CL List Issue that nobody in Charlotte besides Ben Long can make a living as an artist."

Gulp. Just in case I or anyone else out there really believes that, Robinson kindly corrected the misconception. The esteemed portraitist pointed out that he's "paid the mortgage and put two kids through college," then added that his patrons, who pay up to "five figures" for his bold and sensitive work, would be upset if he approached it in anything less than a professional manner.

In other words, during the early part of an artist's career, when he's practicing his craft, he will in fact have to make frames or wait tables. But only to pay the rent on his studio, not to buy fancy cars or engagement rings. Art comes before material possessions and intimate relationships, in other words. The kind of mastery that gets you five-figure price tags is earned with hard work and sacrifice, as well as having good business sense; a dealer who advertises, displays, cultivates clients, and collects money for you; and/or an admirer/relative/spouse who's willing to brew the coffee and pay the bills without complaint (see the movies Pollock and Girl With a Pearl Earring).

Since her retirement from BellSouth, for example, Jackie Stowe has been updating her brother Tommie's CV, handling his publicity (it was, in fact, Stowe who called me) and coordinating out-of-the-studio activities. Enabling an artist to do what he does best, for as many hours as he needs to do it, is a priceless gift.

"I've always surrounded myself with people who've believed in me," says Robinson, the lesson being that it's hard enough to make it in any profession without having to battle naysayers who would have you fail.

Lynn Holt, the wife of another 20-year career painter, is quick to mention that both practical and moral support comes in many forms. "Sometimes you have to give them a kick in the pants when bills come due," she laughs.

Both Robinson and Harris Holt, who is famous for realistic watercolors of significant Southern architecture and outdoor scenes, knew early on that they were artists. A poor speller, Robinson would draw a picture of the word he wanted to use rather than write it, while Holt was made by teachers to pen "I will not draw in class" 100 times. Later, they both recognized that there were many ways to earn a living doing what they do best.

One way to get their work to the public was to enter juried festivals and shows along the east coast. Lynn and Harris Holt devoted several years to weekends on the road before starting a family. During the week, Holt worked for UPS at night and painted all day.

If the artist is any good, he can win prize money and purchase awards, and lots of people buy his work (a Holt original now sells for upwards of $5,000). If he's really good, someone like Hugh McColl will commission him to do big projects. But he still has to buy supplies, hire apprentices, build scaffolding, and eat. However, if he comes down with the flu and can't work, he has no products to sell. Because no matter how helpful his spouse is, she can't paint. No products equals no money and no milk for the baby.

Not to mention that a one-person assembly line can get burned out, if not from the work load then from potential boredom of reproducing the same images -- albeit the ones customers love -- over and over. Solution: limited edition prints.

Not having to make everything by hand has changed artist Judy Mizell's business dramatically. The more advanced the technology, the higher the profits (Mizell's unframed prints sell for up to $100). She now has her own scanners and Giclee printers to duplicate her fresh and lively nature images. To keep collectors excited, Mizell introduces 6-8 new pieces annually. "It's wonderful because you can run small quantities as needed, which eliminates storing inventory."

Digital cameras, furthermore, provide instant gratification. "I'm no longer disappointed when I pick up developed film and the camera didn't record what I saw," says her husband Romie, who searches for wildlife subjects his wife can use in her work.

Mizell's dues-paying period began when she took a pad of paper and a Rapidograph pen to an early Southern Christmas Show and sold drawings as fast as she could make them. Romie, a sales rep, was surprised to find that art doesn't sell the same as sprockets. So he learned how to sell direct rather than wholesale, to find shows where Judy's work sold well and, finally, to make frames.

The couple then explained to their teenage daughters that he was quitting his job and the two of them were going on the road. Twenty years later, they still attend festivals and also sell out of their home.

However, even a successful art business requires, among other things, knowledge about licensing, about top quality products and processes, and about proper pricing. Mizell agrees with Robinson and Holt that "not everybody can show in a New York gallery. In truth, few artists make a career from grants, prizes or teaching. But it's still a huge industry where free-spirited entrepreneurs can create something and make it pay."

Tommie Robinson is represented by Noel Gallery, 401 N. Tryon St, Ste. 104; 704-343-0050. Harris Holt's paintings can be seen at Harris Holt Gallery, 1719 Kenilworth Ave., 704-373-9090; Judy Mizell shows work from her Mint Hill home by appointment; 704-545-4234;