Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Washing away your dust. An interview with Laura Wellem, displaced employee turned mixed media artist.

I met Laura Wellem at the Avondale Estates Art Fair in Atlanta earlier this year. Vibrant images of trees and figures on canvases and furniture drew me and my friend into her booth. Taking a closer look, we realized that Laura cleverly incorporated magazine cut-outs to create her multi-dimensional designs. Laura’s art is not only intriguing, but she also has a beautiful story to tell. After being laid off, Laura “washed away the dust of everyday life” and let her interest in art guide her towards a completely new journey. And her “why not” attitude has brought her to surprising places beyond what she could have ever imagined for herself. But I’ll let her tell you the rest…

What is your professional background and what led you to this art form? Where did you find the inspiration?

For 20 years, I worked for a television rep firm that sold advertising time for national television stations. Day after day, I crunched numbers on my computer in a windowless office, and although I was grateful to be employed, I knew that I longed for more. To bring some life to my corporate environment, I painted and hung a colorful canvas with an Anais Nin quote, “Then the time came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” The day before I was laid off, I read that quote while talking on the phone and said to my sister, “I just can’t do this another 20 years.” In less than 24 hours, my life changed.

My job was very left-brain oriented, so when I was laid off I used the opportunity to explore my right brain. I began painting with acrylics but wanted to add another dimension. I’ve always admired mixed media, quilting, mosaic and collage in other artists’ work and wanted to experiment with color and texture. Since magazines are colorful and plentiful, I used them for the tree canopies and cut them into circles for a contemporary look. When I was a girl, my friends and I would cut out images from magazines and glue them on a poster board. In retrospect, my work is an extension of that.

Did you always consider yourself creative? Were you an artistic child?

I enjoyed art in elementary school, but I wouldn’t say that I was a “natural.” I took art classes in high school more from a desire to be artistic rather than any realization that I was creative already. My high school art teacher opened up my perception of what being an artist means. I always felt that because I wasn’t able to paint a traditional landscape or portrait, that I wasn’t a “real” artist. My teacher told me that not every canvas has to look like a photograph; that’s what photography is for. That was very liberating for me. Over the years, I’ve painted on anything and everything—clothing, furniture, canvas and even people—yet it wasn’t until this past year that I truly embraced the fact that I am an artist.

I often say that if you take small steps towards your dreams and creative passions, you never know where they’ll take you—many times you end up in places more wonderful than you could have ever imagined. You’re a great example of this. Tell me about some of the things that happened for you.

I began making art for myself, then eventually for friends and family. They were the ones who encouraged me to try and sell my work. I had always enjoyed going to art festivals, but I decided to try a few smaller markets to see if anyone was even interested in what I was doing. Whenever an event came up, I’d participate with the attitude, “Why not? Ya’ never know what could come from it.” I never said to myself, “My goal is to be in a gallery…I want to win an award…” My creative journey has taken me places I never thought I’d go. In the year since I was laid off, I’ve appeared on Good Day Atlanta, became a published artist by designing a book cover, showed in an art gallery, received a commission for the Decorators Showhouse for the Cure, was featured in the North DeKalb Neighbor newspaper and won a Third Place Award (and check!) at the Downtown Atlanta Festival. When I began, I had no idea these things were even possible. It makes me excited to find out what next year’s gonna bring.

Could you tell me a little about your creative process?

It takes several steps before I even get to the canvas, and I usually work on several at once. I spend hours pulling pages from magazines and days making circles. I create organically, so although I may be inspired initially by a color or an image, as I continue to work sometimes a piece will end up with a theme that was never originally intended. I just let it go, free flowing. Some of my most creative ideas have evolved from covering up a portion (or in some cases, an entire canvas) that I didn’t like. That’s the beauty of art: they aren’t “mistakes,” just part of the creative process. Once I begin a canvas, I have a tendency to become so focused that I’ll stay up all night or until I’m physically exhausted. For that reason, I also have several days when I need some down time. Besides, in addition to creating original art, I also have to research events and submit applications, advertise, market, promote, photograph my work, as well as sell and ship it. I am also the web designer, motivator, muse and roadie too!

Your artwork is green in nature. How did you become an eco-friendly artist and begin involving your community in your art?

Even though I've always loved creating things (not just art, but storage and furniture too) out of whatever I’ve had on hand, I didn't start out to be an eco-friendly artist. Now, I'm constantly looking for new ways to incorporate recycling into my pieces. I’ve often said that if necessity is the mother of invention, then being a single parent is the mother of creativity. No money for art supplies? I just look in my closets, junk drawers, storage room, garage and recycling bins to see what I can use. I have always had a gift for looking at something ordinary and seeing the possibility for something extraordinary. Also, many of my neighbors are senior citizens, and they were more than happy to pass along their magazines for two reasons: 1) they are sweet and supportive of me as an artist, 2) it also significantly lightens their recycling bin load! They’re not only saving the environment and supporting the arts, they’re also helping an unemployed, single mom too…good karma!

Right now, so many people are paralyzed by fear of being laid off and of what comes after. You turned your experience into an opportunity to focus on your creative side. What did you do or say to yourself to get yourself to work on your projects without getting blocked or scared?

Who says I never get blocked…or scared? My fears come from being so overwhelmed by all the ideas I have swirling around in my mind, that I just don’t have enough energy, time or talent to bring them all to life. I have to stop and listen to my heart and birth whichever project is going to bring me the most joy, instead of trying to make the most money. The first time I truly revealed myself in my art, I was afraid that no one would purchase, relate or even care what I had to say. That first “outing” was at the Fourth Friday Art Stroll in Castleberry Hill, which is a community rich with an eclectic array of artists. It was a very successful event for me, both artistically and financially. I was grateful that I allowed myself to take that leap of faith. I think that many artists live in fear. At some point, it’s part of the process, but we also live in hope, in possibility. Whenever I’m blocked artistically I listen to music, read and reconnect with family and friends…living my life is what inspires me most. Eventually, the creativity starts flowing again.

You’ve described some very typical blocks that arise during the creative process and wonderful ways to overcome them. Do you have any advice to those out there who are facing layoffs, in the midst of a major life change or who don’t think they’re creative in any way?

I’d never have had the time, energy or inspiration to do all I’ve done this past year if I were still sitting behind that desk. It has definitely been challenging, but it’s also been intoxicating and rewarding. I’m still looking for the stability that a traditional job offers; only this time I hope to find it in a creative environment.

My journey has been filled with many successes, but also a few failures, yet I keep participating. I think that’s key: keep going, don’t give up. I surround myself with inspiring people, images, art, words, quotes, books, music. I’m basically a positive person and my art reflects that. Oh I have been rejected, or “not invited” as they like to say, to as many arts festivals as I’ve been accepted to. I don’t take it personally. Either I’ll get in eventually or I won’t. There are always other festivals. They can always say no, but they’ll never say yes if I don’t apply. One of my favorite songs is by Pete Belasco, “Keep on, keepin’ on…,” and that’s what I’ve been doing.

Many people think they aren’t creative because they can’t draw, but that doesn’t define whether you’re an artist or not. You can express your creativity by the way you tell a story, write your blog, wear your hair and clothes, decorate your home, prepare meals, set your table, work in your garden, wrap packages, write an email or even by what you post on your MySpace and Facebook pages. Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” If it isn’t art, then find whatever it is that washes away your dust.

Great advice Laura! Thanks so much for sharing your story and your wisdom!