I am not one to dwell on the past or do much reminiscing but perhaps my journey to become a professional artist might inspire or interest someone seeking to make a living from their art. [Warning: be prepared for a rocky income, rejection and always have alternative skills and job experiences.] At the very least, I am hoping my children will enjoy reading about their father’s story.
In the late 1970s, I was working in a lumberyard store trying to make ends meet after the end of my first marriage. I had done seven years of university and worked at many different jobs from carpentry to house design and teaching. And, while I could have made a career at any number of them, for one reason or another, nothing stuck. The lumberyard job was boring and low paying, but as I was starting over, it was a way to keep a roof over my head.
I had been to an exhibition of the paintings of bird artist Fenwick Lansdowne and thought that my watercolour skills might enable me to do such paintings. I had never had formal art training but, from the time I could hold a pencil, I had been drawing, painting and designing things. My mother liked to tell the story that my grade one teacher asked me to do large drawings of dinosaurs for the class (my first commission). My mother was a gifted artist, my father a very good draftsman and, to this day, I believe that my brother Doug is better at drawing than I am.
Shortly after seeing the Lansdowne exhibit, I contracted the flu and spent a week in my apartment where I began painting watercolour vignettes of small animals. They were simply illustrations, but I loved doing them and I knew, if I had the time, I could advance quickly to larger paintings. Once well enough to return to work, I asked for a large raise, and, when I didn’t get it, I quit and started painting full time.
I am never afraid of a challenge and am always willing to take a chance. If something isn’t working, I change my direction.
So there I was, 35 years old, no income and little savings. With a part-time security job and help from my mother (always incredibly supportive) I could pay my bills – just. I spent a couple of months painting small mammals in my apartment near Stanley Park and then travelled to the BC Museum in Victoria to show them to the biologists working there. There were mistakes and paintings trashed, but I felt ready to have the completed paintings critiqued. The meeting with a couple of biologists and with Harold Hosford, head of publications for the museum, went very well. After the meeting, Harold asked if the paintings were for sale and how much I wanted for them. Off the top of my head, I suggested $250.00 for a small watercolour of a grey squirrel and he bought it; my first sale. I had brought my young son and my mother with me to the museum and when I told them about the sale, my son said: “Wow, Dad. You’re going to be rich and famous.”
Well, it took a long time, but although I am neither rich nor famous, he was right in one way. I realized I could make money doing what I loved and was prepared to devote my life to it. It would mean taking some huge risks and leaving the city that had been my home for 35 years but I was more than ready to give it a shot.