Art Career

Becoming A Professional Artist at Age 27

A 25-year-old recently asked me if it was too late for him to change his career. I could not believe my ears. By the time I was 27 I had been an Air Force Veteran attached to Engineering and Programs, managed a wholesale furniture showroom, gone back to school at Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design, become a purchasing engineer for the 5th largest construction firm in the world (on multi million dollar turn key projects in Saudi Arabia), designed furniture for Italian and American manufacturers, and lost all of my savings making a go with my own high end furniture factory. The harder I pushed, the more hollow I felt. I suspected a wrong turn had been taken somewhere.

Art for me was akin to a love affair with God. It was not the pretentious thing it had become in the 80’s. Many art schools no longer taught drawing, anatomy, or the study of paints or materials. Art students were taught instead to write up proposals, the more controversial the better, for corporate sponsorship. The art market had left the visiting public scratched their heads.

In the past to study art you had to align yourself with an artist’s studio or atelier. Your family paid the teacher to take you under his full time tutelage to learn. This is what I sought; to learn how to see and to understand the alchemy of materials used for centuries by my peers. I wanted to create art that would live on for generations, reflecting something about the time I lived in. Part of my brain rationalized that I was making a handsome living and doing well. The emotional part of myself was saying, so what? Not one person supported me quitting my job and going back to school, in fact, everyone thought I was crazy.

I did not become a full time artist until I was 27 years old. Only seven art schools taught how to paint in the style of the Old Masters at the time and none of them were in California. The College of Marin (north of San Francisco) had however one of the best foundries and sculpture departments in the country at the time.

My logic said I’d be taught the foundations of anatomy, could study art history, and learn about the gallery and museum business. On one level it felt like a detour but on the other, it put me exactly where I need to be on my professional path.

At the College of Marin I worked with many sculptors from George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. I even got to be a lowly assistant on Carrie Fisher’s body mold for Princess Leia’s brass bra created by Richard Miller.

With a double major I was also studying museum and gallery management. We set up new exhibits every month and I met many internationally known artists. Eventually I curated an exhibit of West Marin artists who had become internationally recognized. I quietly hung three tiny pieces of my own work along side theirs. Once again, what felt like a detour was actually a stepping-stone to where I wanted to be.

I met the artist Gage Taylor and became one of his students. Hanging my work next to so many established artists caught the attention of the gallery that I would show with for years to come. It also priced my art as a professional because it was perceived as such by the gallery owner. I sold my first piece of art over thirty years ago for $7500.

The point I wanted to make to this 25 year old is that when your heart guides your career, you will love your work. When you love what you do you will be good at it. Long hours will not matter because you will be enjoying what you do. Jealousy or feeling competitive means we have become complacent with our skills. It’s a sign to learn a new skill or aspect of our profession. Everyone has something to teach us so let them! Accept everything you are taught with gratitude and share what you know with someone else getting started.

We may not have the money or the knowledge of how to reach our goals in life. That doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the love we have for what we do. It changes the world in its impact and the universe will rearrange itself to get us to where we need to be. The key is to take action and expect nothing in return.

Much to my good fortune and terror I’ve seen the return of the great tradition of the atelier. At times I feel I am learning to paint all over again from scratch. Holding the vision often brings us curious results.


Featured Image: Uriel Dana’s Art Studio in Jack London Square, Oakland. Oil painting of “Zygote” in progress on right counter-weighted wall easel.

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