The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


February 21, 2014

Marta Churchwell: Artists take risks when moving to self-employment

JOPLIN, Mo. — It's tough to turn your back on the security of a good job. I know. I've done it. It's scary. But if the desire is burning in you, it has to be done or you'll be haunted by regret.

Rick Courtney didn't want to live with that regret. It helped push his decision to leave a secure graphic arts job to become a self-employed artist.

"If you're afraid of failure and don't try it," said Courtney, "you could be regretful as you get older because you'll always wonder if you could have made it on your own. At least you can say, 'I tried it.'"

Deciding to take the plunge into full time art can be risky. The upside is that it doesn't require a hefty financial investment. You can work out of your home with no overhead other than supplies.

The downside is the lack of a dependable flow of income. It can be especially true in the art profession.

Courtney, of Joplin, was lucky that he had begun building up freelance work aside from his full time job. Through an agent he hired to represent him as an artist, he had enough book cover illustrating jobs that he was finding it difficult to juggle that work with his regular job. After 12 years in the security of a corporate job, benefits and all, he turned to full-time freelance work. He has been at it for 20 years now.

Much of his bread and butter is illustrating books, particularly "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" children's books.

He also sells artwork in galleries and responds to calls for entries for exhibitions. This year, he entered the prestigious national exhibit, "Paint the Parks," and his work was accepted. It will be an opportunity to give both his work and his name national exposure.

Entering such exhibits is an example of the importance of being diverse, of being able to do a little bit of everything as a freelancer, he says. While he may have a preference for designing fantasy book covers, he knows there is a greater demand for illustrating children's books, so he does both.

"You have to be flexible and versatile enough that you can move into areas where you're needed," he said.

Like Courtney, Sarah Serio, of Neosho, relies on her versatility as a freelancer. Using her experience in printmaking, pottery and graphic arts, she earns her keep by making custom invitations, note cards and bookmarks, backed by selling pottery.

Before taking the leap into professional freelancing, Serio worked as technical theater director for Crowder College at Neosho. Hoping to eventually become a professional printmaker, she invested in a top notch printing press back in college.

"Once I got it, I found that I was so involved with work (at Crowder) that I never had time to use it," she said. That became the impetus for taking the plunge into full time art six months ago.

For both artists, the work isn't only about creating art. They must also allow time for marketing and entering exhibits. They know exhibits have the potential for making money through awards or sale of their work, plus it's good marketing. It gets their names out there and exposes their art to other areas of the country.

"It's constantly marketing yourself and showing your art," Serio said.

Her marketing includes handing out business cards at every opportunity, maintaining a website and posting photographs of her work on Facebook, entering area exhibits, art festivals and art walks, and joining art related groups for networking and exposure. She's on the board of the Neosho Art Council and is the newly elected president of the Joplin Regional Artists Coalition.

While marketing is a must, both artists admit they're a bit uncomfortable about it.

"I could probably use some lessons on self-promotion," Courtney said. "I can sometimes feel funny about pushing my work or talking about myself. I think a lot of artists are like that. They feel their art is their statement, and to go out there and promote can be difficult."

Their advice for artists considering whether to take the plunge into full time art: Don't do it impulsively. Do the research and listen to the advice of others so you make educated decisions. Have plenty of money saved for the lean times, and be prepared to work long hours to meet multiple client needs.

Said Courtney: "As with any worthwhile venture, there are ups and downs. Like any business, there are profitable years and not-so-profitable. Even after pursuing the dream a while, there can be doubts and a bit of second guessing. But I believe I'm doing what I'm designed and created to do. At the end of the day, that is more than enough."

Contact Marta Churchwell with column ideas and comments at joplinglobe

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