With times changing, Ann gave up a successful advertising career to return to her artistic roots.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
After 25 years as co-founder of an advertising agency producing brochures, print ads, and campaigns for many companies in several states, my partner and I found that the advertising world was changing drastically and that we were growing dissatisfied with the direction it seemed to be taking. Around the time we were deciding to close our “shop,” when I was 55, I sought out painting and drawing classes to rejuvenate my long-ignored, original interest in the fine arts (I had completed my Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1969 and Master’s in Art in 1973). It was not so much an “aha” moment but a call back to my “roots.”
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing and what challenges you have encountered.
I am an artist. My art is primarily 2-dimensional: painting, printmaking and drawing. I have worked in many of the media within those categories (oil, acrylic, egg tempera for painting; silkscreen, woodcut and etching for printmaking). The styles that speak to me are the less self-conscious and more-exuberant, “primitive” or “folk” pieces. And, because I love the less refined media, my work usually reflects that same approach. Although I get a kick out of super-realism, I seem to gravitate more toward abstracting the forms.
I’m pleased that someone wants to hang my work where they can enjoy it, but there are favorites that I have trouble parting with.
Although I swore I was not going to get involved right away in anything that demanded that I schedule my time, a new co-operative gallery in my small town outside Chicago was being conceived. I could see that this might be an opportunity to further my art and possibly take it to another level, but I quickly found myself lured into overseeing Gallery 659 in Glencoe as president of that co-op venture.
The challenges were enormous. I had to balance my original purpose (painting and promoting my art) with the day-to-day business operation of a retail enterprise, as well as handling the personalities of the member artists. The experience was both exhausting and exhilarating. I am inclined to allow the work demanded of me by others to supersede my own work, and I do think the work at the gallery is well worth the attention it demands.
I would advise women to give new (and sometimes scary) opportunities a try.
I seem to need to clear my desk before I can create. Nice idea, but often not very easy to implement. Had I thought about it, I’m not sure I would have elected to pursue such an endeavor, but one never knows what is around the next corner, and the result has carried me into territory which has been rewarding and varied. I would advise women to give new (and sometimes scary) opportunities a try — it might be enjoyable and rewarding.
Soon after the co-op members voted to close Gallery 659, I became involved with ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation, a 40-year-old, all-women operated gallery in Chicago. Participating in the effort of running this gallery has occupied much of my time—not always to the benefit of spending time on my own art—but the experiences and camaraderie bring me much satisfaction and creative impetus. Because of my affiliation, I go to interesting exhibits and meet all sorts of people in the arts who might be difficult to meet otherwise. The experience at this gallery allows me to promote other artists, learn about gallery management, and educate emerging artists – all challenging and rewarding experiences. As a result, I’ve been able to exhibit my art in national and international exhibits, including Paris, Toronto, New York, and Los Angeles.
We women put the needs of others first much too frequently.
My two boys are out of the house, married with kids. But my grandbabies are a significant, delightful distraction. I do think my children are proud of me and seem to understand my interests, but when they need my attention, they need it “right now” and really expect to get it. We women put the needs of others first much too frequently; I seem to spread myself a little thin on all fronts. There’s always much to do.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
I think change is difficult at any time. If we can see change as having potential for something exciting to happen, then it might be easier to embrace. Perhaps by midlife, after kids have been launched and we’ve taken a moment to re-evaluate what we’ve been doing, we can feel more free to experiment.
We should all pursue what we think might interest us; it keeps us connected and healthy. We too often want it all and that really isn’t possible, even if we think it is. While choosing our path is difficult, I believe ultimately we benefit from sticking our necks out and trying something unfamiliar and even scary. It’s more fun than the same-old, same-old. I certainly wouldn’t have met any of my fellow-artists, gone to Paris or Montana or Maine or Toronto, learned French or strange new techniques, if I hadn’t tried something new (not that working in the garden isn’t plenty rehabilitating as well).
If we can see change as having potential for something exciting to happen, then it might be easier to embrace.
I feel lucky to live in a vibrant metropolitan area. There are so many opportunities to learn, see, and go places. But there are also many classes, residencies, retreats and exposures beyond Chicago that will offer new experiences. I feel the worst thing any of us can do is to become isolated. In my opinion, it is best to explore and to be open to new influences and see what happens; this keeps us active and healthy.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
I have been creating “art” for years. I volunteered to teach art appreciation to kids in grade school and to paint murals of Caldecott Award winners in libraries. Gifts and holiday cards are handmade (my husband was recruited to help with the silk-screening). My boys learned about printmaking, construction, sewing and design daily. It isn’t something that I always dreamed of doing and just started pursuing in the last few years.
The classes I started taking in midlife (and the instructors that I’ve been lucky enough to come across) gave me a push and some new tools. The basic urge and talent were there. It wouldn’t be fair for anyone to count on a few classes to get them to where I am today in a short time. But then, that’s not to say that they won’t discover a talent that had not yet been uncovered.
The key to any business opportunity is networking.
It’s important to consider: Is this going to be a hobby/pastime or a serious occupation? There’s a big difference. I certainly wouldn’t want to count on putting a child through college on what I am currently bringing in. My previous occupation in advertising was more lucrative, but less free. There’s no shame in having a wonderful hobby, but it isn’t an intense endeavor. And, of course, you never know where it is going to go.
I feel that the key to any business opportunity is networking (artists are frequently unhappy doing that). I try to surround myself with creative people and draw from their strengths and experiences. The galleries that I get involved with take me to places that I don’t think I’d be very good at finding by myself. I have been involved with several galleries, which can always use serious volunteers. Monthly dues to a co-op keep one honest. Creating art is expensive and time-consuming: If it’s not just going to be a hobby, you should plan to regularly visit museums and galleries, go to openings, show your portfolio around, travel, participate in “calls for entry” into shows and exhibits, network with other artists, and take classes.
Giving back is a big part of the success of my next act and the best kind of win-win situation.
It is also helpful to take classes and apply for residencies to get away from the demands of day-to-day obligations. Each year, I try to take 1-2 new classes. Sometimes, the medium may not be totally “up my alley,” but I seem to be able to incorporate something from the class into whatever I’m creating. Beyond that, I stay out in the art world and take advantage of any opportunities that arise.
Networking is what got me the chance to work with college art majors at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU). I had posted my last ARC exhibit on my Facebook page and a friend forwarded it to a friend, who forwarded it to another friend, who forwarded it to the professor in charge of galleries and exhibits at OWU. The art faculty invited me to meet with the painting and gallery management students about my experiences. It was great fun. They flew me in, paid me, and bought 3 egg tempera paintings for their collection. Giving back is a big part of the success of my next act and the best kind of win-win situation.
I think most artists don’t work well without input from their surroundings. A fellow artist told me that she worked on her art 6-8 hours every day, every week, just like any job. One of those days was spent on the business end of things, such as networking and computer entry, which cannot be ignored.
Slaving alone in a cold garret and hoping to be discovered before you die is not a realistic option. My studio is in my home, so I can be distracted easily. If it can be afforded, I think studio space outside the home is ideal because you don’t have the constant pull of household needs and you can get the exposure and feedback from fellow studio mates. Also there’s something about paying rent that inspires one to give serious attention to the effort.
Ultimately, another consideration that arises is storage. If one is cranking out a lot of work, you have to put it somewhere. Supposedly, Georgia O’Keefe had enough work for 3 exhibits at any time; that’s a lot to store if there aren’t shows going on. But it demonstrates how hard the artist or gallery owner or broker needs to work to get the art “out there.”
What’s next for you? Do you have another next act?
I think it would be difficult for me to intentionally “invent” or “reinvent” myself. But, at the same time, I believe the opportunities are there and that, if we open ourselves up, allow ourselves to recognize them, then grab them, they are exciting and energizing. I don’t know if there is yet another next act in my future, but who knows?
What resources do you recommend?
Start with local classes then branch out to more intense studies at places such as those I recommend below. Seek out serious instructors in the field. Art or Craft Fairs are good for some media exposure.
ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation, Chicago IL
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Island, ME
Penland School of Craft, Penland NC
Anderson Ranch Arts Center, Snowmass Village, CO
Ox-Bow School of Art, Saugatuck, MI
Ragdale, Lake Forest, IL
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Check out what is going on in the art community by reading about art on the web. YouTube videos can also be helpful. Be aware that there are a lot of portfolio websites that seem more designed to make money for them, not for the individual artist.
Read biographies about artists and their experiences, such as my favorites: Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, and Francis Bacon.
I buy art supplies everywhere, often learning of new and exotic sources through class instructors:
Contact Ann Patrick O’Brien, and see more of her work, via annpatrickobrien.com