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With creativity, McHenry County fine artists avoid starving

Published: Sunday, June 29, 2014 5:50 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

He stands still as a statue atop a table, looking every bit the swashbuckler with his buckle-bedecked boots, ornate sword and feather-ornamented hat.

All around, pencils skritch across drawing pads, and quickly as they can, eight artists capture at least his general shape during a one-minute exercise.  

It might look like a group of artists practicing their figure-drawing skills, but it’s so much more than that, said Mary Beth Bellon, a Harvard artist who keeps a studio at the old Starline Factory building on Front Street.  

“You can’t have a business without building a community,” Bellon said. “This is an open studio session. People come, they drop $5 and they get to draw and I get to draw, and we get to build community.”

With the help of Mary Hilger of Woodstock, Bellon leads the open drawing sessions on Thursday evenings just outside her studio space in the Starline.

The artists learn from one another about marketing their work on Etsy, who’s making what for area shows and galleries, and various outlets for gleaning exposure and income from their passion for their craft. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for a fine artist was $44,850 in 2012. But median income can be a misleading figure. It delineates not an average, but a halfway point. Half of fine artists earn more, and half earn less. 

“The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19,200, and the top 10 percent earned more than $93,220,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About half of all fine artists are self-employed, and the 2012-22 job growth outlook is 3 percent, or slower than average. Additionally, a sour economy can greatly affect artists, whose wares, while often life-enhancing, are not a consumer necessity.

Nonetheless, for those who have chosen to pursue the arts, whether at a young age or later in life, there is no greater reward than the power of creating. 

That’s how it is for 29-year-old Scott Meyer, who graduated from Northern Illinois University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. 

“I sell art online, and I do commissions whenever I can,” said Meyer, of Woodstock. “I have five oil paintings in the courthouse in Woodstock right now. … I’ll work on art for the rest of my life.”

For Meyer, at present, the ability to pursue his passion is enhanced by his ability to reside with his parents. 

For others, part-time work as art instructors, graphic artists or animators provides the income they need to support their art habits – including art supplies and studio rent – while they work on artwork to show and sell. 

Studio space at the Starline ranges from $375 to upward of $900 depending on the space, Bellon said. 

Dotty Carringi, a 67-year-old pastel artist from Cary, pays $350 a month for her small, well-lit, south-facing studio on the top floor of Lakeside Legacy Arts Park in Crystal Lake. 

A graphic artist who lost her corporate job in 2008, Carringi said she seized the opportunity to reinvent herself. She started her own graphic design company to put some bread on the table while taking art classes and attending workshops to feed her soul.

Carringi received the Pastel Society of America Award at Pastels Chicago 2013 for her work titled “Jedi at Thirteen.” She is among the newest studio artists at Lakeside, acquiring her space in February. 

“I tried to paint at home, but there were too many distractions,” she said. “At the studio, there’s nothing else I can do. I might sit awhile if I’m not in the mood. I read until I’m inspired to get up and paint.”

On the lawn outside during a recent late spring morning, fellow Lakeside Legacy studio artist Johanna Gullick dabbed blue and green water colors on paper in anticipation of teaching a plein air class. 

“I want to get a few scenes down that I think would be nice for people to work on,” the Crystal Lake artist said. “There are very enthusiastic groups that have signed up.”

Gullick said she teaches frequently, earning income to support her $700-a-month studio rent and enabling her to work on her own pieces. The walls of the studio she’s inhabited for eight years are adorned with pieces priced in the $300 to $400 range for a 16-by-20-inch painting to roughly $2,900 for a beautifully framed 3-foot-by-4-foot oil landscape.

“The big pieces take a lot of time,” she said, adding that she, like most artists, finds it difficult to track the hours. “I find that when I’m in a creative mode, it’s very hard. I’m better off saying that I spent parts of six weeks on that painting.” 

A professional artist for 30 years, Gullick said it’s no easy path. 

“It’s hugely hard,” she said. “It is a rare fine artist who can make it just by selling her work. Usually it’s a combination of a profession of some other kind and juggling that with their passion for art.”

Artist Lynn Carlson of Crystal Lake found her art-passion-enabling niche not in teaching but in appraising.  

“That has worked really well for me in terms of income, which then frees me to experiment with my art,” she said. “It frees me from the fear of having to sell a piece to pay the dentist.”

Although she declined to be specific, Carlson said McHenry County is home to some wonderful and highly valuable art collections, and many people inherit work having little idea of its monetary value, which is where she comes in. Carlson has master’s degrees in both studio art and valuation science. 

For those contemplating pursuing art as a business, she offered some advice. 

“Getting in a prestigious gallery [in a major metropolitan area] and having a dealer represent you is advisable,” she said. “I think artists should be visiting galleries consistently. They should have a handle on what’s out there and know what a particular gallery is about, what kind of work they show. 

“Attend the openings,” she continued. “It’s all part of their homework really, and certainly they should be entering juried shows. Also, and sometimes this is hard for younger artists … networking is so important.”

Back at the Starline, model Joe Poniatowski strikes a new pose, leaning slightly forward on his sword. 

Music plays as Hilger minds the timer, and eight artists now concentrating quietly will, before the evening is done, mix round, eye one another’s work and talk shop. 

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