Written by Marla Hardee Milling | Photos by Anthony Harden
In-demand artist Alicia Armstrong’s career is a shining example of someone who decided one day to take the proverbial leap.
Alicia Armstrong defies the cliché of a “tortured artist” who struggles to make a living. The Asheville artist has forged a successful career through hard work, visualization, and an awareness that she can’t do everything herself. Throughout the journey, she takes time to ponder the right questions, such as, “Are you going to be authentic with your work even though there is no guarantee it will pay the bills?”
“A lot of artists kvetch about selling and marketing and ‘selling out,’ so to speak, but they also complain that they’re not selling work,” observes Alicia. “There’s also this notion or idea people have of a starving artist—that if you are an art maker, you are suffering or it’s going to be hard. I love making art that I think is beautiful, but also contemplative. It feels good to share it with the world and have it in people’s homes.
“I will say, in terms of speaking of business, there’s no way I could do it without a team. I have people that make frames for me, stretch canvases, and I have someone who does administrative work and makes deliveries. You can’t realistically do all of that alone. If you are going to have a business and make a living supporting your kids and your household, you have to have a group or a team or some sort of support system.”
She sources local businesses for all of the work she needs that she says is outside of her wheelhouse of talents—the frames, panels, administrative work, and website/brochure copywriting: “I’m supporting the circle of people in business for themselves in Asheville, which is sweet.”
Her support of local businesses even shows in her clothing choices. On this day, she’s wearing a tank top from Homegrown, a popular local restaurant in Asheville. Her hair is tied back, with blonde wisps framing her slender face.
Alicia’s oil paintings flow in two different directions: figurative and abstract. Examples of each are in varied stages of creation around her studio. She normally has about 10 paintings going at once and adorns her canvases with bold designs—some show intricate floral patterns, with figures of people intertwined in the blossoms. Her abstract paintings showcase landscapes, as well as images of people walking hand-in-hand on a beach, or a human and canine friend strolling across a path. Some of her landscapes have a surreal patchwork quilt quality with bold, vibrant colors.
“Having two bodies of work keeps me really engaged in working consistently, and it keeps me interested in the work I’m making,” she explains. “It also allows me to have different markets in terms of galleries. Some show just the figurative work; others show just the abstract.”
She paints daily in her studio, located in the same building as the Attic Salt Theatre Company on Riverside Drive near Woodfin. It’s a few miles away from the community of artists in the River Arts District, but she prefers it that way. She’s close enough to collaborate with other artists, including the three that she shares studio space with, but she enjoys the privacy of creating without a lot of interruptions.
She has been sharing space with artist Spencer Herr for a long time, but she also enjoys the camaraderie with the other artists who share the space, Kevin Palme and Fox Smith. They discuss colors, composition, and whether or not a certain piece is working.
“I look at it as an office space where we’re all working for different companies,” she says. “We are all working for ourselves, but we all have the same end goal in mind. We all do it differently. Spencer sells a lot more direct to clients and works less with galleries than I do, but his work is also very different.”
Trial and Error
Alicia was born in Michigan and moved with her family to Columbia, South Carolina, when she was five. After graduating from high school, she spent a year at the University of South Carolina, but then took a year off from college after her sister was paralyzed in a bad car accident. She then made her move to Asheville to attend the University of North Carolina. She had spent time in the area attending summer camps and remembered it with fondness. “I know it sounds weird, but I remembered the smell of Asheville,” she says. “You know how you come up the mountain and it has that smell? I just remembered it and how lush it was.”
During her years completing her Bachelor of fine arts degree at UNC-Asheville, she really didn’t have a concrete plan for how she would market her work, but she knew she wanted to be a studio artist instead of a teacher.
“I thought I might be one of those who waited tables and tried to hustle my art work.”
She landed a full-time job with a studio, working on image editing during studio hours as well as doing wedding shoots on weekends.That work went on for a decade, but after marrying and having her first son, in 2003, she transitioned to a part-time schedule, which freed some time to return to painting. It was an outlet for her to have something of her own, but it soon became a money-making venture. She realized she could contribute to the family income while being home with her boys—her second son came along three years after the first—doing something she loved.
Meanwhile, finding buyers for her art became a trial and error process. She rented space in places like the Kress Emporium in downtown Asheville. She set up booths at art fairs and festivals, and she reached out to galleries, and eventually started selling in a small gallery in Columbia.
“I had my hands in a lot of different baskets trying to piecemeal something together, and as time went on, and as I got into more galleries, that became a more streamlined way of working for me,” she recalls. “When you start out, you say ‘yes’ to everything, but you can spread yourself too thin. I think the closer and more honed in your vision is for your career, you start saying ‘no’ to more things. That starts clarifying your vision, and then when you say ‘yes’ it’s in alignment with your vision.”
At this point in her career, Alicia is primarily focused on selling her work through galleries, although she occasionally has individuals contact her for a commissioned piece. About 75 to 80 percent of her business comes through gallery sales, while 10 to 15 percent is from selling direct to consumers. Most of the galleries she works with span the East Coast, but she also has some paintings in Canada and California.
Her work is currently featured in 11 galleries—including the Haen Gallery on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville; Sozo Gallery in Charlotte; Jules Place in Boston; The Shayne Gallery in Montreal; Gardner Colby Gallery in Naples, Florida; and Bryant Street Gallery in Palo Alto, California—and she doesn’t plan on adding more. “If each gallery has between five and eight paintings, that’s over 70 paintings of art out in the market. That feels like my cap,” she says. (Galleries along with examples of her art can be found at www.aliciaannearmstrong.com. It doesn’t contain her full body of work, but it does contain solid representations of her diversity and talent.)
Failure is Inevitable
Finding a path as a self-employed artist leads to stumbling blocks along the way, but Alicia says that’s part of the process. “You have to take a step and you will fail,” she says. “You’ll say, ‘I won’t try that again,’ and do something different.
Selling a few of her images to an art publishing company ranks as one of her biggest self-professed failures. She sold a handful of prints of her artwork to a company that makes posters, but that company also sells to other companies, and unbeknownst to her, one of her prints landed on Walmart’s website. That created some gnashing of teeth when a prospective client Googled her name and the print came up in the search. Needless to say, she didn’t view Walmart as the ideal showcase for her work.
Alicia had sold the images for two reasons—she saw it as a potential form of income and also as a way to allow people access to her work even if they couldn’t afford to buy an original.
“I would say it was a failed experiment,” she admits. “It didn’t work out very well either way.”
She has also experienced failure after forcing ideas on a series of paintings when her inspiration well had run dry. The wistful paintings had sort of a fantasy/surreal vibe to them—one showed a dog jumping through hoops impossibly high in the air; another shows an image of her son.
“I did 21 paintings, and toward the end, I wasn’t 100% engaged in what I was making,” she says. “It felt really bad. I was putting work out there that wasn’t super authentic. That’s the trick of money and art. They were selling really well, so I was doing more of them. I started feeling the pressure that these are selling so I should make more, but the ideas had expired within me. I kept going and they didn’t sell. I guess the last 10 I did, I ended up painting over or I still have a couple around.”
Alicia contended with failure in her personal life as well when her marriage fell apart. Yet this ultimately yielded a positive result by propelling her into a serious relationship with her art. She realizes that without her divorce, she may not have reached the success she currently enjoys as an artist. It made her dig deep and become committed to using her talent to pay the bills. “When I was married, I found myself making excuses for why I wouldn’t be able to make it,” she says.
Facing life as a single mom, she pushed those thoughts aside and realized she could join the rat race and start waiting tables or working in an office, or she could do what she loves most and make it work. Between those two scenarios, she realized she didn’t even have a choice.
“You really don’t have room for thoughts other than it will work out. Then a whole new relationship starts with your work. It’s like we need each other. I need you, you make me sane, and you need me. We need each other to thrive. It becomes a partnership. I developed a much more personal relationship with my work after I invested more in it. I invested more financially in it. I invested more emotionally in it. It became more of a commitment.
“When I look at successful entrepreneurs and people in business who are multi-millionaires, they didn’t view it as a choice to make it work or not to work,” she continues. “That’s what I glean the most from people who made it. They said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ What people misunderstand about artists is that bills and your children and healthy food and having and paying for shelter are the biggest motivators in the world.”
She also knows she is the guiding example for her two sons, who are 12 and 15 years old. She’s fine with whatever career path they choose, but wants to be an example of following a dream to show them that it can be
Crunching the Numbers
The gallery price tag of Alicia’s work can be a bit deceiving when it comes to her income as an artist. That’s because the galleries take 50 percent of the retail price. Then you have to take in consideration all of the overhead—the supplies, materials, shipping, taxes, etc.
“If you sell a $10,000 painting, you’re probably going to wind up with three grand in your pocket,” says Alicia. “I feel like you wind up with 30 to 40 percent at the end of the day of the retail value… I think the general public doesn’t realize why art is so expensive.”
She has a set pricing structure for her paintings so there will be consistency among the galleries. Sometimes a client might spot a painting on her website that is in another state, so she wants to make sure the pricing is the same across all the galleries.
“I pretty much stick to a formula,” she explains. “It’s around $3.30 per square inch, give or take, based on the size or whether it’s framed.”
Here are some examples: a 30”x 30” painting sells for $3,100 ($3.50 per square inch), while a 60”x 60” piece of Alicia’s art retails for $10,800 ($3 per square inch). “I feel like the main price range I sell in is between $4,000 and $6,000,” she says. “That’s my hot spot.”
Her pricing has increased as she’s honed her skills and reputation as a professional artist. When she started, she sold paintings for $1.50 per square inch.
While the pricing follows a formula, sales are much more impossible to predict. Some of her best months have been in February. It’s hit or miss every year in terms of which gallery is selling the most. One year, Haen in Asheville was her top seller. Gallery director Chris Foley notes that Alicia’s work, which was referred to them by “a very well-respected artist friend,” has been on display there for five years, has sold very well, and that they hope to continue the relationship for years to come. “I am constantly delighted by her fresh and inventive approach to her work,” says Foley. “We receive very positive feedback to Alicia’s work. Her paintings seem to stimulate the imagination of the viewer and leave room for individual interpretation.”
Other years, it’s been a gallery in Florida or Charleston where Alicia struck a deep chord among fans and collectors. “There has been no rhyme or reason to the season or month,” she says. “In places like Montreal or Boston, the winters are slower, but that’s not always true. Sometimes people are nesting and want to redo their house in the winter. Art is a timeless commodity.”
Because her boys are still in school, she tries to carve out a lot of free time in the summer to spend with them. This means that she increases production of her paintings in the late winter and early spring. Fall is usually a time of generating new ideas and preparing for the increased workflow.
Continually Evolving as an Artist
Her growth as an artist includes re-evaluating her content choices and discovering what she is most passionate about. When something stops feeling fun to her, she steps back and reconsiders. Her goal is to work smarter, not harder.
“I really don’t like painting small, but I was doing it,” she says as an example. “It’s tricky because the price point is lower and they have a higher chance of selling, but they take me longer than the big ones. I was struggling more because it was causing a bottleneck of getting work done. If it’s causing issues and you’re not coming at it with the joy and freshness you have for painting, then it’s not going to have that feeling that my work has, which is fresh, organic, and flowy. That’s one area I’m trying to figure out now. Monthly, there are similar questions that I grapple with.”
She has also learned to be flexible when approached with special requests. At first she felt hesitation when a couple asked her for a commissioned work. It was patterned after a painting she had completed, but they wanted the girl to wear a pink dress and a pink bow. “At first I was resistant,” she says, “Then I was like, ‘You know what—the composition and narration are my idea and she wants this color—is that worth getting my panties in a wad?’ I asked myself, ‘How do I feel about that?’ I realized that I didn’t mind. When people make strange requests, as an artist I feel that you can see it as an offense or as a challenge. I totally just see it as a challenge, and I’m happy to take it on.”
She’s content working in her Asheville studio, but she doesn’t rule out packing up her oil paints and canvases and creating in other locations.
“I would always want to keep a residence here,” she says, “but I do think about traveling more and living parts of the year in other places. I don’t feel married to only working in Asheville, but I certainly do consider it home.”
She has a law of attraction approach to growing and sustaining her business, and that includes being laser focused on her desired outcome, as well as not being afraid to take a leap.
“Whether it’s a relationship or business, when you do something new it’s like stepping off into the unknown and it’s super uncertain and scary; so it’s hard to make that leap, especially when you are making your own work,” she says. “You have to have faith that you’re a good painter and you will make new work. You’ll get doors shut. Knock on another one.
“Like anything in life, if you keep at it, it will come to you. You’re calling it to yourself.”
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