How full-time artists make it in Delaware

Heidi Lowe works on a piece of jewelry in her Rehoboth studio.

By Peggy Mika
Special to Delaware Business Times

As with all professions, the path to success is different for every artist. Here are the stories of four Delaware-area visual artists.

Heidi Lowe

When Heidi Lowe decided to study art, her mom begged her to get a teaching degree so she would have something to fall back on. It’s not hard to image thousands of parents having similar conversations with their creative children.

And yet, the arts represent a $150 million industry in Delaware, providing nearly 4,000 jobs and generating $10 million in local and state revenue. Nationally, the nonprofit arts industry generates $166 billion in economic activity, supporting 4.6 million jobs and generating $27.5 billion in government revenue according to
the fifth Arts & Economic Prosperity study by Americans for the Arts.

Clearly, some artists don’t need that fall-back degree.

From age 13, Heidi Lowe sold beaded creations in shops along Rehoboth Beach and dreamed of making jewelry for a living. In 2006, she returned home to open The Heidi Lowe Gallery.

“My gallery is my art as much as jewelry-making; they are intertwined.”

Her contemporary art gallery allows her to teach, make commissioned pieces, create her own art and show the work of other artists. “They are all creative in different ways.”

Lowe, who is married, works at least eight hours a day, six days a week. And, while she would enjoy a two-day weekend, she wouldn’t give it up. “I love to come to work. I get to work with other artists who staff the gallery and with the public.” She also coaches other artists, telling them: “Stay true to what you want” and avoid under-pricing their work. “No discounts for others, not even friends.”

Lowe is proud to mark her 11th anniversary because the economy was shaky when she opened her doors. For eight years, she taught outside of the gallery to make ends meet, and invented new ways to attract new clients, like a popular class where a bride and groom make their wedding bands together.

Early on, she dreaded commission work, but she has moved to a “new level” and is enjoying some of her best commissions this year. She is finishing a husband’s gift to his wife who is completing cancer treatment. The piece was inspired by photos of cancer cells under attack during treatment.

One challenge she continues to face is convincing others that jewelry is art. “It’s a big leap for people,” she said, but she’s working on it.

Brad Venneman

Brad Vanneman working on sculpture of Dr. Jerome H. Holland, Delaware State University presidents from 1953 to 1959.

If you have a figurine of Mickey Mouse or a holiday candle from Bed, Bath & Beyond, you probably own the art of Brad Vanneman, who has been making a living as a contract sculptor for close to four decades.

“I’m willing to do just about anything related to sculpture,” he said of how he has stayed busy working for The Franklin Mint (he cold-called for an interview), Lenox and Disney. “By doing what I was offered, I got better.” He also worked long hours. “I literally worked night and day when my girls were in high school and college.” The flexibility to put in more effort was an important factor in his success.

He also had a wonderful mentor in noted American sculptor Charles Cropper Parks who was local. Vanneman helped Parks as he retired and during that time grew into what he calls a “real sculptor” creating a well-known local piece called “Wisdom Begins with Wonder,” which is on display in Smyrna and setting the stage for his current project: a life-size sculpture of Dr. Jerome Holland, former president of Delaware State College.

Asked about keys to success, Vanneman cites the basics: show up on time, meet your deadlines, but added, “Leave your ego at the door and bring your brain to work.”

Adam Ledford

Adam Ledford has a lot in common with Lowe: he graduated during the recession and relies on teaching to keep some money in the bank. As a potter, Ledford also faces the public perception issue Lowe faces: people don’t value pottery as fine art. “That’s my reality,” he said.

That issue comes into play as he tries to price his work. “I’ve had a few commissions, but I’m not good [at] pricing. I don’t understand the concept of money, in that I don’t understand how people value art and what I do.”

Based in Philly, Ledford shares an apartment with four others, and rides a bike because he doesn’t own a car. While he is focused on “figuring out how to make more money,” he cobbles together an income through grants, awards, a few commissions, side work for a pottery studio and teaching stints with the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Clay Studio. He turns to public assistance from time to time.

Unlike some artists, Ledford enjoys teaching. “I’m good at it.” He recently taught a series of claymation workshops for youth in rural Morocco. Since he didn’t speak the language, he connected with his students by acting out the “how-to” steps. Through the Clay Studio’s Claymobile he has taught individuals who are blind or disabled and regularly teaches in the Juvenile Justice System. “Tactile experiences like working with clay are rare in a digital world,” Ledford said. People like the experience.

What would make him pack it in? If his building was sold and he was evicted, that might drive him to a job or grad school, “the last great escape for an artist,” he said.

“I’ll continue finding a way to make it work. Art is self-affirming. I know I’m a better person to be around when I’m doing my art.”

Ledford’s work is currently on display at The Delaware Contemporary.

Daniel Jackson

Daniel Jackson’s photo realistic oil painting “Bozo.”

Claymont artist Daniel Jackson works in oils and photography, and in some cases it’s hard to tell the difference between his paintings and his photos. His paintings are as realistic as his photos are technical. But, his subject may be inflated pool toys peeking around backyard trees. “I like art that doesn’t take itself seriously,” he said.

In the early days, going back to college in the early 1990s, Jackson relied on commissioned portraits of kids and corporate executives and photography work for himself and fellow artists. However, he avoided seeking gallery representation because he didn’t like the profit-sharing model which is typically 50/50. But, portrait work has its downsides.

One bad haircut can postpone a sitting — and a paycheck — for a month, so he agreed to exhibit at the Carspecken Scott Gallery & Custom Framing in Wilmington when the owner discovered his work.

Suddenly the benefits of the gallery became clear. “They need product to sell and will market your art to literally hundreds of people.” He encourages artist to not take rejection from a gallery personally. If one gallery said ‘no’ find another.

From Carspecken, Jackson connected with the Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco which still shows his work more than a decade later. Gallery work allowed him to move from portraits to paintings and now he is planning to spend more time with photography.

“Fine art photography is like fine art,” he said. It takes skill and technical know-how. Artists need high-quality photos to document their work and for marketing. But photography has another benefit. “I can walk into any business and convince the owner to pay me a few hundred dollars for professional quality photos which will instantly improve his web site. You can’t do that with art,” Jackson said.

Early on, Jackson found that he needs to be productive all the time and he advises others to do the same. He offers a few other tips:

• Be honest with yourself about what will and won’t sell. “I’d do better if I was more mercenary and painted what sells,” he said.

• Accept the fact that you’ll never get to the “greater art world” where paintings sell for millions. “You can make a decent living, but you won’t get to that level.”

While there are harsh realities to being a working artist, the gains are clearly worth it to Jackson.

“It can be exhilarating at times. I’ve been jubilant in my career … and there are those tiny moments when I think ‘I did good,’ ” he said.

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