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I learned to paint over twenty years ago at Caldwell College in New Jersey where I was an art major and earned my BFA degree. I went on to work at various office jobs and ended up in my thirties proofreading and documenting changes to pharmaceutical labeling. It wasn't until the end of 2009 that my art career got started, when a feller I was seeing in Virginia, Josh England, bought the two of us front row seats and a meet-n-greet with Lady Gaga in Atlanta.
I had taken some classes at an art center in New Jersey and one of them was portrait painting, not my specialty. I was more of a landscape painter. "Do a painting of Lady Gaga and give it to her at the meet-n-greet," Josh told me. "Lots of her fans give her fan art!" I worked on that painting for a few months, in my free time while I finished up my last job in the pharmaceutical profession. I was living in Pennsylvania at the time. So it was pretty surprising when Josh excitedly called me up a few weeks after the show to tell me, "Your painting was on the Oprah Winfrey Show!" There it was in her dressing room, on the middle of her vanity.
Josh told me to move down to Roanoke in 2010 and start a new, exciting life with him. A new art museum just opened and there was a vibrant, growing art scene. I started painting several paintings of Lady Gaga in Josh's apartment. He convinced a gallery two hours away in Charlottesville to exhibit some of my paintings while Lady Gaga's "Monster Ball" was in town. It gained a lot of media attention, but no sales, and our apartment became known as the "Gaganheim."
In 2011, I opened up my own low-rent studio/gallery in Roanoke called "Poparazzi" where I could sell my work at more affordable prices. I now had over thirty portraits of Lady Gaga and about the same number of other pop stars. My work became very popular in the area, but this was a horrible time for the art market. And here I was painting portraits--celebrity portraits no less. I took on some commissioned work, babies, pets, deceased loved ones, as well as some landscapes, houses, cars, etc., and a few more unusual projects to help pay the rent.
In late 2011 Josh and I had moved from our downtown apartment to a house in the nearby "Old Southwest" neighborhood. The Gaganheim was now our beautiful "House of Gaga" as I made space in the gallery for new paintings of old movie stars, some charcoal drawings of rock stars, and the work of a few local guest artists on a rotating basis. But painting commissions and visitors to the gallery had slowed down. In early 2012 Josh gave me the idea to paint scenery of our new quant and colorful surroundings. I took lots of pictures on my bike rides to and from the gallery that Spring and agreed our neighborhood made great subject matter for some new work. Thanks mostly to a feature in the local newspaper in August, I sold half of the fifty new paintings and drawings by the middle of 2013.
In July 2013, Josh and I opened up a new, bigger gallery called Wonderland, featuring the work of about a dozen artists, including myself. In a saturated market in Central Appalachia we were able to pay the rent the first six months on sales of my work alone, even after doubling my prices. Most of these paintings were made from photos Josh and I took one Summer's eve in Downtown Roanoke and part of a show called "Starry City Night." So many people had been telling me my style reminded them of Van Gogh, so I played up that angle and it worked. I likened my journey to his own travels from the Netherlands to the South of France, with Josh as my Theo. Except we sold stuff. Roanoke was clearly a great place to establish my career, but more than half of my new customers were from out of town, and I realized it was time to think beyond Roanoke.
By early 2014 I had painted pet portraits for Lady Gaga, Bravo TV's Andy Cohen, and "Real Housewife" Lisa Vanderpump, each of whom praised my work on social media. Josh and I were occasionally still taking pictures of local scenery on our hiking trips and other adventures for my work. I also used several photos from our cruises to Europe and the Caribbean he had won through his telesales job. A year earlier he had taken one picture from the roof of Center in the Square downtown overlooking the Market Building and art museum and put it on Instagram to enhance the colors. It worked out great and the first painting of that image sold quickly.
I noticed a photograph Andy Cohen had uploaded to Instagram of a New York City view that reminded me of Josh's photo of Roanoke. I had asked local photographers if I could use their photos for paintings and wondered if a celebrity would ever consider the same. Months later, at the end of 2014, I tweeted Andy the question; he tweeted back "of course." Just a few months after that, in April 2015, he uploaded a selfie I took with one of the paintings on his own Instagram! The #impressionistagram @bravoandy series of work includes some of my favorite paintings to date and has been a real breakthrough project for me. So what will I do next? Stay tuned!