You're that artist

"You're that artist," said the young lady conducting a survey in the departure lounge at the Fort McMurray International Airport.

There was no name, only the specific exclamation that I was THAT artist.

"And how do you know about that artist," I asked, rather intrigued how this complete stranger asking people to fill out surveys at 5 a.m. knew exactly who I was and what I do.

"Oh, I follow your Facebook page," she said.

"Do you have a favourite?" I asked.

"Winky," she replied without hesitation. "And Kurt Cobain."



Four years ago, I was a defeated politician trying to figure out a professional life that was coming apart at the seams. By some miracle of fate, I have transformed into an artist that gets recognized by strangers.

I keep thinking that the glasses that I wear on my face help people make the visual connection, though I rarely wear them in the studio. Maybe I am wrong. It is obvious that people connect the face with the work. I wonder how many people could get a triple play and correctly recall my name.

As we begin our journey east to Mindcamp, I am feeling somewhat accomplished. Commissions that had been weighing on me are largely complete, including one that was done on a 4' x 5' canvas, my largest to date. Revenues, even painting part-time, are more than enough to sustain our family when I semi-retire in November.

How did this all happen? What is the "secret of my success"?

1. Start with an established network

I had been building an interconnected network of contacts for the better part of 20 years. The arrival of social media and my immediate leap into that space scaled up the network substantially. Those connections liked and shared my content and my stories. I doubt that I would be getting recognized in airports if I had not spent two decades communicating and connecting.

2. 10,000 Hours

If you're going to excel at something you have to put in the work. I recognized something very early in this painting adventure, that an opportunity had presented itself, and I made a commitment to it. I am painting, drawing or doing an activity related to my art 20 to 30 hours a week, over and above my full-time job. I have pushed through the struggle and exhaustion time and time again. I am slowly improving and always evolving.

3. Be proud

I am not ashamed or shy about my success. That doesn't mean I am boastful - I try my best not to be - but it does mean that I am authentically excited to share stories, write blogs, give tours, and feel good about the last three years and over 600 paintings.

4. Sharing is key

People love to be allowed into the process of creation. They like seeing paintings half done sitting on a paint splattered easel. They like reading about small human moments along the way. They appreciate vulnerability and they value honesty.

5. Follow your gut, embrace the fear

Almost every single piece that achieved a high level of interest and/or acclaim was born out of acting on my instincts or facing my fears. I have done my best to not spend too much time in my head. I live, and create, in the moment. Accepting high pressure live painting opportunities, despite their individual challenges, have helped me grow my skills and my audience.

6. Be the brand

As an artist trying to make it in the world, I've had to build my brand. What the hell is brand? It's certainly not a logo, or a look of any kind. It is the audience's understanding of - and to some degree, their appreciation of - what you do. In my case, that is evolving all the time. However, there are a number of things that have remained constant, including a satisfaction guarantee, commitment to community and charitable causes, prolific output, tribute paintings, and Birdsong Studio.

When clients come to pick up their finished works, they are not surprised when I ask them to stand in the "sweet spot", just in front of the feature wall, for a photo. It's become a traditions of sorts. In fact, a number of clients have been disappointed when I didn't ask to take their pictures.

My brand is always evolving. With the higher profile dog portraits, I get commission requests for man's best friend almost every day.

I am sitting in a hotel near Pearson International Airport typing this post. Heather and I are heading north to YMCA Geneva Park near the community of Rama later today to attend Mindcamp, Canada's creativity retreat. For the first time, I am heading their with an intention, though the intention has not completely shaped itself. I trust that it will.

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