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Jessica Mahan

Tell us about you!

I grew up in rural Northwest Arkansas, surrounded by farms and the Ozark mountains, which continues to inspire my art today. After graduating from college in Missouri with a double major in Art Education and Secondary Education, I taught art in public school in Missourifor 7 years. Midway through my teaching career, I began putting a lot of focus on my own art, dedicating nearly every evening to creating. Commissions and art sales took off quicker than expected and before long I had a full time art career combined with a full time teaching career. In 2017, I made the difficult, yet exciting decision to pursue art full time, something I never dreamed would happen only a few years before. Although it was a whirlwind at the time, these experiences have largely influenced the art I create today. I joined Best of Missouri Hands where I made connections with other artists, traveled a lot and participated in juried shows around the country. We moved to Memphis in 2018, where I got involved with Tennessee Craft and became a board member for our local Southwest Chapter.

Can you tell us a little bit about your artwork?

My work is a healing practice, reflecting my love of escaping into nature through painting and travel. I keep a sketchbook full of notes and sketches, later creating a visual story on canvas with acrylic paint. Symbolism is often found in my work and reflects my interest in my Cherokee and Irish heritage. My acrylic paintings show beauty and relaxation in nature and stresses our responsibility to care for our environment, a source of personal renewal and energy. I often escape in my converted camper van to seek out national recreation areas. Beautiful views have the ability to wake up my mind to the present moment to spark ideas and insight. The resulting paintings are vivid, colorful, emotional, playful and dreamlike versions of reality. I love using acrylic modeling paste along with combs, lace, bubble wrap or an etching tool to create interesting texture and depth.

Can you tell us a little bit about the moment you realized you were an artist?

As a child, I was interested in the natural world around me and creating in all different mediums. I used to sew clothes for my barbies, built forts in the woods, drew everything and everyone around me and had odd collections of items I found fascinating -- like a rock and pressed flower collection. I always knew I was creative, but I didn't realize I could make a career out of my art. Teaching art to young students renewed my own need to create art for myself. In 2013, three years into my teaching career, I began a series that started my career as a working artist. I didn't have a studio or a space dedicated to art, yet. I was renting a small room in a house owned by the counselor that worked at my school. She was nice enough to let me take over the dining area. Every evening I would come home from teaching and would put a few hours into a painting. Eventually I had a small series and a hip salon that participated in First Friday art walks asked me to display my first solo series. I was unsure and nervous for my first show, so I underpriced my art, but I nearly sold out at the reception. That first show gave me the confidence I needed to experiment with the idea of my art being a source of income.

How did you learn your necessary skills?

I originally trained in oil from a great professor that encouraged and challenged me. Later, when I transferred universities, I switched to acrylic paint, which is my current medium. I learned most of my painting skills from consistent practice, pushing through obstacles and following my curiosities.

Are there specific opportunities or challenges that focused your career?

Time to create and sell my work while teaching became a challenge. As my calendar filled up, I realized that I needed to eventually choose my art or teaching career. After 7 years of teaching, I made the very difficult decision to pursue my career as an artist full time. I knew that consistently producing a solid income from my art would be a challenge, but I was very determined to succeed. I had participated in a few art festivals while teaching in Missouri, but there were few to choose from in my area, so I needed to travel. At first I transported my art and festival tent in a small SUV and rented Airbnbs or stayed in hotels during the festival, but the expenses of traveling to shows soon added up. I had a few successful shows in Colorado and noticed that several artists traveled in RVs. After lots of thought and research, I decided to invest in a large van, converted to a camper that hauled my art in the back. My partner agreed to do the conversion with me and I set out for Colorado for two months to do art shows. The van opened up several opportunities to travel to inspiring places to display my work. Now, due to the pandemic, I am not traveling as much, but Memphis has provided some great opportunities to display my art without the need to travel as much.

Who do you consider as your most influential mentor?

My great grandmother was a talented hobby artist and I lived only 1 mile from her growing up. Since we lived 20 minutes away from the closest town, there weren't many kids around to play with in the summer, so I spent a lot of time at my great grandmother's house drawing, looking through her personal travel photos and collections of National Geographic. I even had my own art portfolio at her house that I could pull out when I was there. She encouraged my creativity and was my best friend. When she was too sick to take care of herself, I would stay the night at her house to cook meals and take care of her. I am really lucky to have had her in my life throughout my childhood.

Artists are extremely resourceful and often create multiple streams of income. How do you generate income to support yourself and artistic practice?

It really is all about hustle and balance. Loving what I do makes it easier to use my passion to create as fuel to keep moving forward when things get tough. Knowing when to stop, reflect and ground is also important and something I have just started to fully grasp. In addition to my art career, I own and manage an airbnb in Memphis. This helps relieve the burden of some of our monthly bills so that I can focus fully on creating. When it comes to selling my art, I try to market my work in a variety of ways -- festivals, gallery shows, social media marketing, small pop-ups. I have also found that offering products at different price points is necessary, so I offer giclee prints, mounted prints and original paintings. Sometimes just mixing things up -- changing my medium or subject matter--creates a jolt of creativity for me and builds excitement with my collectors. I try to keep things fresh, new and exciting, which takes a lot of effort, marketing and planning.

How do you measure success in your work?

Giving myself space to reflect on a newly finished piece usually determines if it is done by my own standards. Since I receive a majority of my income from my art career, it is tempting to rely too much on social media currency to determine if a piece has worth. Although there is some use in analyzing data to optimize results of marketing campaigns, when it comes to my actual art, I try not to rely on it too much. So, I use what I call the 1 week test. When I put the final brushstrokes on a piece, I set it aside or hang it up in my house in a place that forces me to look at it often. If I still like it after 1 week, it's done, if I hate it -- it goes back on the easel. I don't always have time for this, but planning out my calendar to allow for reflection usually helps.

What artist inspires you the most?

Georgia O'Keefe's life and work inspire me the most. I love the raw emotion of her oil paintings and her love of nature to express herself. Salvador Dali and Vincent van Gogh are a few other famous artists that directly inspire my style.

Do you have a creative hour, or a time/ place/ or activity that inspires your creativity?

Early mornings are usually my prime creative time, when my mind is less cluttered. I start my mornings with yoga and sketch journaling, which clears my head and relaxes me. I make coffee and I try to use this time to either start something new and lighthearted or pull out an old painting that I have struggled with to work on it with a new perspective. My home studio is great for this because I can get started first thing in a space dedicated for art. Then, if I have a guest checking out, I clean the airbnb and get it ready for the next guest. Around noon, I head to Arrow, where I work on commissions or other works in progress that take longer periods of focused time. My Arrow studio has been a great way to segment and focus my day with intention.

Do you have a ritual or do you set specific assignments for yourself?

At the beginning of every year, I begin by roughly blocking in themed segments for the year -- commissions, shows, time to work on a new series, vacation. I have found that by blocking out specific months to focus on one overall task has helped focus my mind around what is most important at that time in achieving my overall goals for the year. Depending on the task for that segment of the year, I write down assignments throughout the month. I am very forgetful and need deadlines, so I have to write it down.

As a kid what did you see yourself doing as a career?

I believe I changed my mind a lot, but teacher, artist and scientist were probably mentioned most often. However, as a kid, we look to those around us for guidance and since my mother was a teacher, it seemed natural to also be a teacher. I am really thankful for my time as an art teacher. I learned a lot about myself that helped determine, over time, what being a full time artist meant for me. I did love teaching, so I imagine I will return to teaching in some aspect, through classes or retreats.

What told you ‘this is the life for me’? When?

While I was teaching, I took advantage of traveling to art shows during the summer. I started with going to places like St. Louis and then ventured out to Colorado. It was when I was in Colorado, surrounded by so much natural inspiration and creative artists at the show that I realized I could make this into a full time career. After a lot of trial and error along the way, I figured out what that life looked like for me.

What compromises have you had to make in order to succeed? Has it been worth all of your effort?

When I first started my art career full time, I overwhelmed my calendar with way too many art festivals. I was traveling away from home a lot and it was difficult being away from my husband and dog for long periods of time. And when shows were closer to home, they were on the weekend, when my husband was off work. It has taken some practice to figure out a schedule that doesn't have me pulling my hair out. It has been important to my creative energy to be intentional about scheduling time off. I learned a lot in those first few years, so although it was exhausting, it was ultimately worth it to figure out how to make creative entrepreneurship work for me.

What do you love about being an Arrow Creative?

My studio has been a great part of my daily routine. Although I already have a home studio, having a studio outside of the home segments my day and puts me into a new environment or state of creativity. I have found that I am easily distracted in the afternoon when I work in my home studio, so my Arrow studio helps focus my energies on whatever tasks I have to complete there. I put on my headphones and tune into the work in front of me. It's also nice to be around other creative minds. I often walk around to look into other studios to see what other creatives are working on or have a quick chat. It's a great place to collaborate on ideas and just know you aren't alone in the struggles of creative entrepreneurship. The extra creative labs will be a great way to change up my medium and try new things, as well. I am super excited about all of the possibilities at Arrow Creative!

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