Working Artist at Anna Jarrell Art
WFU Class of 2005
Major: Studio Art with concentration in Drawing & Psychology
Riley Phillips: Please walk me through your path from graduation day to your current job.
Anna Jarrell: I was in college with my high school sweetheart, and we decided to get married right after college, literally the summer after graduation, so I wanted to start getting a paycheck right away. We wanted to get a house and do all of those adult things, so I thought about doing the gallery route, which was kind of the only option at that time for a working artist, but I took a job at Forsyth Country Day teaching art to high-schoolers and coaching cross country.
I learned a lot about being an employee… about teaching, and I had a little studio set up in my basement at the time. I did that for about 2 ½ – 3 years, then, in 2008, my husband and I bought the assets from a reclaimed wood business in Wilmington. We turned that into a green business. We worked in Wilmington for 2 years getting this business up and going, and I was on the road doing sales. That really taught me how to get out in front of people and do sales, which is valuable no matter what you’re doing in life. Being able to talk to people, initiate a sale, and complete a relationship like that is really important.
In 2010, we sold [that reclaimed wood business] and came back to Winston-Salem. That’s when I started doing private SAT and ACT prep. I would sit with students and coach them nights and all day on weekends. It was good business and I really enjoyed teaching.
Then, our son was born, and I didn’t want those hours anymore and so I got my paints back out. I’d always been doing creative things along the way, like learning how to cook, sew, knit, and embroider… using my creative outlets any way that I could through those years, but I wasn’t painting during that time. I had kind of given up on that aspect until my son was little. I got my watercolors out to paint my parents’ first house as a Christmas present. I didn’t know what to get them that year, but I thought ‘That first house that you have when you’re married is very sweet– I’ll paint a house portrait for them.’
By this point, it’s about 2016, and Instagram had hit. I had an Instagram account, essentially just for baby pictures and dog pictures, but I posted a photo of that house painting… and my friends started asking for me to paint their houses. I thought, ‘Okay, I might as well earn a little money while I’m doing this and my son is napping!”. From there, it quickly turned into a business. That first year or two I was painting about 20 houses a month. It was too much… just very hectic, so I started focusing on fewer clients with bigger ticket items, and I got up the guts to do portraits. I started with my son and some family friends to get my confidence up, and I started studying portraiture again… It’s something I have always been interested in because it’s such a challenge. Abstracts have their own challenges, but portraiture: you know, and everyone else knows, if you did it right or not.
During those first years I had a few solo gallery shows and decided that I preferred portraiture. So, I moved down the portraiture track, still doing abstracts on the side. I’ve been doing that for about 6 years now. Now, I have my own studio and a loyal Instagram following. I have been focusing on developing my skills… notably with workshops and studying with master portrait artists.
RP: You’ve shared before with Wake Forest Magazine that you learned from WFU painting instructor, Page Laughlin. How has your style in painting evolved since your time as her student at Wake, now being a self-employed artist?
AJ: I’m still drawn to what I’ve always been drawn to: beautiful figure drawing, mark-making, those types of styles that I loved when I was even in middle and high school. I still gravitate towards those. But, when I’m doing abstracts, I’m thinking much more like Page. I’m thinking about layers and colors and not being afraid to mess things up. She definitely pushed me in that way… even though my work doesn’t look like Page’s, I can hear her voice in my head when I’m painting today, ‘don’t be afraid to push the values, don’t be afraid to mess it up.’
RP: How did you find out about local gallery shows when you were beginning your postgraduate career as a working artist? Be it in Wilmington, Winston-Salem, or beyond.
AJ: In Winston-Salem, the first one I sought out was Camino Bakery. They are really good about supporting local artists. They make doing a show super easy… especially for new artists. After that, the shows just started finding me.
I did a couple shows with Gallery Six (formerly on Trade St.)… Those sold well, but the nice thing about Instagram, is that you don’t have to rely on gallery shows for your business.
RP: What is your favorite part of living and working in Winston-Salem?
AJ: I just love the town. There are so many beautiful places that are easy to walk to and open to the public. We go to Reynolda Gardens almost every week to walk the dog, ride our bikes, or go to Dough-Joe’s. The Downtown scene is a lot different than when I was in college, and it’s a lot of fun now. There’s always something new.
RP: Do you have any advice for maintaining discipline as an artist after graduation, specifically combating burnout and staying motivated to create?
AJ: It’s a habit. After graduating and getting married, I experienced burnout, too. When we first got married, my husband set up the basement as an oil painting studio for me… and I thought ‘Okay, this feels like a studio… but, now what?’” I was so used to either starting with an assignment or having other people around me working, too, and having some feedback. It’s almost like there were too many options, too much to choose from, and I found myself getting frustrated. The thing that makes the biggest difference is the habit of it. Now, I go in the studio every single day, and if I don’t have something to paint or don’t have the time to paint, I just clean up. Something about being in space encourages me to think about what to create next.
The tough thing about Instagram, as an artist, is that it shows you so many things that other people are doing, and you can be constantly distracted by all of the choices… seeing all of the success of other artists… and thinking about what people want to buy these days. It takes a lot of discipline to say ‘This is who I am and this is where I’m going to develop my skills.’” If you can narrow your focus it can help you establish a mission or a goal to avoid that burnout.
RP: That reminds me of your Hundred Faces of Winston-Salem project– you’ve mentioned before that the habit of that project, of painting every day for 100 days, really helped to establish that routine and discipline.
AJ: It was amazing. I grew so much as an artist and got a lot more confident. I learned so much, too… lighting the subjects and improving those [technical] errors with each painting. Just the habit and repetition of doing those paintings every day really helped me improve as an artist. Right now, my summer project is to do more portrait painting from life. I’m having friends and family just come and sit with me for an hour. It’s not a perfect likeness, more of a color study if anything, but it’s making me get better at that skill.
RP: Something else that stood out to me about that project was the community aspect of it and getting so many people involved. Do you have any advice for other artists or WFU students in establishing a network like that, or more specifically, how to maintain a network of fellow artists or creatives after graduation?
AJ: If you put yourself out there, a lot of connections will come to you. For example, I’ve had a couple people come and sit for me that I didn’t know very well, but I said, ‘If you’re in the Winston-Salem area and want to sit for me for an hour, come on.’… and I’ve been able to meet some really interesting people and have amazing conversations.
With the 100 Faces project, I engineered that… specifically to include new people. I didn’t want to just paint my friends and family for that, because it would become very homogenous, and I really wanted to expand my horizons in this community. I wanted to talk to people that were struggling during Covid, people that were doing difficult jobs, people that were underrepresented and needed a spotlight for their cause… The project was a lot of work, but I’m so glad I did it. If you can come up with a project where you think, ‘I don’t know if I can do it, but I know that if I did do it, it would be amazing, and I would really grow and stretch myself.’ then I highly recommend you pursue that.
RP: What is your favorite part about working for yourself?
AJ: I like the flexibility. I work pretty quickly; I always have. I can keep my customers happy by not having long waitlists, but also have flexibility for [family time]. One negative is… I only have one or two other working artist friends to chat with about the business of being an artist… I wish there were more of a community for that.
RP: With art being your full-time job, how do you balance the pressure of making what you want to make, as opposed to making what you need to make to pay the bills?
AJ: I find a lot of security and knowing that I’m painting something that [the client and I] have talked about at length, a painting that they feel is going to work really well in their home, and it’s what they’ve always envisioned for the portrait or the space… It gives me a lot more anxiety to just paint whatever I feel like painting and then hope it sells because there are so many people out there doing that already… You really have to find your audience and self-market.
RP: Are you able to find time to make pieces for yourself when you want to, in between those commissions?
AJ: Yes, I can find time to do my own things. For me it is about not getting too distracted. I can do something fun that I want to do just for me, but I’ve decided that, ‘This is my business plan. This works for me. I’m happy with this. I can develop new skills my whole life while I also focus on my business.
RP: What is next for you and your art?
AJ: I love painting children. I will probably always paint children, but my goal would be to paint more adults. I would like to do more paintings of people who have had an interesting life and contributed to the world or community… of course, overall, I’d like to keep developing my skills in portraiture.
RP: Any other kernel of advice you’d like to impart to our readers?
AJ: Take advantage of the WFU Alumni Network. There are a lot of alumni in my position that would be happy to mentor, have lunch, or help somebody get going on their career path. A lot of us feel very lucky with where we are, and we want to give back.
If you are thinking about becoming a working artist, I would say: create a habit. Go to the studio every single day and work on something that you want to get better at. That’s the way it happens – the constant repetition of practicing those skills.