In three years, Sam Michelle has gone from being a salaried employee in banking to a professional artist on the cusp of achieving her ‘forever goal.’
For Sam, following her childhood dream has been as simple (and as difficult) as one humongous risk, habitual goal setting, a truck-load of hard work and a handful of faith. Let’s unpack that, shall we?
After a co-worker had a heart attack from stress, Sam knew it was time for a change. She’d chosen banking for security and stability but now she wanted a career that would make her happy and that she could flex around her kids. Oh, and it also needed to work financially. That was the part she was unsure about.
Sam thanks her husband for giving her the push she needed. ‘He encouraged me to just go for it and let all that stuff take care of itself,’ she says. Not that she left any of that ‘stuff’ to chance. Sam’s approach to the business side of her art practice is meticulous. ‘Working at a bank taught me how to communicate with clients and value service,’ she says. She answers emails promptly, communicates openly and often with customers who commission her work, and mines Google analytics for intelligence on which paintings attract the most interest, feeding that information back into her practice.
The rigour has paid off. In July of this year, Sam was able to take on a studio space to create some much-needed separation between work and home. She shares a converted factory shell in Mornington with four other painters. It’s an incredibly supportive environment. ‘Most days we have lunch together and we’re always exchanging tips and ideas,’ Sam says. She loves her forty-minute commute through cow pastures.
Another trick she uses to keep a healthy work-life balance is scheduling weekly dates with her young sons. ‘No matter how busy I get, they know Monday afternoon is all about hanging out at their choice of café. It’s lovely, quality time.’
On being self-taught
Sam’s art training happened in high school, with a brilliant teacher who gave her confidence in her ability. After that, her progress was self-directed, on weekends or after work. ‘I’d say, “I need to get better at painting light or doing skin tone” and practice until I’d learnt it,’ she says.
Sam credits social media with helping her work find its niche. Through Instagram, she connected with some small galleries and interior décor stores, which took a few paintings to test how they went. After they sold reasonably quickly, the relationships grew from there. Sam’s lush use of colour and her bold brushstrokes have struck a chord. Her paintings routinely sell before they make it to the gallery wall and after every exhibition, there’s a flurry of commission work. Pedigree is still important in the art world but it’s hard to argue with demand. ‘I thought I wouldn’t be able to get into commercial galleries because I didn’t go to Uni. Now, I don’t worry about that so much,’ she says.
The forever goal
Setting goals is an integral part of Sam’s art practice and business. The Maker’s Yearbook is her go-to planner for articulating goals, setting targets, keeping track of progress and remembering past accomplishments. ‘I view this book as my boss,’ she explains. And if you’re worried about being your own boss, delegate! Whether it’s earning enough to hire a cleaner, providing for her kids, or being able to purchase a piece of art she’s fallen in love with, having a ‘carrot’ definitely helps when it comes to doing the work.
Sam’s forever goal is being a professional artist, creating work for commercial galleries—a goal that has advanced from fantasy to reality, a remarkable accomplishment at thirty-five.
It’s not all number crunching and pragmatism. When Sam talks about her evolution as an artist, there’s an undercurrent of intuition, an element of human connection pinning it all together. Her transition from acrylics to oils, for instance, happened when she visited her grandfather, also an artist. Sam was a sixteen-year-old high-school student and she told him she loved painting. His eyesight was going and he gave her all his oil paints. She created two big paintings with them and, in terms of materials, has never looked back.
Similarly, when Sam does a commission, she’s acutely aware of the connection between the painting and the buyer. ‘A commissioned painting is like a tattoo. There’s always a story behind it,’ she says. Sam handles these jobs with the utmost respect. She welcomes feedback and involvement from her buyers, making them comfortable with the process and ensuring they get a painting they love.
Whether painting on commission or for herself, Sam imbues her subjects with personality. She gesticulates with her arms to show me different leaf poses and explains how certain angles make for ‘happy’ paintings while others are dull or sad. When painting plant stems, she thinks of legs, elegantly crossed. In Sam Michelle’s art, the personal is pleasurable and meaningful.
Even as she’s showing me around her studio, Sam spends as much time championing the work of other artists as she does describing her own. It’s that human-connection factor. She draws inspiration from friendship, connection and other people’s success—a deep well of inspiration, indeed.
Sam’s current show, the Cloth Collection, is at Gallerysmith until November 11. If you’re in Melbourne, do head down to enjoy these beautiful paintings in the flesh. For more information about Sam Michelle, visit her website, sammichellepaintings.com.
Jo Watson is a Melbourne-based screenwriter and artist. Visit her on Instagram (@diary_of_a_picture_book_maker).