Hardly anyone's artistic career is a straight line from schooling to success. I recently interviewed Karelyn Siegler, 52, an internationally recognized painter and professor at two schools in Manhattan, Parsons and The King's College. Below are excerpts about how she found her calling.
Did you study art in college? I went to Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, where I majored in art and minored in dance.
Then you became a dancer. I came to New York with a scholarship and studied for about five or six years with Martha Graham. But when you get to be about 28 in New York and all the baby ballerinas are coming up, you're starting to feel old-at 28, when most careers are just beginning, you're realizing that you have to begin thinking of other options.
Where did that realization lead you? Before I went to New York, I had worked one summer for an art teacher who hired me to do cobalt pencil drawings on his porcelain pots. He would sell them at craft fairs and make a mint; I worked for $10 an hour, he sold the pots for $100. So when I was in New York, I rented a studio with a kiln and put together a portfolio of some vases with my drawings on them. I made the rounds showing my work to retailers and boutique flower stores and ended up having clients like Bergdorf Goodman. Sales were good. I began to realize that to take the business to the next level I would have to begin outsourcing internationally to be priced competitively. So I thought I should get an MBA and learn more about business.
So you went to business school? I didn't get into business school anywhere, so I entered a pre-medical post-baccalaureate program in medical science at Bryn Mawr.
Did you pay the bills by drawing on pots? I became a clown. I and another professional dance friend, Cindy, made clown outfits and went to Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia and found a fountain that didn't have water. We started jumping around in it and being ridiculous. We gathered a crowd. A man came up to us afterward and said, "Are you an act?" I looked at Cindy, she looked at me, and I said, "Yeah, we're an act." He was a juggler, and he said, "Great! We have a gig out in Hershey, Pa. Would you like to come with us?" So that was how we got started as professional clowns! We were called Double Vision and we had gigs with Estée Lauder, Kodak . . . . We were in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In the meantime, you decided you didn't want to be a doctor. My professor said to me, "If you're not interested in a career in medicine, you could try medical illustration." That sounded interesting, so I decided to become a medical illustrator. I met an attorney who said he could use me as a demonstrative evidence specialist creating exhibits for the courtroom that would help the jurors understand and remember what was said in the courtroom. This meant that I looked at medical evidence like X-rays with the expert witness and drew what happened so that the jurors, who couldn't read X-rays, could understand the evidence. I did that and we made a stack of cash, and I thought, "Wow! This is great! I want to do this again!"
But you didn't live happily ever after as a medical illustrator. It also pulled me in directions that were not so good. I was a Christian but wasn't acting like one. I hadn't developed the spiritual arm of my life because things were too easy. One night everything changed. I was the victim of a violent crime. God spared my life, and I decided to become what I felt God had created me to be, which was an artist. As I was recovering, I started taking night classes in painting at the museum. While I was doing that I saw an advertisement for an opportunity that said, "Study in the South of France! Scholarships available!" So I applied for it and got it-I was very surprised.
And after that? I realized that God was developing this gift inside of me. I began to enter competitions and get in galleries. Then I had a one-woman show. I entered a gallery exhibition and was very impressed with one woman who did figurative work. I said, "I would love to study with you. How can I do that?" She told me to apply to the New York Academy of Art. I was accepted with a scholarship. At this point I was 42, and I really began my career as an artist.
And you studied with a French Academy artist? Jacob Collins. When I applied, I had to make drawings for him. I got rejected three times, and then finally got in. I had to be persistent, and I was. In the French Academy tradition, you first begin to work from the plaster cast-a marble statue. You only use black and white, no color, until you can convincingly describe how light moves across the surface of the form. You draw it, then you paint it. You also learn to develop accuracy in your proportions. Then you proceed to the live model. When I began to learn the subtlety of creating art at a higher level, I began to appreciate the body of knowledge that I was entering into. In the French Academy, you earn the right to move on to the next thing.
At that point could you ignore the business aspects of art? I had my master's degree [and] was invited to interview at Parsons The New School for Design. Teaching was a great experience, but I also wanted to be resourceful with my talents and have a career as a professional artist and designer as well. I was in a Kinko's in New York next to this woman who was printing out dish designs. I said, "Can you make any money at that?" She said, "Oh yes." So I told her I had a skilled hand and I'd love to throw my hat in the ring if she ever needed anyone to do some work, and she said, "We do need someone to do a commemorative cup and saucer for Avon."
Why am I not surprised that in your life one thing again led to another? I also did some work for greeting cards and made some small paintings of fruit that a company put on dishes that came out in Bed Bath & Beyond and Bloomingdale's. I made a chunk of cash. I was lecturing in Taiwan last year and one of the students had my dishes. I thought, "The dishes made it all the way to Taiwan!" Then I realized that they were made there, so it wasn't too much of a stretch.
Because I'm classically trained, all my friends said I was selling out and going commercial, and I said, "Isn't it great? I'm making money!" I've crafted a life together as a professional in licensing and publishing as well as being able to continue to paint fine art. I also love my teaching. There's nothing greater for an artist than to be able to say, "I'm really proud of who I am and what I've done." I have not always been able to say that, but I can say it today.
How unusual are you? One of the hopes I have is to share with young artists who have a dream for something that they only hope is possible, and let them know that if they're entrepreneurial and resourceful, opportunities will come their way, and if they're skilled they can make something of themselves. It's not a stretch; you just have to know someone in the flesh who's doing it so you know what it looks like. I'm trying to be as resourceful as I can with what God has given me.