UGA alumna and Atlanta painter Maggie Smith Kühn (BFA ’09) has had her work featured on Good Morning America, Daily Mail, Buzzfeed and more. The UGA Alumni Association asked Maggie to write about her time at UGA and her recent successes.
There is a horrifying (and untrue) statistic all art majors hear at some point, and it’s a variation on this theme: only one in five art students actually work in the art field after college. It strikes fear in the hearts of aspiring artists and creates a gloom that is specific to an art school campus. As a Lamar Dodd School of Art student myself, I felt curiously doomed to savor my time in the studio, knowing that it would probably come to an abrupt end when I graduated and the “real world” demanded repayment for those blessed stolen hours of fun.
The truth is that one in two art students go on to have professional art careers, which are great odds for any major. I’m proud to be one of the artists that left Lamar Dodd and jumped right into the art field. I hope I can encourage any gloomy art kids who feel that art school might be the wrong move, even though they are obsessed with making art. I am one of you, and I make a living by painting.
I am an event painter. What is an event painter, you ask? We’re pretty rare; I go to corporate events, parties, weddings, fashion shows, and I paint the scene as it’s happening. It’s half entertainment, half recording the event as it goes on around me. You are probably familiar with it if you’ve been to Paris, or gone to the Kentucky Derby. Live painting is a strange concept everywhere else. I picked up the habit while attending middle and high school, when I started to bring my sketchbook everywhere I went and I would constantly ask to draw portraits of people. Some people said no, but most people were curious to see what they looked like through someone else’s eyes. My first drawings were not masterworks, but eventually I got faster and made better decisions when I sat down to draw, and some of my art was pretty good.
I decided that art school was the right move for me, despite the literature and stereotypes against it. I remember feeling a tingle of excitement when I drove down Broad Street in Athens for the first time, and saw the senior painting studios. I made my mom stop the car, and walked right in and started learning names and visually drinking in the artwork. I had arrived.
My tenure at Lamar Dodd was pretty typical. I bummed around outside the old Jackson Street building between classes, wandered North Campus and asked to draw people, and displayed series of artwork in various restaurants downtown. Athens embraced my work, and I lived off the cash I made from paintings. I started to get confidence in my ability to make a career with my art. UGA taught me so much about the importance of networking with people outside the studio and how to push through the tedious moments of creating something while inside the studio; I grew up into an artist there.
Once I was out of school, I started painting on weekends and every weeknight, confident that I could get my little idea of event painting off the ground if I had the right knowledge of running a business. I worked an internet and commerce marketing job to fill in the gaps of what I didn’t know, while I waited for the right moment to work full time on my paintings. I tinkered with social media sites, learning what makes businesses go viral.
I went full time with IAmNotMaggie Fine Art in 2014, and it was profitable within the first three months. I had a steady stream of painting commissions, portraits, and events to keep me happy and busy. My business grew to encompass Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, but I wanted more. I wanted national recognition for my work.
Recognition came on a random Thursday night when I made a post for Reddit and then went to bed, thinking no more about it. I woke up in the morning to see that my post had hit the front page and had generated over a million views on my website. There were more than 400 emails in my inbox. It was insanity. Suddenly, people knew I existed and saw that my artwork was good. It was phenomenal. Buzzfeed, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and a number of blogs wanted to write about me. Brides from all over the globe booked me for their events. It was my tipping point; it felt so much like driving past the senior painting studios on Broad Street. I had arrived.
So many artists are ashamed to acknowledge the fact that art is a product. To live off of your art, you will need to know something about business. There is no shame in having some business savvy, and the University of Georgia has incredible resources for a budding entrepreneur. In fact, you have already invested in your future as an artist by coming to the University of Georgia. Take a business class. Start a drawing club. Open a show of your artwork downtown. I’m proud of my tenure at UGA because it prepared me for the journey of my life as a professional artist, and I can’t wait to see what the future alumni of the Lamar Dodd School of Art do in the art field.
UPDATE (August 16, 2016): Maggie’s art just went viral – again!