How Financial Independence Changed My Art

“You can spend your whole life listening to internal and external messages without ever hearing the voice of your deepest desire.” -Thich Nhat Hanh (Silence, 2015)

When I got tired of getting acquainted with the term starving artist, I decided to go back to school for a degree that I hoped would one day help me chase my dreams. I graduated 4 years later with a degree in Materials Engineering and pursued a career that could financially support my art habit. I found less time for making artwork. Even though I was less prolific, the art got better. That surprised me. What was the secret?

Triplet, Melissa Muehleisen, 2007, 12"x12"

The first time I really felt free to make ANY art I wanted to was after I returned to school and was no longer studying art or trying to sell my work. I was no longer trying to please art professors or create based on criteria for an assignment and (most importantly) I was no longer concerned with whether my art was something someone would want to buy. I finally started to make work for me, only because I wanted to, with no background noise telling me it wouldn’t sell or that no one else would like it. 

I finally shut out the voice of the world around me and listened to my inner source.

I was inspired by math and physics, chemistry and thermodynamics. I really enjoyed completing multi part physics problems and when a math concept finally made sense to me I could hear angels singing. As a self professed nerd I admit that learning new things is fun to me. I wanted to incorporate the things that inspired me into the art that I was making in my free time. 

I never imagined that the response to my artwork would change positively when I quit caring what other people thought. In retrospect, I realize that it got better because I was being true to my heart.  

The biggest surprise to me was that when I exhibited in the occasional group show or art festival my new, made just for me, artwork sold better than the pieces that I thought were "made to sell" years before. 

Until that time the only art I had sold was photography and pastel portraits. I still remember the elation of selling my first painting. I was showing my work at an art festival where I had exhibited for years, but previously I had exhibited photography and this was my first year showing my paintings. This art festival is on a lake and pontoon boats take people from house to house to see the artwork and have snacks.

My mother was alone watching my artwork so that I could ride the boats and see the other artists. When I returned she said “You just sold your first painting!” I was so excited, I asked her which one. Incredulously she said “The one with the bugs on it. I told him all your paintings mean something and if he wanted to wait you would be back soon so you could explain it to him and he said he knew what it meant.” She gave me a look of total confusion. But I wasn’t confused, I knew we had just sold my painting to a fellow nerd! That painting detailed the altered genetic code that causes sickle cell anemia and the bugs were mosquitos. The reason these go together is because being a carrier for sickle cell can create a natural resistance to malaria. This has resulted in high rates of sickle cell in malaria-endemic areas. The meaning of the painting was obvious to anyone that knew this bit of scientific history. I was so excited that someone understood my work. 

Later in the day, my mother pointed out the man that had bought my painting:it was the chair of the math department where I was studying at UAB! The same math department that led me to fall in love with Calculus. This made my day, my month really and it still makes me smile to know that my work is in his collection.That one exciting sale taught me to create what makes sense to me and just enjoy the process.

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