“Your passion will haunt you until you decide to go for it.”
Three years ago, Ohio native Whitney Austin took her own advice. She quit her job as director of sales and marketing for a Charlotte assisted living facility to paint full time. Today, Austin owns an art gallery in south Charlotte, amassed more than 200,000 social media followers, and is preparing to open a storefront location in Carolina Place Mall on Oct. 5.
Ahead of this weekend’s grand opening, I caught up with the artist to learn more about her journey.
Tell us about your path from corporate to where you are today.
My journey as an artist started as a child. I loved to draw. As the years went on, I attended an arts high school, but ultimately didn’t do much with art for quite some time. In fact, I’d completely stopped drawing and never thought about painting back then.
I started a career as a flight attendant before moving on to become the director of an assisted living community in Charlotte. When my grandfather passed away, I felt moved to paint a portrait of him for his funeral. Through the tragedy of losing him, I was inspired and wanted to create in honor of him.
After picking up that paintbrush, and from that moment on, I essentially never put it down. People started requesting paintings and wanting to see more of my work, so I started painting regularly and highlighting my work on social media. From there, my reputation as an artist and my career really took off. Within a couple of years, I wasn’t just selling my original paintings, I was also touring the U.S. to do sold-out paint classes and live painting events for major events, which ranged from an event for Rap Snacks to charities such as UNCF.
Three years ago, I was able to go full-time into my business. I opened my first gallery in Ayrsley in October 2016 before moving to a larger space on South Tryon in January 2018.
When you started painting, what were your initial goals? How have your goals changed over the past three years?
When I started painting, it was out of the tragedy of my grandfather and was purely an emotional thing. It wasn’t until other people began saying they liked my work and were willing to buy it that I considered it as a career. Now, my goals are around making sure that I’m able to express emotions and cultural experiences through my art and empower people. Many of my pieces showcase the ‘flaws’ of people physically, mentally and emotionally, as those are real things that people relate to every day.
Charlotte’s art culture is a major part of the city’s identity. How are you involved in community actions that drive the creation of, conversations about, and investment in local contemporary art?
I love having the opportunity to teach paint classes at my studio and look forward to doing more. I feel that I have the chance to create every day and express myself, and I love to give that gift to others. I also work with a number of nonprofits to auction pieces to fundraise for causes dear to me such as education, arts programs, domestic violence and homelessness.
Homelessness and women’s empowerment are two causes that are very close to my heart, and this fall I’m working with a number of nonprofits in Charlotte on some exciting things. I’m looking forward to sharing.
What successes and challenges have come with entrepreneurship?
I don’t believe anything, especially entrepreneurship, is a smooth road. But, I’ve been very fortunate with the way my business has taken off. I’m blessed to have parents who – when my business started to become really busy – were able to help. For instance, my mother was able to come on and work full-time for my company and does my online order processing.
I’m grateful for my supporters, particularly on social media. They are always encouraging me and purchasing art. I’m also grateful for the people who encouraged me in the very beginning. It said a lot for an African American woman to become a true artist, but the encouragement, the support and the village helped that become a reality.
Entrepreneurship is not an easy road, but when you are able to empower your family, it makes the long days and sleepless nights worth it in so many ways.
Tell us about the new location. What can people expect?
The storefront gallery will give me the opportunity to host events, showcase original artwork, do live paintings and also sell merchandise including notebooks, tote bags and home goods covered in my artwork. The space is in the Belk wing of Carolina Place Mall. I’ve also learned the space previously held a Thomas Kinkade gallery years before it held Merle Norman most recently. I also love that we’ve completely renovated the space to make it truly an artistic space that will inspire people.
Nakisha Washington is a journalist who interviewed America’s first self-made female billionaire, a presidential candidate and her favorite reality TV personality all within 72 hours. Catch her talking career and lifestyle tips to curious millennials on her blog, theprofashionalist.com.