Making a living making art
Meet three local visual artists for whom creativity is a way of life
Local visual artists Chunhong Chang, Matt Loomis and Jake Early are all making a living at creating art—easy to believe because of their talent—but even the best artists may struggle during tough economic times.
Chang, Loomis and Early are no exception—each acknowledges that tough times are challenging—but all three have risen above those challenges to survive, and thrive, in the current market.
Unlike a professional photographer friend of hers who recently had to take a part-time job to make ends meet, Chang—known for her gorgeous, meticulously painted pieces combining artistic images from the East and the West—has not had to supplement her income with extra employment.
Her work currently is showing (and selling) at galleries in New York City and Nevada City and locally—at Nantucket Home, Zucchini & Vine and Cory’s Country Inn, where one of the three art-adorned rooms at the rural B&B is named the Chunhong Chang room and features her paintings on every wall.
“I’m lucky,” the 42-year-old said recently, seated on a couch in the Hemlock Street home she shares with her husband and two young children. “In the past half year the economy took a really big hit, so it’s been hard, and I had fear, but I put the fear out of the way in the last few months. We are in an abundant universe, and everything’s fine.”
Chang pointed out that even though many art galleries have closed since the economy began its meltdown, “If I set my head in the right direction, things change”—her way of saying that putting out positive energy affects her livelihood. “I should not say that—it’s a secret. But it’s profound.”
Her attention turned to “Planet,” a triptych in her “Unity” series hung on one wall of her living room picturing rocks and what look like pieces of driftwood painted in insets against an abstract background of leaves and a large planet arcing through all three panels. (A signature of Chang’s paintings is that each contains a smaller painting set into the larger work.)
“I am going back to using images from graduate school—the rock and the stick,” offered Chang, who received her master’s in art from Chico State in 1998, after studying art for most of her life in her native Taiwan. “The stick is a symbol of human remains, and the rock represents eternity, eternal life—what all religions are seeking.
“I feel like our journey of life is not a short, shocking commercial,” said Chang. “It’s a subtle, long story. The painting should not be so obvious, like it hits you one second and it’s gone, but life exists in every second; you taste it in your mouth. The people who look at my paintings can look at them over and over again and discover more and more things, more and more meaning. Good art should endure thousands and thousands of years, and that’s my goal.”
“Defunct” is a word that came up a number of times during an interview with Matt Loomis in a dark rear corner of the downtown Chico coffee house The Naked Lounge. The amiable, long-haired Loomis’ signature, intricate drawings have appeared on many local rock-band posters.
From the defunct Yaqui-brand skateboard company in Red Bluff that Loomis designed graphics for in the mid-1990s, to his three-year stint as store artist at former downtown Chico culture-hub Tower Books, to his July 2009 layoff from local graphic design and distributing firm Fifth Sun Graphics (where he created designs for such licensed products as WWE and Miami Ink T-shirts), much of the 33-year-old former Weaverville resident’s art-career résumé consists of jobs that didn’t last over the long haul.
Even Loomis’ art schooling at Chico State resulted in his being kicked out once, and later voluntarily departing from a second try at getting his bachelor’s degree. “Once again, defunct,” said Loomis, smiling and shrugging his shoulders.
It was being let go from Fifth Sun that Loomis said made him try his hand at freelancing.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I’ll give freelance a go’—and it’s working,” he said. “I’m making rent, so I must be doing something right.”
Like Chang’s, Loomis’ work has a far reach. Recently, he got hired by Boston death-metal band The Red Chord (opening for GWAR at the Senator Theatre on Nov. 19) to design the band’s T-shirts. As it turned out, The Red Chord’s lead singer, a guy named Guy, is “a really huge fan” of [local band] Abominable Iron Sloth, for whom Loomis designs T-shirts.
“And somehow through some super-lucky circumstance,” said Loomis, “Guy got my contact information and called me up. … They [The Red Chord] are really fun to work for, too. They’re not fans of the traditional metal designs—black shirts with white letters—they want pastels, bright colors.”
Loomis is also doing shirt art for a band in the Netherlands called Salt Creek Massacre.
Closer to home, he’s been hired by a small label out of San Jose called New Medina to do all the artwork and layout for a vinyl reissue for rap outfit Asphalt Legion, and he continues to do all of the artwork—album covers, T-shirts—for local metal band Armed for Apocalypse.
“I’m doing a lot of work right now,” said Loomis, who emphasized that “Ninety-five percent of what I do is by hand, not on a computer.”
“And no one has ever asked for a degree,” Loomis added. “Ever.”
No story on local artists would be complete without mention of Jake Early, the 39-year-old printmaker widely known for his images of iconic Chico landmarks such as Upper Park, the Senator Theatre, Main Street and the water towers at Orient and Third streets, done in a style and technique reminiscent of 1930s-era WPA posters.
The bulk of Early’s work is featured regularly on the walls of Chico Paper Co. (Early credits owner Jana Strong with helping launch his career as a printmaker), but his pieces have now made their way to all corners of the world, including Japan, England, Sweden, Germany and Bahrain, partly with the help of his Web site (www.jakeearly.com).
Though the bad economy forced him to relocate 18 months ago to Phoenix, so his wife could take her first job as a professor (“Chico State, well, nothing in California is hiring right now,” he said), Early still considers himself to be Chico-based. Indeed, Early—who maintains a Chico area code on his cell phone and whose parents live in Chico—is so closely identified with the town that this writer had no idea until she interviewed him that he had moved.
“I lived in Chico for 30 years, and I come back twice a month,” Early said by phone from Arizona. “I still focus on Chico 100 percent. I hope to be here [in Phoenix] only temporarily.”
“All my work’s there,” Early said of Chico. “Everything I do is there. I don’t feel like I live here [in Arizona]. We check the job listings every day. We would like to move back—oh God, yeah!”
Like Loomis, Early emphasized that, contrary to some misconceptions, none of his work is computerized.
“It’s all done by hand,” he pointed out. “And I built all of my own equipment, I mix my own ink. Pretty much the only thing I don’t do is make the paper. It’s an old-fashioned, obsolete technique that I enjoy doing.”
Early, who began his career as a graphic designer and worked for Enloe Medical Center for seven years, recalled the time, in 2002, when he made his first print—of the familiar Orient and Third streets water towers.
“I made a hundred of them, with no plan,” said Early. “I was stuck with them. I took them to the farmers’ market three weeks in a row and tried to sell them for $20 [each], and I didn’t sell a thing. Some people scoffed and said it was too much. … I got criticized because [my art] was ‘weird.’ ”
These days, said Early, “there’s a waiting list for people who want to spend $2,000 for one print [of mine]. … It was that third print, of the Senator—almost two years into the deal—that’s when it took off.”