The Big Picture: How Two Muralists Make a Living With Their Art
Bekky Beukes had a plan for completing her mural in a week.
As one of 17 local and visiting artists invited to St. Petersburg, Florida’s annual SHINE Mural Festival, she had carefully plotted how she would spend each day — and how she would make up for the time she would miss at her day job.
Beukes works three 10-hour days each week designing marketing materials for a nearby community college. She gets up early, tacking a list of the day’s priorities (no more than three) above her desk at home, which overlooks a thicket of palm trees.
She lives just a few blocks from a rented garage that serves as her studio. It has electricity, but no running water or bathroom. There, she paints, using oils on large canvases to represent the opposing pulls of light and dark.
Her dual creative roles are just one example of what it takes to make it as a working artist. We spent the SHINE Mural Festival with Beukes and another artist to find out how they fight the stigma of being a starving artist. In the process, we learned what it takes to create a mural from scratch on a tight deadline.
Beukes, 34, started painting when she moved to the Tampa Bay area from South Africa in 2014. The former fashion designer didn’t have a work permit yet, so she returned to painting, an art form she had loved as a child, to keep busy in the meantime.
She quickly realized painting could be more than a hobby — it could also be the cornerstone of her professional life in her new home. But doing so takes a balance that requires early mornings and late nights. And sometimes, as was the case during SHINE, it means working overnight in the rain, on a scissor lift perched 15 feet off the ground.
She knew it would rain. She planned for rain. She didn’t plan for the possibility of a hurricane.
Taking the Leap as a Full-Time Artist
Just six blocks away from Beukes’ mural site on the side of a brewery, Gibbs Rounsavall of Louisville, Kentucky, got up before the sun each day to spend hours working quietly on his wall before spectators started to drift by.
There was no shade on the side of this warehouse that sat within sight of three other mural projects. Rounsavall, 43, had only about 8 feet of clearance between his work surface and a busy intersection.
He has only been a full-time artist since May; he worked as a high school art teacher for 12 years while painting geometric abstract art on the side.
“I kind of fell into teaching because it allowed me to continue developing my craft,” he said while painting a long carnation-pink stripe one day, sweat dripping at his temples. “I knew that whenever the day came when this became a more demanding schedule that I would take that leap.”
He misses teaching sometimes, but diversifying his artwork allowed him to develop his business over the course of those years. He said he was making a salary in the high $50s as a teacher but increasingly painted commissions along with gallery art. A lot of his work is corporate art, perhaps for a new restaurant. He recently sold a piece to be displayed at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
“I think a lot of artists have to do that if they want to make a living at it, to diversify,” Rounsavall said. For a few years, he’s been selling fine-art prints of select pieces that have already sold. The prints cost around $225 and provide access to his art for those who might not have the budget — or space — for one of his original oil paintings, which can cost anywhere between $450 and $8,000.
Crunch Time, All the Time
Beukes has been exhausted for months.
She delivered two big projects at her design job this year. She also had two solo art shows, which she planned herself down to the last detail. One of those work projects overlapped with preparations for one of the art shows, adding to the stress.
“I just feel like I’m under pressure all the time,” she said. “Obviously, because I’m delivering. I have obligations. I get it done.”
Beukes’ twin career paths allow her to be creative in different ways, but the schedule is starting to wear on her. “I don’t have space for normal human things, you know?” she said plainly. “Like, my relationships are affected. I don’t have social… I have everything allocated.”
The studio can be lonely, with only the paint and maybe some music for company. But at the mural site, it became obvious how full Beukes’ life is. Friends and fellow artists gathered on lawn chairs set up at the base of her mural, sometimes late into the night, when she worked by way of a portable work lamp and one flickering street light.
She already knows that 2019 needs to be a different kind of year: one with more studio time and fewer shows; one with streamlined work projects and resisting the urge to always say yes.
“There’s no space for panic,” she said a few weeks prior to the festival.
But a few days in, it was a matter of getting the colors right on the wall. This wasn’t her first large mural, but it was her first using acrylic and spray paints, mostly unfamiliar territory. Her forearm started to cramp after about a half-hour of pressing the trigger on a can of gold spray paint to add dimension to an angel’s wings on one side of the mural.
In a moment of frustration, she decided she didn’t like the gold armor on the other figure’s shoulder, and painted it over with black. When it dried, she started that part over again.
When asked how the deluge of rain from the passing outer bands of Hurricane Michael affected her mural progress midweek, she barely blinked. “It’s crunch time,” she said. “I did 12 hours yesterday.”
Riding the Self-Employment Wave
This was Rounsavall’s first mural project with time constraints. “It forces you to change the process,” he said.
His mural, “A New Day,” started to come together once his wife, Sara, joined him midweek. Their two children were back home with their grandparents, and Sara, a food stylist, jumped at the chance to join her husband on the road.
She’s been a freelance artist for five years. The stability of Gibbs’ teaching job made it feasible for her to build up her business, Sara said. Now it’s his turn to take a career leap.
Resting in a sliver of shade one steamy October afternoon, Sara explained that health insurance was the biggest question they considered before Gibbs stopped teaching. The two sole proprietors considered forming an LLC, then tried COBRA insurance when Gibbs left his job. But the first COBRA bill made Sara scream. They’re on an Affordable Care Act insurance plan now, although she admits that even with a tax credit, it’s expensive.
Under the large brim of her hat, Sara smiled, admitting that while she’s not a numbers person, she’s the family’s chief financial officer by default. She described their family as “aggressive savers.” As a self-employed person, she was used to receiving irregular payments instead of predictable paychecks. She and Gibbs spent a lot of time going over the numbers before he decided to focus on his art.
“We talked about, ‘How much [does Gibbs] need to contribute?’ in a 12-month breakdown,” she said. “Then what? Well, maybe one painting could float his contribution for three months. Or you sell X paintings per year. Or you do X murals per year.”
Going over different scenarios helped the couple identify the realities of their cash flow as two full-time, independent artists.
“You learn to ride the wave of this work style,” she said. “The phone’s going to ring or it’s not going to ring. And if it’s not ringing, I know how to hustle.”
When the rain came, as it did almost daily, the Rounsavalls took cover under a neighboring business’s back-alley carport. When the clouds cleared and they heard another artist’s lift starting up again, they knew the raindrops had started to dry.
The Instagram Effect
Beukes’ first painting measured 5 feet square and sold for $5,000.
“I didn’t feel anything about putting big prices on the work after that,” she said. “I did not mind selling the work for what I believed it was worth considering the amount of time I put into the work.” Starting with high price tags has allowed her to maintain those rates, she explained.
“It’s very difficult to sell art,” she said. “But there’s a way to do it, and you have to believe in the work.” Putting a $100 price on a painting that took hours, she explained, makes it difficult to sell a painting later for $1,000. She hasn’t sold an original piece for less than $750.
Beukes, Rounsavall, and the rest of the SHINE artists each earned $1,000 for their murals, a fraction of what they might make for a private commission. But the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance also covered travel, lodging, supplies and most meals for each artist during the festival. The invited artists know that having a new mural in a busy downtown area can provide a major visibility boost.
“The respect flows two ways,” Beukes said. “It’s an honor to be a part of something like this.”
For more than a week, she was an ambassador at her mural site, readily jumping off her lift to answer questions and chat with local children.
And then there’s Instagram. During the festival, art fans posed in front of mural sites and visitors asked for selfies with paint-smeared artists at all hours of the day.
“The whole world can come into my studio,” Rounsavall said of the power of social media. “They can see what I’m doing… it’s definitely made it easier to reach people, make connections and have that turn into work.”
Social media, he said, “Has changed my whole career.”
Just One Human
Beukes wonders if she’ll have to choose one side of her career over another at some point.
Her day job gives her stability; her art rounds out her creative fulfillment.
“It’d be great to be able to find something where I’m able to combine the two, and maybe that’s my solution,” she said. “Yes, I want to do a million things. But… you have to remember that you’re just one human, and I think that’s something that’s very difficult for me to do.”
Toward the end of the week, she seemed to be as well versed in driving heavy machinery as wielding a paintbrush or spray can. Her oversized sunglasses with mirrored, rose-colored lenses hid how tired she was. She admitted that about two hours of sleep in the early morning hours was all she was getting. But it was easy to see her mural site was where she wanted to be.
When it’s over, she’ll go back to work for a few days, then back to her studio in the heat. But first, “I just have to be able to say, at the end of every single day, ‘are you completely spent?’ Because that’s how I measure whether or not I’ve done my best,” she said. “We’re covered in paint, we’re done. Great day. Good day. And that’s it.”
Always the Hustle
Rounsavall is the broker, the negotiator, the shipping specialist. “You have to be everything,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand all that goes into [creating art].” But there’s more to it than sitting down in front of a canvas and waiting for a muse.
He hopes that one day grants will fund more of his work, but he acknowledges that the process of applying for opportunities takes time and energy alongside his day-to-day tasks.
“Am I making what I put into it?” Rounsavall asked the wall as he paused before painting another stroke. “Absolutely not. I would love to get to that point, but I don’t know. If there’s a lucky artist out there that is compensated for all the work they put into it, I hope they’re aware of how lucky they are. All that behind-the-scenes stuff, it just adds up.”
Without a salary to rely on, he has to be able to count on his craft. “There’s still pressure. There’s always going to be the hustle,” he said. “But when it’s something like this that I’ve been working on my whole life, you like the hustle. You’re all in for it.”
On the last day of the festival, he woke up at 4:15 a.m. to make sure he’d have time to complete his mural. He was greeted by two emails: a grant acceptance and an invitation to a juried art show in Louisville.
“It’s a ton of good news,” he beamed. “I’m going to take that momentum home with me.”
Lisa Rowan is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.