Crafty moves: ACC artists remade lives


February 21, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ONE of the great joys of going to craft shows is talking to the artists. It's always interesting to hear how they were inspired to become artists, and how they went about turning that inspiration into reality.

Some of the more fascinating tales involve artists who quit high-paying, prestigious jobs - as lawyers, developers, advertising executives and the like - to become full-time artists.

This weekend, more than 850 artists will attend the 26th annual American Craft Council Craft Show at the Baltimore Convention Center. Each will have handcrafted items to sell and stories to tell.

We talked to six participants, including two local folks, who traded pinstripes and steady paychecks for the risks and rewards of the art world. Most said being a full-time artist was both more rewarding and more difficult than they had imagined. All said they had no regrets about changing their careers.

Susan Levi-Goerlich

Susan Levi-Goerlich studied art in college, but she became a lawyer because she thought that was the sensible thing to do. "When I went to law school, I was very risk-averse," the 43-year-old Columbia resident says. "It was a good, safe thing to do if you weren't quite sure what direction you wanted to go in."

But between law classes at George Washington University she found time to learn pottery and visit Washington's museums. Before she graduated in 1984, she had begun making the stitched-fabric paintings that are now her trademark.

After working for a few years for a Washington firm that did government-contract litigation, she moved to Germany so that her German-born husband could attend school there. The move gave her the freedom to focus on art.

"When I moved to Munich, I really didn't entertain great thoughts that I was going to obtain a law position," she says. She began selling work on Leopoldstrasse, a street known for its artists.

In 1988, when her husband finished his education, the couple moved back to the United States.

"I said I would just do a show or two to tide me over before I find a job, and it's been 14 years," says Levi-Goerlich.

Creating and selling her own artwork has been a challenge, but one that she loves. "I didn't realize just how many hats I would have to wear as an artist," she says.

In addition to creating the artwork, she has to apply to craft shows, take photographs of her work, drive to the shows, set up her booths and handle all the business aspects of the job, including doing her own taxes. Her background as a lawyer sometimes comes in handy when she has to draft a contract.

As the owner of a small business called Stitched Impressions, Levi-Goerlich doesn't enjoy the same financial security that she would as a lawyer. But she's happy with the volume of art she is able to produce and sell.

As the mother of two children, ages 8 and 11, Levi-Goerlich says working from home has been a big plus. And because her husband is a schoolteacher, he can take over domestic duties in the summer, allowing her to work more hours.

"Lifestyle-wise, I now feel very lucky with what we have," she says.

Stephen Perrin

Stephen Perrin used to make a small fortune as an advertising executive for W.B. Doner & Co. By 1990, when he left the company, he was senior vice president and creative director of the company's Baltimore office, working with about 300 people.

But the pressure and long hours were making him miserable. So he decided to turn his woodworking hobby into a career making furniture.

"I just sort of looked at [the advertising job] and said, `Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?' And the answer to that was no, even though the money was really good," says Perrin, who is 53 and lives in Timonium.

"The idea of making the furniture, that was what I really wanted to do."

Before leaving his job, he saved enough money for the large-scale equipment he would need and put aside tuition money for his kids.

He also used his advertising expertise to research the market for wooden furniture. "It is a business, and you have to keep that in mind," he says. "I didn't just leave one day and say, `I'm going to try this.' I already had a portfolio of work I could send out to galleries. It was definitely study and homework."

Now, he sells his contemporary-style furniture, which ranges in price from $135 to $10,000, in a few galleries across the country and at four to six craft shows a year.

Even though he makes a lot less money now, he doesn't miss his high-powered advertising days, he says.

Johannes Michelsen

Johannes Michelsen made his first wooden hat as a joke. The 56-year-old Manchester, Vt., real-estate developer liked to wear felt cowboy hats, but they wore out quickly. So he decided to make one that would never wear out - one made out of wood.

Eleven years ago, he quit the development business to sell his handmade hats full time. "Once I started doing the hats, everything became easy," he says. "It's all fun now."

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