Nestled in an art studio near the base of Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska, you’ll find painter Dawn Gerety and her partner in adventure Honey Bear, her Labrador Retriever.
After crossing paths with Dawn multiple times over the past 15 years it was great to finally get a chance to sit down and learn more about how she’s successfully transitioned from a 25-year career in graphic design into painting full time.
Dawn draws creative inspiration from her Alaskan surroundings, focuses her effort on perfecting her craft and even created artwork for a helicopter.
In our conversation, Dawn shares:
- How living in the right location can help you mentally thrive
- Why you sometimes have to do the work yourself to get the results you want
- The steps she took to create a new art career for herself
You have a degree in environmental design and fine art history from the University of Colorado at Boulder and then worked for many years in graphic design. Now you’re doing art full time. Can you give us a little more background on how you went from that degree to doing art?
I’ve always been making things since I was little. I’ve used different mediums including crafts, jewelry, ceramics, illustration and spent a huge chunk of time in graphic design.
About a decade ago I purposefully wanted to leave the computer. My back was hurting, my shoulders were hurting, it was super stressful and everything was on a timeline. I loved working for myself but it was time to think ahead and move in a different direction so I really tried to figure out how to paint. I didn’t have a lot of education for that, but I basically started schooling myself on acrylics and canvas and just started making art, kind of giving myself exercises — not for a market or sale, but to figure out how to use the paint and brushes and water with the paint. I painted the things that were around me — Alaska wildflowers, Mount Alyeska, things that are familiar and everybody else can relate to.
Ten years later I’ve successfully moved away from the computer and now am pretty much making art on canvas for a livelihood. And that has now also morphed into translating those original works into marketable products and wholesale.
So I’m now able to make a living off my art but it’s not going to end there. I really want to try doing sculpture or things that are 3D. I don’t know what that means in terms of a market or making money but all still hands-on, nothing with technology.
We initially saw your work years ago in Jack Sprat, a restaurant here in Girdwood. Was showing there one of the ways you got your name out when you were trying to transition from graphic design into painting?
I had other people encourage me to start showing work and I was anxious about that. I didn’t know how it would be received and I didn’t know how I would feel about it if it wasn’t received well. I’d always done graphic design for clients which was more private, but for this I was throwing it out into the public.
Jack Sprat was one of my first places I put art up back in 2010 and it was all over the place. I had everything from snowflakes to wildflowers to ravens — and everything sold. Probably priced super low, but I didn’t know how to price anything.
It worked really well. It made me feel good and it was encouraging. I suppose that was the support I needed mentally to know I could keep going.
When you started painting was your ultimate goal to transition into doing art full time?
Yeah, but only if it could. The purpose of painting isn’t money-driven but I didn’t want to be on a computer anymore. So my desire was really to try to figure out how to make money.
So after the success of Jack Sprat, what were some of the major steps you took to get to where you are now?
There’s a gallery in downtown Anchorage, Sevigny Gallery, that’s super popular with a younger vibe. It’s a real go-to for Alaska locals who are interested in the same activities as myself. Somebody had given the owner my name and she contacted me when she was opening up the space. That really launched me beyond Girdwood and translated into me figuring out how to make prints and supply products year-round for people. People were also contacting me to find out how to get my art and now I had somewhere to point them and that was great since I didn’t want anyone coming to my studio.
Around what year was that?
That was 2010.
Oh, that was really early on then.
Yeah. Oh, and then I decided I should go back to Sydney, Australia, where I was born because I was turning 40 and I needed to treat myself to something.
I traveled around the whole country in a van for 13 months and I painted the whole time. I didn’t go there to paint, but I did it just to entertain myself since I had a lot of time on my hands. I painted probably over 200 paintings on that trip and that helped me learn paint — the actual paint — and how to use it to my advantage later. That also helped with just the actual prolific part of making art, churning it out.
And then marketing-wise beyond the gallery, how did you get your name out there?
I don’t know what marketing to do. I need help with that. I want to be hungry on social media but I’m not. It’s awkward to pimp myself and I kind of just rely on doing shows.
You sell a lot of different types of work — fine art, books, home decor, iPhone cases and commissions. You also have your work on your website and sites like Society6 and Etsy. What sells best for you and where?
I would say my original paintings are why I get contacted by most people and what ultimately makes the bottom-line happen.
If somebody doesn’t want something that big or maybe doesn’t want to spend the money on an original, then it trickles down to canvas or metal print reproductions.
On the Society6 site I hardly make any money but it’s just fun products that they use my images with and I get a little teeny cut off of everything. I mostly like ordering things for myself or presents for other people.
And then Etsy, does that have much impact?
No, I don’t know how to point people there. And I don’t try very hard either.
When it comes to pricing, you said that early on you were probably too low. So can you talk about your process in pricing your work?
I guess I only price originals because all the reproductions kind of have a standard markup.
Originals are pretty much by size and content. If I did something a certain size then I put it in a certain price range, and if somebody wants a commission, I’d give them that price range and remind them that, depending on the detail they want, that will go up.
Right now I have somebody interested in doing a commission that involves Mount Alyeska so I gave them a price range for that and also said if they wanted their family blueberry picking or for someone to have on certain color shorts then that obviously would be more — that sort of detail costs more.
What are some of your actual prices?
I really like canvas sizes 36×48” and right now commission-wise that would sell pretty well for 4,500 bucks. I don’t know if I can fetch more than that. But I talk to my boss and I’m pretty flexible. [Laughter]
How long would a commission like that take?
For the first part of a conversation — an email, a phone call, sketches and actual time in the studio — if I don’t have a bunch of traveling and other things like that I think two months would be realistic.
And for your creative process, does it differ for a commission versus your personal work?
The creative process, if I’m doing something for myself that I’m going to create, it usually comes from me being somewhere, doing something, taking pictures to remind myself of that area or what I’m trying to capture and then coming back home, looking at images on the computer and trying to see what was iconic. Then I design a sketch for myself and try to translate that to the canvas.
I recently did a bike ride from Devil’s Pass to Hope and the alpine and mountains are really different. It’s such a beautiful ride so I tried to ask myself, If somebody were to see a painting of this, how would they recognize it as this ride? Is it the flowers? Is it the rounded mountains, what makes it different? Then I come back and try to achieve that.
You also do quite a few public art projects. Can you tell us your process for finding and getting those?
I think I’ve done four or five of those at this point. I would say once every other year I’ve been awarded one, but I’ve written many, many proposals and not gotten them.
I love that process because it’s so different from anything that I could come up with on my own. It’s a lot of paperwork and I have to write narratives and design concepts for people I don’t know and probably will never meet. It’s a selection process and I’m up against other artists and I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know why sometimes they pick someone versus another artist.
So there’s intrigue, challenge and trying to show my best on paper because it’s not even art. And I’m a terrible writer so it’s really a struggle for me to write those, it takes forever.
I usually ask myself, What is public art and what does this mean for somebody in this space 10 years from now? When I walk through an airport now it’s changed everything. I look at sculptures or paintings and that’s all public art. Now that I’ve done it it’s making me think about a lot of different spaces and what’s behind the scenes.
People say to me all the time, You must be making so much money, that project must be huge. And I don’t know, I love doing it, I get to collaborate with carpenters and people who know permitting and coding process for the municipality. But by the time it’s all said and done, the hours I put in— it’s a paycheck but it’s not like I could live off of that.
How did you learn the process of writing and submitting proposals?
So I did the Sitzmark Bar & Grill which wasn’t a 1% [for Art Project], it was a private commission, but it’s pretty public and that project is what caused somebody to say, Hey, you did that big piece so you know you can do it, you should try for an actual contract.
Then when the Girdwood School here in town was having a renovation it opened up 1% [of the funding for] art in their school and somebody suggested I put a bid in. I did and I was awarded it and I did a big mural there. Doing that paperwork was pretty intensive, but once I did I just felt more comfortable to try for other ones.
Yeah, makes sense. Do you think some of your skills from your graphic design freelance career have translated into the business of your art?
Yes. Mostly for communicating with people. Realizing nothing is personal. I don’t want to read into every email.
And the way I do commissions is I do not take any money upfront. I do not want that person to feel like they’re committed to buying anything even when I’m done. It’s going to sell somewhere, but I do not want them to have the art if they’re not stoked on it.
Somebody else can say this is a bad business model and probably without 20 years of graphic design I wouldn’t have that as my business model. But I just do not want people to feel like they’re stuck with it or it didn’t turn out the way they wanted.
Also, time — because with graphic design I bill by time and in some ways that helps translate into the reality of art projects. But art’s not on a time increment so I learned not to waste time.
What is your approach to managing your time?
Oh god, I need help with that too. [Laughs]
I just put the first fire out first. It probably comes down to commitments and timelines and deadlines.
How do you keep track of your deadlines? Do you have a system for that or a calendar?
Yes. Every year I have a homemade calendar that I call the “Super Book” and it’s my whole life. I’ve probably had this calendar for 25 to 30 years. Each year I have one and it’s everything. In the back of it I purposefully put about 100 pages of blank paper. I’m a list maker so it’s just all my lists of everything. That’s my northern star for life. If I lost the Super Book, I’d be lost.
So you don’t have it digital at all?
Nothing. You sent me a calendar invite [online] and I’m like, I don’t know what to do with that. [Laughs]
How much time do you spend creating versus on your business?
Oh yeah, that’s something I wish I could manage better. I would love to just be creating more but the amount of time I spend corresponding, uploading and digitizing photos, research or even doing legwork is overwhelming and surprising.
Everybody thinks I just sit here and just sloppily throw paint around, have fun and go get a beer at the brewery. But it’s pretty taxing. I get pretty stressed out. A lot of it is managing my time and figuring out business stuff.
I’ve taken online courses on business management for artists and that’s helped and I’ve had some takeaways but I still just feel like I’m kind of limping along.
Raven Hanging the Sun. I had been painting lots of trees in this style already, but just trees and branches. I wanted to create something that had more depth than only something pleasant to look at. This piece helps tell the tale of how Raven stole a great treasure, the sun, and hung it up to give light to the world. —Dawn Gerety
What were some of the main takeaways that were most helpful?
Well, the class I took was on using Instagram and it kind of empowered me to use it as a tool. Instead of looking at it like, Oh, it’s just a platform to say “look at me” it switched that thought to, I need to be able to use this for actually growing business. I don’t know if that’s working or not but I feel more comfortable on using it which was a big deal.
The mindset shift makes a difference.
Yeah, not being afraid of it or thinking it’s something other people know how to do better than me.
You’ve also worked with commercial clients Tordrillo Mountain Lodge for their helicopter design and Alyeska Resort here in Girdwood. Can you tell us about how they found you or how you started working with them?
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge is personal because my brother-in-law used to be part owner of it, so I kind of grew with their company and I used to do a lot of their graphic design for them. They were never obligated to use me but yeah, they were going to have new investors and bought a helicopter and I got the smoke signal one day. They said, We need to paint a helicopter in two weeks. So we scrambled and worked on a design, which I loved.
With Tordrillo and Alyeska Resort or any business I’ve never had any kind of contract or anything, it’s kind of just more like an at-will thing. So I guess they like the work and they keep calling me.
Was the helicopter wrapped or was that painted?
It’s painted. I was like, I don’t even know how this is going to go on a helicopter, how am I going to translate this into a vector file for somebody to understand how this works? I would have loved to see who painted it.
With Alyeska Resort, when the ownership changed at the end of 2018 I passed them off as a client. I had been working with them for maybe 25 years but it just seemed to be a good time to change. But until then it was personal because I’m on the hill as much as I can be, summer and winter, and I loved being involved with them right here in my community, it made me feel like part of a group. But as far as art goes they contacted me for a lot of art outside of graphic design.
Fireweed Bear. This was one of my first acrylic painting commissions. I wasn’t sure how to paint a bear — I had never done that. This was really challenging for me as I doubted myself through the entire process. I kept thinking the client would turn down the finished piece. She loved it! And, this has become one of my most asked about reproductions as a print or card. I realized I should be more confident and proud of my work. —Dawn Gerety
Of all the ways you earn money, how do you think it breaks down percentage-wise?
Maybe a third commission, a third gallery wall art and products and a third wholesale products like the printed cards, coloring books and stickers.
And instead of using a distribution company, I’m doing it all myself now repping myself all over the state of Alaska with tourist shops and different businesses. That’s going really well.
So you’re actually reaching out to the different companies and providing your products?
Yeah, I used to use a company out of southeast Alaska to do the distribution. I would send them all the products and then walk away and hopefully some rep would take care of all of that and I would get a check every quarter. That was okay for a while, but then I stopped getting the checks but was still selling stuff and was spending so much time trying to be on top of them because I wasn’t getting the money.
So I decided to take that all back myself, which I did not want to do, I do not want to be doing wholesale. But sometimes people aren’t going to do the job you want, so you have to do it yourself. So that’s where I’m at. My bedroom now has a closet filled with clothes and cards and boxes of envelopes.
Gustav Bou. I started painting with animals and making parts of them very stylized. I did dozens of moose and caribou with huge outrageous antlers and/or legs. It was easier to create art using the shapes as patterns and colors vs. real life objects. —Dawn Gerety
Where do you get all your products made?
I use a printer in Anchorage and stickers are from an online company, StickerMule.com, I really like them. Coloring books, I looked in the United States and I could not make the numbers work, so I think that got printed in China. I did not want that but that’s how it broke down.
So to make all this happen you just pinpointed different companies and called them directly?
Yes. I’m a list maker so this winter when I started to take on the distribution myself I sat down and made a huge list of all the options, sent them all sample packs. I reached out to as many as I could and heard back from most of them. I started an online webpage where they could order wholesale products and that took off right away. So now I’m really stoked.
Nice. And what sort of agreement do you have with them?
I just sell it for 50% of what they would retail it for.
For things like wall art, canvas and metal reproductions, I just have a sheet I created with what it is I pay for the product, how to mark it up, whether I’m selling it or a gallery sells it, and I arrived at a price. I didn’t have any other model to use so the price sheet was just something I created on my own. I seem to be in the ballpark of what other people are doing.
Powder Pig. This was one of my first mountain pieces. It was based off a photo in the Alaska Range of my heli ski group after a landing on top of a run. The photo doesn’t have anyone on the slope, so I painted what I imagined the epic run would be for the person with the first descent, hence the name. —Dawn Gerety
What are some of your biggest challenges that you’ve had to deal with?
Sometimes I just crave being around other people because I feel like I’m creating and spending so much time alone. But that’s actually what I love. So it’s a catch-22.
I happen to live next to another artist, Meg Smith, so that’s just been super joyful to have somebody understand what we’re both dealing with each day. We have lots of laughs about it, life is good.
So yeah, I think maybe lack of connection with other people is hard. And so far I haven’t had to stress about money but I’m also single and don’t have kids and that’s probably the only reason this has all worked out. I can pretty selfishly do it all on my own and keep things simple.
Do you think being in Girdwood has been difficult at all because it’s such a small community?
No, I love it. I love it. I don’t know how to be somewhere with more people. I wouldn’t do well.
You can make anything you want in this place. The vibe of this whole place is young, active, healthy, positive, lots of time to play. It’s Saturday for somebody every day and so mentally I’m thriving on that part.
Why do you do what you do?
I have no idea. Sometimes I wish I worked at a coffee cart — just go to work and then leave.
It’s just how I tick. I laugh because in my house right now my couch is full of porcupine quills and jewelry-making stuff and hats that I’m trying to figure out how to use fabric paint on. It’s this ongoing thing. I love it and I’m always making something.
Anything else you want to add?
I’m just really thankful. I’m super stoked. People ask me, You’re making it as an artist, how’s it going? And mostly my answer is, It’s super fun, I’m going to do this as long as I can. My backup is probably driving the shuttle at Alyeska Resort or something but I kind of hope that never happens.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.