For almost 15 years, the collective “we” at Design*Sponge have been getting peeks into studios from around the world — from painters to quilters to knitters and everything in between. We’ve gained business advice, and tips on how to find balance (or at least each person’s own version of balance), and these windows into various creative lives have never been short on takeaways, big and small.
Today, I’d like for you to meet fine artist Adrienne Brown David, based in Water Valley, MS. With four children (and nanny to a fifth), and a homeschooler parent as well, she’s sharing how to navigate through work and family and figuring out a wholesale business that happened quite organically. Her work always keeps her on her toes, whether she’s crafting her popular paper dolls, creating a detailed pen and ink illustration, or working on a vibrant, beautiful painting.
While the juggle of working from home is always a challenge, Adrienne makes it look easy. Scroll below to get to know Adrienne, her work, and what makes her someone that seems to stay cool and calm through it all. —Erin
Photography by Erin Austen Abbott
You've had a bit of a different reason for starting your business - can you please explain to us how that came about?
Honestly, the paper dolls started as something that I made specifically for my [oldest] daughters. They’ve evolved over the years, as I had more children with different tastes and personalities, but it was always something just for them. About 18 months ago I was approached by the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council about applying for the Community Supported Artist grant. The grant provided funds and promotion for local artists to create an easily accessible product that would be a sort of introduction to their more fine art work. I presented the idea of the paper dolls and they loved it. I used the grant to produce a set of dolls that could [be] purchased from my website. Along with the sets available on my site, I can create a custom doll in the likeness of whoever you want. The CSA grant was a really great jumping off point. Once the dolls started getting promoted and shared on social media, things just sort of took off.
Tell us about your body of work. Do you compartmentalize your fine art from the paper dolls you make?
I work in a wide variety of styles and mediums, so I have to try and keep them separate. My main focuses right now are the paper dolls, my paintings and colored pencil drawings and pen and ink illustrations. The pen and ink illustrations are usually family portraits or tiny house drawings. Each of those things has its own clientele and process. I have a running to-do list to keep from losing track of what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time.
What's been the biggest hurdle in starting a wholesale business when you didn't know that was the route you were going to take?
I think the biggest hurdle was just not knowing the first thing about wholesale or really much about art as business at all. I’ve created all of my life, but never really had to deal with the ins and out of business until now. I’m still figuring it out.
How does your family and the homeschooling that you do for your youngest two daughters inform the direction your art takes? How are you influenced by the homeschooling world?
Homeschooling takes up a lot of time. I’ve been doing it for close to 14 years, so I’ve gotten used to the amount of time that it takes up. Knowing that a large chunk of my day is going to be devoted to school/kids means that I have to be both very intentional and very unattached to the work that I am doing. I don’t always get to sink deep into my work and hyper focus on it. Sometimes I can do that and those times are amazing, but when it’s just a regular day and I need to get my studio hours in, I have to be very clear about what I want to accomplish in that time. It doesn’t sound like it, but there is something very freeing in just being able to walk away from a piece because I need to. I think that freedom plays itself out in my work. On a more concrete level, the amount of time that my girls and I spend outdoors with our homeschool group has played a huge role in the subject of my paintings and drawings. As a person who grew up in the city, I didn’t develop a love for the outdoors until we started forest school. That love shows itself in most of my art these days.
What lessons have you learned along the way in both your business experiences and journey as an artist?
I’m still learning lessons every day (especially in business), but I think one of the biggest lessons has been: just do the work. Even on the days that I’m tired, that I’m stressed or uninspired, I force myself into the studio (even for just 30 minutes) and do something. Usually it gets the juices going and I get things done, but even if it doesn’t, I’ve put my brain and body into that space for just a little while. That’s really important to me.
What would be a dream showcase or location to show your work?
Oh, I would LOVE a huge gallery space (honestly, anywhere) with 20-foot ceilings that I could fill with giant paintings of girls in Mississippi landscapes.
Tell me five artists that you have recently discovered or ones that you've followed for awhile, that you admire.
Your studio is located just off of your kitchen and next to the laundry room. How are you able to separate yourself from family life and the central hub of your home, with four children? How do you make it all work?
There’s no real way for me to separate it. Kids come through the studio with laundry, I supervise dinner prep, sign permission slips, break up arguments, assign chores, fix tears and breaks all with a paintbrush in my hand (or mouth if I need both hands). I’d love to have a separate space (or maybe a door) at some point, but for right now, I do what I have to do. It can be chaotic, but I’ve learned that it’s easier if I just accept them in this space instead of trying to keep them out. [My children] are all old enough to know to be careful or not to touch things that I’m working on. My 10 and 12 year old are often in my studio doing their own projects on the floor. It gets cramped, but it works. My husband is the only one who takes it upon himself to give me space when I’m working.
Do you feel like your life in Mississippi pulls at your work or informs it? Does your regional location play a part in what you create?
My paintings are hugely influenced by the Mississippi landscape. There’s just so much open space here that sometimes it doesn’t seem real. The sunsets, fog hovering over fields, perfect rows of pine trees, distant rain, intense rainbows, mile-high storm clouds — all of it is just breathtaking. Driving around the state can conjure up a lot of feelings, many of them are not great, but the land can feel magical. I love including that in my work.
I just create what I feel. I try not to compare myself to anyone else, which can be hard in the age of social media perfection.
Being an artist in the world of social media, how do you stick to your own vision and stay original in the work that you are creating?
I just create what I feel. I try not to compare myself to anyone else, which can be hard in the age of social media perfection. The work is what it is. I can’t dictate how it will be received or judged. I can only pull the images from my mind, put them out there and hope for the best.