The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Justin Vining is an Indianapolis-based artist, born and raised in the Hoosier state—a landscape he continually pulls inspiration from in his work.
For Justin, the path to becoming a professional artist was anything but direct. After graduating from Purdue University with a bachelor’s in Fine Arts, Justin taught art to elementary school students for nearly three years before deciding to attend law school at Valparaiso University with his younger brother. Once he’d earned that degree and successfully passed the Bar Exam, he took on a role as a corporate recruiter. Justin then stayed there for eight months before fully committing himself to his art.
We sat and talked in his studio earlier this month about his life, his art, and the art of making of a living. Be sure to check out his March 2016 show, where he’ll occupy the newly-renovated Main Gallery Solo Exhibit at the Harrison Center for the Arts.
On the first work of art he recalls creating…
Joe: Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
Justin: I grew up near Warsaw, Indiana, outside of a small town called Etna Green. Every spring and fall, we went to my grandparents’ farm pretty much every day just running around and getting into stuff. And at that time the community we lived in was on a lake, so I also have all these childhood memories of going to the community beach there and living a little bit of a lake culture. When I was 10, my grandpa retired and we moved over to the farm.
Joe: Any siblings?
Justin: Yep, one younger brother.
Joe: What’s the first piece of art you recall creating?
Justin: I took this art class in high school. I remember the only reason I was in that class was because Indiana required creative arts, which is interesting to think that some weird standard—that has relatively little bearing on most people’s lives—severely impacted mine. If it wasn’t for the combination of having to be required to take an arts course and then having an awesome art teacher full of energy, I wouldn’t have even stayed in the art class.
He gave me an opportunity to draw six houses for our town’s historical home tour. I did the illustrations for the brochure. That was the first time I’d ever really gotten paid to make art. That was a cool experience, doing something you love and getting paid on top of that.
What comes with that, too, is the opportunity to have people react to your work for the first time. I think most people are in careers and fields where you work so hard for so long and there’s very little appreciation shown or respect paid directly toward your contribution. I’m in an interesting field where you put yourself out there and become pretty vulnerable. Generally the feedback that comes back is direct and generally positive, and that’s interesting. That was my first taste of that. That was a cool feeling.
Joe: Oh yeah. It’s cool to have that connection to the past, too…to be able to capture your town for future years.
Justin: Right! I have the brochure still.
On the many plot twists in his life…
Joe: Almost everybody else I’ve talked to in these conversations had one significant twist in their story to point them toward entrepreneurship. One right or left turn. You kind of took a left, then a right, then a left and right. You know what I mean? You grew up on a farm, went to Purdue, taught art school, went to law school, became a corporate recruiter, and then decided to be a full-time painter. So what was it about the painting where you were just like, “This is my landing spot?”
Justin: That’s a really good question. I think one of the biggest influencers on that wasn’t necessarily the passion for painting as much as it became a realistic option for a career. I think in our society it’s ingrained in us that this isn’t a viable career option.
Justin: Yeah, especially fine art. You can’t make a living as a painter. As an art student in college, you just hear that over and over and over and over. And you know what the craziest thing is? I don’t want to say it’s not that hard, but—with the right personality, the right kind of drive, and maybe even along with that, the right product—it can be a great option. I think it’s a combination of everything. I feel I’m a product of all these different things colliding. But for years, I never considered it an option. I think once it started becoming a realistic career option with limitless potential, that’s when you’re like, “Wait, I might have something here!” It makes you consider it differently.
I’ve been a full-time artist for almost five years now, which is crazy to think. It’s crazy because I feel like, if it’s this good now when I’m still just at the cusp of the beginning, I can’t imagine what the future is going to hold.
But I have this double-edged sword feeling toward it, because in some sense I don’t know that I’d walk into a high school art class and tell kids that this is a viable career option.
Joe: You’d do the same thing you heard in art school?
Justin: Right! But at the same time—and maybe with the right grouping or the right filtering—I definitely think there’s people with the right skill sets and the right kind of balance and attitude where this actually can be a very realistic career option. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I find a great freedom in the sense that I create my livelihood. It’s super liberating. Once you get over the hurdle of not getting a paycheck every two weeks, it just becomes so liberating. I love it, man! I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Joe: You said it became a “realistic option.” Is that just because cash was coming in? Is that what made it a realistic option?
Justin: Yeah. I mean, obviously that’s a huge part of it. But in addition to the cash, it’s also the wide appeal to a fairly broad audience. I think that helps. Of course, there’s this fine line between not necessarily wanting to appeal to everyone and anyone, and not wanting to have such a narrowly focused channel. I think that works for some artists. But I think for most artists there has to be some type of balance. I felt like that balance—and seeing that and being aware of it—also helped to inform that decision.
Joe: So it sounds like, despite going to college for it, you didn’t always know your story would lead to becoming a full-time painter? As time went on, it became more of an option.
Justin: Right. Even halfway through my third year of law school, the ball was really rolling with my art. I was selling quite a bit. I had done two big solo gallery shows that got tons of press and sold a ton. And yet, even as I was doing all that, I still didn’t think this was the end game. I thought it was a means to an end. I thought it was a way to help pay bills at the time. It was a creative way to solve a problem.
Joe: What was the reaction of family and friends when you decided to make that move? Did you even care?
Justin: I think I cared. But to your point earlier, there were so many lefts, then rights, then lefts, then rights. My family at this point were just kind of like, “Well, whatever this guy does, we’re just along for the ride here.” I don’t think they were surprised at anything.
Joe: I hear you. Do you come from a creative or artistic family?
Justin: My mom not so much. My dad, for sure. Not creative in art, but creative in problem solving. It’s really wild. The older I get the more I really see my dad in myself. As a farmer, all he does is creatively problem solve. His craftsmanship in fixing or constructing or building anything was always so particular. It was so specific and aesthetically correct. That I certainly have taken away from him.
The older I get the more I am becoming like him in the sense that I just want perfection. You can look at the work around you. It’s muddy and loose. It’s a different type of perfection, but it’s intentional. You know? I certainly have gotten that from my dad.
On the business side of art…
Joe: Before you committed to being a full-time artist, you last worked at a recruiting firm. What did you learn there that helps you today?
Justin: I learned how to drive a metric-driven business. And what’s really interesting is—as I said before about the liberation and freedom that comes with just creating more—the “just creating more” isn’t just creating paintings and wishing and hoping. It’s creating paintings and understanding that it takes me, on average, 67 days to sell a painting. You put enough paintings in the pipeline and the years of sales data helps you know what to expect. It’s just math. I can look at the past data and really understand what I need to create. It’s not wishing and hoping at that point. It’s just really understanding “How do I want to live?”
Joe: How do you price out your pieces? Based mainly on number of hours spent making the piece?
Justin: No, I price on fair market value. It really has nothing to do with hours and everything to do with where people buy. It’s so interesting. You see artists that are so concerned about recouping their hours spent. I just think that’s such a naïve way to look at it. I understand if you’re in the business of purely commissioned work. Just like any type of other graphic design, you charge by the hour. But as a fine artist making non-commissioned work, I really think the way you earn a living is by going to where the market says your prices are.
It’s like any type of stock. Just because Facebook’s stock is valued at $105 today doesn’t mean tomorrow it’s not going to drop to $92. I feel like as an artist with a product, we fluctuate just like that. When you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not, maybe you’re not commanding $300 for that piece anymore.
You have to go where the market is buying the work. That’s how I price my shows—at fair market value based upon past data.
Joe: So do you create to create or create to sell?
Justin: I create to create for the most part, and I’ve been pretty fortunate in the sense that people have really gravitated towards it and bought it. I’ve been really lucky. I do some limited commission work, but it’s very little of what I do. They’re just so hard to do.
What’s interesting about my non-commissioned work is I really only have to please myself. And I feel like as an artist, if you get to a point where you’re pleased…maybe that’s bad…but there’s that point where you’re your worst critic. So if you’re pretty psyched about it, that’s a good sign. That’s totally a good sign. But I guess when you do a commission, I can’t help but think about that client. It’s like, “Are they going to like it? Are they going to hate it?” It almost doesn’t even matter if I like it anymore, because it only matters if they like it.
That kind of pressure, it’s difficult—especially because generally with commissions you charge a premium for custom work. And so not only is there that added pressure, but then there’s that monetary aspect. I don’t know. I struggle with them, for sure. I really struggle with them.
On his creative process…
Joe: In simplest terms, I guess I’d look at the creation process in three phases. You’ve got the dreaming phase, the creating phase, and then the showing phase. Which one of those is the most enjoyable to you?
Justin: Oh wow. That’s tough. I think the obvious answer is the creating phase, being in the moment with the piece. Especially those moments where you take a piece from good to great or when you take a piece from not working to working. Those moments are awesome, for sure. But I really like the third phase too.
Joe: The showing?
Justin: Yeah. I really enjoy that part, too.
Joe: Do you tend to go to the shows yourself?
Justin: Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve never missed a show I’ve had.
Joe: I know I’d probably be wreck, wondering what everyone might think. Do you ever get nervous about that?
Justin: No. One of my favorite drives all year is to a show after building a big solo gallery show…like the day I drove to my show last March. I even tear up thinking about it now, almost. It kind of goes back to my earlier point. What other field do you get to show the world your work and have this huge party where hundreds of people come out and appreciate—generally appreciate and respond well to—what you’re doing. I believe so much in what I’m doing, and it is so un-compromised.
It’s really hard not to take criticism personally. You always take it personally. It’s always personal, but, at the same time, there’s almost this not giving a shit because it is true to myself. And at the end of the day, if I’m honest with myself and honest with the work, nothing else really matters. Being able to let go like that and having this sense of pride with what you’ve done, it’s a really surreal experience.
Joe: Are there ever times when you look at something you created and focus all of your own attention on the things you wished you’d done better? Little things the average person wouldn’t ever notice?
Justin: What helps me with that is having the input of other creative people around me. I think that’s been one of the biggest benefits of the Harrison Center. Even today, I had my studio neighbor Johnny McKee in here helping talk through these paintings and getting reassurances from him—along with constructive criticism. Having that helps bolster my confidence in the direction or helps me course correct.
I have a show coming up in March that’s…I’m going to use the word “personal.” It’s one of the most personal shows that I’ve put out there in Indianapolis. And when I say personal, I don’t necessarily mean each one of the pieces has some crazy backstory to my childhood. Not personal in that sense, but personal in that it’s the work I really want to create.
But honestly, I have no idea if my collectors are going to be into it. I have no idea if people are going to be into it. And that part is a little bit scary. To put 50-60 pieces that all have this similar voice, that’s scary for sure. I think having Johnny over here to help talk through that process, it reaffirms things, for sure.
On the purpose of his art…
Joe: What are you trying to accomplish when you’re creating your art?
Justin: That’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I think there’s a long-term motivator for a body of work I want to build some day, but I’m not building it now. But as far as creating in the moment now, what am I trying to do? One of the things that I think drives me a little bit—and why I like these landscapes and the familiarity of houses and barns and forms is because everyone recognizes these forms as what they are. But I think they’re unfamiliar enough that they’re not representative of actual places, which is very intentional on my part.
There’s so much bullshit happening in our world today that sometimes I think people just need an escape. And if I can provide that escape for them—help them to zone out for five minutes during a day and just wonder what the heck is happening in my painting—I think my job is done.
I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve gone more toward works that are nonrepresentational of specific places or specific times. I want people to get lost.
Joe: Those barns and landscapes you focus on, why do you gravitate toward those scenes? Is it a case of simply leaning into what you know or do you feel like you’re trying to work something out?
Justin: No, I think I am trying to work something out long term. I didn’t allude to what that long-term goal is earlier, but if I could build a dream show it would dive into the histories of family farms in Indiana. I’d like to find these really rich historic farms that maybe go back multiple generations. I still don’t even know what the finished product would look like. I don’t know if I would target farms that have been abandoned. I don’t know if I would target family farms that are still in existence.
I think an interesting story to tell would be these family farms that are maybe 50-150 acres still—or maybe even up to 500 acres—and they’re just fighting the good fight out there. I’d try to tell their stories and capture that history before it’s gone. I think, although our society is moving toward organics and buying local again, our world isn’t shrinking. I think there’s always going to be a need for mass produced food, unfortunately. As that need increases, I think the bigger farms are going to get bigger, and the smaller farms are going to just fade out. I feel compelled to capture some of that history visually.
But I don’t think I’m at a place in my career where I’m ready for that yet for a lot of different reasons. I think one of the biggest things is just time commitment. The unfortunate thing about having to live off your work is you have to work. And also, you’re making these paintings that are so specific to locations that if the farm doesn’t buy it, who’s going to buy it? Maybe people will buy it. If it’s a great painting it might not matter. But at the same time, I don’t think I’m technically ready yet to even build those pieces the way I want to build them. I don’t think I would do them justice, because I don’t think I’m there yet.
Joe: It sounds like that means a lot and impacts you deeply. I can see you putting a lot of yourself into that art when the time’s right to create it. Are there other parts of you that we might find in your art today?
Justin: That’s a good question, because no one ever really asks that. A hidden part that no one knows about really—and I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it too publicly—but I’m an avid chess player. Huge. I play almost every single day on Chess.com. I’ve played since I was in eighth grade.
Joe: Oh really?
Justin: What’s interesting is that if you look at my work, you’ll see influences of the chess board—the checker pattern. A lot of people think, since it’s Indianapolis, that it must be for the Indy 500. But it’s about chess.
I don’t play a lot over the board. But when you do play someone in real life, I think you can tell a lot about their personalities just by the way they play the game of chess. There are so many different ways you can attack a game of chess or play a game of chess. You can be really passive and technical or you can play positional.
I mean, I’d bet you’d guess, but I play swashbuckling and attacking and sacrificing. I win big or lose hard. There’s really not a lot of middle ground for me. I think it’s interesting because that shows a lot about how I live life, too. It’s interesting. I feel like that passion is reflected in my work very subtly.
And coincidentally, when you fly over the midwest, it’s just like a giant chess board. It’s cool, because in my work that has this checker pattern in it, there’s this dual symbolism. There’s sort of the midwest as a whole, but there’s also this secret passion for playing chess.
On the intersection of life, death and art…
Joe: Lately, some high profile people in Indianapolis have passed away. It’s been sad for me personally and sad for the community as a whole. Over the years, I’ve discovered I get more creative when I’m in a more sorrowful state. Is there an emotional state for you that makes you more creative?
Justin: Yeah, I think so. When those types of things happen—maybe not necessarily directly in my work—but I think it reaffirms my choice to live how I have. I can’t imagine living any other way now, because I think life is precious and life is short.
I had one of my first friends that I knew pretty well die probably about four months ago. Died with his dad in a plane crash. It just opens your eyes. You just never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know. I just think I definitely feel like I live my life with no regrets. That’s a pretty fortunate position to be in for sure.