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NewsApr 15, 2021

Turning failure into art and success

Painter Julia S. Powell discusses the ways mistakes are the foundation for future careers and happiness

Conjure your own picture of the life of a visual artist, and what immediately springs to mind? If you imagined drudgery, failure and a focus on billable hours: Congratulations! You’re in the right place.

Cambridge-based painter Julia S. Powell spent an hour last night in a virtual lecture delivering hard truths with a silver lining regarding her journey of leaving behind a potentially lucrative law career to finding herself as a professional visual artist and building her own “dream studio” above her garage, a workspace financed entirely by the proceeds of paintings she sold.

“My path was not carefully laid, nor was it direct,” said Powell, the latest guest speaker of our Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

Powell grew up the daughter of academics and was a scholar-athlete at the tony Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge. On the wave of her achievements and pedigree, she swept into Yale University, and then law school, and into a law firm in New York City.

But she began to sense something was wrong. She had embarked on a high-status career that many dream about, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“I thought about the optics,” Powell said in her lecture “It All Matters: Regrets and Reinvention,” sitting amid several of her works. “What would look good that I would be good at?”

Julia Powell pictured in her studio surrounded by three paintings
“It changed the course of my life,” she said of painting. “I tried it, I liked it, and then I loved it.”

The optics were cold comfort, however, as her workday involved reading thousands upon thousands of pages of digital text, scouring them for mentions of “sodium silicate production in, wait for it, 10 midwestern counties.” Even moving back to her hometown to work at a more person-centered law firm didn’t do the trick. She loved the firm, but hated the work.

Then she tried her hand at writing a book for middle-grade readers, but to no avail.

“I was killin’ it at failure at the time,” she said, until one of her brothers, who’d admired Powell’s pastime of doodling and watercolors — she had created beautiful wedding invitations and the like for family and friends for free — and gave her an easel, paints and other art supplies. Despite Powell’s lack of formal art training, her brother urged her to follow her passion no matter where it led.

“It changed the course of my life,” she said. “I tried it, I liked it, and then I loved it.”

Even more important than the supplies, her brother provided support and encouragement sufficient to propel her past her uncertainty and early missteps.

“It was just enough encouragement to keep me going,” Powell said. “When I started out, I was not good.”

She didn’t understand perspective, or even the difference between oil paints and water-based paints but, through persistence and experimentation, she started to find her way. She worked on techniques that would have her paint with a palette knife, largely because the tool was cheaper and easier to clean than a paint brush.

And she covered over plenty of her “mistakes,” both as a means of improving her work, as well as a way of saving money. “Canvases are expensive,” she said.

More than that, though, the practice of covering old paintings helped her progress in her art, and appreciate the relics of earlier attempts.

“I got to thinking that every layer matters,” Powell said, explaining that her contemporary works wouldn’t have the same depth of color and texture were they not built on the foundations of “failed paintings.”

“It all matters. Everything you’ve done before matters to where you are now,” Powell said.

Painting of a flower field by Julia S. Powell
"Flower Field Series (Russet Palette)," oil on canvas, by Julia S. Powell

As her work matured, she developed relationships with a few galleries and began to sell her work, but she also focused intently on a then-new social media platform: Instagram. She spent 25 hours a week or more on the platform, carefully curating her online presence, posting only quality photographs of her best work, omitting anything extraneous.

Powell now has 143,000 followers, a brisk source of income and a couple of other benefits: Instagram aids her productivity and thrusts her work before an online community of judges — appreciators, not art critics.

“My Instagram followers are kind, they’re not slamming my paintings,” Powell said. “I really appreciate that.”

Powell seems at ease with her social media footprint as she continues to “find herself” as a working artist who seeks to bring tranquility to inner and outer lives that can be chaotic and uncertain.

“I did not want to shock people with my art. I wanted to bring a sense of calm and happiness,” Powell said, adding that she hopes her work brings a sense of tranquility and joy even in the midst of political turmoil and the COVID-19 pandemic.

But getting to this point, personally and professionally, has taken plenty of work. She said it’s important that visual artists treat their work as any other job. Exhibit discipline and effective work habits. “I don’t wait for the spirit to move me,” she said, adding that she spends about 50 to 60 hours a week just painting and about five hours a week on Instagram, posting and marketing her art. (She has an assistant helping with logistics now, so she was able to drop her 25-hour-a-week Instagram investment considerably.)

Zoom screenshot of Julia Powell and Amy Deines
Julia S. Powell (left) and our College of Art and Design Dean Amy Green Deines speak during the April 14 virtual Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture.

Also, she credited her training as an attorney for making sure her hours are as profitable as they are productive, even though she dramatically transformed her career.

“I don’t know if I’ll paint professionally for the rest of my life because people have to buy my art for that to happen, and I can’t predict that,” Powell said. However, she urged others in the audience who might be at a career crossroads, or who are questioning whether they’re in the right place in life, to take a chance on themselves.

“If you want to change course in your life now, you can,” Powell said. “You can reinvent yourself without having to suffer through the regret or not having found yourself earlier.”

And don’t be afraid of failures.

“They’re all layers of you,” Powell said. “Even if right now you’re not where you want to be, just think of them as building blocks to getting you where you want to be.”