Building a Career as An Artist: Justin Kane Elder’s Evolution

We’re committed to supporting artists in whatever way we can, but it’s exciting when they’re plying their trade in our office. Recently, our Seattle studio got a mural by Ten Hundred. Now, we’re happy to say that you can watch Justin Kane Elder work live in our San Francisco studio tomorrow  from 12:00-3:00 PM PST.

Building a Career As An Artist

The dream of ditching your day job to do what you love isn’t yours alone. Ask any artist and they might tell you that while they have the passion and the skill, it’s the fear of failure that keeps them shackled to what is expected of them: Desks. Neckties. Commuter trains.

But Justin Kane Elder took a different approach: he flipped his 9-5 as a carpenter into a lucrative gig consulting contractors on architecture and design.

Talk about creating your own destiny.

But how exactly did Justin’s path go from a career of woodworking to running a creative studio, Electric Coffin, a successful career as an artist, and a White Walls show opening this weekend in San Francisco? It’s a story that goes back a few generations.

Building a Career As An Artist

Building on a heritage of handiwork.

You see, Justin is a fourth generation carpenter. He says that construction simply runs in his blood after growing up around job sites, and since his connection with the art of carpentry stems from his lineage, he appreciates the artistry in the work. Lines, angles, flow, and making a space fit the natural surroundings. The artistry in construction and carpentry lies in the ability to make architecture relevant to its surroundings. You don’t just throw up walls, you pull from the environment. So in effect, Justin — and his elders before him — have always been artists, which gave him a “genetic disposition to create.”

But his artistic abilities didn’t stop there. He went on to study painting and sculpture at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, which may seem like a far cry from the nails and hammers of construction, but the connection is there — his hands were creating, his mind absorbing the surrounding environment to create a statement. A narrative.

And while he worked in construction throughout college and afterward, the American economy ensured that he wouldn’t be “just” a carpenter for much longer.

Building a Career As An Artist

“I went back into it [carpentry] after college and did that until the economy crapped out. I got laid off. I was on unemployment, but I saw that as an opportunity. It’s free time, but you know the check is ending. My instincts were telling me ‘don’t get a job doing the same thing — do something new.’ I saw it as an opportunity to build an art show, which I knew how to do.”

Rather than trying to wiggle back into the safety of his day job — “I decided to make art for a living and I haven’t looked back.” — Justin used the skills he’d learned working on a construction site, like working with proposals, budgets, and deadlines, to create his first show – skills not many artists have developed.

You have to start somewhere.

He started with shows in small coffee shops, and eventually saw interest from people around Seattle with construction projects that would benefit from an artist’s eye. “It’s been a great way to get a paycheck and feed my family while still being free to make art.”

Now, Justin spends his days consulting on architecture, design, and creating spaces that speak not only to the surrounding environment, but tell the story that the space wants to tell. Sounds like a dream come true, since he’s also still using his heart and hands to make art and opening solo shows in galleries across the country.

Building a Career As An Artist

Building a career as an artist? Here’s what you can learn from Justin Kane Elder’s experience.

1. Strike out.

Even if you start with freelancing for a few clients, being in charge of your own destiny and having the ability to make your own schedule is key.

2. Get your work out there.

Justin started in coffee shops and is now opening solo exhibitions where he performs live painting events. Whether you’re uploading your work to Behance or hanging it on the walls of a local haunt, get it seen.

3. Look in your periphery.

Rather than believing the only way you can declare success is to sell your pieces, look for other ways to scratch your artistic itch and earn a living. Justin used his construction connection to consult on architecture and design; What can you do that’s just outside the norm of what you currently do?

4. Follow your instincts.

Justin says that while his instincts were telling him what he needed to do — make art — it was also very scary experience… and that’s all part of the journey. “It’s always scary when there’s that much uncertainty. Be afraid — that’s what’ll get you to the next level.”

5. Commit to the work.

Once you decide to make the leap, commit to it, and all the work that comes along with that decision. Justin says that even now, he’s still keeping his eye on the prize. “Even this show in San Francisco at White Walls . I got that call maybe a month ago, but I committed to doing it and just didn’t look back. I’m bringing easily 100 pieces and over 30 of them are new.”

Justin will be painting a mural in our San Francisco office tomorrow – stream it live here.


Building a Career As An Artist

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Kristy Ellington

Head of content marketing and social media at Creativelive.