Theresa Brown’s first career was as a dog trainer running a 100-pen kennel in Raleigh. Steve Filarsky was a sign painter from Philadelphia, specializing in gold-leaf hand-lettering on fire trucks and antique boats.
Now, the couple is married, earning a living as traveling portrait artists for the past 15 years, crisscrossing the country to sell their work at art shows and returning to home base in Franklinton in between. Making it work as a self-employed household has taken flexibility and business savvy, but both say it’s worth it.
“As times change, you have to adapt what you do,” Brown said. “The biggest thing is, yeah, you can do it, but it’s hard work.”
Filarsky and Brown are the featured artists at Wake Forest Art and Frame Shop for downtown Wake Forest’s Art After Hours event Friday. Shop owner Beth Massey recently commissioned a portrait from Brown of her own children, marveling over Brown’s ability to capture the essence of each child’s personality.
“You can make something look like a picture, but to capture how people in that family see that person is amazing,” Massey said.
The idea that you can’t make a living as an artist is relatively new – artists have been tradesmen working on commission for millennia, Brown said.
“Even the greatest of artists had to go, gee, I’ve got to finish this – I have bills due,” Brown said.
A life in art
Art show season is cyclical, so Brown and Filarsky have developed a lifestyle that follows the weather like migrating birds: drive the camper down to Florida for a month at a time for winter art shows starting in November, then head to the northern shows in spring and summer. It helps that they work well together; last Wednesday, Brown was scheduling art classes in Wake Forest while Filarsky set up their booth at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh.
The road to self-employed success was a winding one for both artists.
For Brown, the catalyst was a divorce that left her a single mom of four kids between the ages of 3 and 13. She needed money, fast.
Her three years of art school at East Carolina University had left her with the mindset that painting portraits on commission was somehow lesser, not truly “art.” She shoved those feelings aside and set up a booth at the N.C. Flea Market, “where most artists wouldn’t be caught dead.” The first weekend, she came up empty. Her second weekend, she netted $90. The two following weekends brought in $250 apiece, and she knew she’d found a viable career.
In the two decades since, she has illustrated books for New York publishing houses and other projects, but her focus is portrait-painting with a special niche capturing people and their horses or dogs. She first holds a photo session with a client to get natural, relaxed photos in the setting of their choice. She then creates a pastel portrait, with special care to capturing the spirit of her subjects.
Filarsky started out with an architecture degree from Penn State University, then moved to North Carolina to start a sign business in Wake Forest, where he met Brown while investigating the local art scene. He specializes in watercolor portraits, in addition to hand-lettering gigs from across the country.
Having a business-owner’s mindset is crucial to succeeding in a notoriously difficult field, Brown said. There’s no waiting for inspiration to strike – the work has to be done according to client specifications on deadline.
The couple is able to live comfortably; their house and cars loans are mostly paid off, and they used to maintain a beach getaway spot. Brown’s kids are grown, but the couple has two ponies, five dogs and a goat.
“When it comes to ‘making a living,’ you determine what you want,” Brown said. “Aim for what you want, and you can do it by hitting the right market. Luck doesn’t enter into it.”