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Local artist sacrifices security for pursuing his dream

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jeff Pierson grew up knowing he wanted to be an artist. "I wanted to draw for Disney. I was obsessed with their films," said the 35-year-old Charleston artist.

Instead, he worked as an artist for the state Division of Culture and History, becoming its arts director in 2007. He and his staff were responsible for distributing grant money to arts organizations in West Virginia.

"It was a good pay off. I could go and watch what people were doing with this grant money, and see how much we could impact the lives of children and even adults with a little bit, a couple thousand dollars here and there, or even just a couple hundred dollars. The money for a small play in a school, or even just an artist's visit to a school, had a huge impact," he said.

"But there was always that part of me that longed for my art."

In his administrative job, he didn't spend much time pursuing his art. "I decided as much as I loved the work, as important as the work is, I needed to be where I needed to be."

Then an opportunity arose. Pierson had been volunteering as an art teacher at Charleston Montessori, on the West Side.

"Teaching art at the Montessori school re-engaged me with my creative side and made me realize that I was missing that."

One evening this past spring, Pierson got a phone call from the director of the school. "I thought, 'Oh no, what did I do?' I went to the office the next day, and they told me I really had a gift for teaching and they offered me a full-time job."

Pierson had a serious choice to make. Should he stay with the state and pursue the career path of a director? He had been offered jobs all over the country.

Or should he step into the world of education? He would have more time to pursue his art, but at the cost of a $10,000-a-year pay cut and a significant drop in benefits.

Pierson decided to teach, first observing as an assistant in the classroom to prepare to move into the teaching position.

"It just didn't work out," he said.

"So that was the stepping off point. I had already left my job, I didn't have a job."

During this time of transition, C.F. Payne was visiting Huntington as part of the Huntington Museum of Arts' Gropius Workshop. Payne was Pierson's mentor when he attended the Columbus College of Art and Design. So Pierson went to see him for advice.

A boy and a dream

At the age of about 4 or 5, Pierson began going to his uncle Roger Cain's house to work. "I say work because that is what it was for me. My uncle challenged me to improve. When I watched cartoons I didn't see them as entertainment, I saw them as opportunity."

Cain, a local artist and AIDS activist, greatly influenced Pierson's style from early on. In 1996, Pierson's freshman year of college, Cain died of AIDS.

"Even in his last moments, he was an influence on me. I really wanted to come home and be with him, take a year off. But he told me 'don't you dare' and I was too afraid of him not to listen."

Pierson includes a tribute to his uncle in every piece he does.

"I chose the AIDS ribbon as somewhat of a symbolic tribute to his influence in my life. So if someone were to look at my work, it is always there and it is often hidden."

Some pieces have more than one ribbon and Pierson says it serves to humanize his work. It allows people to connect with him on a visceral level.

Pierson returned to college after his uncle's death, but found himself somewhat adrift, unsatisfied with his previous dreams of being an animator.

"Then, in a small seminar class at CCAD, I met C.F. Payne and it was he who said, 'You're not an animator, you're an illustrator.'"

That resonated with Pierson and allowed him to focus on his studies.

Back to the decision

This past spring, in Huntington as a guest lecturer, Payne looked at Pierson and said, similarly to 15 years earlier, "Jeff are you a bureaucrat or are you an illustrator?"

After visiting Payne, Pierson ultimately chose to leave teaching and not return to his previous job with the state.

"I walked home from that last day at the Montessori school and it was a long walk home, and I freaked out a little bit. Here I had left a really great job at the state with great benefits, insurance, all these things you're supposed to have. I thought 'What's going to happen next?'"

Pierson recalls the conversation with his wife, Shannon, a part-time art teacher, also at Charleston Montessori:

"So she said, 'Well, what do you want to be?' and I said, 'I want to be an illustrator!'"

His wife was concerned he couldn't earn a living as an illustrator. He was worried, too. Pierson said he didn't sleep that night. Fifty years ago, illustrators were in demand but as cameras and photography became more affordable the need for illustrations waned.

Pierson decided he was going to make illustrating his job. He had to be self-driven. "Nobody is going to make this happen for me."

He would have to create a market. He began compiling lists of clients, options and goals, which narrowed his focus. He had to decide what his family could do without. Could he and his wife live without health insurance? (Their 3-year-old daughter, Sylvie, is now covered under a state program.)

"I had to take some risks. I had to do some things I really didn't want to do in the interim to provide for my family before I make it. Up to this point, I had been passive. Now I have to be aggressive. Now, every time I leave the house I make it a point to talk to someone."

As his own promoter, agent, accountant, scheduler and boss, Pierson said discipline is the key.

"I can't come downstairs, go get a cup of coffee and sit on the couch for a few hours. I have to be disciplined in my approach."

He makes delineations between home life and his job by "going to work." This includes going to his home office and going through the ritual of changing clothes,

"It's a mindset," he said. "It is a mental thing that allows me to say 'OK, now I am working.'"

Pierson works every day, sometimes 16 hours a day, as an illustrator, and he also cares for daughter Sylvie while his wife works.

"The advantage to working at home is there is no such thing as weekends; the disadvantage is there is no such thing as weekends."

Pierson is slowly cobbling together a solid clientele. He has found work in more traditional sources like freelancing for newspapers and magazines. But he's also found some quirky and interesting commissions illustrating portraits, murals, home illustrations and album covers.

A lot of his work comes by word of mouth. He said living in West Virginia is both a boon and a challenge. Here, he is one of only a few illustrators available, so he has cornered the market, but the market isn't very large, unlike as in New York and elsewhere.

The Internet, though, has enabled Pierson to market himself and his product globally, allowing him to live in West Virginia for the foreseeable future.

"I can communicate with clients outside the state without being in front of them. I can email sketches and allow them to be part of the entire process."

The payoff

"The great thing about it is I am home with my family. How lucky am I? To be with my wife everyday, to be with my child everyday, it is wonderful. I feel so fortunate. Sure, it is financially challenging, but I had to decide what is important in life."

To see more of Pierson's work, you can find him on Facebook, visit him at jeffperisonillustrations.com or call 304-541-9284. You can see his work around Charleston, on the "Peer to Pier" murals decorating the highway pillars of Interstate 64 or on the back of One Stop on Greenbrier Street.

Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopkins@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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