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.