There’s no such thing as an overnight star, but Whitney Austin comes close.
In four years, the 32-year-old Charlotte painter has owned two studios and will open her third on Oct. 5 at Carolina Place Mall. Her work hangs in the homes of famous rappers, actors and her growing national fan base. Yet she’s hardly a household name in Charlotte.
Austin bypassed the traditional route of art school, agents and curators, and did it all herself with a little help from Instagram.
She says she’s always been aware of her artistic talent and back in high school in Dayton, Ohio she nurtured ambitions to be a professional artist. The only problem: She wasn’t connected to any successful artists. She didn’t really believe it was possible.
“I was good at drawing as a kid and wanted to be an artist, but I’d never met anyone who was doing it full-time. I figured even if I was successful, it wouldn’t be until after I died,” Austin said, laughing. “So I went for careers where I could make decent money while still maintaining some level of sanity, but I knew it wasn’t for me. I used to think I was a failure.”
Austin pursued other careers in college. She worked in sales, for radio stations and as a flight attendant. Then, for 10 years didn’t paint a single thing.
At 27, following a stint with an airline in Miami, she moved to Charlotte and grief struck. Her grandfather died, a personal loss that prompted her to return to her brushes. “I made a portrait of him as a tribute,” Austin said. “That’s what got me back into art.”
She began going to Michael’s, buying canvasses and painting to process her feelings or just relax. Friends began to inquire after her work. Initially, she approached it as a hobby, giving paintings away or charging only the cost of supplies.
“I didn’t see the value in it. I was just doing it for fun,” she said. But the stream of demand didn’t slow. She was booking custom orders for family portraits and Charlotte promoters began contacting her for live painting events. Seeing her hobby becoming a profitable side business, Austin began using Instagram as a marketing tool and setting goals.
An extra $2,000 a month turned into $4,000, then more. Over six months her sales increased dramatically.
Connecting on social media
With her bubbly personality and model looks, Austin is a natural fit for a visual medium like Instagram. She has over 133,000 followers on the social media platform and over 90,000 on Facebook.
Her feed includes live videos of works in progress, art supply giveaways, webinars for aspiring artists and shout-outs to first time buyers, as well as more personal videos where she talks about matters in her personal life, such as a painful break-up. Those types of posts are few and far between, but resonate with her mostly female, African-American followers.
“I show people the good and bad of my business and who I am as well,” Austin said. “Most artists are introverts and not very social, but people feel connected to my brand as well as my art. They’re buying my paintings so they’re getting to know me in the process.”
Austin’s work feels intensely personal.
Most of her work is figurative, but her style continues to develop along more abstract lines, with subtle or overt messaging about pride, confidence, strength and love. Warrior-esque female figures in various emotional stages dominate her themes of late. She’s moved almost entirely away from portraiture.
“That began to feel limiting,” Austin said. “It didn’t allow me to be as creative or showcase my signature style and concepts. I wanted to portray black women and men as royalty, in an abstract style. It’s more about the energy and colors of the piece, the colors and textures.”
While most of her subjects include wildlife and botanicals, “I’m passionate about black beauty, culture, our history,” she said. “I want a little girl who likes to draw to see a picture on the wall that looks like her.”
Taking the leap
At the same time as Austin’s online sales were ramping up, she was attempting to get into Charlotte galleries. Doors were closed because she didn’t contract with an art dealer. But in early 2016 she submitted her work to Kevin Douglas, owner of One Five O Studio Gallery in Ballantyne Village, and he included her in an exhibition.
“I loved her work and I loved her spirit,” Douglas said. “And our stories were kind of similar, in that I’m a completely self-taught photographer. I felt like all she needed was an extra push.”
Douglas’ gallery was fronted by a large, long window, and he invited Austin to do live paintings where passersby could see her works in progress.
“The turning point came one Saturday night, when three or four couples were hanging out admiring a beautiful elephant she was painting,” Douglas said. “The next day Whitney called me frantic, saying ‘Kevin, I need you to open the gallery.’ One of the couples came back and bought the elephant, and sent us a photo an hour later where they’d hung it up. To me that was a watershed moment. She jumped and hasn’t looked back.”
A space of her own
In April 2016, a scant year from the day she reconnected to her art, Austin quit her job at an assisted living facility and went into business for herself.
She’d already grown her own enthusiastic customer base through Instagram, so she took the pieces that hadn’t sold and put them online. They sold within half an hour. She purchased several large-format printers to make her own prints and cut out the middle man, putting her art within reach of people who might not be able to afford an original, but would purchase a print. Soon, she’d gotten the keys to her own gallery, in Ayrsley Town Center.
Austin began giving paint classes several times a week, in addition to selling her original work. She had book signings and launched national paint and sip tours, visiting Atlanta, Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and Miami. As word of mouth spread online, her patrons grew to include famous people. Cedric the Entertainer even messaged her directly to purchase a piece.
Rap Snacks, a national brand that puts the likeness of some of the genre’s biggest stars on bags of chips with their own specifically-designed flavors, reached out to Austin. Miami rapper Trina wanted Austin’s touch for the launch party of her Honey Jalapeno and Honeydew Cheese Puffs flavors. Austin said Trina was “very down to earth. I surprised her with a portrait I’d made of her, and she even let me paint her face. It was dope.”
Eventually Austin outgrew the Ayrsley space and got a larger location on South Tryon Street in Steele Creek. She has been there two years, thriving and making art accessible for both consumers and creatives who aspire to do what she’s done.
“Don’t get me wrong, of course one day I want to see my art valued at $35,000 in a fancy gallery. But artists, especially black artists, sometimes have to make their own way,” she said. “Instagram and self-promotion worked for me. I didn’t have another artist whose success I followed. But now that I know what I know, it’s time to share my knowledge to inspire and impact other artists.”
One way Austin hopes to do that is through her new store in Carolina Place Mall. From there, she will continue hosting live webinars and public events, as well as promoting and supporting local artists with monthly exhibits of their work.
“I’ve relied so much on Instagram that it’s a blessing and a curse,” Austin said. “It puts food on the table, but I also need to get out there and meet people.”
She is diversifying her offerings, with a fully abstract series of paintings, as well as home goods: throw pillows, tote bags and curtains featuring some of her prints.
Her message to other artists: It’s not too late.
“If someone just walked by and saw my success, they’d think I’d been doing this forever,” she said. “But for artists in their 30s and 40s, it’s not too late. There is a way to get your work out there and there are people who want to support it. Everyone has their own path.”
This article first appeared in the Charlotte Observer.