When a four-year old Krystii Melaine declared to her family that she would someday become a painter, little did she imagine what that statement might actually entail. But as a child growing up in Australia, she felt the same pressures that most aspiring artists feel–to be practical in the pursuit of her creative aspirations, working hard to balance her passion for art with her ability to run a successful business. This equilibrium has served her well on both fronts, helping her art reach across cultures and continents.
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Instead of pursuing painting, Krystii initially decided to express her creativity by following a path that she thought would be more economically viable. She founded her own bridal- and evening-wear company, and built it into one of the most successful bridal businesses in all of Australia, employing more than 50 people, and showcasing her designs in Paris and London. This first career provided her with a solid business foundation, as well as the opportunity to work with a wide range of people. It also taught her new ways of engaging with the human form, through the use of fabrics and draping–in effect, crafting “living sculptures.”
But when she speaks about her career trajectory now, one cannot help but feel that painting chose her instead of the other way around. Though she spent nine years designing bridal gowns, which allowed her a certain measure of creative expression, it wasn’t enough of an outlet; she still felt the urge to paint full time. Ultimately, this deep desire drove her to close her bridal business, and she began to study painting with Graham Moore, a master painter in Melbourne. Under his tutelage, she spent five years learning about portraiture, still life, and plein aire landcapes, later adding wildlife to her repertoire. “I think I was put on this earth to be a painter,” she says. “I had to give into it.”
While painting brought her some degree of success within Australia–mainly through portraits commissioned by the military and relative notoriety through presenting her work in shows and galleries–the country’s small population and relative lack of disposable income to spend on art meant that Krystii earnings remained below the poverty line. She knew that her decision to become an artist could not become an indulgence. “I can’t justify painting for fun. There has to be a level of business analysis in there.” If she intended to stick with her artistic aspirations, she had to find consistent buyers for her art, and she felt that her best bet would be to look outside of Australia.
Armed with little more than an art magazine to help her find galleries and identify potential contacts, Krystii and her husband, Michael, set off on an exploratory trip to the United States in 1998. While she managed to get her work into three shows and one gallery on her first trip, she didn’t rest on her laurels, and stayed focused on the long-term goal of pursuing a career in the American art market. She took reference photos, made connections, and returned to Australia to create paintings for the American audience, fostering her own interest in the history of the American West along the way, and building relationships with additional galleries and shows on subsequent visits.
After that first voyage to the US, Krystii and Michael returned twice a year, even though these trips were far from lucrative in the beginning; once they had paid for all of their travel expenses and the cost of shipping her paintings, the couple was lucky to break even, and they even had to mortgage their house to cover their expenses.
Looking back on those days, Krystii realizes that she and her husband took a huge risk, and she cautions others seeking an international art career to think ahead. “We committed to a time frame. We had to build a reputation and a new set of contacts, but to do this, you have to have a good plan, and know why you are doing it.” For Krystii, pursuing a career in America was not about fame or fortune; it was about being able to make a living.
Still, understanding your goal does not mean that it will be easy to achieve. The Internet has made the world a smaller place, and it is now easy to make connections halfway around the world with nothing more than the click of a button, but back when Krystii was trying to break into the American art market, international careers were much more difficult to develop. She had to forge bonds with galleries, collectors, shows, and customers in far-flung locations by working the phone–with very limited email access.
That’s where her business experience and organizational prowess proved vital. Fearing the old adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” she communicated regularly with her American connections, and worked backward to meet deadlines. It wasn’t easy to negotiate these relationships across two continents, and she had to have faith that the galleries and shows that had promised to hang her work were actually doing so, and that they would deliver their payments to her on time. “As an artist, you are a small business owner. The artist does product development, manufacturing, shipping, and all of the office work. You are wearing a lot of hats, so you have to be very broad in your skill base, or employ people who can help you.”
After a decade of spending two months per year in America, Krystii and Michael applied for green cards to become permanent US residents, a process that took two years to complete. Selling most of their possessions, the couple left behind family, friends, and Michael’s job, which had proved to be a source of stability for them, and they moved across the globe to a new culture. “Together, we took a major leap of faith, and we went through a lot of stress and emotional upheaval. Luckily, it has all worked out. Michael has always been incredibly supportive of my art career, and I could not have achieved all that I have without him.” Though challenging in many ways, the move made it easier for her to build relationships with American galleries, shows, and clients, and it slashed her overhead by reducing travel and shipping costs.
Her business acumen in no way diminishes her dedication to improving her craft, nor does it dull the intensity that she feels for the art itself; it simply makes her more strategic about the way she works. “If you are painting for money or reputation, that affects the value of the art. I paint what I like, and what I’m passionate about, but then I also step back to analyze whether or not it will fit an exhibition. If it does not work for that show, I shelve it for later, and paint something else.”
But while business strategy is necessary to succeed in the art world, Krystii recognizes that it is talent and skill that reign supreme. Her devotion to the emotional honesty of her work forms the backbone of her international success as a fine artist. “I am selling happiness to people–enriching their lives.” To learn more about Krystii Melaine’s work, please visit her website: www.krystiimelaine.com.
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