Study abroad experience, social media savvy fuel a young artist’s career.
By Jenna Realmuto
Anna Douglas Smith leads me to a detached garage at her Spartanburg, South Carolina home—just last summer, it was transformed from a “cat palace” into an artist’s den. There is some residual evidence of the studio’s previous purpose—boxes of Christmas ornaments and old keepsakes high up on mounted shelves—but for a young artist, the space is paradise: quiet, private and fully stocked.
Paint-splattered ottoms make for eclectic seating. Tubes of paint peek out of the top of boxes. Paintbrushes of all shapes and sizes blossom from baskets and mugs. Paintbrushes that have a mother’s magic—most tools that Anna Douglas uses were once her mother’s, an artist herself. “They just do what no other brush can,” says Anna Douglas with a mysterious grin.
A junior at Sewanee: The University of the South, the 20-year-old stands out amongst other developing artists. Her style is defined and practiced, though she tells me. “While painting, I’m always learning through experience.
Her feeling for pop is evident—think sunglasses, green Coca-Cola bottles, Rolling Stonesesque lips. Stepping inside her studio, your eyes are immediately drawn to the walls, where canvases beckon with bursts of millennial pink and vibrant turquoise. In spite of being born and raised in the Deep South, her work doesn’t betray her Southern roots. The glittery works of Ashley Longshore, the street art of New York City, Gucci ads — these are the things that inspire her.
Don’t expect to see the traditional fruit bowl or mountain landscape in this studio. Anna Douglas prefers vibrant pallets, tones so much larger-than-life that they are not usually found in the natural world. Her paintings are, simply put, chaotic with color. “You think of chaos as a bad thing, but I like chaotic work,” she explains. “It bothers me when paintings look too real. I like to know that it was made with paint and a conscious decision where every brush stroke is put.” It’s kind of like life today: very little room to breathe.
Many of her paintings feature women, their eyes often obscured. “There’s an absence there. There’s a mystery there. There’s a vagueness,” she tells me of her decision to shroud the gaze of her female subjects. There’s much more emphasis on the mouth, which either twists or smiles or scowls to convey an incredible amount of emotion. Her paintings seem to suggest that words are more important than appearance. Like so many women, she has experienced moments of harassment and objectification. She hopes that her paintings will build a better, stronger image of women. She says, “I’m still figuring out what I believe in politically, but I am a feminist, and I really believe in social and equal rights for women, especially in art.”
Other pieces focus on hands, such as the series of painted ceramic hands that she created on a recent study-abroad trip toFlorence, Italy. Again, we see action over appearance.
Not only did Anna Douglas step out of her comfort zone by taking a course in ceramics while in Florence, but the experience showed her something else—the absence of women as major figures in the study of art history. One of her exams, she said, gave her a jolt: A question was phrased, “Name an artist, and discuss what you think his influence is on the art world.”
Outside the classroom, her immersion in a culture where art is woven into the fabric of life was truly inspirational. “There’s art in every corner. Everywhere you look, there are people painting, there are galleries, there are so many people celebrating it.”
In the U.S., pursuing art as a career is often discouraged—or, as Anna Douglas calls it, given an “eye roll.” Her Florentine experience opened her eyes to the disparity between the perception of art and artists at home and abroad. It also provided her with the motivation to earn a respect stateside and to become established in the field.
Her youth, along with the rise of social media, make Anna Douglas a testament to changing the landscape of the art world. Like many other young artists, she doesn’t anticipate showing her paintings in galleries, though she does sell her art at a local store on occasion. Not only can installing your work in a gallery be a drawn-out process, but it requires the artist to mark up prices to cover commission fees. In fact, many in the art business are lamenting the “gallery crisis” around the world. Whether the internet or art fairs are to blame, the decline in the art galleries has coincided with artists’ finding other ways to make a living through their work.
Indeed, Anna Douglas has already successfully bypassed the traditional gallery route and began a successful business through Instagram. She encourages any artist looking to build a career to start there. It’s free to use, and with millions of users, it is a god way to promote your art and create a platform for sales.With the social media app responsible for elevating influencers to the status of makeup moguls and professional models, there’s little doubt that a tech-savvy painter could use it as a springboard for a career.
The commissions started to come in when Anna Douglas was still in high school. At first, most of her patrons were simplylooking for a unique gift for a loved one (her most popular requests were pet portraits), but more recently Anna Douglas has seen a rising interest in her original creative pieces. Little of her work is on display in the studio, she says—most paintings have been sold. The impetus for her Insta-business isn’t just about money. It gives her additional motivation to improve, and commissions give her the opportunity to bring an idea to life that she may not have thought of on her own. But the business aspect has also taught her the true value of her time, effort and talent—just a few years ago, she would take nearly any price for a painting.
Anna Douglas hopes to elevate the status of the professional artist here at home. She advocates for every artist—on Instagram, in school, in galleries—to know their own worth. “I want people to see my effort and be inspired by it—my effort to make art more important in our culture and less of an ‘eye roll.’ I just want to be a figure of that, hopefully.”
Then she laughs. “And I want people to follow my Instagram.”