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Finding balance between teaching and creating.

Artist/High School Teacher Justin Wheatley

Artist/High School Teacher Justin Wheatley

My name is Justin Wheatley. I am a National Board Certified teacher. I graduated from college with a dual major in Fine Art and Secondary Education. I now live in Salt Lake City, Utah with my wife and four kids, and teach at an alternative high school. I have wanted to be an art teacher since junior high and have been teaching in the public school system for twelve years. 

My paintings are included in the collections of the Marriott Corporation, Royal Caribbean, The University of Utah, Utah Arts and Museums, Salt Lake County, and Brigham Young University and have been featured in Southwest Art, Studio Visit, Western Art & Architecture, and American Art Collector magazines. 

Why do you teach?

I wanted to be an art teacher ever since junior high. My teachers, Mr. Shelley and Mr. Fryer were incredible and I couldn't help but want to be just like them. When I went to high school, Mr. Loveland and Ms. Dimick had the same affect. Being a teacher was always the plan.

Why do you make art?

I can't imagine not making art. Sometimes I think of the need to create as a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing.

How do you balance art making and art teaching?

When I graduated college with a dual major in painting and art education, I was painting mostly in oil. Reality soon set in that if I wanted to produce a lot of work, I would need to switch to acrylic for the sake of time. I would also have to simplify my subject matter. I made a lofty goal to produce a certain number of paintings per year. Every day after school, I paint for around three hours. In the summer, I paint full time. The first few years were difficult. Being a new teacher required a lot of extra time doing school stuff. After about three years, I found the balance I was looking for and have been able to reach my painting goal every year since. I still like to paint in oil once in a while, but have grown to love acrylic.

How do you stay motivated enough to make art after a long day of teaching?

Right out of college some friends and I started a critique group. We get together almost every month and show each other what we are working on. We've been doing this for over ten years. The group has evolved and has included gallerists, museum curators, poets, and architects. Having a monthly critique gives me an added incentive to produce work and also provides lots of good feedback. On top of that, other artists might know of opportunities to show your work or create opportunities to do so.

Do your students see you making art?

When I'm in the classroom, teaching obviously comes first. I believe that part of teaching young artists is showing them how I work. Seeing my teachers create are was one of the most important components of my education. Once in a while I will pull out something small, find a spot close to a student, and start making art. I try to rotate throughout the classroom as I do this over the course of a semester. Not only does it allow me to show the students what I do, it gives me an excuse to be close by and talk to a student without it being awkward.

Do you think it is important for your students to know about your art career? Why?

I do. I want them to know that this is something I'm passionate about. I also want them to know that I have experience as a professional and can answer questions they might have about their own future making art.

Give an example of your favorite project or lesson plan.

For my beginning students, I love to do a project based around Michel Basquiat. His artwork is easy to relate to and doesn't intimidate new students. I walk them through the process of creating a visual brainstorm about their lives using words and drawing. They then choose parts of that visual brainstorm to create a series of four thumbnails. They choose one of the thumbnails to create in to a work of art. It's a great introduction into making meaningful art without the kids being worried about how "good" their pieces look.

Where is your studio?

Right now my dedicated studio space is at my home. In the past, I've had or shared a space in buildings full of studios, which I think is ideal. Where I live, there are quite a few places like that, so I imagine that it would be similar in other cities as well.

How did you go about getting into your first gallery? Any thoughts on how to go about doing this?

One of the reasons for going to school is to network. A friend of mine had a cousin who managed a gallery. He invited me to show in the space. I know that having a friend with a cousin who runs a gallery isn't going to happen to everyone, so I'd like to share a few things I've learned about how to go about it.

Exposure is everything, but needs to be in the right places.   The best places to show work are where art collectors go to buy work and gallery owners go to find new talent.  Art fairs, reputable competitions, studio openings, and non-profit galleries that require submissions are all places to get good exposure. If a cafe is your only opportunity to show some work, then do it. Just keep your expectations for sales low.  Besides trying to be in the right place at the right time with your work, it is good to be proactive and find a gallery that you think your work will go well in. This requires some preparation.

Before approaching any galleries, it's important to be prepared. Do this by having a strong body of work that includes at least twelve pieces you could give the gallery with short notice. Have images and information of all the work on file and be ready to ship them if needed. A website is a must. A price list is essential too. Be familiar with the work the gallery carries to make sure that your work will fit in while not being too similar to what is already there. Most galleries have information on their websites about their application protocol. Galleries can get dozens of inquiries every week, so be sure to follow the instructions as given. I learned this the hard way. When I was just starting out, my sights turned to Park City, Utah. I drove there with a few homemade business cards and all the courage I could muster. The awkwardness was palatable with each conversation that took place. I wanted in. They wanted me to go away. I now have representation in one of those galleries and we sometimes reminisce about the time I showed up in the middle of a busy day wanting the owner and employees, who were knee-deep in shipping materials, to take a look at my portfolio. Though they were kind and polite, it didn't go as I had hoped at that time.

Once you have representation, it is important to stay in contact with the gallery on at least a monthly basis. You will be working together in order to be successful and, just like any relationship, good communication is key. Be sure to find out what expectations your gallery has for you and always, always, always, be straightforward and honest with them. Some things that you should know about include: how your work should be wired, does your work need to be framed, when are the best times to deliver work, when and what manner is the best for communication, and the amount of time to expect between a sale and payment.  Every gallery is a bit different, and it's best to establish the basics of how things work from the beginning.

Something that I like to do when bringing in new work is create a list with pictures of each piece next to title, size, medium, and price. I send a digital copy of the list, along with a separate list without pictures (for printing titles) to the gallery prior to arrival. I also take a hard copy when I go to use as a checklist to make sure everything is there. It's also a good idea to write the size somewhere on the back of the artwork.

.Do you sell outside of your galleries?

I do. There are many local markets, fundraisers, and art fairs that provide opportunities to sell outside of the gallery. When you are just beginning, exposure is everything. I've done the farmer's market, open studios, craft markets, holiday markets, you name it. Over time I have been more selective on what I participate in, but I will always suggest participating in whatever you can as you try to get established.   As always, it's a good idea to communicate with your galleries what you are participating in.

While we are on the subject, I should mention to be careful about pay-to-play galleries or events. If you have to pay for the wall space to hang your work, chances are it isn't worth it. 

Do you use social media? If so, why?

Yes. Mostly just Instagram. It's the most immediate way to get my artwork out there. I don't know if Instagram will last forever, but I think that not having some presence on social media is a huge missed opportunity. 

How do you set prices?

That's a great question that there isn't an easy answer to. If you are planning on showing in a gallery, keep in mind that they generally take 50%. Price your work at what you think it is worth and double it. Consider the cost of the materials and the time you spend creating your work. Don't sell yourself short, but be careful not to start too high. Keep in mind that you can always go up in price, but you don't want to go down. Also remember that what you sell your work at in a gallery is what you have to sell your work at out of your studio per most gallery contracts.

What advice would you give other artist teachers?

When you are in the classroom, you are obviously a teacher first. Do whatever you can to help your students succeed. You will find that teaching art will affect your own work in a positive way. Come up with a plan that works for you and expect challenges along the way. Teachers often have other responsibilities. I was a track and cross country coach for a while. During the competitive season, creating art was pushed back into the evenings instead of right after school. Sometimes I didn't get to paint at all, and I had to tell myself that it's okay. 

How do you respond when someone asks for a donation of your artwork?

We have all been asked to donate a painting to a good cause. Most of us would love to give back and donate every time, but this isn't realistic. I learned a while back a rule of thumb that I would recommend: set aside two to three paintings every year for donation to causes that you believe in and support 100%. For me, that usually means the auction supporting my kids' elementary art program and a couple of local non-profit art centers. If you do prints, have an extra supply ready for donation to other causes you might like to help. Be careful when donating to big foundations or programs that promise exposure in exchange for your good will. You probably won't get the exposure you hope for and you can only write off the cost of the supplies used to make the work, nothing more.

What is your favorite brand of brush?

I have a few Rosemary and Co brushes. They were worth every penny. I also have a Blick Studio brush that is a go-to.

What is your favorite brand of paint?

I have six or seven brands that I use regularly, but Liquitex and  Golden have always been favorites. I was recently introduced to Nova Color. They are based in Los Angeles and sell acrylic by the gallon for a great price, but the paint isn't as thick. I use them for undercoatings and large areas of paint.

Any books you would recommend?

Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland is a classic go to in times of art making frustration.

Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber has tons of great information about making it professionally as an Artist.


Any other thoughts?

Don't get discouraged. I can remember the first show I had. I added up in my mind the amount of money I would make when everything sold. After the show, one small painting had a red dot by it. That has happened many times since. It's important to create work you love so that is what the artmaking process is about. A wise gallery owner told me that if you paint what you love, over time people will take notice. If you paint what other people love, you'll have no foundation of your own to stand on.

Where can we find your work?
Instagram: @justinwheatleyart

Gallery representation:
Terzian Galleries, Park City UT
David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City , UT
15th Street Gallery, Salt Lake City, UT
Abend Gallery, Denver, CO



Artist/Junior High Teacher Michelle Montrose Larsen

Artist/Junior High Teacher Michelle Montrose Larsen