I’ve never seen my friend Claire Sower happier. Not that I see her often; we’re colleagues who bump into each other once every few years. But when I saw her displaying her work Art! Vancouver 2015 last spring, and she told me she’d been invited to participate in a show at the Agora Gallery in New York in October, there was a joy in her face I’ve never seen before.
“In my heart, I know this is what I was born to do,” she says of her mid-life switch from computer to canvas. “When I’m not painting, it’s what I want to be doing.”
Like me, Sower started out as a freelance journalist. And like me, as the years went by and well-paying freelance journalism gigs became fewer and further between, she filled in the gaps with contract work. Eventually, she landed a great gig as a medical journalist, writing reports about clinical research that had been presented at conferences prior to peer-reviewed publication. It was a stressful job, with ever-tight deadlines and a need for pinpoint accuracy, but it included world travel and good money—enough to buy a piece of property, not a common thing for a freelance journalist these days.
Her career switch had its seeds in 2007, when the FDA changed regulations regarding third-party reporting of medical conferences so it could only be done by those with university accreditation for providing continuing medical education. The bottom fell out of the industry; many communications companies went out of business. Out of work, other than the usual jobs most freelancers eke out a living on before finding something more life-sustaining, she set out to create a website providing medical information. But the internet was changing too quickly, social media had not yet evolved into the marketing tool it’s since become, and she was competing against dozens of other health websites, like WebMD, and tens of thousands of out-of-work medical reporters.
“I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t have deep pockets.” She was just making ends meet, and getting to the point where she realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to do what I want to do, goddammit!” She’d always wanted to paint, but “it never seemed like an option. I never had the time or money.”
Then in 2009, a friend mentioned she’d signed up for an art class and invited Sower to join her. Within weeks, she was hooked. After perhaps a dozen classes, “my friend and I went out and looked for a studio,” she says. “We had one within 10 days down on Granville Island. I just knew at the soul of my being this was what I should be doing.”
After a while, the paintings started to pile up and she figured she might as well try to sell them; if you don’t, she deadpans, “eventually, you’ll just be found dead under a pile of canvases.” Her first show was just a display of her work in West Vancouver City Hall, but it generated enough interest to keep her looking for opportunities.
I’ve been admiring and sharing her work on Facebook for a few years now; there’s something about the flowers she paints that draws my eye. She does landscapes, too—there were a few on exhibit when I saw her last May—but it’s the florals that are written about so glowingly in her artist’s bio for the New York show:
Claire Sower’s florals are tactile and interpretive, conveying a strong sense of tension and joy. . . . Eschewing detail in favor of essence, Sower works quickly, using palette knives to build depth by layering paint, allowing colors to mix on the canvas. This brings a sense of immediacy to her work, which conveys a flower’s “living energy.”
The New York show happened through social media. Claire has a website, of course, and a Facebook presence, but finds Instagram a great platform for emerging artists because it’s where a lot of galleries look for new talent. The Agora Gallery in Chelsea, New York, found her there and invited her to participate in a group show, which opened yesterday (October 9) and continues through most of the month (to October 29).
There’s a whole business component to any art, she says, as any artist knows all too well. You can’t just sit back and relax; you have to be constantly self-promoting. You also have to make some hard choices financially; you have to love what you do or it won’t feel worthwhile. You have to be willing to embrace a somewhat precarious existence, have some faith, and let go.
In some ways, that can be easier for a young person at the beginning of their lives, but Sower feels it’s an advantage to be making this kind of life change at an older age.
“I think being older serves me better because having had 20 years as a self-employed writer and running my own business, I have a lot of experience to draw on in terms of how I want to set up my business as an artist. I understand there’s a lot of pitfalls. I mean, yes, there’s debt, but there’s always debt. I think that’s just a way of life these days. . . . I’ve learned to trust my gut, trust my instincts, and they’ve never steered me wrong.”
At the moment, Sower spends her mornings on freelance writing opportunities to help pay the bills; rent from her property helps, too, another way being older is helping her fulfill her dream. But throughout those mornings at the computer, she’s always looking forward to afternoons and evenings at her studio.
Her long-term goal is to paint full time. “I’m going to have a big studio with a studio assistant and I’m just going to rock and roll!”
I believe she’ll do it. Her work is beautiful and original, and she has the drive and passion to get where she wants to go. And why not? People are living longer and healthier lives these days. Why shouldn’t mid-life be a time when we switch tracks and gear up for something completely new?
If you happen to be in New York City this month, visit the Agora Gallery in Chelsea between October 9 and 29 (opening reception October 15). If not, check out her website or Facebook page and see for yourself. Claire Sower’s art rocks—and, by the way, so does she.
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