Photo: Todd Ritondaro
This post was originally published on NOEW.org. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is a festival celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation in New Orleans. See it all happen this year March 19-24, 2017.
It’s after midnight and simulated light radiates through Rebecca Rebouché’s Uptown studio guiding her as she paints late into the night. She’s wearing all black, a t-shirt and pants. Her long, brown hair is tied up in a loose ponytail, her porcelain like skin is bare with no makeup. Dinner has passed – gumbo and vegetable soup prepared by her parents and preserved in the freezer. There is no spare time for cooking, dressing up, or socializing these days. There is only time for painting.
This is what the artists’s days were like in early 2008. She was on a strict routine: wake up, journal for thirty minutes, get dressed, paint, then set off to work as a graphic designer at local design agency Peter Mayer. Afterwards, she’d return home, continue painting, sleep, and then do it all over again.
Recalling those days, Rebouché refers to that time in her in her life as a sort of boot camp.
She’d spent many of those mornings in the basement of a downtown New Orleans courthouse where she was summoned for jury duty. There, with no internet connection or cell phone service, is where she developed her first business plan with pen and paper. At night, she participated in the ‘Artist as Entrepreneur’ course at the New Orleans Arts Council.
“I felt like I was on the verge of living a life that I had dreamt of,” Rebouché says.
It paid off. Now, Rebouché has just returned from San Francisco where she has been creating her latest 6 foot tall painting – one of her coveted family tree commissions. She just finished showing at Jazz Fest, and is juggling projects as she releases her most recent 1989 collection, a series of paintings inspired by Taylor Swift’s 1989 album and the 1989 cover album by Ryan Adams. That military like discipline was a critical part of her present day success as an artist.
Back to the Beginning
Rebouché says she can trace that same intense focus to her early days as a child where she would spend hours drawing. In Montessori school, Rebouché had an unusual amount of patience for precision with artistic assignments like drawing in cornmeal and pricking. Her mom recalls how she would draw the back of people’s heads on collection envelopes at the Methodist church they attended every Sunday.
As a student, she dabbled with different art forms and creative expressions, but she knew she would have to choose one craft carefully.
“I always wanted to be incredibly great at something, and I realized, I was never going to be great unless I focused my efforts on one thing,” Rebouché says.
Visual arts became the front-runner for her as she began her undergraduate studies in graphic design, at Louisiana Tech University. When she graduated, Rebouché moved to Austin to begin her career as a graphic designer.
But in 2005, in the months following hurricane Katrina, a longing and irrepressible sense of urgency for New Orleans drove her back home. There, she joined local creative design agency, Peter Mayer, to continue her work.
But she couldn’t suppress the desire to bring her artwork to life.
Rebouché would have to summon that same precision and patience that she recalled as a young child, and fight to bring her vision to life.
“I wrote a business plan. I told myself for six months I could do both and make the transition. So, I buckled down and I limited my life to only the essentials. I gave myself a dress code. I started writing three pages in my journal every morning before I went to work at Peter Mayer,” Rebouché says.
The critical piece of the puzzle was the practice of writing in her journal every morning. “I used those pages as a way to visualize what I wanted to happen for myself,” Rebouché says. “I had no savings. I had no cushion. None whatsoever. I wasn’t leaping blindly, but I was leaping with a great deal of faith that something would pan out.”
But as is the case for so many emerging entrepreneurs and artists, the less difficult part is taking the leap, she says, but the real test is seeing it through.
“The leap is full of optimism, and enthusiasm, that it’s not actually the hard part, but rather what comes after that. I think the hard part is not actually the nuts and bolts of the day, but it’s the emotional stamina you need to survive the leap,” Rebouché says.
She had to conserve every waking moment for painting. Her mom and dad prepared loads of food for her so that she could conserve her time.
“I would go home, defrost food and paint for three hours, and on the weekends. I started showing at art markets on the weekends, and after I made my first sales, I created sales projections to forecast what I might be able to make in the first six months,” Rebouché says.
She had put her plan in motion, but was struggling to strike out and make the decision. She credits her boss at Peter Mayer at the time for giving her the final push she needed.
But even with the most assuring plans, often it’s the fear and doubts that find you after the leap, which can be paralyzing.
“We all have those moments when we doubt ourselves into a corner,”Rebouché says.
“You have to be the one that flies in the face of doubt, including your own, to believe,” Rebouché says. “When you’re a person with a vision, you’re the only one with the vision. You birthed the vision, so you have to carry it. No one else can see it as vividly as you see it.”
And so with her own vision in sight, she took that leap in the summer of 2008.
The landing after the leap
Rebouché spent her first summer as a fulltime artist on the road. She had signed up for a string of art fairs across the country. She recalls those days vividly, and how she didn’t have enough artwork for all the shows and had to stop along the way, painting in hotel rooms and state parks in between shows.
“It was like my life depended on it. I didn’t even have enough money to get gas and pay for hotels, because I didn’t have enough work to sell at shows,” Rebouché says.
Then, her first breakthrough happened. She created a large painting that was the first piece to sell at that show.
That sale saved her.
But there was no time for the budding artist to celebrate. She immediately bought more supplies and stopped at another hotel to paint for a week. She continued to paint nonstop, and her next big breakthrough came at Jazz Fest in the spring of 2009, when she was accepted to showcase and saw successful sales and ultimately awarded Best In Show.
Since her Jazz Fest debut in 2009, Rebouché has returned to show at the festival nearly each year thereafter, often selling out, with her fans and collectors eagerly anticipating the release of her new work in the Spring. This year, she showed the largest painting she’s ever debuted in a festival setting – a 6 foot by 8 foot painting of swarms of birds and fish. Jazz Fest can be a weekend that comprises up to 50% of the artists’s revenue, and her work has brought in annual gross sales of over $100K in the past few years. She produced a collaboration with Anthropologie in 2010 and with UK based company, Roger La Borde.
Photo: Zack Smith
Creating and Curating
As she continued to hone her craft, Rebouché recognized and developed her style as an artist through a conscious and concerted effort. She says it’s something that artists have to pursue relentlessly at the beginning of curating their work.
“If you want to create a visual legacy, you have to edit yourself and create it over and over again. Ultimately you want to create so that the work itself is your signature,” Rebouché says.
Yet, still years later and now a successful artist, Rebouché faces her own doubts and battles.
“We all have those moments when we doubt ourselves into a corner. I think it always goes back to this thought of am I being a good steward of my gifts? Every creative and entrepreneur that I know feels like a fraud. They wonder if they are doing it right, and why they are doing it at all. The demands on you are so great that it gets confusing as to what’s important,” Rebouché says. If you don’t have a solid sense of purpose, the storms of entrepreneurship will take you down.”
Rebouché explains that being an artist and entrepreneur has a complexity of producing art that you feel inspired and compelled to create, while simultaneously delivering what your audience wants.
“What’s important is that you find your own balance of creating the work that made you get started in the first place with work that reaches people,” Rebouché says.
“No one is going to come along and give you permission to make your work. That is the mentality that comes with being bold and driven enough to make what you want to make and not spend too much time getting caught up in what you think the world is asking for,” Rebouché says.
Rebouché can recall the time when she was faced with that dichotomy early on.
“I remember having a realization that if I didn’t want to achieve that balance, that painting would just be a hobby for me. And I remember the moment I decided, I don’t want to be a Sunday painter,” Rebouché says.
“It’s a balance. I still have to remind myself of that. I have to view it as not only my greatest work of my life, but also as my means of living.”
And an artist, like any entrepreneur, must continually evolve and improve on their offerings to the world.
“I think you’re never in the clear. You’re never so good at it that you don’t have that existential question in your mind,” Rebouché says.
*Editor’s Note: You can see the latest work from Rebecca Rebouché and what’s to come on her website: www.rebeccarebouche.com.