$55K A Year To $55K In Hours: Charlotte Artist Whitney Austin Wants To Inspire Young Creatives
Last week was a big one for Whitney Austin. The Charlotte artist was celebrating five years as an entrepreneur. She put prints of her paintings — which typically honor Black culture and history — on sale for $28 to mark the occasion and …. had to pull the plug almost immediately. There was just too much demand.
In just two hours, she’d sold more than $55,000 worth of art — about what she used to make in a year.
“Honestly, words can’t describe,” Austin said. “I’m still shocked. I mean, I started off selling my originals for $50, and now I’m selling prints and doing mind-blowing numbers. … It just blows my mind, honestly. I really cannot say thank you to God or my following or my supporters enough because this is beyond what I ever imagined.”
But Austin didn’t set out to be an artist — at least not directly. She’s always been into drawing and painting and went to an arts-focused high school in Columbus, Ohio. But she studied for careers in college that she thought would be more lucrative, and wound up working in sales and as a flight attendant.
Eventually, she landed in Charlotte. At 27, she picked up the paintbrush again: Her grandfather had just died, and she wanted to honor his memory with a portrait.
“From that point on, I started to do portraits for my friends and just people that I knew,” Austin said. “And then, that’s how it slowly grew into a business.”
Paintings that fetched a few hundred dollars a month eventually turned into custom requests that netted a few thousand dollars a month — enough income that by 2016 she was able to leave the corporate world behind to pursue art full time. Now, she’s opened galleries and a studio, traveled to teach classes and has a website with dozens of prints for sale.
“My main focus has always been Black women,” she said. “... The different paintings I create are very colorful, full of texture -- just inspiring. And also, my art is usually attached to our African culture. I do incorporate a lot of African colors and patterns in my art.”
Two of Austin’s projects over the last year, especially, got a lot of attention. She created a 45-page coloring book with images that included fill-in versions of her artwork, including depictions of Black women, children and even some well-known Americans like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
The second was a painting of George Floyd she made as protests over systemic racism and police brutality swept the country. “Bloodline of Injustice” depicts Floyd, tears running down his cheeks, wearing a crown topped with Black fists. Flames fan out from his neck — where a police officer now convicted of murder knelt for nine minutes — and feed into riots across the bottom. Peaceful protesters stand atop Floyd’s shoulders, and the names of other Black Americans who have been killed are written across a blood-red backdrop.
It was not an easy painting.
“That creative process — it was so draining,” Austin said. “It was very, very, very difficult. Typically my paintings are full of energy and color and happiness and I’m having fun. But this painting was not that all.”
She wanted to include everything — all the emotions, all the pain — in a way that she felt was right. The hardest part, she said, was toward the end when she was filling in names. There were too many names to include, and before she could even finish, she had to make room for one more. Rayshard Brooks had just been killed by police in Atlanta.
“That frustrated me, because it’s like, I can’t even complete a painting in three days without needing to add more names,” Austin said. “I won’t ever forget that.”
She still has the original and never intended to sell many prints. After a few sales last year, she pulled it to not exploit his death. It was shared widely on social media, though. She did include it on the cover of a limited edition of her coloring book — only 150 copies were available — because she felt art might help some people cope.
“I wanted to tie in what was going on in that moment with art, because art is so therapeutic,” Austin said. “... I wanted to have a coloring book they can get release from but at the same time honoring George Floyd and the other people who have been murdered or have dealt with police brutality.”
Austin bought a South End studio in 2018, and she wants to start holding painting classes there eventually. At first, she’ll probably do them outside while the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing. That’s important to her, because she says she wants to be an inspiration to other girls:
“If you have talent, there is room for you to use it,” she said.