When you think “capitalist,” do you see a cigar-chomping, suit-wearing, corporate fat cat? Maybe the little guy from the Monopoly® board? Think again. Meet John Cleaveland: landscape painter (take a look) roofer, carpenter, military history aficionado, occasional lumberjack . . . and capitalist extraordinaire. Even he has trouble believing it but it’s true. The artist as entrepreneur, using the free enterprise system to make a living with oils and a paintbrush. Here’s how he does it.
Cleaveland’s entrepreneurship started early. When he was 14 his dad bought him a chain saw. During high school he cut and sold firewood for playing-around money. Never much of a scholar, with some ambivalence he went to college, took ROTC and might have had a career in the military if a professor hadn’t been impressed with his sketchbook in art appreciation. The professor suggested he try a drawing class, and Cleaveland never looked back.
Ninety-nine percent of artists can’t make a living on art alone, so Cleaveland teamed up with an art-school buddy to roof and renovate old houses (including their own). Part of the earnings he invested in paints, brushes, and boards. Roofer by day, artist by night. He was invited to be a graduate assistant at his university’s summer art program in Italy. His paintings began to sell and before long he was invited to join a prestigious regional gallery.
You can see some themes developing: the chain saw was a capital asset, the carpentry skills added value to labor, he invested in art supplies and made and sold paintings. Independence, realism, and hustle. But here’s where it gets interesting.
Coupling his passion for military history to his painting, he decided to do a landscape series on battlefields in northern France for the centennial of World War I. This would require an investment beyond paintbrushes. Cleaveland pitched several folks who already collected his work on this idea: if they would give him cash up front to fund the trip to France, he would deliver a painting from the battlefield series. It worked. John was able to give up roofing and pay for his trip (plus the services of an extraordinary ex-British Army guide). Returning home, he completed the series and the paintings were exhibited at an art museum before being delivered to the investors.
The cash infusion from his collectors enabled him to devote himself to painting full-time, which meant he could focus and produce more paintings (including many commissions). Demand for his work has grown and grown. There’s a waiting list.
Cleaveland’s fund-raising was a new twist on an old technique. In the 18th century writers financed the publication of books by subscription: investors signed up for copies of the yet-unpublished volumes in advance, which financed the printing. Kickstarter is a 21st century incarnation of the same idea.
But at its root, the idea is as old as human commerce. It’s the essence of capitalism: “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” (Thank you, Mr. Webster.) This is an apt description of how Cleaveland became a full-time painter. He harnessed the essential principles of capitalism, garnering private investment to produce paintings whose price is determined by a highly competitive marketplace. A simple enough concept, once you think about it. And, if your art is good enough, it pays.
Capitalism is about drive, and risk, and freedom. It’s about giving up that safe day job and putting your heart and soul and savings into some new venture, praying that people will want what you produce. There’s no reason a painter, or potter, or percussionist t can’t apply the same free-market principles as an industrialist to turn resources, hard work, and ideas into a living. Sure, it’s not on the same scale. And nobody’s saying it’s easy. But it can be done. It’s called capitalism and it works, transforming ideas into products, enriching both producer and consumer.
As I’ve said before, capitalism comes in all colors, shapes, and sizes. It’s not limited to factories. It’s the same game. Capitalism is all around us, fueled by resources, freedom, and the rule of law. You can find it at a farmer’s market or in a food truck. Or on an easel, where you might least expect it.
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Betsy Dorminey is a lawyer in Georgia and an entrepreneur in Vermont. Her columns have appeared in American Spectator, Western Journal, Townhall , and The Hill. She is Georgia state director of The Capitalist League.