Nathan Loda of Homer decided to step out on a limb and move to Cortland County to be a full-time artist.
“It’s so cheap to live in this area compared to the Washington area. I can take a plunge,” Loda said. “It’s a test to see if I can be a full time artist.”
So far, so good.
“I’m waking up every day, painting,” he said.
And the 31-year-old Virginia native is selling his work.
The realistic oil painter likes to tell a story with his pictures, whether his hipster series of portraits on America’s founders or his merging of past and present with iconic subjects that bring a landscape’s history to the forefront.
Now is the best time in history to be an artist, says Loda, who has a master of fine arts from George Mason University.
“You can put your work out on social media. You can have a worldwide following.”
Artists in the past had to show their work in galleries. They had to attract the attention of an agent to get into those galleries, and that was difficult in of itself.
“Now you don’t have to go to galleries,” he said. “I am fortunate to be alive today.”
Loda and his wife, Flor, a stay at home mother, have a 2 1/2-year-old and a baby and have lived in the area almost two years. Loda doesn’t work a side job. He may help out on a summer day haying once in a while.
“I started coming up here to help farm, do stuff, explore family history,” he said. Loda’s grandfather Robert “Brud” Huston used to milk cows with Laurence Perry on Maple Slope farm off Route 41, where he lives.
After graduate school, Loda was an adjunct professor at George Mason University. A tenant on the Homer property moved out. His relatives offered him use of the house.
“We thought it would be fun to raise a family in the country,” Loda said. “We live really simple. Our lifestyle choices are simple. We have a big garden, we have greenhouses, we eat game meat. If you learn to eat squirrel, you will never be a starving artist. I make squirrel pizza.”
Loda was commissioned by the Farmers Restaurant Group in 2016 to make a painting of a young George Washington, and depict him as if he were a young hipster living today.
Loda painted Washington with a man bun, a pair of sunglasses in his pocket, holding up a glass of wine.
“That painting has been a pivotal painting,” Loda said. “It put me on the map.”
STUFF BLOWING UP
It drew the attention of the Smithsonian Magazine, Fox News, The Washingtonian and NYmag.
“Dude, your stuff is blowing up,” his brother called to tell him while Loda was out hunting duck on the eastern shore of Maryland.
Then he got a call from the president of business operations at Wells Fargo. The woman liked the hipster George Washington. The Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia commissioned a series of four hipster paintings for its stadium: of Betsy Ross, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Rush and James Forten, a free African-American born in 1760 who became a rich sail maker and businessman.
Loda says it’s hard for contemporaries to imagine the founding men and women as living people. His portraits bring them to life.
He sold his Betsy Ross hipster painting for $2,000 and he gets $250 for reprints, some of which are bringing in more money than the originals.
Loda, who has a long list of exhibits he’s been part of, is also represented by Adah Rose Gallery in Maryland.
He got a CNY Grant recently to make a series of paintings that look at local history, whether industry like Brockway trucks, or further back like Francis Carpenter of Homer.
“I’d like to do a painting of him painting the Emancipation Proclamation, maybe have Dasher’s Pub in the background.”
The artist must balance making money by commissions with gallery work where he explores his own ideas.
“The real challenge is finding financial stability and to maintain it. Finding patrons. I have some collectors who buy my work regularly,” Loda said. “You kind of have to check out those different (venues). I was fortunate that Wells Fargo gig came to me. At the same time I have to be proactive, seeking new commissions, new streams of revenue.”
LODA NOT ALONE
Ralph Turturro of Cortland retired last year from teaching art after 39 years. He’s been an abstract expressionist painter for 40 years.
“I think its always been a dilemma for artists throughout history — the struggle,” Turturro said. “If you are doing cutting edge, something outrageous, not immediately acceptable, it’s definitely more difficult. But that’s what makes you famous as an artist.”
He had an uncle who did abstract expressionist paintings at the cost of taking care of his family.
The fellow lived in an abandoned synagogue for 10 to 12 years, doing his big work. But he didn’t pay his bills.
“I grew up seeing that and made sure I had a job to support the family,”Turturro said. He would stay up till 4 a.m. painting after working his day job in the classroom. “I had two careers.”
He’s made $20,000 to $30,000 making his art every year for the past 20 years. “There was a point I was making more, selling work on the street.”
He sells work in New York City and in galleries in the South.
David Beale of Cortlandville gave up a contracting career after he discovered watercolor painting. He’s made it by owning a frame shop, teaching watercolor workshops and selling his watercolor paintings. Artists today need a larger market than Cortland County, Beale said.
“I don’t know of any artist that makes a living selling in Cortland. Dick Mitchell sells a bit, but he has a market through his dog groups and turkey federations.”
He noted Turturro and Melissa Sarat of Preble, who are also successful. They too, sell work outside the area, he said.
Beale uses Instagram ads and a website where he sells prints of his paintings. He uses a website hosting company that people can order his prints to size. Beale also teaches workshops, in Cortland, the Northeast, the South and internationally.
‘I HAVE TO DO IT’
Still, it’s not easy, Loda said:
“Sometimes you get down on yourself. There’s no security — there’s no, OK, it’s Monday. I am going to work. I will have a paycheck. What’s going to happen when the kids get older and I have to buy them a cellphone?”
He shores himself up by thinking about artists in history.
“It’s a hell of a lot easier to be an artist now than Van Gogh 150 years ago, or an artist in the 1600s: just to eat was incredibly difficult,” he said.
He thinks about his teacher Bo Bartlett, who taught him to make his first layer of paint with burnt sienna and build on that. When he left Bartlett, the fellow told him: “Drive safe. You are the future of American painting.”
“A couple of years later I am watching this film on Andrew Wyeth.” In the film, which also featured Bartlett, Wyeth tells Bartlett: ‘You are the future of American painting.’”
Loda was blown away. Bartlett’s message echoed Wyeth’s.
“I want to be part of the story of the lineage of painters and artists that look at society and tell a story,” he said. “So many artists succeeded before me. I have to do it. If they can do it, I can do it.”