Len Bielefeldt

The Artist

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For as long as I can remember, I have been selling art. I remember the very first piece at age 4 or 5. It had paisleys, bright colors done with markers, and the whole piece of paper was covered. My aunt bought it and I think that was the day I started considering myself an artist.

My Mother had a beauty salon in our basement and that first sale really motivated me. She allowed me to use the closet doors in her shop to hang my art. I started out selling little drawings and designs for a nickel or dime. A few years later I was getting 50 cents to a dollar and by age 9 or 10 I was up to a couple of bucks. I tell people this was my first Gallery. I sold works there for the next 6 years.

At age 12, my mother heard of a great art teacher named Jack Bond. He taught watercolor in a Studio above his barn. I took lessons from Jack for 4 years every Saturday morning. My mom drove me the 16 miles there and back the first year and I rode my bike the rest. I actually don’t remember learning a lot from Jack, it was me and about 15 older retired people but I do, however, know that being in that art Studio showed me a lot about how I wanted to live my life.

I did not end up going to Art School. I was accepted but at the time, a youthful and ___ teen had other plans. I ended up in construction. I was good and did quite well, an artistic carpenter and cabinet maker. I learned fast. Two days after my 26th birthday, I suffered a severe injury on the job site. During my time recuperating, I painted and painted a lot. I did my first Portrait, got into to my first Gallery and started doing Shows and Fairs. I never swung a hammer again.

For the next 15 years, I worked exclusively as an artist doing mostly Portrait. Over that time I moved quite a bit. I moved, on average, every three years. Each time I moved, I would get involved with Charities right away, donating work and commissions. It would always get the ball rolling and I would meet wonderful people.

In 2003, I moved back to the Chicago area to raise my boy closer to my family. Just as before, I got involve with Charities, did the Fairs, and continued my Portrait work which seemed to travel with me quite well.

In 2009, I built a nice studio and I began to teach. A progression most Professional artists do move into but for me, everything changed in an instant. That winter, after opening my studio to students, I was involved in a very serious car accident. I would not pick up a brush for the next 10 months. It’s amazing how fast your life can change.

After about 18 months of recovery time and physical therapy, I was broke. The person that hit me had no insurance and I ate through all my savings. I lost my home and my Studio. All that I had were my paintings, lots of paintings. I was desperate. I physically could not do the Fairs again and I had lost touch with all of my clientele and collectors. I really felt like I was totally starting over and in the middle of the worst economic recession on top of it all.

I decided that I was going to find a place to show my work. I had to get it out there. In the little town where I lived, there were many empty store fronts. Everyone was hurting.

I started talking to the landlords. I just needed a space to hang some work for a few months. It was amazing how many options I had. I was offered several months free rent from several different landlords. I choose one that I felt was a good location, and if all went well, a place I thought I would like to stay. I had high hopes.

Once in my space, things started to happen. I did not sell paintings but I started to get asked to teach again. I had the space, it was perfect. In no time I had many students and ended up having to hire another teacher. I was buying supplies for students and charging a little extra to cover my time. One day an art supply rep walked in and said, “Why don’t you sell art supplies?”. He made it sound easy. He was wrong, but I jumped in. I had a few credit cards and he set up an account and I started filling my space with supplies. I got a POS system, business license, and within 6 months I was a full blown art supply store. Along with that, I had always framed my own work, and now I was being asked to do it for others. My space had now become something quite grand; Art School, Frame Shop, Art Retail and Gallery.

After 10 months in my store, I was making it. I was still broke, I used up all my credit cards but I was growing. I had broken even in my first 10 months, which is rare. I thought I was in the clear. In my 11th month at the store, my landlord come in and gave me some bad news. The building was purchased by the Bank a foreclosure I think, and the Bank was putting a new branch in my space. I went to the Bank and asked for help, they declined and graciously gave me 30 days to get out.

I found myself totally starting over once again. This time I had no credit cards. What I did have were students and customers. I found a landlord and negotiated my first two months free, giving me time to get established. The rent was more this time but it was a better location. A great location but it was not frontage. One year into my new space, the space right in front of me opened up. Frontage, right on the main sidewalk. It seemed like I had to jump on that, so I moved. Now, I thought for sure I was going to start selling some art.

That was always my main focus and goal. To sell my art. I changed the name of the store from Art Box to Bielefeldt Gallery. That was a request by my Landlord to give the frontage site a little more upscale look. I was happy to oblige. Now, I could write a book on everything that happened that year, the highs and lows and the self - discovery. I can tell you this, I did not sell a painting. Not one in one year’s time there. It was the best year of my life and the worst for many reasons. The lows were that I had no life and rent was high in that prime location. I worked 7 days a week, with 14 hour days. I talked all day as there was always someone in the store. I struggled finding good employees which caused constant headaches. I sold no paintings, and had very little time to paint. I became a retailer of gifts and prints. I would watch the couples walk by going to dinner, enjoying their evening, and I would be sad, not knowing what that felt like. I was proud of what I had built and I felt successful, but I was miserable,

Now, let me talk about why it was the best year of my life. In that year, I became “The Artist”. I said earlier that I had no time to paint, well that’s not entirely true. I had an easel that I set right in the front window facing the sidewalk. When the other shops were closing and all the couples were in the restaurants enjoying dinner, it was my time to paint. I would leave my doors open and gradually people would come back out and stroll the empty sidewalks. I was the only place open other than the restaurants. On those painting nights, my 14 hour day turned into 16 or 18 hours. I could talk while I painted which gave me a chance to meet so many wonderful people. I did not sell paintings off of the walls but I met people that became collectors, I met new students and I got commissions. I became “The Artist”. My lights were always on and at night, late at night, “The Artist” was always at his easel.

After a year there, I had move… to move on. I was burnt out. I built 3 stores in 3 years.

I never saw the sun, never felt the breeze, or heard the birds. I never took a day off. I only worked. I was tired and lonely but I still had much to be grateful for in that year of my life and because during that time, I got to know somebody I really liked, someone I trusted, a person I respected. That person was Myself.

The 4th year after my recovery from my accident, I built my fourth store. My current space. This one is in a warehouse in an industrial park where there are no sidewalks and no tourists. My students followed and my framing clientele followed. The artists appreciate the ease of parking when buying supplies and canvas and I have time and space to be “The Artist” that I had become throughout my journey.

I don’t work on Sundays at all. I can lock the doors and take a walk anytime that I want as long as I’m not teaching. I met a beautiful woman the first month after moving in to the new space and we have since married. Now on Fridays, we are one of those couples walking in town and going to dinner.

I learned so much in four years. What I learned the most was who I was, what I was capable of, what I liked and did not like about running a business, what made me happy and what made my life difficult. I created a lot debt but I will work my way out of that. I have no regrets. Every move and every penny got me to that place I want to be. A place that I didn't know existed until I got there.

Looking back, I realize that you have to take the journey that unfolds before you. Take the risks. Fail and learn from them. Never stop moving. Never stop trying to improve, not just your art but your life.

A Little Story

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