Know anyone who traded a high finance job for plein air painting? Probably not. But in Santa Barbara, there's one: Chris Potter. He's a 37-year old "retired" Charles Schwabb stock broker, father of two, who, for the better part of the past three years, has been painting the more scenic sections of Santa Barbara County, one rendering a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.
Technically speaking, Potter's prolific painting project is called Postcards from Santa Barbara, a tidy little title for what is actually a grueling creative marathon. You see, when Potter made the decision a few years back to finally ditch the business suits and soul-suck of hustling numbers in an office for a living, and hatched the brilliant self-motivating plan to publicly announce to the world that his "retirement" was actually the sound of a starter's pistol going off for his art career. Cross-promotion. It's a business thing.
His painting had always been a big part of his life; he was a wicked doodler during his youth, an art major at UCSB, and was regularly seen during his days at Charles Schwabb painting frantically on his lunch breaks at various spots in downtown Santa Barbara, his tie thrown over his shoulder so as to protect it from paint splatter. Then everything changed. After the birth of his now nearly 6-year-old son Malakye, he began to plot his permanent escape into full-time painting. Some guys wouldn't take a chance like this, but Potter, with the full support of his wife and "muse" Julie, zigged instead of zagged. Presented on a daily basis at his stock broker job with examples of people who "had everything but really didn't have anything," Chris sketched out a plan to ensure that he and his family would not suffer a similar fate. "Basically, I realized that if I didn't start [painting full-time] now, I would be 50 years-old and still a stock broker," he confessed. "I didn't want that."
And so, with the thoroughness that you would expect from someone with a background in finance, Potter, who, in person, is about as laid-back and agreeable of a dude as you can meet, set certain fiscal goals for his art sales that he had to reach before giving his notice to Charles Schwabb. Developing his plein air chops during his aforementioned lunch breaks and on weekends for a number of years, Potter, who was more of an abstract artist during his college years, ramped up both his painting efforts and his marketing, hosting regular art shows outside in the courtyard of the apartment building in downtown Santa Barbara where he and his family lived and hanging his stuff virtually anywhere that would have him. In the fall of 2009, when he reached the magic number of money in the bank and commissioned art work orders line up, he took the leap. Then the economy crashed. "Everybody said I was crazy." says Potter with the easy going laugh of a person who knows better but isn't going to rub your face in it. "But I got lucky and things just sort of fell into place."
It has been with tireless work ethic, borderline fanatic focus, and a touch of madness that Potter has approached the canvas in the time since. Fitting his daily sessions in between daddy duties, his wife's work schedule, and the every important light, he has painted in the foothills before sunrise, at the beach in the heat of the day, on the end of Sterns Wharf by moonlight and on the steps of the County Courthouse in the wind and rain. His oil paints celebrating moments of Santa Barbara's vast and varied beauty in such a way that, to a stranger, they are simply something lovely to look at but, to a anyone with a more intimate knowledge of this part of the world, they are a pitch perfect capture of the local landscape's more personal and private views. You are just as likely to find yourself looking at the neon light of a dive bar or a beloved neighborhood corner store in a Potter painting as you are to see the moon rising over the waters of Rincon or the late afternoon light spiraling into a secret swimming hole in the Santa Ynez mountains. Reckoning that the beach is his preferred subject, Potter explains his location decisions simply. "Not only do I want to be outside but I want it to be in the coolest spot possible to hang out, it has to be someplace you would want to be even if you weren't painting." he says before adding as an afterthought, "And, if I can have a little shade and water that is cool too, but I don't need it."
By his own counting, Potter figures he has roughly 725 paintings under his belt since the Postcards project officially started. The pace, he says, has taken its toll. "It is too much art. I've realized recently that this isn't like a 9 to 5 job, it takes more out of you. And, if I am always painting, then I am not looking around enough. I'm not seeing things the way that I can. A big part of my process, I've learned, is to enjoy the process." He claims that this realization has him down-shifting these days and seeking a less stressful pace of living and creating but then, literally two sentences later, he admits that the light from this month's recent full moon had him up and pacing in his house while his wife, son and daughter all slept. He ended up having to talk himself out of jumping in his van and racing up to a certain vantage point in the hills to paint the ocean shimmer before the sunrise. "I just feel awkward on the days that I don't paint." he says as a sort of explanation for his pre-dawn internal conflict and you can't help but get the feeling that next time around the urge to paint will most likely win.
Top Image: Courthouse at night. Courtesy: Chris Potter.
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