WORDS Jenny Boulden
IMAGES courtesy Angela Vennum Art
Throughout her career, clients have been showing Angela Vennum pictures and asking, “Can you do this?” Signs, illustrations, murals, custom lettering, painted ornaments, or furniture — her answer has always been, “Yes.” Whatever the style was, she could replicate it, no problem.
But now, Angela’s emerging from the pandemic with a different perspective, fresh artistic yearnings, a new Angela Vennum Art studio in Brunswick Place and a head full of exciting ideas. She’s starting to turn customers down, not because she can’t give them what they want, but because her focus is now on creating art that flows directly from her imagination.
Angela admits it’s improbable she’s had a more than twenty-year career as a working artist at all, much less one with steadily growing profits and demand for her talents. “Creating art is what I’m here to do on this earth,” she says, finally at age forty-four confident about her purpose. “It’s a total blessing that I’m able to make a living at it.”
Angela was born in Idaho but raised in Fort Smith since infancy. “My father was a Bible teacher at Fort Smith Christian, where I attended from kindergarten to graduation,” she says. After graduation Angela attended Westark (before it joined the University of Arkansas system and became UAFS) becoming certified to teach elementary school. Much to her surprise, she discovered teaching young children was emphatically not her passion, or even work she enjoyed. “To be honest, I hated it, though I love kids,” she confesses. “It wasn’t where my skills lie.”
Through all her education, Angela had enjoyed art and displayed some artistic talent, but she’d never studied it. “It didn’t seem like something I could expect to do for a living,” she says. But after some years in retail, she decided to “give it a go,” starting small.
“It started with baby showers, doing name signs for people, that sort of thing, then sort of grew from there by word of mouth. Fort Smith is really great about that,” Angela says of her hometown. “I’ve never had any formal training. So, as far as rules, and how art should be, I’ve never had that. I think that’s been a good thing for me because it’s never inhibited me. I’ll just try it, and if I can’t do it, then I’ll try something different.”
In the ‘00s, she went into business with Carmen Geoates at Keep at Gypsy, a custom decor, sewing and monogramming shop. Angela did all the artwork. She enjoyed the work, but Angela knew she needed a change when her life suddenly turned upside-down: twenty-seven weeks into her first pregnancy, she gave birth to a premature baby boy.
“That time was a crazy, scary nightmare,” she says, recalling all the concern for her son’s health as he was so tiny and fragile. “I decided I really wanted to be at home with him, so it would be better to be doing my own thing.”
In 2010, Angela decided to brand “doing her own thing” as Cross My Art. Two years later, with practically no money and just a feeling and a prayer it would take off, she opened Cross My Art studio. The studio hosted painting parties, often for groups of women who enjoyed a Girls’ Night of painting attractive designs while imbibing wine. Within two or three years, Angela employed a whole staff of artistic people. Soon, they moved to a larger location to accommodate demand. People couldn’t get enough of the recreational group painting.
But the success had its downside. “The thing I started doing for the love of art, turned into a business with me managing, administrating,” she explains. At the same time, she was still doing “commission after commission” for clients who wanted her artistry in their homes or businesses. “I started to feel a little bit of pressure, and realized that for me, bigger is not always better.”
Angela says, “I decided after about six years, when my son was older, ‘I think I’m going to try to just be a mom and focus on him and not miss out.’ So, I closed my studio, but kept the Cross My Art name.”
She worked from her house and a small home studio. Though other businesses shuttered, her commissions continued throughout 2020 and 2021. “It went great for two years, especially during Covid,” Angela says. “I was able to work at home, make my own hours and stay consistently busy.”
At the same time, the type of hand-lettering she loved to do, such as inspirational quotes or scripture in beautifully painted script, had become so trendy, it was easy to buy in stores. That bothered Angela.
“I started to see this trend where everything I was creating, people could just go buy at Hobby Lobby,” she says. “That’s not satisfying for an artist. I wasn’t creating art that’s in my heart.
“And I felt God going, ‘Well, why not? Why are you holding back? Why don’t you just try? Trust that this will happen,’ Angela continues. “I wanted people to see me, to see the art I’m creating that’s in my brain, in my heart. And it’s not this you-come-to-me-and-I’ll-help-you-paint-something-cute. I really wanted to be seen as an artist. Being a creative person, you’re always struggling with imposter syndrome. ‘Can I really do it? Am I really legit?’”
She began to be choosier about the commissions she accepted, learning to say no to projects that didn’t feel challenging or interesting to her. “That’s been hard, learning to say no,” she says, explaining why she rebranded as Angela Vennum Art, dropping the Cross My Art name that had defined her work. “I really can’t move forward if I’m still trying to hang on to the one thing I used to be.”
She now treasures commissions where her clients trust her to create her original vision in their space, with only minimal parameters like the size and color palette. A new area she’s particularly enjoying is collaborating with decorators on original projects for their clients’ spaces. One of these relationships is with Kelsea McBride of Azalea Home in Fort Smith and in Broken Bow, Oklahoma. Kelsea has commissioned Angela to create art for a series of high-end luxury cabins in Broken Bow.
While she resists being pigeonholed into a category, and still works in a variety of styles, her latest original works have tended to be abstract pieces that lend a warm sophistication to their surroundings.
“I did two big pieces that I just poured my heart into. And then another friend had lost her husband, and so creating that work was very emotional,” she says. “I’ve been able to really pour into some stuff without feeling held back.”
Another now-regular challenge started as large gatherings returned to the calendar: live painting at weddings. “That’s becoming popular, and now I’m booked for weddings every weekend,” she says. “The first few I did were super scary. But it’s fun now, painting the ceremony or the first dance in front of everyone, trying to capture the feeling of someone’s beautiful day.
Angela routinely asks herself the same question people once asked her: “Can you do this?” What’s changed is the “this.” Her gaze is now on the blank canvases before her, ready to be filled not with familiar shapes and colors, but whatever heretofore visions flow out of her creative mind.
Ruminating on her son’s premature birth, two painful divorces and twenty years of hustling to forge an unlikely career as a working artist and single mom, she says, “Everything in my past has led me to now. I know all of this is a gift from God, and I think if you use your gift for something good, you will be blessed.”
Contact Angela Vennum, 479.739.2440 or on Instagram at Angela Vennum Art.