A fire burns in the hearth at Chris Potter’s house, while outside, rain slashes past the windowpanes and bounces off the wooden deck. Inside, the little house is filled with the happy clutter of family life: A teddy bear in a pinafore nestles against mismatched throw pillows on the sofa, a box of children’s books is wedged beside the dining room table, there’s a tumble of tiny shoes tucked behind the front door. Oil paintings dot the walls, crowd the shelves, and stand in leaning stacks wherever there’s space. Most depict familiar Santa Barbara landscapes and cityscapes: the mission, the courthouse, Mesa Lane, the wharf—by day and by night, in sunshine and in rain.
Potter, 35, is a Goleta native, a married man and father of two, and, until a few weeks ago, a brokerage specialist with Charles Schwab, where he had worked for more than four years. This January, Potter made a major New Year’s resolution to quit his job and turn his attention to the work he loves: painting.
It’s the kind of leap many dream about and few take, but Potter exudes quiet confidence as he speaks about the transition. He’s been preparing for this for years, he has a plan, and, so far, it seems to be working. He’s calling his project Postcards from Santa Barbara, and his objective is simple: to produce one painting a day, five days a week, for 52 weeks.
“I saw other students creating beautiful work that was way beyond me,” he remembered, “and in my naïveté, I told myself, ‘Okay, if I paint a little bit every day, I will get better.’”
Sitting by the fire with a cup of coffee clasped in his hands, the easygoing Potter explained how he fell in love with painting as an undergraduate at UCSB, and switched from studying psychology to pursuing a degree in studio art. “I saw other students creating beautiful work that was way beyond me,” he remembered, “and in my naïveté, I told myself, ‘Okay, if I paint a little bit every day, I will get better.’” He carried that philosophy beyond his college years, setting up his easel outdoors on his breaks from work and painting while wearing a suit and tie. Passersby would stop to chat, often commenting on their own lack of talent or the lack of time to pursue their hobbies. “Hey, this is my lunch break,” Potter remembered telling them. “If you really love it, you have time.”
At Schwab, Potter saw a lot of people with great wealth who were anxious about their money and no happier than anyone else he knew. “The point isn’t to have the million dollars,” he concluded. “It’s to make it, and enjoy making it. That’s the joy of life: the struggle and the triumph.” When his wife, Julie, became pregnant with their first child, it was a wake-up call for Potter. “I realized the clock was going to keep ticking,” he recalled. “I was going to spend my life working in finance to make money, and then when I was 50, I’d quit my job and do my art. It was depressing.”
Yet Potter knew he couldn’t drop his job to paint full-time until he’d developed some credibility as an artist and had some assurance that his art could support his family. During the past few years, while working a full-time job and raising two children, he stole time from around the edges of his schedule. In summer, he would wake at 4 a.m. to paint in the early-morning light. Often, he would go out after the kids had gone to sleep, working until midnight or later to complete a painting. He also set annual targets for the sales of his work. Each year, he surpassed his goal. Though he has yet to exhibit his work in a gallery, Potter has had commissions from a range of clients, has sold plein air paintings fresh off the easel to people on the street, and has held independent shows. Earlier this month, Frank Goss of Sullivan Goss Gallery purchased Potter’s first painting of 2010—a nocturne of the Santa Barbara Mission.
So far this month, Potter has sold 13 paintings, including one commission—a flurry he attributes in part to the launch of his Web site, chrispotterart.com. If things continue at that pace, he says, he’ll be set. In the meantime, he’ll be creating a painting a day and posting them online where fans can track his progress, comment on his work, and contact him to inquire about buying his paintings, which are priced between $50 and $2,500.
“Making art is still a struggle for me,” Potter admitted. “I get to a blank canvas and I have feelings of desperation and failure.” Yet he has his sights set on an inspiring goal: a life spent outdoors doing the work he loves, time with his family, and, eventually, traveling for work and sending “postcards” home. “All I need,” he said with a smile, “is to see the next goal, and to have faith.”
Chris Potter will host a solo art show and “retirement” party at 511 East Anapamu Street on Sunday, January 31, at 2 p.m. And from March 20-May 8, his recent work will be on display at Sojourner Café (134 E. Canon Perdido St.). For more information, visit chrispotterart.com.