Making it in the creator economy

Atlanta-based muralist and painter Corey Barksdale on building an art business that sells.

Artist Corey Barksdale paints in his studio
Corey Barksdale’s commitment to his craft is visible in every piece he creates.

Growing up in Nashville Corey Barksdale was surrounded by scraps of fabric from his grandmother’s quilt weaving. 


“Every morning, she would make a cup of coffee, peel some oranges and create art, and I would sketch along with her,” he recalled. 


While neighborhood kids would be tossing a ball and riding bikes outside, Barksdale would prefer to stay inside and draw. At just seven years old, he challenged himself to replicate a comic book poster in his bedroom. 


“When I was able to do that, I felt really good that I was able to accomplish something that I set out to do,” he said, “I knew this would be something that I do for the rest of my life.”


After his acceptance to art school in Atlanta, his mother encouraged him to focus on digital aspects of art. “She wanted me to either animate or program, but I wanted to be a painter,” he said. Graduating with a computer graphics degree served him well in the corporate world, but Barksdale continued to follow his passion to paint as a side hustle, selling at art shows and festivals around Atlanta, where he’s lived for 30 years.


“I made a lot of connections with people outside of my immediate community,” said Barksdale. “Coming [to Atlanta] has enabled me to be a little bit more free with who I am and how I express myself, and I really appreciate that.”


Hollywood calls

Eventually, Barksdale left the corporate world and opened his own art studio, focusing on teaching art, painting murals around the city and securing commissions. Hollywood took notice.


“One of the highlights of my career was creating a 10x10-foot painting for the movie “Get Out,” commissioned by [writer and director] Jordan Peele,” said Corey. The painting features the main character of the movie holding a bingo card, a significant prop in the Oscar-winning movie. “The actual painting was used during the movie’s LA premiere,” said Barksdale proudly.


More commissions started to come in for film, as Atlanta became a sought-after destination for filmmakers and television producers. In 2016, Barksdale earned a prestigious spot at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.


“I like to convey aspects of African-American community. A lot of times, in the media, we're not shown in a positive light,” said Barksdale. “I want to show the love that we have for our community, the creativity and the resilience that we have.”


On creating art that sells


Stay true to yourself.

When Barksdale first started trying to produce art to sell, he said he was creating art that he thought people would be interested in purchasing. “Eventually I figured out that the most important thing is for me to do what's in my heart and do what is true to me.”


Save, but also invest.

“Art is really finicky, so saving money is really important,” he said. “I've always been pretty decent at saving money, but I figured that over a period of time, if I had put some of the money in a CD, it would've grown much more than just keeping it in the bank.” 


Put yourself out there.

“I'm constantly trying to work on new ideas to get my name out there and market myself,” added Barksdale. Most of his art now is promoted on his website, which he makes sure is prominent by building content and working on keywords and meta tags. “If you don’t have time to do it yourself, hire someone who can,” he said. Meeting people at in-person events is just as important too. “It's something that you need to do on a weekly basis to just stay relevant.” 


A vibrant painting of downtown Atlanta by Corey Barksdale in the Visa office
Barksdale’s piece ”The land of Skyscrapers” brightens the wall of a communal working space in Visa’s Atlanta office.

Diversify—and don’t sweat the lulls.

Visa recently commissioned Barksdale to create artworks in its new Atlanta office. By diversifying, working on public and private commissions and teaching, Barksdale has created a business out of his art. Has self-doubt ever crept in during business lulls? Sure. “But I just think that when something is a part of you, regardless if you're happy, not happy, not making money or making money, it's still going to be there. For me, it's therapy. Even if things are not looking up, I'm going to paint, I'm going to create, regardless.”


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Tag: Digital commerce

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