Natalie Connell
Natalie Connell Art

Natalie Connell

Natalie Connell Art

Natalie is a painter and designer based in Jackson, WY. Through her paintings of vast landscapes, she conveys the experience and magic found deep in the mountains and desert.

The staircase of the building Natalie's studio is in is lined with plants, every floor is filled with artist studios - the whole place exudes creativity. I get to the top floor - home to Natalie's studio. Paintings of beautiful landscapes are everywhere. Natalie welcomes me into the space, and shows me around. "I just moved in," Natalie excitedly tells me. She also moved in her comfy giant pillow/chair to paint on. "I wanted to be comfortable," she explains. We talk about our ski bum days, about being artists and finally start the formal shooting and interview process.

Natalie is contagiously excited about creating and about challenging herself to be better all while staying so humble about her work and opportunities. We drove up to Grand Teton National Park to document her plein air painting, by the time we got back we were so enmeshed in talking about how excited we are for ski season that it was hard to say goodbye. On top of being a talented artist, Natalie is just a really, really cool person.

Q: I know “how did you get started?” Is a really typical question, but I’d love to know about your creative journey. When did you start creating & when did you decide this was the career path for you?

Natalie: Well, there's this story my mom tells: when I was three years old, I said I'm going to draw a picture every day so that I become an artist when I grow up. In my three year old mind, that's how you become an artist. So, I did that for years. Then before you know it, you're in high school and people are starting to encourage you to pursue this path or that path. For better or for worse, I was never encouraged to pursue a career doing anything creative because most people think you can't make a living that way.

So I got a totally unrelated degree and moved here after college. I had some friends that lived here and I had taken a trip here in college at one point and I was like, well, Jackson Hole's amazing. My dad was an air force pilot so growing up I moved all over the place. Once college ended, I decided I was going to move somewhere that I chose to move to and that I would stay there as long as I wanted. I've been here 10 years or so now. I was a lifty at the village [Jackson Hole Mountain Resort] for forever. During that time, I had a friend that was into graphic design. He was like I think you'd be good at this and I'll help you along if you want to try. So I worked at learning that for a year or two and then started actually getting real design jobs and that was my full time employment for the last four or five years.

Once I got the graphic design job, I had creative free time and I was able to turn my focus elsewhere. I started painting more -- I'd always drawn a lot growing up and some painting. But drawing was more what I did. I guess it's fair to say I started really painting about four years ago and I just totally fell in love with it. I ended up landing my first art show about six months after that, quite serendipitously. I had been selling cards at art fairs and that kind of stuff and I'd done a couple paintings. A woman walked up and asked, “Do you ever do shows?” She had just come through my booth and got some of my cards. I was like, I want to, that's one of my goals for this upcoming year! Turns out she’s the owner of Pearl Street Bagels and said that she had an artist drop out so if I wanted the show, I could have it. That was probably three or four months ahead of the show actually happening. 

I was like, okay, I have a show booked. So I painted a bunch of stuff leading up to it, and the show went really well. I sold well over half the things and was thrilled. I was hooked and wanted to continue down this path. I started figuring out that you just approach people and get the conversation going. A lot of times art shows will be a year or two out, but you just have to start booking things. 

I work really well with deadlines, so having a show was great. For me, I have a lot of things I like to do and if I don't have a deadline or some kind of structure involved, a lot of times stuff just doesn't happen. So shows started happening more and more, and that is how I grew over the first few years. Fast forward a bit, and the momentum just turned on and I started getting a lot more commissions and opportunities. I was starting to be asked to do things instead of always having to run after them. Though naturally I was thrilled about this, I still thought that transitioning to a full time artist was way in the future. But this last year that momentum grew even more to that point that I basically was working two full time jobs. I would get up at six and paint for like three hours and then go to my day job and that was often like nine or ten hours and then come home and have to paint another three hours.

Finally, at the beginning of the summer I was running myself into the ground and finally came to the realization that I couldn’t continue at this pace. But I'm not going to turn down art opportunities. Right around then I had a month where I matched my income with art sales. I was like, whoa. This is gonna happen. So I looked at my finances, did some budgeting and saving over the next few months and decided, all right, I'm gonna make the jump to (only) a full time artist this fall.

Q: Did you have any mentors that influenced how or why you create?

Natalie: Definitely. So what really launched me starting to get into painting -- I had always wanted to do more of it, beyond dabbling -- was this Painting the Tetons class with Kathryn Turner in fall 2015. It was just a one day class where you’d go out to Triangle X Ranch and it was awesome. That kind of started things off and after that, I would just paint a bunch of my own. About a year ago I reached out to her to see if she’d be willing to talk with me about what it looks like to take the next step and start talking to galleries.

Shannon: How do you start those conversations with people?

Natalie: I had reached out to her and I was like, hey, I was your student three and a half years ago and from then to now, like this is where I've gotten to. She responded and said, bring your stuff in. I'd love to chat and help you out. And from there a really helpful relationship started! She's been super influential in my life so far and I’m so grateful for her.

Q: What is your favorite part of your process day to day or the painting process in general?

Natalie: I feel like that my process is ever evolving, so I suppose I may have to answer that question in a bit of a funny way. Overall, it's been slowing down more and more and I'm appreciating the actual flow of the process a lot more. In the past I would have said when I’m 90% done with a painting, it's come together and I’m putting the finishing touches on it. I still like that part of the process but I’m enjoying a lot of the other parts too. 

I've tried to do a lot more plein air painting these days. Especially since most of my paintings at this point are landscapes. If I can initially do an outdoor piece -- that's probably my favorite part because actually being there to physically create a piece in front of the physical subject holds its own kind of magic. When you're looking at something that's actually in front of you --  I think especially a landscape -- you develop a relationship or connection with not only what you're doing, but with the subject itself. The light's changing and you have to be moving and making decisions quickly. You get so absorbed in what you're doing that time kind of stops. You could sit there for 15 minutes or 3 hours and not even really notice how much time has passed. 

There's something really special about starting off the process with doing the plein air piece - whether that is a final piece or a stepping stone to a final piece. There's something extra in it that you don't get if you skip that step and just create it in the studio. So I suppose I would say that's probably my favorite aspect of the process.

Q: Walk me through your like what a typical day looks like for you.

Natalie: I’m still trying to figure that out. I'm sure as you know, in the self-employed life, time can get away from you really quickly! It's extremely easy for other things to crowd in what you need to prioritize. At this point I’m trying to be sure that I try to get in here almost every day to paint, even if it is just for a little bit. I’m also trying to respect the fact that sometimes your most productive work can happen over two to five hours. It doesn't need to be an eight to ten hour day as our culture often puts forth. A lot of the time, that wastes a lot of time when you would have been just as productive or more if you just did a shorter day and took care of yourself a little more.

I’m currently trying to figure out that balance. I generally like to plan out a week instead of planning out a certain day. I've just found out that I'm not gonna do the exact same thing every day, but as long as I map out my week, everything that needs to get done gets done. I try to separate the kind of menial tasks over a few days so that I still have creative time every day to come in here and have it be quiet and create things. So trying to strike a balance between that and, say, dropping off paintings to the people who bought them or connecting with someone about a showing or updating my website or social media. I guess the typical day to day does definitely doesn't look the same, but I try to have a good mix of doing things that need to get done and also still finding time to create.

Q: As far as what tasks are routinely on your plate, is it mostly delivering, gallery meetings and painting? 

Natalie: That names a few -- it always ends up being more! Interestingly enough -- and I'm sure you're pretty well aware of this -- though everything is talked about in a business sense, it really comes down to connections and relationships. I think especially as creatives, that seems to be a pretty big deal. It can be really easy for me to get into task space and like, oh, I need to get all these things done and rush and not value the relationships as much. But relationships are what matters. So if someone bought one of my paintings, I'm not just gonna drop it and run. I’ll have a conversation, get to know the people who are supporting me. I like to be sure to let them know that I am grateful for them and the fact that they’re supporting me and make sure they feel appreciated! 

In any of those opportunities, you're interfacing with real people that are choosing to support you or you’re choosing to support them -- that ends up being a pretty big deal. And funny enough, more often than not, it's those people who become repeat clients. Anyways, I would say that community and connection really matter in your work. Especially when it's creative and especially when there are infinite options out there that people could choose. I've heard multiple people say, I like your painting but I'm choosing this because I want to support you. And that's the real interface that happens I think with business in general. But we have this funny separation between business and personal, when in reality it's all this messy ball of things.

I'm also trying to take social media a little bit more seriously because not only is that the day and age we live in, but it is actually super effective! If you can not be tied to a location and get a broader audience because you're marketing yourself on social media -- well that's worth doing! So I'm trying to be better at it, as that's not my general inclination. It's also fun to see how you can build community through these avenues too. Though there are definitely plenty of negative sides to social media, there are also a lot of positives, so I'm trying to focus more on those.

Trying to make actual thoughtful social media posts - as I'm sure you know - takes time. That's not something you just like crank out in two seconds. I'm attempting to do that once or twice a week. I need to keep my website up to date, which I’m not great at. Adding new paintings, that kind of thing. Going around and talking to galleries or talking to venues that have shows. 

On a weekly basis, I try to break all of these tasks down. I take a few minutes to write them all out and then start figuring how I want to actually get them done. If I don’t, I just get totally overwhelmed. This year has felt like it's been almost all commissions, which I'm totally stoked about. But I'm excited to now have more time because I have a lot of ideas! Projects I want to start, bigger things I want to do that I just haven't had the time for. I definitely want to build in some good time for that.

Q: You set a lot of intentional goals for yourself and have these challenges that you do. Can you talk about one or a couple of those?

Natalie: Moving into this next season, I want to strategically have room to continue developing my skill set, if you will, by doing a lot of small pieces where it's fun and I'm still growing. But at the same time also having space to create new things. I have this one project that I'm looking forward to trying to do over the next year and I'm not sure how it's gonna turn out or what it's gonna look like, but making time for that.

There’s a balance of growing in a certain area and still making time for the next project, and being able to dance with those various projects and how I’m feeling that day. If I'm just not having a creative day - I won't do anything creative. I’ll crank out the production work. If I’m feeling super creative - I won't do anything production wise that day. I’ll just have fun and paint things. I like having those like different building blocks basically for my week and make it work for whatever I feel like that day. I’m a lot more productive structuring my days that way. Just knowing okay, this is how you work, work with it. Don't try to force yourself into someone else's plan. 

Q: You also have quite a few one painting a day themes and - because we've talked about these off the record -  I would like to talk to them a little bit more!

Natalie: So I didn't go to art school. I would have loved to in a lot of ways but I'm also thankful for how things shook out. However, one mentor of mine has said, you get better over miles and miles of canvas. It’s the idea that people can tell you stuff, you can understand things, you can learn things but it’s through doing things a lot that you get better. It can be really daunting to think like, oh, I want to achieve this huge goal and realize that if you don't break that down into small steps, it's not going to happen. Especially when I've never really had a teacher, no one's ever taught me how to paint. 

How do you learn to paint? You just have to make yourself do it. Life is busy but you can easily carve out 15 to 30 minutes to an hour to do something you like. And when you look at that over a week, like that was several hours and that adds up to something. So I think it just, once again it goes back to strategically structuring my days or struggling in my life to achieve a goal. I really value life and time, and care what I do with it -- doing things I'm passionate about. The best way I’ve found for me to do that is by breaking it down into little steps. 

So that was my goal with watercolor this year. And it's really fun. If I were to show you some of those early paintings from the first month or so, I'd be like, oh god, but that’s compared to what I’ve learned to do now. I love that process of learning and experimentation - keeps you from taking yourself too seriously and you stay fresh and nimble. It's fun to start seeing that payback when you put a lot of time into something. But life is busy, and if you aren't giving it a little bit every day or a couple of days a week, it's just not going to happen.

Q: Tell me about a moment or a job that made you feel amazing or gave you a "wow this is real?" feeling.

Natalie: I'm still pinching myself that this is my life in general. I don’t feel like I need to mention  specific example because this happens almost every time, but it's super strange to me that I can create something and then someone wants to pay me money for it! To think that a painting was my little creative brainchild that I would have done no matter what -- and then I put it out there in the world and someone actually connected with it enough that they were willing to value it at a certain amount. That they decided that they want to take it home, have it be in their house and have it be a part of their everyday life indefinitely! That's kind of crazy. It's amazing what a special thing it is to basically be able to channel creativity into a physical piece that someone will cherish and have as part of their life every day.

I'm not yet in a position where I can be buying art right and left, but at the same rate I know what it feels like to be supported and that makes me that much more motivated to support other people in my position. So I have this new rule for myself that if I fall in love with something, buy it. Because it doesn't happen very often. But when it does, I know that feeling! Then realizing that other people are having that feeling with something I made is so incredible.

So I guess to summarize, it blows my mind that you can just channel the creation of something that someone else connects with. What is actually happening when that occurs? I think that's quite magical that you can literally create something that wasn't there before and it's valuable to somebody else beyond you.

Q: What is the most difficult part about working for yourself? 

Natalie: I love saying yes to a lot of things. I need to be more disciplined about saying no to things that aren't the best option for me because time is limited. And it's funny how even immediately after shifting into having more time, that time quickly gets eaten up by all kinds of things. So I guess that looks like saying no to plans that I want to make, to make sure that I protect the time I need to do what I need to be doing.

It's one thing to be cranking out things that you know are going to get paid for (i.e. commissions and such). But I also know it's really important to continue developing as an artist; growing and being challenged and getting your ideas out and being able to even have the space to produce. I can already see how easily everything else will crowd in if you don't protect that. I’m still figuring that balance out - but I can already see it's gonna be a problem and that it will be something I work at for a long time.

Q: Have you had any significant burnouts that you'd like to talk about? 

Natalie: Yes. It was when I was in the midst of still working my graphic design job full time, but doing way too much painting at the same time. I was trying to decide if I wanted to do a specific art fair. And I was just cranking. I was cranking out pieces for the sake of an event, but it wasn't what I was necessarily passionate about. It had become a chore. I hadn't really gotten to that point before where I was like, whoa, I'm technically doing what I love, but not in a way that I like to do it.

It sounds a little cheesy, but it wasn't totally coming out of my heart. It was doing something just to produce, at speed and under stress -- instead of it coming from a more authentic place, if you will. You do what you gotta do and I recognize that. That's part of life and it's going to happen sometimes. But it was interesting to analyze that and be like, huh, this is not the choice I'm trying to make for myself. So I didn't do that fair this year because I realized I value my process and creativity more than just making some money. Six months out of your year is preparing for that. Then I had three full days where I was at the thing. And funny enough, by deciding to say no to that, I had room for a lot more opportunities than I was a lot more excited about! And they came in to fill that spot. It was kind of a risk saying no, but what came in was a lot better and that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't said no! It totally prevented burnout. Even though I was still working a ton -- at least it was what I wanted to be doing instead of feeling like not only is my time totally taken up but I'm not even doing what I want to be doing. So interesting lesson learned and then really nice that it paid off!

Q: Tell me about work-life balance. What does that mean to you? Do you struggle with it or does it come naturally? 

Natalie: I was telling you about how until recently, I would paint for hours in the morning, go to work and then paint for hours after. I don't feel like I've even had anything remotely close to work life balance for a long time. Now as I've been able to kind of relax a little bit and transition into a more stable, less stressed human, I started realizing the value of having a separate studio space. Living like this isn't an option. I can't be looking at my work all the time. 

I initially thought I was going to be okay painting at home, but I realized there wasn’t going to be a balance if I did that. I tend to be on the side of working too hard over not working hard enough. I needed a physical separation. I don't think I would have the self control to not be blurring that line constantly without the studio. It was probably the biggest deal in making that happen. 

I've been painting out of my home for over four years and granted that worked when I barely had any home time anyways. At the time it was like well I have to paint - at least I'm home painting. But once that shift into self-employment happened where painting became everything I was doing -- I needed that separation or else I was going to continue in this pattern of no balance. So I am incredibly thankful for my studio in town!!

I tend to be more of the type of person that's like, go, go, go. But I'm also recognizing the value of rest and relaxation and recharging. So another goal of mine is to learn how to actually relax this year and not feel guilty about it. It doesn't necessarily need to be large chunks of time, but I want to continue growing in listening to my body and taking rest when it is needed. When I do that, I’ve realized I'm so much more productive when I get back to work. But that's not a natural state for me, so definitely something to continue working on.

Q: If you feel comfortable sharing, what are your goals moving forward within the next year, two years, three years? 

Natalie: So once again, to go back to the fact that I didn't go to art school, I feel like most of my time in these last few years has just been skill development and I feel super lucky that I'm able to sell what I'm making in this phase. But I feel that what I will be doing eventually is not happening yet because I'm still in the growing pains of skill. I've become very okay with that.This is the stage that I'm in, but I'm also super excited to see what comes out when more of what I have in my head is able to be manifested in reality. When I get the technical side of things more down, I'm really excited to get more creative and get a little more conceptual with what I want to do. I love doing landscapes and mountains and there's something really magical about that but I'm excited to kind of take that further. I know that I'm not there yet, but I'm excited to move into that. I feel like I just internally know that's where I'll be going, but I'm just not quite there yet.

Shannon: I wonder if you’ve also experienced this - at the very beginning you feel you know everything and then as you get better you feel as if you know less and less. 

Natalie: I know what you're saying, as feel like that is true so often in life. Funny enough, I think just due to the fact that I had limited to no experience in what I'm doing, that has not been my experience with painting. Despite the fact that I've always wanted to be an artist, I chose a discipline that I didn't have a ton of experience in initially. Painting is so tangibly something that you improve at. You're not going to be good at it until you've done it for awhile. That's just not going to happen. I try pretty hard to be self aware in general. Though I can appreciate growth and feel happy about improvement, often when I look at my pieces, I see the mistakes and the things I could have done better.

It isn’t super common, but sometimes I dislike a painting so much that I can't look at it for a month or two. And then if I come back, I'm like, oh, it's actually alright. I remember the struggle with the piece more than the successes and sometimes need to take a little step back in order to appreciate it. I also tend somewhat towards perfectionism where I'm like, oh well on a scale of one to 10, if 10 is a master, I'm not a master. I’ve got a long way to go. Even if something is my personal best, I feel like I am still seeing it in art at large. 

I also recognize that this thought pattern applies only really to specifically the type of painting I'm currently doing -- fairly literal representation of a subject. It doesn’t fit with art that tends to be more abstract; putting value judgments on it doesn't fit in that realm. Because it's so subjective. Funny enough -- you wouldn't know this -- but I trend a lot more towards abstract conceptual art as far as what I really enjoy. So it's funny that what I’m currently creating more in the literal realm, because this is not what I meant to do initially. But it's what I fell into and it's what I'm really into at the moment.

I'm excited to take the landscape background into perhaps more of a conceptual area in the coming years. We'll see what that looks like. I guess it's funny to be in a discipline that tends to be a little more objective as opposed to the largely more subjective one of abstract or conceptual art. I really value the place I have been in the last few years as it more easily lends to humility and the desire to grow and improve. I think that will serve me well in the future.

Q: If you could share a message to the people who are considering working with you in the future, what would be something that you would like them to know? Either about you or about your process.

Natalie: Hmm. That’s a good question. I think something to the effect of if you're going to commission me to do something, tell me what you want and trust me to do it because you like my aesthetic. I've gotten better about that with commissions as far as holding true to the idea of you hired me because you like what I do, so let me do it. I love it when people give me the idea and let me run with it instead of necessarily trying to micromanage every step. They’ll get a much more authentic piece that way. It actually ends up probably closer to what you'd want if you’re like my style. Because my heart is invested in it instead of trying to create someone else's vision explicitly. 

That's a funny one because I'm also a graphic designer, which is almost explicitly making things for other people based on what they think they want! So it was a big jump for me to go from graphic design to full time painting where I can create for myself and be my only critic in the process. When I create from that place, I think my art is in the best position to serve people.

Q: If you could go back in time to a younger version of yourself and give them one piece of advice, what would it be?

Natalie: Trust yourself more. Our whole society in general is pushed to always look for someone else's opinion or validation. As if we need someone else's opinion or some other authority to do things or believe things or make things. A lot of times I think we actually know inside what's going on and what we should do -- but we're not encouraged to trust ourselves. 

The more and more I step into trusting myself now, the better everything goes. If I had started listening to that a while ago, it would have been helpful. Granted, I also wouldn't change anything because it's all part of my path and story. I wouldn’t take back anything that has happened because it's made me who I am. But that would probably be the single thing that I would have most benefited from. You don't always need other people to validate what you think or outside of authority to tell you what you should do or think about things. 

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