It starts with a vague restlessness, a growing awareness that the life you’re living simply isn’t enough. You may have achieved everything you’ve ever dreamed of. You may be wildly successful by every measurable standard. Yet, somehow, some way, you know it’s not enough. Not enough to satisfy the hunger gnawing at your soul. Not enough to make you happy. One day something flips, and you reach a decision. Whatever lies ahead, however costly, however risky, cannot possibly be worse than wondering, “What if?” It’s time to try something new. The gnawing sensation evaporates, replaced by a heady mixture of fear and freedom. You don’t even know where you’re going, much less how you’re going to get there. But you’re trembling with excitement just to be taking a first step in a new direction. Soon you’re dreaming big, shooting for the top, making audacious requests and promises, faking it ’til you make it.
What you’re making is a new kind of life, one that satisfies deep down, one that speaks to others and leaves a legacy. What you’re making is art.
SKETCHING HER LIFE’S WORK
It’s a beautiful spring night in San Diego, but the crowd leaving the Cygnet Theatre doesn’t much seem to notice. They’re still immersed in the world of “Parade,” a musical set in Atlanta in the early days of the 20th century. Back then, fashion favored big floppy hair ribbons for young girls, relaxed silhouettes and hat pins for ladies, straw boaters for men, tweed knickers for boys.
The story is based on a real case, that of Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, unjustly accused of the murder of one of his employees, 13-year-old Mary Phagan. Final bows for the critically acclaimed production were celebrated with a standing ovation. Under the stage lights, the muted colors of the actors’ detailed period costumes subtly reflected and enhanced each individual role.
“On stage, clothing creates character,” explains Cygnet resident artist and costume designer Shirley Pierson. “We all work together to create as much truth as we can, in a theatrical sense. But in the case of this play, I also worked hard to honor it historically.”
That’s not unusual for Pierson, who says that extensive research is her favorite aspect of designing, except, of course, seeing the final product coalesce on stage. Her success in this highly competitive field — including work for Cygnet’s “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Sweeny Todd” as well as the New Village Arts’ “Into the Woods” — may partly be due to the fact that she came to this career circuitously.
“I grew up in Arapahoe, Neb.,” she explains, while walking through the warren of rooms below the Cygnet stage. “Well, we never lived in the town itself, we were out on the farm.” Her options were limited: “It was nursing or teaching.” She chose nursing, winding up as a psychiatric nurse in Los Angeles, but ultimately wasn’t fulfilled. “There was an emptiness inside me,” she says, pensive. “I think everybody has it.”
That hollow feeling ultimately led her to a vocational about-face. She worked for a time as an assistant buyer for a major department store, moved into designing textiles and clothing for children’s wear, but all the while, she longed for more. “It wasn’t until I was back in the cornfield — in Illinois, while my husband was getting his doctorate — that I started taking classes, working with a puppetry company.”
Bam. She figured out what was missing. “I was creating character, rather than clothing that was consumed. I was hooked.” The family relocated to San Diego when her husband, Eric, became a professor at USD. “Once we got here, I worked in the theater, stitching, sewing, whatever was needed in various local companies.” When the university added a theatre arts major, Pierson was first in line, earning her degree in 2006.
She designed costumes for shows on campus, worked with Graduate Theatre Chair Richard Seer for an Old Globe/USD MFA production of “Richard III” (“that was fun, it was a mixture of ‘40s style combined with the Elizabethean time period”), got her MFA at San Diego State University and has been working steadily ever since.
She’s found her place and, in the end, it’s about the magic that comes when creative minds work together. “Theater, in its very nature, is a collaborative art. Nothing happens in a vacuum in the theater.”
BREAKING THE MOLD
One by one, Mark Edward Adams hefts three rough-hewn bronze horses, each in a different stance, and lines them up across his fireplace mantel. They tell a story, he says, the universal tale of the hero’s journey — accepting a defining challenge, slogging through the depths of doubt, and finally cresting the summit of success.
It’s a journey Adams ’97 knows well. The three horses, a series now featured in Scottsdale, Arizona’s renowned Paul Scott Gallery, also depict his own quest: to become a truly great sculptor and to inspire a new genre he calls “spiritual expressionism.”
“I see sculpture and art the same as I see myth,” Adams explains. “It’s a message we pass on from one generation to the next.”
Adams came to sculpture by serendipity. After majoring in chemistry at USD, Adams added a master’s degree, got a good job at a San Diego pharmaceutical firm, found a girlfriend and spent five happy years anticipating a normal life — marriage, kids, the house in the suburbs.
Then it all fell apart. A hit-and-run driver left Adams injured and in pain. Next, his girlfriend moved out. Adams heard something say, “Go to Italy.”
A week later, he was on a plane to Rome. He couldn’t have chosen better therapy. “After Italy, life was beautiful again.” What he loved most was the sculpture. Fantastic sculpture everywhere, in every square, every building. When he came home, Adams signed up for a beginners’ class. Soon his new hobby took hold of him. “I’d sculpt ’til three in the morning,” he says. “One day I made a decision: ‘I’m going to be a sculptor, and I’m going to be the best I can be, no matter what.”
For that, he knew he’d need world-class instruction. He wrote to the top five representational sculptors on Earth: “I want to learn from you; will you teach me?” One wrote back: Simon Kogan, a Russian master, who had immigrated to the state of Washington.
“Simon saw I wasn’t any good at that time,” Adams admits. “But he told me I was the most passionate sculptor he’d ever met, at least in the U.S., and he said, ‘That’s all you really need; I can teach you the rest.’”
Eventually Adams began to sculpt animals as well as humans, and discovered he needed a new set of skills. Again, he reached out to the best, and again, one wrote back. Acclaimed horse sculptor Rod Zullo invited Adams to his home in Montana and taught him how to capture the equine physique and spirit. When he was ready, Adams’ mentors encouraged him to offer his work to galleries. He approached the top venues in the country and waited. A month later, Paul Scott took on all three pieces of “The Journey Series,” and has since invited him to mount a one-man show.
Adams’ third horse perfectly expresses his response. It stands proudly, feet together, head and tail high, a study in triumph.
IN LIVING COLOR
The lights dim. The music rises. Images of the rock band U2 fill two enormous video screens on either side of a spotlit stage where Erik Wahl ’93, darts between pots of paint and a huge black canvas, filling it with vibrant smears of color.
It’s a full-on multimedia experience. By the final note, Wahl has created a bold portrait of U2 front man Bono. Only then does the artist turn and address the room full of marketing executives: “When did you decide logic trumps creativity? Chances are, that’s when you lost your passion — and your competitiveness. Want it back? Show up with your whole self, left and right brain, head and heart.”
It’s a message Wahl has taken to corporate clients worldwide for the past 10 years. Now he’s broadening his reach. Soon he’ll debut a live theatrical experience designed to inspire general audiences. And he’s using social media to engage followers in Art Drop, a worldwide scavenger hunt for free paintings.
“Creativity isn’t just for corporate America,” he says. “It’s universal. There’s no set way to do something, no set way to be. Art is freedom. You’re unshackled.”
Wahl founded his company, The Art of Vision, with his wife, Tasha Moffitt Wahl, ’94, and their success has exceeded their wildest dreams. Wahl speaks a hundred times a year; he’s done a film; he has a book coming out next year. And his artwork, which he never sells, has generated $1.5 million at charity auctions.
Yet the Wahls’ success sprang from bitter failure. After 9/11, the business blueprint Wahl had devoted his life to fell victim to a crumbling economy. He lost everything. “The emotional toll was huge,” he says. He started painting purely as catharsis. Big canvases, bright colors, unstudied abandon. Art was a long shot, but he kept at it — and painted his way to an epiphany.
His life had been backwards; now he had a chance to set it right. Returning to the corporate world was out, but he and Tasha had three sons. How were they going to survive? After brainstorming, they came up with a wild idea. What if Wahl blended his knowledge of business and speaking with his new passion for art? He began piecing together a presentation; Tasha took on the marketing. Every time her 4-year-old went down for a nap, she got on the phone. It didn’t take too many yeses to jumpstart their venture.
“With each speaking date came five more,” Erik Wahl says. “It wasn’t a linear growth structure; it was nuclear: No one was doing what we were doing.” And there’s his point again. Want to be successful? Be different. Be unique. Be your most creative self.
“We’re all in these boxes; we’re all living with labels,” Wahl says. “What if we freed ourselves? How fast could we change the world?” — Sandra Millers Younger & Julene Snyder