When Miami artist John Lacko found himself on the receiving end of a corporate pink slip, he did what most of us do – packed up his post-its and headed for the door. After years toiling in a cubicle, he was ready to face whatever happened next with a sharpened pencil and a pretty unique online portfolio. Setting up a home art studio, he decided to embrace life as a freelance-starving-artist to see where fate (and the internet) might lead. In the months that followed, he was tasked with a number of projects from the music industry, a branding exercise for a notorious horror movie director and quite a few t-shirt designs for surf & skate companies.
He never looked back.
The economic downturn definitely took its toll on his bank account, but his stylized illustrations appeal to enough people to keep the lights on and his spirits high. “If I never see the inside of a conference room again, I’ve already won,” he laughs. “The life of a freelance artist is harrowing on a good day but at least the days are mine and the opportunity to work with a lot of very crazy people is never boring…”
When the local news reported that art supply mecca PEARL PAINT – which is headquartered in South Florida – would be liquidating its inventory in advance of shuttering the last two stores, local artists shared their rememberances on Twitter and Facebook. The brick and mortar source of esoteric elements treasured by architects (tiny plastic people standing, walking or seated), scrapbookers (colorful scissors that scallop or zigzag edges), and embroiderers (skeins of thread in silk, cotton, wool, rayon) started out at 30%, then 40% and finally 70% off before there was nothing left to sell.
Like many, Lacko started wandering the dusty aisles trying to figure out what he needed, what he wanted and what he might require some time in the distant future. But what he found at the going out of business sale was a lot of people just like him who were facing an uncertain future when PEARL PAINT handed out their final paychecks. He started chatting with a woman named Rose, a veteran of the Oakland Park location, as she sorted through the boxes to set up the clearance tables with ten cent treasures and dollar deals.
On the first visit, at 40% off, Lacko tested the waters with a few boxes of his favorite blue pencils and then loaded up on the oddities priced under a dollar. He got tape, metal clips, a mechanical waxing machine once used for pasting up columns of printed type before computer graphics rendered the process obsolete. He had no use for an automatic waxer, but at a dollar it seemed a shame to leave it to the landfill. The store’s vast inventory of things no one seemed to need any more may have led to the closing. Selling anything online requires little more than a digital image and an e-commerce website. PEARL PAINT still had a vast and expensive portfolio department long after artists started showcasing their work on the web. The industry moved forward, PEARL did not.
When the sell-off hit 50%, Lacko found Rose stocking the aisles. She smiled less and seemed overwhelmed by the frantic energy of shoppers emptying entire shelves into red carts. Stacks of stretched canvas and boxes of markers, spray adhesive and x-acto knives rattled out the door. Even at half price, many items in the PEARL inventory were barely competitive with Dick Blick and the popular online sites. Still, the ability to touch and test, to shake and rattle made the hands-on shopping experience appealing to many. The people working at the store offered great advice and many had art studios of their own.
When the staff at PEARL in Oakland Park sent out the late night tweet that Monday August 18 would start the 70% off sale, the atmosphere at the store was bedlam. A uniformed Broward County sherriff stood at the register to help keep calm and the lines to check out ran right to the back. Someone came through and bought every single paintbrush in the paint aisle, another guy gingerly loaded up all the stained glass, a man and woman filled seven carts with such fervor it seemed they were auditioning for “Supermarket Sweepstakes.”
The air conditioner had long since failed and the remaining PEARL staffers did their best to facilitate every transaction. Lacko finally splurged on a few big ticket items and then wandered around the aisles for the last time. The place felt a lot like his corporate job in the hours before the final closing. People seemed weary, a little frightened, but glad the chaos was finally winding down. As he pushed the wobbly shopping cart out to the car, he waved goodbye to Rose and wished her good luck. The store may be gone, but it seems like a lot of local artists will have all they need to do some amazing new work.
If they do run out of anything, new paint is just a click away.
To view John Lacko’s work, go to his website and Altpick page.