Abbi Custis turns art hobby into career

In her studio near Salisbury, Abbi Custis stands in a self-made storm of swirling colors and concepts, ideas, visions and revelations.

Manned with a Black & Decker drill, with a paint mixer head, and eager finger tips, a hair dryer to move paint, she is a force to be reckoned with.

She is saturated in art, dreams art, talks art, sees art everywhere. Her artist styles of abstract and impressionism comes from her creative personality. 

Within five years, she had transformed her work from painted gifts to a line of art products under the “Abbi Custis” brand name. 

Her life is all about art, art creations for the wall, serving trays, upholstery and drapery fabric prints, note cards, and mugs.

She’s exhibited her creations nationally and in Europe and presently working on a corporate art commission. The artist hosts her own “pop-up” shows and promotes her artwork through social media.

Custis, of Salisbury and Onancock, may not be the toast of the art world yet, but art professionals are filling their glasses.

In her two-room studio, the walls are awash with colors that are drizzled, sprayed, smeared and thrown over a sheetrock canvas.

“My studio is a mess but it makes sense to me,” she said, laughing.

The electric-blue abstract painting on the worktable crackles with the artistic energy Custis brings to her canvas. It is another example of the power of colors that swirl, fly and explode in her creations.

Magic begins with cans, bottles and tubes of acrylics, epoxies, hundreds of paint chips —even her children’s bubble mixture which can add texture. 

“My style is a modern mix of approaches, my take on things I see, or a colorful punch on traditional themes,” she said.

 She believes by not “overthinking” the execution of a piece the final product is enhanced, and sometimes, she said, the creation often surprises her.

An artistic confession — “I don’t use paint brushes. I have but prefer not to.”

 In their place she uses electric drills, spatulas, scrapers, heat gun, even a leaf blower and plenty of fingertips and palms, “and a ton of spray paint.”

She also uses lots of crumpled paper, torn paper, curled paper.

“There are no rules, nope, not in my artwork.”

“I never intended this to be a career, but I had a passion for it, told I was good at it. When I was younger, I was able to see the essence of a painting, to be able to connect color with aesthetics with the subject to make ‘art’ happen.

“I am an abstract artist but I do abstract realism — I can do feelings or a beach scene, a landscape, a subject,” Custis explained.

It was an assignment at Salisbury School that changed her life.

“My art teacher believed in my talent. He gave me sticks, no brushes, a lot of colors and told me to go outside and ‘don’t come back until you have a painting.’ That single experience changed me. I loved it,” she said.

While in college she dabbled with “repurposing” used furniture. Her father, Booth Grier, helped her to prepare and paint furniture in his garage.

Her twist on the repurposing trend was to impart an artistic flair on each piece, not simply slap on a coat of solid color.

“I learned a lot from him doing those pieces. As a matter of fact I have most of his tools that I now use in my studio.”

It was the assortment of the tools that she adapted for specific uses to create art with texture and visual excitement. Had her father not introduced her to the handyman’s arsenal, she figures her art life would not have been as creative and vibrant.

In college she was an “American studies” major. “I didn’t think I had enough art talent to be a success at it,” she said.

After 10 years in the Washington, D.C., area as an event planner, she then handled all the events for the Board of Trustees at George Washington University.

A few years ago she returned to Salisbury.

While participating in local fundraising event, Custis was called upon to add artistic elements to a program.

“I was literally throwing paint on canvas, creating abstract art, and that experience just ignited that art flame in my brain. It was apparent that this was what I’m supposed to do it life.”

Then, the artistic trip up a lifetime began with one stroke, or one toss of a cup of paint, at a time.

It was the day Abbi Custis got a request from her mother-in-law, to paint a few gift items for friends, that Custis stepped from  a beloved hobby into the business world of art.

“Oh, wow, I discovered, people actually wanted  to buy something from me.”

 It was a career epiphany.

Little did mother-in-law Lola Custis, shopping for innovative gifts, know that she had just launched Abbi’s career. Suddenly “Abbi Custis, Finding Art in Every Day” was a company and brand name.

“When I had my first child, I painted things for his room, and local people and friends wanted similar things. Things started coming together. I thought I should build a website, host an art show in my house. So that’s what I did.”

The magic key that made possible the leap from hobby to profession came from a skill she had made into an art form —  event planning. It was a lightning strike at a juncture in her artistic evolution that set her on fire — the power of marketing.

“I combined my event planning  skills with my art talent,’ she said,

It was a bold move, a scary move, she said, looking back.

“That first show was so nerve wracking. Here I was, exposing my soul. ‘Here’s my house. Here’s all my artwork. My house was my art gallery.’ I was asking people to come, to see it and hopefully buy it. It was scary, but the feedback I got, and the positive energy I got from it, I knew there was no stopping.”

It was social media that introduced Abbi Custis to the art-loving world. “I could develop a far larger market online than just meeting people locally.”

Success, she has discovered, is achieved by promotion, self promotion.

“You can’t have all you artwork stacked against the walls of your house and expect to sell it. You won’t be ‘discovered’ just by waiting. You’ve got to get out there and promote it, sell it.”

Custis possess what may be the two most important elements making for a successful artist — she brims with high-powered  self-confidence and a generous helping of self-promotion, indispensable marketing skills crucial to success.

Her products tend to move on the “pricier side,’ she said, because they are not mass produced. 

Then a friend suggested that she turn her artwork into products. “It never occurred to me, selling products. Then I made a few things and went crazy with it.

Her artwork of a crab, for example, was scanned and turned into napkins, Lucite trays, mugs notepads, Christmas ornaments, upholstery fabric, even beach towels.

She goes to shows in surrounding states promoting her goods.

“I just love it,” she said.

“Sure, I went through that ‘this is crazy I can’t really do this’ stage. But I learned that I couldn’t keep asking myself a thousand ‘why’s,’ but to just get out there and do it. Have fun with it. Go for it. 

“My mother, Gina, loves how things have gone. She was always the one always pushing, always encouraging me. Even when I was in college she’d send me magazine clippings of things she thought I should paint. Still does it. She has an artist eye,” Custis said.

“I don’t need retail space to sell me things. I do ‘pop up’ shop shows. It makes it more exciting if these things aren’t readily available to consumers. It’s an experience for the customer to come to one of my pop-up shop shows.”

It is the business energy behind the artist concept.

“Part of my business mentality is to take the positive out of not so good situations and expound on it. That keeps me successful.”

So how did Abbi Custis artwork appear in shows in Italy, New York and Miami?

“Once you have established yourself in the art world, and someone of importance in the art world notes your work, and you get on the right lists, you are actually solicited to show your work. And yes, it’s exciting!

“My husband, John, is amused by all this. But then he’s an attorney, rather dry. We are ‘Ying and Yang.’ I don’t let him come into my studio when I’m at work.

“He causes me to have anxiety,” she said with laughter.

“There is the business and product side and the high-end art commissions. I want to grow the business side. What I love is to create and execute big paintings, my real joy. I want to be in big hotels, restaurants. I’d like to work with interior designers.”

Now she’s working with Ace Hardware. “They want me to be a ‘product promoter’ for them,” she said.

Good-bye, little Abbi Grier with the art hobby.

Abbi Custis,  the woman, has an art career. 

She’s been discovered.

Learn more about Abbi Custis at abbicustis.com and on Facebook and Instagram.

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