Making Art Her Own Way
By Kelsey Ogletree | Photography courtesy of Gee Gee Collins
A single Instagram message catapulted Minneapolis artist Gee Gee Collins’s career to new heights. Yet she almost deleted it.
The DM (direct message) came from American fashion designer and Project Runway alum Christian Siriano.
She nearly skipped right over his message—asking if she had any large, figurative paintings available—thankfully, she realized it was the real deal. Collins messaged him back, explaining what was in stock. Before she knew it, she and her two daughters were on a plane to Siriano’s store in New York City, where they traded a few of her paintings (now hanging in the store) for dresses, including a strappy, knee-length black number with lace overlay that fits Collins like a glove.
It was a surprising moment that came full circle for Collins, whose mother, Joyce, owned a chain of boutique women’s stores. “When I was eight years old, she traded someone clothes for my braces,” Collins recalls, “so trading was in the family.”
Weeks after the visit, Collins posted a rare portrait of herself on Instagram wearing the dress, along with fancy heels that also came from Siriano. “Just wanted you to know I always wear five-inch heels when I paint,” she quipped in the caption.
Forming Her Own Path
Not taking herself too seriously is one reason Collins has been so successful in her second career as an artist. Her love for creating things began in preschool, where she’d hide in the back of the classroom to do finger paintings on a double-sided easel. “It was just fun to me—so free, no rules,” she says. Years later, she majored in art in college but then began working in health care instead.
That all changed when a close friend told her how she’d sold one of her own paintings, and Collins also saw her mother taking up art in her retirement. She began to think that maybe she really could turn her passion into a career. After being turned down by countless galleries—she says she emailed one in Minneapolis at least ten times and heard crickets—Catherine Kelleghan Gallery in Atlanta was the “yes” she’d been looking for. After keeping her health-care job while painting on the side for about seven years, Collins finally went full-time as an artist in 2014.
Things have evolved dramatically since her first gallery days. The way she works has changed; she’s gone from fitting her paintings into a specific box to returning to her “no rules” mind-set from childhood. “When I was getting into galleries, I was trying to stay in a certain lane,” says Collins. “It took a while for me to finally realize my whimsical side—that painting figures didn’t have to be realistic.”
“It took a while for me to finally realize my whimsical side—that painting figures didn’t have to be realistic.”
A Style All Her Own
These days, her pieces are about color, pattern, and creating harmony among the shapes. She primarily paints the female form, not because she is trying to convey some underlying meaning, but simply because she thinks it’s beautiful. “My art’s not that deep; I like to draw the figures and I relate to them because I’m a woman,” she says. “I don’t overthink; I just like to feel and paint.” Sometimes, she forgets she’s painting figures altogether, focusing more on the vivid colors on her paper or canvas.
One of her favorite pieces she’s ever done is a large painting—six feet by seven feet—resembling a reimagined version of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. “It was about taking something classic, making it mine, and making it now,” Collins explains. She created it inside the studio below her garage, which has high ceilings that allow her to hang big canvases while she works on them (and yes, the walls are covered in nail holes, she laughs).
Inside her studio is where she’s most content, jamming out to Taylor Swift, Prince, or R.E.M. on her Beats by Dre headphones, with black coffee in one hand and a brush in the other. Her three cats and springer spaniel circle around her feet (they’re only locked out when she’s pouring resin—no one wants cat hair in their paintings, she says). Collins rarely spends an entire day focused on one task; she’s most creative when she’s interrupted, she says, running errands and shuttling her three kids around throughout the day. At night, she loves cooking, which she compares to creating art in that she likes to make things up as she goes along—a little more garlic here, a pinch more salt there.
Replacing the Gallery
While there’s no exact method for what she creates in her studio or the kitchen, Collins sticks to a tried-and-true process for selling her art that took off when Siriano first reached out: Instagram. At first, she was disinterested in social media, but she changed her tune when she recognized the potential for artists sharing their work through this visual platform.
Collins has sold thousands of paintings on Instagram, sometimes in as little as an hour or two. The first follower to comment “sold” on a photo or send her a DM about it usually gets the piece. “There’s a place for galleries, to show off paintings, but they can’t take everything,” Collins notes. Larger, spendier works can take a little more time to sell, and doing business this way requires Collins to check in on things more often than she might at a gallery. However, it’s easier and faster for her to be able to sell them on her own, even without having a virtual shop. “I try to check in, then I paint and go about my life,” she says.
Checking in on Instagram even benefits her work, as it deters her from overdoing it on her paintings. “You know what they say: Everybody creates a masterpiece, then paints over it,” Collins says. “Sometimes, being able to walk away is nice.”
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Kelsey Ogletree is a Chicago-based writer covering travel, wellness, and design for publications that include Robb Report, Shape, Architectural Digest, and more. Always on the hunt for stories and forever a notetaker, she never leaves home without her mini Moleskine and at least two pens.