When John Coleman was 43 years old, he received a phone call that changed his life.

That call was from a client, who had asked Coleman to do a construction project for him. Just as work was about to begin, however, the client received a lower bid and was going to use a different vendor. Suddenly, Coleman had three full months with nothing to do.

“It was a sign,” he says now. “I knew exactly what I had to do. It was what I had always wanted to do, but I never had time to do it. Now I had no more excuses.”

Decades had passed since Coleman had actually been an artist. It was the only thing he’d been good at in school— and in fact, the only thing he did for the last year and a half of high school. But for all the years that he and his wife Sue were raising their daughters, running a string of different businesses, and building a life in Prescott, Arizona, he had put his artistic dreams on hold.

“The romantic notion of an art career was always there,” Coleman admits, “but I think at that point I was afraid of it. I didn’t want to try it and lose the dream I’d been holding on to for so long.”

So, when he was suddenly presented with three months of free time, Coleman decided not to wait any longer. He signed up for classes at the nearby Scottsdale Artists School, brought home a bunch of clay, and started to sculpt.

The Newcomers
The Newcomers
Bronze – 37″ x 24″ x 16″

Now almost 70, he’s been sculpting, drawing, and painting for more than a quarter of a century. In January, he’ll receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the heART of the West Gala at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona. In February, he’ll be honored with the Artist of Excellence Award from the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.

But Coleman doesn’t take either of those awards to mean he’s closing in on the end of his career, or that his best days are behind him. “Now that I’m officially an old man,” he says, “I’m excited about maybe being able to get better yet.”

One of the things Coleman tells students in the workshops he teaches is that they have to think like entrepreneurs if they want to become successful artists. Often, they are so focused on perfecting their technique as artists that they forget about the business side of their chosen careers. “I tell them that, if their goal is to make a living as an artist, then they have to be entrepreneurs,” Coleman says.

Although it can be challenging for some artists to get excited about the business side of art, it comes naturally to Coleman. His aptitude for art—which was apparent as a young child— might have come first, but over the years he also developed a knack for the kind of strategic thinking that made his business ventures successful. Coleman and Sue—high school sweethearts, who were married when they were 19 -started and ran several businesses together.

They operated a small business that sold awnings for mobile homes. They ran a construction company. They bought a mobile home park, renovated it, and then developed the property around it with several more businesses that they ran: a car wash, a gas station, a storage facility, and a Days Inn hotel. Those experiences came in handy when he decided to become an artist. “

“My survival skills got really good,” Coleman says with a laugh. “I got my training by building street credibility. I was basically doing business out of the back of my pickup truck for a while—but that’s what I loved. I really enjoy the game of business.”

So, when he started working on his art in the early 1990s, Coleman made a list of what he needed to do to be successful. By then already successful as a businessman, he carefully chose the words he put on that list. For example, he did not write that he wanted to become commercially successful. Instead, he wrote that he wanted to find “the right destination for [my] art.”

To do that, Coleman had to create art that people could relate to. “It’s empathy,” he says. “Empathy is what makes a piece of art run deep; that’s why someone wants to buy a piece of art.”

In his work, Coleman strives to achieve empathy through an understanding of history combined with a fascination with mythology. Myths, as he explains them, are moral – ity tales that help to explain unique cultures and traditions. The Native American subjects he focuses on allow him to tell those morality tales through the lens of their history, he says. It also gives him a way to connect with viewers on a less literal level.

“Art is putting a spiritual face on a historical idea,” Coleman says. “It has to be a metaphor, so that the viewer can understand it. It has to be the viewer’s story, not yours.”

As an example, he cites a recent painting of a small girl holding a doll. The world doesn’t need more paintings of a little girl holding a doll, he says; hundreds of them already have been painted. But, when you put it in the context of a viewer’s experiences that changes. Viewers see their stories, not just another image of a girl with a doll. “Something happens that transcends the actual image,” Coleman says. “It’s not just the image anymore, it’s the feeling you get from the image.”

That’s one of the reasons he takes care not to overdo the details in his work. “It’s an allusion of detail,” he says. “To me, it’s the seasoning; you need just the right amount of it, because too much detail will get in the way of what the viewer sees.”

Everything lined up for Coleman, when he decided to step away from his construction business and become an artist. His two daughters were married and on their own. He had time on his hands. And he had enough money in the bank to live comfortably for a time. “It was the perfect day,” he says.


This article was originally published in Art of the West, January/February 2019