Portland Open Studio artist Jesse Reno is a classic Portland success story. A self-taught mixed media artist with Basquiat sensibilities, he has grown his career into a successful self-supporting artist who is widely shown, who sells most of the paintings he creates and who teaches his intuitive painting techniques in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Mexico. All this, he says while being “the sole manager of my career with no business background.”
This year, Reno was selected in the annual Willamette Week reader’s poll as Portland’s Best visual artist. He recently took time to answer some questions for us about how he built his career.
Other artists would probably love to know how you’ve been able to make yourself known to enough people to win the reader’s poll. Can you give us some insight on that?
I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think it’s working every day, connecting with people, making meaningful work, and the accumulation of all that work. It’s about being persistent.
I’ve been a full time artist for 15 years and I’ve been active in the Portland art scene for that entire time. I’ve exhibited my work well over 100 times. I paint murals whenever I get the chance. For the first five years I showed every month in Portland. For the last four years I’ve been running a public studio at 3022 E Burnside with Melissa Monroe where people can stop in and meet us and ask us questions etc. For the past two years Melissa and I have been hosting exhibitions at the studio, showcasing other artists in our front gallery and opening up our studio for First Friday exhibitions. I don’t take any commission from other artists at my space. I want it to be a place to build real connection and culture, where money is not a motivator as to who I show or what work is exposed and where the outcome isn’t judged on sales. I’ve been teaching and lecturing about my ideas, philosophies and techniques as an artist going on 11 years now. I’ve had an online presence since 2001 with a website, portfolio info etc. And I haven’t stopped since.
I’m always making new work and doing my best to expose it online, in exhibitions, at classes and at my studio. I use my site, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube online and post regularly. I send out monthly emails and am still running monthly events at my studio. I generally travel out of state 5-10 times a year for some kind of art gig, and I’ve been doing that for the last 12 years.
What’s the most effective thing an artist can do to help their career grow?
Make work that you really enjoy and figure out why it’s meaningful to you. That‘s the key to staying motivated and excited. Art is a long game that builds on itself. Being motivated and understanding those motivations will allow you to share meaningful insights into your work process and purpose. This is what makes people interested in what you’re doing and want to work with you. Doing something unimaginable, something that really stands out and shows
your ability and determination as an artist.
One thing that opened a lot of doors for me was painting a 20×60 ft. mural in 2003 at a place called New American Casuals, which is located on MLK under the Morrison Bridge. It was my first mural – I painted it with my friend Eric Wixon. We used two paint rollers on extenders, a handful of brushes, and two ladders. We painted it for free and bought our own paint. It was all about painting the biggest piece I ever made in a place where a huge amount of people would be exposed to it – all kinds of random people. We had a show at the space after the mural was complete and I made a ton of friends, and sold a few pieces.
Most of all, having done it really motivated me. After that, when I went around town asking for shows, and a gallery or business owner in town asked where I had shown I asked if they had ever seen the mural under the Morrison Bridge. When I told them I did it they almost always asked when I wanted to show. It let people not only see my work but know I was determined enough to do something serious. There are plenty of other options; pretty much anything you can do that will speak for your ability and determination as an artist is a good idea.
Do you look at making art as a business?
Not making art, that’s a special space where I get to experiment, create, connect with abstract ideas and myself, and see what comes out. I look at exposing the work as a business for sure, but I keep it basic, in the sense that I want it to be exposed and available to people. In the early days I showed my work almost anywhere and for really affordable prices ranging from $25 to $500 for a master-piece. I’ve adjusted this all over time based on sales exposure, accomplishments and my current schedule. Now that I have too many opportunities to choose from I do my research and pick based on what I think will be the best exposure, and most fun. I look at it as a business when I’m working with people as well. This is my job and I take that part super serious.
Any time I’m working out a future opportunity I make sure I’m clear on my expectations and understand theirs by asking questions and taking notes. I provide them with all they ask for in a clear and efficient manner. I generally do this kind of work first so my head is clear and free when it’s time to create. I also have an assistant who photographs my work, corrects it for print and web, updates my site with images and events, helps organize travel arrangements, tracks inventories of art and art related products, preps work for exhibitions, packs work for shipment to shows or collectors, and other random things. I’d say getting an assistant is a really key once you start to succeed. The more you succeed the more business there is to do and one person can only do so much. It also pushes you to take it all even more seriously. It’s most important to keep the captain happy – meaning you – if you become unhappy and start to slack the whole ship goes down.
I’ve heard you say painting is an obsession for you. How do you handle the less obsessive parts about being a successful artist like making money and extending your patron base?
You have no choice but to do those things if you are going to succeed, so you accept that doing the things you need to are necessary and get them done. In the beginning my motto was ‘by any means necessary.’ I was obsessed with painting from the beginning. But the only way you’re going to get to paint more is to sell them. So success was always motivated by desire for me. Once I started to sell my work I was really grateful and excited to sell more. I could see the potential pretty quick.
I’ve never liked working for other people so as soon as I could see any possibility of working for myself I became very motivated to figure out how to make that happen. Now, as I mentioned before, I have an assistant who does a lot of the less exciting things. I’m still coming up with the ideas and managing them but it takes a lot off my plate. All that being said I still sometimes get really irritated with all the work it takes so I can paint, but it all needs to get done so I can keep painting.
It’s important to keep it fun too – taking on projects you actually want to do, basing your decisions on economics, but also taking into account what you’re good at and what taxes you. If it’s going to wear you down you want to make sure you’re getting paid well. Another option is to do twice as much work doing projects that are fun for you and hope for more random exposure, connection, and self-motivation. One thing that always seems to hold true is the more you do the more that happens. It’s not immediate but almost everything leads to something. So, the main point is to always be showing and sharing your work.
How important is it to take the time to do the more business-like tasks?
It’s the second most important thing after painting.
It’s at least half the job. If you don’t take care of business or take the time to promote and expose your work you’re not going to succeed. No one is looking for artists hiding in their studios.
If you woke up one morning and no one was buying your art, would you change anything?
I’d figure out was going wrong and find a new way to sell it. it’s all about finding people who connect with what you’re doing and making your work accessible to them. There are a lot of people in the world. It’s all about finding the ones you connect with. I’ve changed and followed a lot of paths through my career. You always need to adjust and grow as time goes on – things are always changing.
This is another reason you need to love what you do. it’s what keeps me motivated to always find new ways to keep things moving.
Can you offer us some examples of your working style and technique?
This is a painting process video I made – I’ve used it to promote my work and classes. I’m also pretty sure it’s what ultimately got me my gig live painting in Hollywood earlier this month. It’s all shot and assembled on my phone. A bit of a project but something most people could do if they put in the time.
There is a ton more info about how I got where I am and what I did to get there. Here’s a talk I gave at the National Art Educators convention in Chicago a few years ago. It takes a minute to load the player but it’s great if someone was interested in my back ground.
Here’s a video I made from the live paint I did in Hollywood earlier this month. Documenting what you do is key to sharing it.
The 2016 year in review video just shows what I do in a typical year – 300 paintings – 27 events/classes etc. It’s all in there.
I’m sharing these because I thought they would be helpful as they give a visual to the words
which I think is key – it makes it all believable and digestible and that’s key to sending your message home.
Jesse and Melissa are having a show in the front gallery at True Measure Gallery on Sept 7th – First Friday – All are welcome – Jesse and Melissa Monroe will performing a live musical soundtrack to some recent films they made at 8pm. The show runs from 6-10pm
Jesse Reno and Melissa Monroe are numbers 43 and 37 on the Open Studios tour this year. You can reach him here: jessereno.com instagram @jessereno, or reach them at
The Studios and Gallery of Jesse Reno and Melissa Monroe
True Measure Gallery
3022 East Burnside
Portland OR 97214