I think I’ve cried twice in the past decade.


Once was when a very close family member of mine was diagnosed with cancer. The other was the first time I ever got a piece of art into the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Banquet Art Pack. Odd, I know, but it comes with a story.

I come from a long line of midwestern farm people. Practical, hard working…and practical. Did I mention practical? For example, my grandma wanted to lose weight and start exercising one summer. So, whenever her and my grandpa were out driving around looking at crops or coming back from town, she’d have him drop her off a mile from the house. That way, she had no excuse and no choice but to walk home.

That’s how I’ve pretty much approached everything in life, art and business. The hardest part is starting, so just make yourself start and figure it out as you go. Don’t sit around talking about the best way to plow the field. Just plow. You’ll get the hang of it.

I began my career as a graphic designer and illustrator at the NWTF and worked there for nearly seven years, painting occasionally on nights and weekends. When I finally rounded up the skill set and courage to strike out on my own, I had about a year’s worth of freelance work lined up. I was debt-free and determined, with nothing to lose and everything to gain.

That first year went fast. I had moved to Huntersville, NC outside of Charlotte to be closer to Kim, who was now my fiancé. I was doing freelance design work and painting. Eager to learn new skills, my next challenge was learning to use the palette knife. I’d seen other artists do it and loved the effects it could achieve – pure color, interesting texture, spontaneous shapes and patterns.

So, I borrowed a sheet from my grandma’s playbook. I decided to do a full painting with nothing but a palette knife—no excuses. I set my brushes aside, chose a mallard in a size and pose that I felt I could handle with a knife, and got to work.

The first thing that surprised me was how much paint it took. You’re applying way, way more paint than with a standard brush (think painting a wall with a garden trowel rather than a paint brush). The paint is built up in a cool, spontaneous way. A way that artist’s call “painterly.” The second thing that surprised me was how fun it was. Because it was a new way of working, I slowed down and worked more deliberately. And since this was purely a trial run, there was no pressure and I was able to enjoy the process without worrying about the end result.


Cupped & Committed Ryan Kirby CopyrightRyan Kirby Art: Cupped & Committed Process CopyrightRyan Kirby Art: Cupped & Committed Process CopyrightRyan Kirby Art: Cupped & Committed Process Copyright


The finished product was a painting entitled “Cupped and Committed.” I took the original to the NWTF Convention in Nashville with the rest of my work, and it was well received. The NWTF was even considering it for their Banquet Art Package. Which brings me back to that rented house I was working out of in the spring of 2013…

After that first twelve months in business, things had gotten lean. I was paying rent, utilities, office and studio supplies and the bane of an entrepreneur’s existence…quarterly tax estimates. I remember one month paying out just over $5,000 in expenses and only cashing a single $500 paycheck. Looking back, those were fairly small numbers overall. But at that point in time, both were big money to me. And the money was moving in the wrong direction.

Then one Friday afternoon in April, the day before the NC turkey opener, I was wrapping up work and checking emails before driving to Boone to roost birds with some buddies for opening morning. An email popped up from the NWTF, telling me that “Cupped and Committed” had been selected to their Banquet Art Package. It had an attachment, which I opened, to find the contract and a guaranteed royalty payments. And that’s when I cried.




All the stress, all the self-induced pressure, all the fear of failure that I had pushed down as I buckled down and pressed forward…I just cracked. Tears hit the keyboard of my iMac and my shoulders slumped as I buried my face in my hands, reading that contract. My business could live to see another day, tomorrow was turkey season, and I was completely overwhelmed with gratitude for both.


Turns out I’m not all that practical after all.