MARLO THOMAS
06/04/2014 11:34 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2014

This Teacher Quit Her Job To Pursue Painting – Now Her Pieces Sell for $100,000

marlo thomas"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us—that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story, an excerpt from my new book “It Ain't Over Till It's Over,” is about California music teacher Layla Fanucci, who simply wanted to paint a picture to fill a space on her wall, and wound up unleashing a hidden talent that's now earning her millions."—Marlo, MarloThomas.com

It was a big, blank space that really bugged her. And it was smack in the middle of her living room.

Music teacher and choir director Layla Fanucci was standing at the foot of her couch contemplating the empty wall above it. A Monet poster used to hang there, but Layla had taken it down.

“It was nice,” she says, “just like some music is nice. But to me, there’s a difference between hearing a good CD and hearing a live band that moves you and takes your breath away.”

She wanted the wall to take her breath away. And—boom—that’s when it hit her: live music, live art. So Layla started scouting out galleries in towns near her Napa Valley home. “I couldn’t find anything,” she says—and, man, the sticker shock! She was not going to spend thousands of dollars on artwork she didn’t love.

So she did what any self-respecting DIY-er would do: She decided to paint something herself. There was just one little problem. “I had never painted in my life,” she says.

But on her maiden voyage, Layla went all out. She bought a six-by-five-foot white board, laid it on the ground, and covered it with an explosion of blue, red, yellow, green, and white paint. As she worked, her hand flew across the canvas with the energy and grace of someone who’d been doing this for years. The design was abstract, but hidden within the paint drippings, Layla had added a clarinet, a Christmas tree, and three figures representing her kids.

“It’s big, it’s bold, it’s got color—we’re good to go,” she told herself. “End of story.”

But, really, it was just the beginning. When friends came over and saw Layla’s creation, they were wowed. Over the next year, nine of them paid Layla to produce “real” art for their homes, too: an abstract portrait of children, a postmodern still life.

“I was surprised and delighted, and I had no idea where this was coming from,” she says. “One couple painted their whole living room to match the colors in my painting.”

Inspired by her friends’ reactions, Layla painted, and she painted. She painted between teaching gigs. She painted at lunch. “I just wanted to paint all the time,” she says. “I had all of this inside of me, and now it was pouring out.”

It also made Layla reflect on her life. “I loved music and loved teaching children,” she says, “but I hadn’t admitted to myself that after 25 years I was getting tired.”

Layla Fanucci

That is, until she discovered her inner artist. She’d earned a steady salary, money she and her husband, Robert, a tax attorney, counted on to pay their kids’ college tuition and to help support their small family wine business.

“But now everybody, including my husband, said, ‘Teach part-time and see if the art goes anywhere.’ But I knew if I wanted to give art a shot, I had to give it everything I had.”

So in 2001, two years after hanging her first painting on the wall, Layla quit teaching cold turkey. “My husband said, ‘I feel like we’re on the Titanic and you just jumped.’”

She’d heard the dismal statistics: Only 5 percent of artists make money. How was she going to become the exception, turning her art into a business? First, she needed to create a body of work. She gave herself a two-year deadline to do so. “If I wasn’t able to match my salary, I’d go back to teaching,” she says.

Layla put on one of Robert’s old white work shirts and started to paint, ten to twelve hours a day. “You know how runners talk about that amazing euphoric feeling they get at the end of a marathon?” she asks. “When I paint, I have that wonderful feeling the entire time.”

That joy resulted in a burst of productivity, and within two years, Layla had produced nearly 200 paintings—abstract depictions of flowers, musicians, men and women (she gave them monikers like Lisou, Madeline, and The Martini Lady). “I was inspired by Matisse’s style and colors,” she says.

Through word of mouth, Layla was soon selling her paintings and making almost as much money as she had as a teacher.

Encouraged, she sent photos of her work to a top art consultant in New York City and set up a meeting. “I was so nervous riding up in the creaky elevator of this chic French New York hotel to go to the suite of a stranger with a book of photographs of my paintings,” she says. “I remember thinking to myself, What are you doing?”

The woman (think Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada) studied every page carefully, brusquely holding up her hand to silence Layla every time she tried to provide a painting’s backstory. When the consultant closed the book, she leveled her verdict:

“It’s good—and we don’t care.” Then she offered the advice that would change Layla’s life: “What does a Layla Fanucci painting look like?” Layla tried to formulate an answer, but the consultant barreled on: “In order to market your work, you have to paint a style nobody else paints”—she got an inch from Layla’s face and finished in staccato—“In. The. World.”

The art consultant sent Layla home to produce 17 more paintings over the next six months. It was a daunting assignment, but one she welcomed. “I instinctively felt that the process was going to take me where I needed to go.”

Over the next two years, they “did a dance,” with the consultant critiquing each new batch of work and Layla going back into her studio to experiment some more. Through the process, she developed a one-of-a-kind Layla Fanucci style of cityscapes: She paints layer upon layer of color on linen canvas to communicate the mood of a city—New York, Paris, Venice, Rome. When the paint dries, she adds architectural details like buildings and bridges, then gives the painting life with people, motion, and energy before covering it with more color. She may paint three cities on top of the first one, creating depth and texture, so anyone who looks closely can see the other cities and architectural details bleeding through.

Layla proved herself as an original to the art consultant, who introduced her to a prominent gallery in New York City, which offered her a solo show of 16 of her paintings. If they didn’t sell, the consultant warned, Layla’s big-time art career was done. Nine sold in one month.

Since then, she’s had shows in San Francisco and Morocco and has sold her work to collectors around the world. Critics also praised her work—and one in particular caught Layla’s connection to music, saying, “She captures the rhythm of the great metropolis, the lyrical splendor of its skies and the cacophony of its streets. Looking at these scenes, one understands why people return time after time to these places, like musical phrases we never tire of hearing, always finding something new in them.”

In 2006, Layla and Robert merged their boutique winery, Charter Oak, with her art business. She recently sold her largest painting to date, a nine-by-fourteen-foot work called City of the World Opus II, for $100,000 when a tourist walked into her on‑site gallery and fell in love with it. “In a year, I sold 32 paintings and made as much money as I would have if I had taught for 33
years.

“We all have hidden talents,” she continues. “If we find them, we need to work on them every day and let them flourish. I often think of what I would have missed if I had not given up a steady, reliable salary and followed my passion.”

To find out more about Layla’s successful art career -- and to read 59 more inspiring stories, buy your copy of "It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over."
Click here.

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