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Sculpting your success

An artist’s advice for any profession

Mark Gagnon has worked his art onto White House Christmas trees and the covers of leading magazines. It’s told stories along Manhattan’s glamourous Fifth Avenue and is at home six miles away in his South Street Seaport neighborhood on the East River.

The tenets that turned his creativity into artistic achievement apply in nearly every profession: passion, persistence and purposeful connections.

Three years after earning his art degree at Ohio State, Gagnon arrived in New York in 1985 — “just the right time,” he says. He brought along a commitment to being a working artist and realistic expectations of how he’d need to supplement that aspiration.

Work every day. Don’t wait for inspiration.

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Mark Gagnon, Artist, Offering advice for success in any career

That simple start 33 years ago came full circle during the 2017 holiday season, when Gagnon’s art was on mesmerizing display in a window of the landmark Berdorf Goodman department store. Admirers crowded to see 83 of his sculptures and paintings in the 13-foot-tall window. Gagnon worked every day of the preceding eight months on the project, which pays homage to the New-York Historical Society and its collection of the city’s cultural treasures.

Walk with Gagnon through South Street Seaport, where he has lived for 20 years, and you’ll see that his art lives everywhere, a community gallery of sorts: a large cow painting and likeness of a chicken at the farmer’s market, signage for the Little Water Radio station, a portrait of Walt Whitman above the bar at Fresh Salt café. 

Just down Beekman Street  is Emily Thompson Flowers. Gagnon wandered in right after the shop opened to introduce himself as a neighbor and fan. “I came in with these crazy vessels and said, ‘I make these things.’ And Emily was like, ‘Yeah great, put them in my shop.’ We became friends.” 

Their connection led to collaboration, which led their creations to the pages of Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest as well as the Vogue website.

In 2015, Gagnon’s papier-mache replicas of classic books — a collection curated by Michelle Obama — adorned White House Christmas trees. And his art has graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine and been featured in The New YorkerRolling Stone and many other publications.

Mark Gagnon, The Ohio State University, Alumni
Artist Mark Gagnon created 60 small sculpted reliefs for a Bergdorf Goodman project in 2017. These are constructed of papier-mache, resin, masking tape, bubble wrap and paint.
Mark Gagnon, The Ohio State University, Alumni
This large, two-handled bowl on a pedestal is made of papier-mache recycled materials and hand painted.
Mark Gagnon, The Ohio State University, Alumni
During the holiday season of 2015, First Lady Michelle Obama wanted to deck the halls of a library in the White House library. She wanted to use real books as tree-toppers, but they would have been too heavy. Gagnon created much lighter replicas, curated by the first lady.
Mark Gagnon, The Ohio State University, Alumni
Some of the books that Gagnon sculpted for trees in the White House Library. These are made of papier-mache, foam core paint, pen and ink.
Mark Gagnon, The Ohio State University, Alumni
Launched in 2014, “Out to See" was created to engage the South Street Seaport neighborhood with artists and cultural activities to create a new path away from the tourism for which the seaport was known. Gagnon was one of the founders and was responsible for art direction as well.

So, what can the rest of us learn from Gagnon’s wide-ranging career, besides that there are no shortcuts? Here’s his advice, which can be tailored to your circumstances — whether you’re an artist or an engineer, a scientist or a software developer.

Find ways to meet people in the circles you’d like to join.

Offer to intern, assist an artist, work in a gallery. Put yourself in a world where, when the opportunities arise, you’re there for them. 

Accept all offers.

Trust that a job done well will lead to other opportunities. It always does.

Work every day.

Don’t wait for inspiration. Just sit down and make something new. It doesn’t even have to be anything you keep. I’ve done this pretty much every day of my life. 

Take risks — whatever that means for you.

Experiment in a new medium, approach someone whose work you admire or take another route outside your comfort zone.