This week Vivid Minds Vivid Futures interviews Dr James O’Hanlon, a biologist and an artist who transitioned from science to art during the COVID-19 pandemic. James is currently painting a vibrant, fun, colourful mural through The Mall Arcade in Armidale.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am currently working as an artist, illustrator, and mural painter. My style is children’s book illustrations, which are colourful, fun, and bright. I was born in Northern Ireland, but when I was young my family moved to Western Sydney. They all still had their Belfast accent, so my accent is weird. I moved to Armidale about four and a half years ago to start a job as a research scientist in biology and zoology at the University of New England. After finishing that job, I decided to change gears. My scientific background often comes across in my art; a client might want a character of a frog, and usually they would get that, but my first question is: what type of frog? Is it a Green Tree Frog, Bumpy Rocket Frog, or even a Diane’s Bare-Hearted Glass Frog?
What does @jamohanlon do?
I do illustrations, art commissions, and murals for commercial, domestic, and government clients. I have also done illustration art workshops for groups and individuals. I’ve done design work for Macquarie University, and some illustrations and design work for various organisations. More recently, I’ve been working on a project in The Mall Arcade which was commissioned by Renew Armidale and Armidale Regional Council and funded by the New South Wales State Government. My illustration work is mainly around book illustrations and children’s books.
When did you start your business?
I started around the beginning of last year. I’ve always done art and illustration as a hobby with some paid work on the side. Last year, paid as a scientist dried up due to COVID, and there were no new grants available, so I thought I would give this a go and put all my time into illustrations, murals, and commissions.
What have been some of your challenges in starting a business?
The biggest challenge was realising that I am the brand and putting my name out there as the business creative. Identifying my main market was also a challenge. I thought a lot of people would want commissioned art and illustrations, but actually there is lots of demand for murals. I’ve been doing some murals for the library, and some councils, and that seems to be where the market is.
What led you to go from biology to art?
I thought biology was going to be my profession as a research scientist, out in the field chasing wild animals through the rain forest. Art has been something I’ve done since I was a kid, and biology is a competitive cutthroat field where you fight for grants and personal fellowships. If I was going to put so much personal energy into this, I was going to do it for myself. I’ve always done art as a hobby, so I started asking people to pay me for it and they accepted that. I started to see it as a possible avenue for employment.
What do you like most about running your own business?
All the usual stuff; flexibility and being able to work from home. The main thing I like is the relationships I’ve been able to form. Working with other local businesses on what they want and making those connections with other businesses. Compared to most people in Armidale, I’m still new to town, but making these connections makes me feel like I am a part of the local community, and I like the feeling of contributing to the community I’m a part of.
What advice would you give a business just starting out?
Lean into your community. You can have big picture ideas of where you want to go in the future, but you need to look next door to who you can work with that’s already there. Reach out to people face to face and talk to them as people. That’s something that I had to learn along the way. Everyone talks about the importance of online and social, but I feel like it’s been more important for me to be out in the community showing my face. Doing this, you can show that you are a nice person and people will want to work with you.
What inspires you?
The next project always inspires me. I love the idea of a piece of art that hasn’t been made yet. I love that point in working with the client where they give you their vision, and you can go home and figure out what they want. There’s something about the blank canvas that I find quite exciting. Thinking about what could go on there. Nature and animals are also an inspiration, which comes from my background in biological science. My background in that has made me stand out a bit from the rest. I find a great challenge in making my illustrations represent an actual animal, and how I can make that an approachable friendly character.
What is your secret for success?
I haven’t figured that out yet. I think my secret is being a good person to work with. At first, I assumed it was the quality of my work, but I’m realising it’s the fact that I’m a hard worker and I deliver on time and on budget, and I’m happy to communicate. Great open communication with your clients is so important.
What’s next for @jamohanlon?
Hopefully, a couple more murals. I still have a fair bit of work left in The Mall Arcade, and after that hopefully I will be working on some more illustrated books and focusing on getting my name out there a bit more.