Humble Beginnings and Big Dreams: An Artist’s Evolution

Today is my birthday. Please enjoy this short story about my life and how I got where I am now. Warning: There is artistic nudity 

I was born on Christmas Eve 1989. My parents would joke that they almost named me Mary Chris Smith. Thankfully they settled on Jessie Smith.

My parents cradling me in a Christmas stocking

I have been passionate about being an artist ever since I was a child. I loved drawing, being creative, playing pretend, and daydreaming.


One of my many early drawings depicting cats 

This passion has helped me through numerous dark periods of my life including the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of my father from the age of 7 through my mid teens. When my emotions became overwhelming, drawing them out was the one thing that brought me some reprieve.

I was overtly sexual and chaotic as a teenager and the abuses of my childhood coupled with poor sex education resulted in a one night stand teen pregnancy my senior year of high school. I kept the baby and was pregnant throughout my senior year.

The teachers, staff, and students were all incredibly supportive. I wore snarky T-shirts with sayings like “I’m fat because I’m knocked up what’s your excuse?” and “I’m not fat I’m knocked up!”. I made a joke about being in labor so I could grab a book from my locker when my teacher wouldn’t let me leave the classroom to get it. I even danced and lip-synced as a back up singer for a film in my media arts class. It was shot during the school talent show and I did stand up comedy at that same school talent show all while 8 months pregnant.

I was awarded the Sherry Langevin award for my love and dedication to the arts at the end of the school year. I also had my very first art show planned at the local library after graduation.

A week before my graduation I gave birth to my beautiful daughter. My mother was the one who cut her umbilical cord.

I walked down the aisle at my graduation ceremony to collect my diploma, while my mom sat in the audience with my brother and my days old newborn baby girl. I officially started my new adult life as a young single mother.

After my small library art show I felt limited in my career options living in a small town and being a single mom. I was working at an assisted living facility I had originally started working at when I was 17. It started to wear on me that I wasn’t pursuing what I was passionate about so I started looking into tattoo apprenticeships. After interviewing with two shops I liked in the area, I started my apprenticeship in the biggest town an hour away in 2011 when I was 21.

Practicing on a fake skin sheet

Performing a memorial tattoo for a friend of ours that passed much too young.

During my apprenticeship I grew significantly as a person and artist. Being able to draw daily and being surrounded by incredibly talented artists who helped me learn new techniques and skills was invaluable to my development.

Towards the end of my apprenticeship I stumbled upon a call for artists on Facebook for a new gallery that was opening. It was especially geared towards new and emerging artists.

I responded sending scanned images of work I had done during my apprenticeship and was asked to bring in two pieces for their opening show!

I told my fellow artists at the shop about the gallery and my good friend Jay would enter some of his work as well. We eventually did a partnered show at the gallery together titled “Artistic Renderings and General Madness”

Our show flyer

My very first time live painting at our partnered art show with my old friend and tattoo artist Jay Arellano

After our partnered show I received an opportunity to vend at a new craft fair called Zoofest. I got to work building up a small inventory of jewelry and prints of my work to sell there.

The fair started off in chaos as it was so windy my prints and earrings were being swept off of my tables! I wasn’t able to properly set up until event organizers got the walls of the giant tent we were all under in place.

I barely had enough art and jewelry to spread between the two large tables I borrowed from the organizers and painted as I vended.

Zoofest – my very first craft fair in 2014

I didn’t sell much, but it was rewarding knowing people enjoyed my work.

It was a short time after this that I took my mentor aside and told him I didn’t know if I wanted to keep tattooing. I had lost the financial and child care assistance supporting me through my apprenticeship and had been living off of the $400 a month I asked my mother to loan me as I continued pursuing tattooing over the last year.

He was understanding, and I took a break over the summer to decide if tattooing was the career I wanted to stay in.

During the summer I would vend and paint at events downtown in the bar scene and continue to develop a love for it.

In the early fall I was in the midst of a particularly intense relationship with a boy who was very on and off with me. I was obsessive, clingy, and had no self esteem. During a point in our relationship where we weren’t “technically” together but I was very insistent on trying to win him over, he suffered a terrible accident during a drunken night out, resulting in a train car severing off part of his foot. He would have to have his lower leg down amputated.

I still very much wanted to be with him. I would call him and talk to him for hours, write him love letters, and drive him around as he recovered from his tragedy.

One morning I took him to a therapy appointment he had. After dropping him off I stopped at a local coffee shop nearby to treat myself. I had worn a dress that day to look nice and impress the boy. While I was standing in line waiting to order, the man behind me noticed the tattoo on my ankle.

He asked me what the tattoo depicted and I explained it was myself marrying a gyro. He laughed and we discussed how food in the U.S. is different from it’s originating countries. He then asked me what I did.

My Gyro Tattoo

I explained that I was an artist and we discussed what type of work I did. He paid for my coffee and explained he was an artist as well.

He had me follow him outside where he was setting up to paint in front of the coffee shop. I showed him images of my work on my phone and he then introduced me to the gallery owner around the corner who had just recently opened up a new salon style art gallery. He had me show her my work, she enjoyed it, and it was decided that I would meet with the man later that week to gallery wrap some pieces and paint in front of the coffee shop.

I was overjoyed! It was such a whirlwind experience! I tried to explain over the phone to the boy what had happened as I went to pick him up from his appointment.

Eventually the boy would tell me he loved me, and cared about me but only as a friend. I was devastated.

I met with the man in front of the coffee shop and he showed me how to gallery wrap my pieces. Afterward we would walk them to the gallery around the corner, discuss pricing together with the owner, and I would have my work on display there for the month.

We would decide that he would be my fine art mentor, and he would teach me how to paint with acrylics. When we arrived at this decision, I knew it was time to go talk to my apprenticeship mentor.

I went to the shop and spoke with him about the whirlwind meeting and my final decision to quit tattooing. He was incredibly understanding and was sad to see me leave. He told me I was an immensely talented artist and that he had no doubt that whatever career I ended up choosing I would be successful.

At this point I had a part time job at the airport parking lot working nights. It was typically dead so I would spend my time drawing, crafting, or watching films about famous artists.

I continued painting with my new fine art mentor and on my own at events downtown in the bar scene.

Painting and vending at The Palace

Painting on First Friday

After a few months my Mentor would have to stop meeting with me. He had made some inappropriate comments towards me via messenger about photos I had done during a modeling session posted on Facebook. His wife had seen them and did not feel comfortable with us meeting any more. I regret not being the one to deem his messages inappropriate and blame my own naiveté and lack of self esteem for not squashing it the moment he sent me the message, instead of letting it slide.

Despite losing a fine art mentor I would continue pursuing art. I would do small art shows in local businesses and live paint during First Friday receptions for those events as well

“Art inside”

Painting at one of my first friday events

Writing “Art inside” for another event

I was also interviewed by the Montana Kaimin a student run university paper

An image from the interview I did with the Montana Kaimin

In August of 2015 after the end of yet another turbulent relationship. I had started talking and flirting with a boy named Korey, whom I had added on Facebook via friend suggestions. He was smart, and funny. He also had children when he was very young who were around the same age as my daughter. And he was a musician, one of my weaknesses.

We had been talking to each other for some time and we got along so well we decided it was time to meet in person.

Korey wanted to invite me to a show his band was playing. As he looked up the event page to tell me the time and date he noticed a familiar name was listed for live painting during the event. He messaged me pointing out we were going to be at the same event! We laughed about it and he asked if I would like to meet for drinks afterward. I of course said yes.

Live painting at the first gallery I got my work into. This is the night and place where I met Korey for the first time

We hit it off immediately and started dating. Korey would help me during art events and I would try to make it to his shows as often as possible.

Photos by: Korey – an art event at Monks

In 2016 I would have my 1st solo gallery exhibition. I titled the show “Ode to Art” to pay hommage to the very thing that has brought my life so much meaning.

I painted watercolor portraits of famous artists, wrote poetry, created pieces celebrating and dismaying over the life of being an artist and the multitude of mediums we use.

My cat Gigi watching me work on the sign for “Ode to Art”

Line drawings of pieces I wanted in the show

Korey was incredibly helpful in the creation process and with promoting the show. He helped me with my poetry pieces, helped me approve flyers, he also took an intimate series of photographs I had conceptualized of myself as a struggling starving artist.

“Artist self portrait” shot by Korey

He also went all over town hanging flyers for the show.

One of the flyers posted for the show thanks to Korey

The show had an amazing opening! So many people loved my work, and resonated with it. It was so wonderful and inspiring to feel that validation. I knew I had made the right decision to leave tattooing and become a fine artist.

Throughout the rest of 2016 and through 2017 I started working my way up to bigger craft fairs like the Made Fair, and River City Roots Fest. I continued showing my work, building my inventory, dabbled in body and face painting. Basically any creative opportunity that presented itself I tried to be a part of it.

In April of 2017 Korey blindfolded me, and drove me somewhere for a surprise date. When I took the blindfold off, I was in the middle of E3 Convergence Gallery, the first place we had ever met in person. In front of me was a candle lit pick-nick complete with; basket, wine, and berries with whip cream. He told me how much he loved me, and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, as he got down on one knee and asked if I would marry him. I said yes as tears of happiness, and love streamed down my face.

The night Korey proposed

Our engagement photo

Shortly after our engagement we would come to find out that E3, the gallery where we had first met, where Korey proposed to me, would be closing in 2018. Since we planned to get married that year, we decided we would get married in the gallery and asked for their permission. The gallery was more than happy to accommodate our ceremony and reception and sent us a list of dates open for our use.

After a lot of discussion and not being able to pick a wedding date. I finally grabbed some paper, wrote the dates we had to pick from on scraps, and mixed them up in my hat. I then held my hat up to Korey and told him to draw a scrap of paper. He looked at me confused, drew one, then read aloud “May 5”. I smiled as I said; “Ok. That’s when we’re getting married.”

Towards the end of 2017 I participated in #inktober for the first time and absolutely loved it. It was fun and challenging to not only create pieces that embodied the prompt for that day but to create a finished illustration every day. Even though I didn’t complete every prompt, I still very much enjoyed the outcome.

A sampling of all the pieces I completed during #inktober2017

When 2018 came it was a personal goal to participate in as many art fairs, and art calls as I possibly could. I was still working a retail job while trying to get my art career off the ground. I wanted to save the money I made so I could leave my job and focus only on my art.

While I got to work writing out my goals one by one and taking the steps to put them in motion, I was also planning my wedding to the love of my life.

Though the process was incredibly stressful it was satisfying to know we crafted and organized our wedding together and pulled it off with the help of our friends and family.

Korey played the song he wrote for me when we were dating

Wedding photos by PMZ Photography

After the reception we scrambled to pack up and clean the gallery. I took a moment to sit against the divider wall and take the gallery in one last time. E3 helped me grow significantly in many facets of my life. I don’t think I could be anymore grateful for what that gallery gave to me. A place to start as an artist, numerous opportunities, and now a husband to love and treasure forever. I cried.

We left for our GoFundMe honeymoon early the next morning and spent a few days in Denver visiting the Botanical Gardens, and the art museum. It was wonderful getting to see so many amazing works, especially the original pieces of some of my favorite artists.

Our first stop site seeing – The botanical gardens

“Initiator” by: Lin Tianmiao

“Can-Can” by: Yayoi Kusama

“Cow Licking” by: Georgia O’Keeffe

Artist Unkown

“The Stagecoach” by: Norman Rockwell

“Genevièv and the May Wolf” by: Kiki Smith

Artist unknown

“Masquerade” by: Rick Bartow

When we returned from the honeymoon it was time to hit the ground running and get ready for a summer full of craft fairs and art shows starting with the first People’s Market of the season.

The rest of 2018 was spent vending, working retail, creating new work, and showing.

“Growing Pains”

“When we become so attached to the persona we put forth for the world to perceive, attempting to shed that mask as we begin to find our truest self becomes such an arduous process that it often leaves us a faceless void suffering through an identity crisis.”

– Jessie Smith

Promcommon 2018 in front of my sold piece “Growing Pains”

“Precious Cargo” – sold 

“THIEF!!” – sold 

Artist spotlight in the Missoula Independent

“Marry Me” – sold

One of the few #inktober2018 pieces I completed titled “Poisonous”

Bozeman Made Fair

Sleaving prints for Radius Gallery

Art Blizzard craft fair

“You are my Sunshine” – commission 

I’m incredibly proud of this year even though I didn’t complete all of my goals. I’m excited to see what opportunities come next year, and what I will accomplish in 2019.

With today being my birthday I felt it was finally time to give my family, friends, and fans a peak into why art is so important to me. How much it has shaped my life.

I look forward to seeing what my art will bring in the future.


All my love if you read this in it’s entirety.

– Jessie Smith  12 – 24 – 2018


9 thoughts on “Humble Beginnings and Big Dreams: An Artist’s Evolution Leave a comment

  1. Your story is so amazing and inspiring I can’t even put it into words. Your artwork is so amazing I love it so much. You are incredibly beautiful inside and out and your wedding pictures are absolutely beautiful! Thank you for sharing happy birthday and also merry christmas!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an incredible story! I so admire you courage, strength and commitment to art and your dreams. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. You truly are an inspiration. Looking forward to seeing everything the new year brings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s been great to watch your career from afar, Jessie! Thanks for letting me interview you all those years ago, can’t wait to see what comes next. There has always been an authenticity and an unpretentiousness to your work and your story— thanks for sharing it with us! P.S It looks like you have another talent, writing!
    Happy new year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this comment Tess! It was a pleasure interviewing with you all those years ago!!
      I appreciate your words so much. They will undoubtedly fuel my determination and ambition this coming year and I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write such a thoughtful statement. (I have secretly always loved writing💕)

      Happy new year!!🎉
      – Jessie


  4. We all have life stories. I loved reading about yours and how it has shaped you and your art. As I have told you before, I am very proud of you and inspired by your dedication to follow your heART in the direction of your dreams. You are very talented. As almost all artists know, making a living in the arts is a challenge. Perhaps that is why so many of us choose to do something else on the side to help pay the bills. However, not doing art isn’t an option if we are to be happy and true to our artist spirit. Give yourself a big hig for having done so well in spite of much adversity. You are a survivor and a winner.

    Liked by 1 person

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