Growing up in Muncie, Brenda Drayer's favorite class was art. But even though she says she was always hanging around the art department throughout high school, the thought of making it her career never entered her mind, even after moving to Fort Wayne after she turned 18.
"I loved it but didn't consider pursuing a career in art. I just didn't see how I could make a living at it, so it never occurred to me as a kid."
But she loved that art afforded her the opportunity to communicate without words. So, while not making it a career, it continued to be part of her life even as she followed a more solid business career, working as a sales and marketing director in the mortgage business. But when that market began crashing in 2008, Drayer made the decision that would change the course of her life forever.
"I enjoyed my job, but it was just business, business, business with no tangible aspect. When the crash came, I promised myself I would not do anything I wasn't passionate about again."
She was told that no one would take her seriously as an artist without a degree, so she began work on a fine arts degree at IPFW and is currently one math class shy of completing her coursework. While she admits that she may never finish it, she did come out of her college experience with some great experience with professors who have mentored her as she found her way as an artist.
"John Hrehov has been a great mentor to me, and Robert Schroeder is the best kept secret in Fort Wayne. He's curated exhibits in New York, and I always appreciate his input."
Aside from some artistic guidance along the way, Drayer's own business background made her more aggressive in marketing her art, deciding from the start that she was going to look well beyond her own backyard to exhibit her work.
"When it came right down to it, this was a business. Art is a wonderful form of communication, but it's still a business, and you have to approach it that way if you want to sell it."
Drayer began submitting her work to galleries and museums in New York and purchased a board on which to display all of her rejection letters. The board was completely unnecessary.
"My first letter was an acceptance which kind of screwed up my board," she says now, laughing. "I knew early on that I could either focus on doing it locally or I could go after shows in New York. And I finally said, 'Why don't I just go for it instead of trying to sell things at craft fairs?' So I sent out to three galleries and got accepted right away."
While she downplays her success somewhat, insisting she's not a big name, Drayer has put herself on the map, and the success of her work in New York led to an exciting offer from Susan Hammond, the executive director for the National Association of Women Artists.
"She invited me to apply and told me she thought I would be a good fit. It was quite a process, but I did it and was accepted. It's an amazing organization which supports women in the arts. Eighty percent of the work exhibited in our museums and galleries is by men, and this organization is helping to support women in art. I get to be amongst artists like Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold and Mary Cassatt. So of course I told them I'd be honored."
With her induction set for November in New York, Drayer continues to work on pieces for future exhibits. While she tried drawing and painting, she quickly learned that her talents took her in a different direction.
"I realized that I tended to think in a three-dimensional way. For me color was always fluid, and I never saw it as a flat surface. I like painting and drawing, but that just wasn't how I thought."
While her membership with the National Association of Women Artists could be a boon for her own work, Drayer is also excited by some of the opportunities that connection will have in terms of "paying it forward," providing the mentoring which she herself received from artists and professors along the way.
"They have shows in museums around the country, including one coming up in Coral Springs Museum of Art in Florida. They have luncheons and bring in great talent that we can meet and learn from. They provide scholarship programs, and I think it would be neat to inspire someone else the way others have inspired me."
She has also talked with members of the Arts Commission in Fort Wayne and is eyeing an ex-officio role in bringing more public art to the city. She's happy with Mayor Henry's focus on bringing more artists into the realm of public works, helping the economic development of Fort Wayne through the arts.
"I'd like to work as a liaison between the committee and local artists. I really like the idea of doing public art because no matter what, there will always be a certain segment of the population that won't go to galleries or art museums. There's still a bit of a stigma attached to those kinds of things. But with public art, anybody can see it, and it can provoke a thought. I'd really like to work with the committee to help build up our arts community."
Drayer sees great possibilities for Fort Wayne, and it's her hope that while she continues to grow herself as an artist, she can also help the local fine arts community do the same.
"I'd love to see an area where houses are turned into galleries, where people can watch artists working on something. I think we need that in Fort Wayne, something to make the arts more vibrant. I think Fort Wayne arts is a flower bud that is ready to blossom. I'm feeling a different vibe, a new fresh vibe, and I really want to be part of that."