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Five years ago, former Drexel University art student Matt Hand had all but written off painting as a career. He was living in New York, ostensibly developing skills as a graphic designer but in reality dying as an artist. He figured that designing corporate logos was the closest he’d ever get to self-actualization.

Then Hand moved to Alexandria, joined Whole Foods Market as a store artist, and everything changed for the better.

“That just really renewed my artistic spirit…when I learned I could really get paid for creativity,” says Hand, 27, who now lives in Arlington. “And I wasn’t going to have to always bend my creative ability to solve what the corporate client wanted. I could totally come up with something from inside myself, and that could be the product.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, when Hand reported for his first day of duty at the organic grocery, he was in fact enrolling in a time-honored secondary school for indigenous artists. Each of the 13 Whole Foods locations in the area employs a store artist—typically a studio-trained one like Hand. Artists who’ve held the position have later snagged gallery representation and won First Prize at Touchstone Gallery’s All-Media Exhibition and Best in Show at Foundry Gallery’s “D.C. Zone” exhibition.

Almost as many Whole Foods artists, however, have left their serious-artist dreams behind and become graphic designers, art teachers, and yoga instructors. That’s the real value of the store-artist position: career direction. If Foundations of Two-Dimensional Art crystallizes the futures of fledgling art students by separating the wheat from the chaff, then Whole Foods does the same for fledgling artists.

The competition for these positions is fierce. Hand says the job postings typically draw up to two dozen applications; one Whole Foods in Springfield, Va., attracted 50 applications. That’s an impressive number, given that most of the work involves laminating little signs for food displays and alcohol-ID requirements, then removing these signs from around the store so different ones can be put in their place. One store artist in Baltimore was so proficient with the laminating machines that other artists dubbed her the “Laminatrix.”

“It’s not easy to be employed as an artist,” says Whole Foods Regional Marketing Director Sarah Kenney. “And I think a lot of [store artists] think [the position] allows them to not compromise their values and still pay the bills.”

But then there are the chalkboards. At the beginning of each sales cycle, Whole Foods expects its store artists to create chalkboard designs drawing attention to the specials of the week: Copper River salmon, Comté cheese, Black Mission figs. Though chalkboards account for about a quarter of the artists’ weekly tasks, they occupy almost all of their creative energy. As Tenleytown store artist Anna Nazaretz describes it, “the store is your canvas.”

One of Hand’s first chalkboard pieces was executed around Valentine’s Day. He set up his chalkboard in an aisle and, as shoppers peeked over his shoulder and murmured in admiration, drew a pastel image of roses. “I almost felt like a street performer,” he says. “I can remember how content I was the first week after I got the position. Every once in a while I [still] think, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”

The chalkboard presents the kind of formal challenges a budding artist loves to tangle with. For instance, neither chalk nor the smudge-resistant “liquid chalk” markers mix well, limiting the palette to about two dozen colors. Whole Foods art also tends to be fairly limited—lots of apples and bucolic scenes.

Some artists take well to the fruit-and-game style, which recalls the work of the 17th-century Flemish painter Jan Fyt. Emily Johnston, a Kentlands store artist, draws little separation between Whole Foods and her art career. Her portfolio includes many chalkboard images and still lifes inspired by produce and a sweet 20 percent store discount. Johnston’s food art has garnered an invitation to speak to a high-school art class, and a co-worker has asked her for paintings to decorate a new home.

“I’ll go around when I get off work, shop around for a handful of grapes, an apple, a carrot, and I’ll take them home and sit down and turn on music at my drawing table and paint them,” says Johnston, 42. “And then I’ll eat it. That way, I’m working from life, and it’s not going to waste.”

Despite the limited subject matter, personality does pop up in the chalkboards. Johnston slipped her boyfriend into one, and on another depicted a woman she disliked sitting on a mushroom, playing a flute. When Nazaretz’s supervisor suggested she draw a chicken for a chicken-wing advertisement, Nazaretz spent the next couple of hours drawing a diptych of a man serenading a woman with a guitar. “I don’t think you have to be so literal,” she says.

Sometimes, the chalkboards become downright political. Former Whole Foods employee and painter Matt Robison, a devout vegan who’s shown a series of grotesque paintings titled “Animal Rights,” dreaded having to make drawings for the meat department of the Silver Spring Whole Foods. “When I’d have to write text like ‘tender and juicy,’ I’d just cringe,” he says. Robison’s solution was to draw the cutest, most helpless looking animals he could, to remind customers what they were eating. “I tried to be very bad at it,” he says. After a while, he just kept illustrations off his meat boards entirely, limiting himself to text.

True to the competitive nature of the art world, a national hierarchy has emerged among Whole Foods artists. Near the top is Katie Clark, a 28-year-old Philadelphia-area store artist and veritable chalkboard Warhol. Clark’s masterworks include reproductions of classic Startling Comics covers, Dalí-esque scenes when the Dalí exhibition came to town, and odes to one of her favorite artists, Maurice Sendak. Customers frequently leave their phone number for Clark to talk about her chalkboards, and her store managers, recognizing her gift for the medium, have given her more than 30 to play with; most store artists are responsible for fewer than a dozen chalkboards.

One of Clark’s secrets is that she works quickly; her most elaborate chalkboards take only about an hour. Her resulting creations are so well done that she says customers often don’t even know they’re hand-drawn. “I get a lot of recognition that way,” she says. “I love it. It’s interesting, because you have a revolving gallery of artwork. Your stuff is out there all the time no matter what.”

But not every Whole Foods artist can be a Katie Clark. The medium, besides its erasable nature, is prey to many pitfalls. More common than compliments are the brush-offs—literally, when absent-minded employees carry the chalkboards under their arms or accidentally wipe away the chalk when installing the board. Nazaretz once confiscated the store chalk after co-workers colored in one of her intentionally black-and-white designs. Now, when she trains other store artists, she urges them not to make their chalkboards too precious. “You can’t spend too much time on them,” she says.

Balancing the lack of a gallery attendant are health benefits and stock options, which for some is enough to merit squatting. Kelly Towles, an artist at the Whole Foods in Old Town Alexandria, has held his position for 10 years. Johnston’s had hers for five. But others, perhaps pondering the old adage that the intermingling of art and commerce degrades both, decide they can’t take it. “It’s hard to get good feedback on the stuff you’re committing your blood and guts to,” says Robison, who now teaches art at a Philadelphia college, “and then you do this stupid drawing of an orange, and a customer will want to say, ‘Hi’ because they liked it.”

Nazaretz recently quit Whole Foods to work at her art full time. Another painter downgraded to part-time status to pursue a burgeoning yoga-instructor career. Rita Elsner ended her long store-artist residency in the Georgetown branch in February 2004. She describes the stream of sign requests as akin to the broomsticks hauling in water in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, drowning her in ever-increasing stacks of signs needing to be cut, laminated, and cut again. “My fine-arts skills started to slip because I wasn’t getting to them,” she says.

Even worse, the 38-year-old says she was sequestered in a tiny storage room right by the store’s only trash chute, which meant her door needed to stay closed, trapping her in lamination fumes and chalk dust.

Elsner now works as a massage therapist and graphic designer to support her painting. “I trained myself to disassociate,” she says of her old job. “I don’t know if it was healthy for me as an individual, but that’s what I did for seven years.”

“There’s a certain antagonism you feel when you’re doing it,” says Robison. “You’d rather be out there changing the world, and here you are trying to sell produce.”

But most store artists are content, if not delighted, with their lot. Some even hope for a future movement. Last summer, Hand organized a show for a dozen Whole Foods artists at the Museum of Modern ARF in Arlington, titled “Follow the Signs” and featuring the artists’ personal works. Hand exhibited a couple of paintings from his current project: a series of images from the Southwest. He intends to stage one such show a year, in hopes that future store artists can share in the same regeneration he’s experienced at Whole Foods. “I want all of us to succeed,” he says.

And artists like Hand can point to Towles as the model of success. The 30-year-old graffiti-style mixed-media artist was recently picked up by David Adamson Gallery. He left his store-artist job at the beginning of October to work for a Georgetown advertising agency, where he says he’ll receive a salary that will allow him to devote more time to his art.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Whole Foods,” says Towles. “I [had] my own office. Who can really bitch about that?”CP