How 2 Utah artists are creating careers for themselves

Santiago Michalek poses for a portrait in his studio at his home in Highland on June 7. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 2.6 million artists in the workforce.

Santiago Michalek poses for a portrait in his studio at his home in Highland on June 7. In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 2.6 million artists in the workforce. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Two things that don't traditionally go hand in hand are football and art.

But Talavou "Vou" Malietoa Fitisemanu III found purpose in both. As his LinkedIn profile puts it, he's an "athlete turned artist."

Born in Los Angeles, Fitisemanu moved to Navu, Samoa, at age 4. His dad is originally from the Polynesian island, and his mom is from the neighboring island of Tonga. At 8, his family returned to the United States, where he went on to play college football at Snow College, rugby at Brigham Young University and then football again at the University of Utah.

After the 2023 season, Fitisemanu turned in his helmet and jersey for frames and chisels to focus on his art career full time. His artwork often depicts symbolism in his background as both a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his Polynesian heritage.

One of his first pieces, which was actually for a school assignment, was admitted into the Springville Museum of Art's Spring Salon this year, and he credits his family with the inspiration behind it.

"It was my family member's answers to the questions 'what does Christ mean to them?' and 'who is Christ in your life?' and how they feel the power of Jesus in their life," the artist told the Deseret News. "And so through all their answers, I then just chose a symbol to use in the piece, and then just kind of had their seven answers resembled in that way."

His expertise involves mediums such as wood, acrylic and leather.

While serving a Latter-day Saint mission in Australia, Fitisemanu said he began engraving cultural symbols on leather journals and scriptures.

This artwork, titled "Unsure," was created by Talavou “Vou” Malietoa Fitisemanu III.
This artwork, titled "Unsure," was created by Talavou “Vou” Malietoa Fitisemanu III. (Photo: Talavou “Vou” Malietoa Fitisemanu III)

"I've recently started diving into more the cultural side of it, which is funny because I could always draw and make the patterns and stuff, but in cultural terms, it doesn't hold weight if I haven't learned from the traditional practices through the cultural environment," he explained. But because he is not a "certified craftsmen" in the village where his family is from, he told the Deseret News that he would be seen as "the new kid on the block who doesn't have the village behind him."

Although "anyone could do it technically," Fitisemanu said, learning the craft of Polynesian symbols and designs is passed down through generations and is "traditionally bestowed upon you." He compared it to getting a contemporary tribal tattoo versus getting a traditional Samoan one. "If you were to go back to Samoa and they see it, they're going to be, like, 'That's not real.'"

Still trying to establish himself in the art scene, he has yet to be taught traditional practices or to be titled a craftsman in his previous home of Samoa, but he said he strives to represent his culture in a way that is respectful to his legacy and educational to others. "Even in my art classes, I'm always told my voice is very strong even though my reputation in the art world is very young. And I'll just tell them, a lot of my voice isn't my own, if that makes sense, or it's not just Vou. It's my village, it's my heritage and it's my family history."

Making it full time as an artist

Perhaps the reason more people do not take the risk of making the arts their full-time occupation is the lack of a secure income, but Utah artist Santiago Michalek took that gamble.

How could he not when he credits art as his "first love"?

Michalek said there are pros and cons to choosing a career with less consistency. "I might have a month where I sell 11 paintings. And I might have six months where I don't sell any."

"That kind of turns me into a bit of a 'yes man,'" he added. "And I don't really like to burn any bridges or say no or close any windows of opportunity, so I try to think of it as any opportunity is a good one."

Many striving artists will never reach the goal of making enough income to work full time as artists. An early 2000s survey by Pew Research Center found that 57% of Americans devote at least part of their lives to studying or practicing art, but only 28% (32 million) actually identify as artists, and even fewer (nearly 10 million) say they get paid for their artistic endeavors.

Santiago Michalek works on a painting of Annie Oakley in his studio at his home in Highland on June 7.
Santiago Michalek works on a painting of Annie Oakley in his studio at his home in Highland on June 7. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

In 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 2.6 million artists in the workforce — 1.6% of American workers are modern-day Picassos and Rockwells, per Americans for the Arts.

Michalek credits much of his inspiration to 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell, who was known for making the ordinary American culture extraordinary through his artwork. "I've always kind of been very interested and moved by that," Michalek said. "And even when I don't have a figure in the painting, for me, it's about the figure."

Even when he does a painting without a person depicted, he still incorporates the human element.

He imagines taking on the perspective of whoever can relate to whatever he is creating. "If I'm painting, say, a train, (then) I'm the guy going to work, and I'm about to step into my office — which is the train — and then I'm going to drive track for the next eight hours," he gave as an example. "So even if the figure is not in there, the human element very much is. Either from the guy who built the train, the guy that restored the train, the guy that maintains it or the guy that drives it, all those kinds of aspects of it, I love."

When he is not commissioning art for a client, he also earns income from his work, which is bought by art lovers on his website or in his galleries in Park City, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Carmel, California. He also works with museums and recently sold his second piece, "Lost in the Machine," to the Springville Museum of Art during its 100th Spring Salon, which he grew up attending as a kid.

Santiago Michalek works on a painting of Annie Oakley in his studio at his home in Highland on June 7.
Santiago Michalek works on a painting of Annie Oakley in his studio at his home in Highland on June 7. (Photo: Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

He advises aspiring artists to take opportunities as they come their way.

"The art world is so vague. If you want to be a lawyer, here are the steps, right? Here's the process. Now you're a lawyer," but "to be an artist, it's very much good luck," he said. "One of the tricky things about the art world is finding your voice and then finding your voice in a place where you can make a business out of it, which is a delicate thing. You don't want to lose your voice in the business of it" or solely to make a profit.

Michalek emphasized that there were times when he was juggling three jobs and would make time for his art at night in the attic of his house. Looking back now, it's clear to see the milestones he's made to get to where he is now.

Having two paintings on display in the Springville Art Museum, "among some of those paintings that, as a kid, completely inspired me and pushed me to do more, it's wonderful, and to think I will inspire some young kid like I was."

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