Suffolk painter who began her art career at 50 now counts Donald Sutherland and Forest Whitaker as customers
- Credit: Archant
The American artist Kimberly Godfrey describes her flourishing art career as a ‘happy accident’, because none of it was really planned.
“I have to pinch myself every day because it’s just a dream come true to be able to earn a living as an artist,” said the 55 year-old. “I didn’t know how that was going to pan out at all, its been really scary, but it’s been five years now and its turned into this juggernaut - I’ve had to hire an assistant.”
But the first time that the Bury St Edmunds resident tried to make it as an artist, back in the 1980s, it was a very different story.
After attending art school, Mrs Godfrey recalls spending many months trawling the art shows and fairs in Florida trying to sell her “very sombre and realistic” pictures.
“I gave it my best shot, but it just didn’t happen for me,” she explained. “That year I sold just one picture - a portrait of someone’s cat!”
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But thankfully, Mrs Godfrey did have a side hustle, as a costume designer for beauty pageants.
“That was gaining momentum, so I just ran with that and came to really enjoy it.”
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Ms Godfrey spent 20 years sewing together sequined gowns and bikinis, and after moving to the UK 18 years ago, she was still making costumes - but of a rather different sort.
“You British don’t really have the whole beauty pageant circuit here like you do in the States - although it is starting to catch on - but you do have this whole gothic Victorian movement,” she explained. “So I was making Victorian-style bustle jackets and shrugs selling them through my online Etsy shop.”
At the same time, realising how much she missed painting, Mrs Godfrey started taking art classes again, “to get my painting mojo back.”
“I realised that I missed painting and I had these colourful visions that I had to get out on paper and canvas,” she said. “When I started painting again, I was making up for lost time. Every waking moment, until 2am, painting, painting, painting.”
“I built up this huge body of work and thought it would be great if I could sell some of these. I finally felt like I was doing what I needed to be doing.”
Mrs Godfrey’s first ‘studio’ was an upstairs closet she cleared out in her and her husband’s house on Fornham Road in Bury Saint Edmunds. She has since upgraded her workplace to a garden studio with an enviable view of the riverbank, where she and her husband like to sit and watch the birds.
It took six months before Mrs Godfrey actually sold anything. Then the commissions started to trickle in.
At first she specialised in fashion illustration, but found a niche for herself with vibrant depictions of celebrities, which have become particularly popular with hair and beauty salons.
“Two years after I started, the real game changer for me was when Amazon got in touch,” she explained. The tech giant was opening up a new platform for artists and crafters called Handmade at Amazon, and wanted to use showcase one of Mrs Godfrey’s prints.
“They put it on the front page of Amazon.com for three whole days! I can only wonder how many million people saw it. The computer started - ping, ping, ping, all these emails from Amazon just flooded my inbox with no warning to me.
“It was like that scene with the Paypal account in Breaking Bad. I thought ‘where am I going to get hundreds of art tubes from to ship all this work?”
Not long ago, Mrs Godfrey got an unexpected email from Julie Newmeyer, the first Catwoman in Batman, who she had painted a portrait of. “Julie wrote to say ‘I love your art!’ Donald Sutherland and Forest Whitaker have also both bought my artwork. Donald bought my most popular painting, which everyone seems to love - Audrey Rocks, which is a side portrait of Audrey Hepburn. I had no idea that painting would take on the life that its had, I sell so many of those.”
Nowadays, Mrs Godfrey ships her work all over the world, particularly to North America. But ironically, the one place she would most like to make more of a name for herself is in Suffolk.
“I’d much rather ship down the street than to Alaska,” she said.