I am honored to introduce you to Wade Koniakowsky. An uber talented California Impressionist painter, who spends almost as much time in the ocean as he does painting it. He and his wife Lynn own the Ocean Art Gallery on Cedros Ave. in Solana Beach, CA. Enjoy!
~ Mike Anderson
The life of a creative artist is often one of reinvention. In many cases their livelihood, not to mention their self-worth, is dependent upon the whims and tastes of others. And as we all know, tastes change. Navigating this ebb and flow can be challenging. But for the artist – any other life is unimaginable. The freedom to create is paramount to success. Such is the case for Wade Koniakowsky, whose California Impressionist paintings are featured at the Ocean Art Gallery in Solana Beach, which he owns with his wife Lynn.
When I first met Wade, my initial impression was all Southern California. The wispy blonde hair, the So Cal accent (yes, that is a thing), the surfboard art hanging in his living room. So, I was slightly shocked to learn that he actually grew up in Portland – not Maine, not Oregon, but Texas. Wait, what? Wade is from Texas?
Not far from the Gulf of Mexico, Portland was a rail shipping center for vegetables, and for a short time it had wharf facilities that handled cotton. But the irrigation of the Rio Grande valley curtailed the vegetable business, and the hurricanes put an end to dreams of a port. So, in the 1960s and 1970s, anchored by a Reynold’s Aluminum industrial complex, Portland grew primarily as a bedroom community for Corpus Christi.
To be sure, Portland was your typical Texas town, where young men were expected to hunt, fish, and of course, play football. Wade dutifully went through the motions; but two primary factors would steer him in an alternative direction. First, his mom had been nurturing his creativity since he could first hold a crayon and enrolled him in painting classes at the age of six. Second, in the sixth grade Wade discovered surfing – an activity that turned out to be much more enjoyable than running around a football field, getting cracked by boys twice his size.
Needless to say, a surfer in a football town needed some back-up. Wade recalls his ragtag group of buddies: “Sure, we didn’t quite fit in, but I embraced it, because I really liked my friends and I liked that they were weird and that we were surfers and we were on a different plane really.” This was clearly evident one weekend in particular when the high school football team traveled to the state championship, and Portland became a virtual ghost town. In hindsight, Wade and his crew could have gotten into a lot of trouble, but having the town to themselves for the day was excitement enough.
After high school, he followed the surfers to college, which meant Texas A & I – popular because of its proximity to South Padre Island, the Mecca of Texas surfing. “All the surfers wanted to get these Tuesday/Thursday schedules so they could be at the beach from Friday to Monday.” He majored in art – a passion that also dovetailed nicely into the surfing subculture – but even still, his grades tended to fluctuate from one semester to the next
This went on for a couple years until his parents decided a change of scenery was in order. They agreed that an inland location might prove more productive, and Wade enrolled at Southwest Texas State University near Austin. The irony of this choice was likely lost on Wade’s parents who were unaware that STSU had recently been featured in Playboy magazine as one of the top 10 party schools in the country. Thanks Mom and Dad!
Furthering the irony, it was at this infamous party school that Wade would become a Christian.
Having gone to church with his family for most of his life, because it was the respectable thing to do, Wade was familiar with biblical principles. But there wasn’t much depth in his belief. He was taught to “…try and be good, and if you run in to trouble, we’ll get you some professional help – maybe set you up with a psychologist.” Still, Wade always believed in God. “I knew that He was good and I wasn’t. So, the gospel as it was presented to me wasn’t anything that [I] needed to think about much. I was ready.”
The guys that took Wade under their spiritual wing belonged to an organization known as The Navigators. And after graduation, Wade decided to move with a group of them to San Diego. They settled on a ranch in Valley Center, chosen for its proximity to Camp Pendleton, a primary focus of the ministry. They would each work normal, full time jobs during the week (Wade was a graphic designer); then on evenings and weekends they would do ministry and discipleship on the military base.
The Navigator experience was never meant to be a long-term commitment, so after a couple years Wade moved off the ranch and settled in Vista. He was still very devoted to discipleship and for the next few years he served at a couple different churches – both as a volunteer and as a staff member. It was during this time, at a local church, that he would meet and eventually marry Lynn.
When they first met, Wade was a single, twenty-something, freelance graphic designer working for an advertising agency, without a lot of financial commitments. Lynn would later say “when I met you, you were just bumming around, you weren’t even trying to make money.” After they married, that all changed.
As they approached their first anniversary, Wade realized just how much Lynn wanted to be a stay at home mom and he knew it was time to shift his professional pursuit into high gear. He worked relentlessly to prove himself, and within a short period of time was offered a creative director position at dGWB, an advertising firm headquartered in Orange County.
Over the next few years, Wade’s creative work for dGWB garnered much attention and numerous industry awards. He was on everyone’s radar and in May of 1995, Wade was contacted by Rob Bagot, an industry friend who was starting a new agency in Seattle. Rob offered Wade a co-creative director position and partnership. Relishing the creative freedom that comes with owning your own agency, Wade jumped at the chance. And together, with a third partner, they launched Big Bang Idea Engineering. They got off to a great a start, landing Brooks athletic shoes as an early client. But after a few gray, drizzly months in Seattle, Wade came to terms with his sunshine dependency, and decided to open a satellite office in Carlsbad.
Without missing a step, the two offices of Big Bang Idea Engineering began producing award-winning campaigns for clients that included Qualcomm, Vans, Soup Plantation, Taco Bell, and of course Brooks. But just as they were hitting their stride in early 2000 – the dot com bubble burst, which sent the economy into a tailspin.
By April 2000, just one month after peaking, the NASDAQ lost 35% of its value, on the way to losing 80% of its value by October 2002. The plummeting economy affected all businesses, who began cutting advertising budgets to the bare minimum, if not altogether.
Big Bang took a big hit, losing Qualcomm, one of their largest clients. Obviously, this placed a heavy burden on Wade and his partners; and he was forced to prioritize new client acquisition and agency downsizing over the creative pursuits that he loved so much. “We were dealing with business realities all the time, as opposed to being creative.”
Back then, he felt like a failure. Now, he realizes it was just business. The economy was tanking, end of story. The goal was to keep your head above water until the economy recovered, which it eventually would. But Wade wasn’t sure how long he could stay afloat. To engage his neglected creativity and calm his frazzled nerves, he picked up a paint brush – for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Painting in the evening allowed Wade to decompress from the stressful days at the agency. As time passed, and the daily pressure increased, he considered the possibility of painting professionally. But for reasons he can’t clearly define, Wade bought in to the commonly held belief that advertising vs. fine art is an either/or proposition. You can’t do both. Looking back, he admits to being influenced more by stress than logic, but in 2004 he decided to leave his shrinking company and devote his creative energy to painting, full-time.
(And there are many people who are glad he did. Super Bowl Champion Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers is one – he owns twenty-four of Wade’s pieces!)
Initially Wade’s paintings were created and shown at his home in La Costa, where he would host art shows on a regular basis. A short time later he took up residence at a space on PCH in Leucadia. But after six months or so, Lynn spearheaded the move to Cedros Avenue, where the Ocean Art Gallery currently resides.
Not surprising, his advertising industry success influences the way he and Lynn manage the work at the gallery. “I love running my gallery like an ad agency. I get really excited about doing status meetings with my wife, and meeting with some of the people that work for us.” Ironically, as a fine artist, Wade is required to spend many hours alone, which is why he always enjoys the opportunity to work along-side other artists and design professionals.
And it’s in these collaborative efforts that Wade’s talent and versatility are clearly evident. Take the Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing for example. Wade’s notoriety in the ocean art category, along with prior work in the surf industry, prompted an invitation from Van’s in 2018 to create a piece that was used in multiple applications for the world-renowned professional surfing event. From posters to t-shirts to trucker hats – even Van’s slip-ons. Yes, slip-ons – and they were sick.
Always seeking new, unique opportunities, Wade has recently been working closely with home décor and design professionals at Bixby and Ball, just a few doors north of Wade’s gallery on Cedros in Solana Beach.
“A lot of artists I know aren’t interested in working with designers, but we have embraced the process. Cedros Design District in Solana Beach is such a hot bed for interior design. We love what goes on here, whether it’s furniture, flooring, or any aspect of remodeling. Art is often the last component added, but it’s so exciting to see how it can complete a new living space. Partnering with the design community and Bixby & Ball in particular, is a dream come true.”
He also loves to work with aspiring artists, offering private painting classes in his studio, and most recently his third painting retreat in Punta Mita, Mexico – near Puerta Vallarta. He surfs with his students in the morning, paints with them during the day, and has dinner with them in the evening.
“In addition to several hours of painting a day, our crew did yoga, stand up paddling, fishing, and took excursions to nearby Sayulita, Puerto Vallarta, and the amazing farmers market at La Cruz.” Very cool.
In stark contrast to many well-known artists, Wade isn’t looking to be your celebrity hero. On the contrary, Wade wants to be your guide. He realizes that finding the right art for your home or office is one of the most challenging steps in the decorating process. Art can be mysterious and intimidating. Wade wants to make it fun. He offers digital mock-ups so you can see his work in your space. He also offers a custom art program incorporating your preferred color palette.
While Wade has certainly created a beautiful body of work, he confesses the creative life is not without its challenges. Not surprising when you consider the proposition: the professional artist spends his days creating works that no one asked for, and that no one really needs, hoping that the right person will happen upon it, connect to it, and be willing to pay for it. I’m sorry, but that’s just scary.
So yes, a career in fine-art certainly includes its share of risk. But that risk can be mitigated with planning and patience.
Wade’s advice to aspiring artists, not surprisingly, is don’t quit your day job. Wade was very candid, sharing that he initially looked at painters who were supporting their art with full-time jobs, as amateurs, giving the professionals a bad name. “They didn’t care about getting paid, which made collecting payment tough for the rest of us.” (my paraphrase) But in hindsight, he admits that having a steady income to support your artistic efforts provides the freedom to create, without stressing over a looming rent payment, or even more basic, where your next meal will come from. And if you must reinvent yourself to adjust to changing tastes or market conditions – you have the freedom to do that as well.
Coming from a man who has experienced success in vocational ministry, the fiercely competitive advertising industry, and as a fine-artist and gallery owner (a virtual master of reinvention) this is worthwhile advice indeed.
To view more of Wade’s portfolio – please visit: Koniakowsy.com
Check out his work on Instagram: oceanartbykoniakowsky
If you enjoyed this article, I am sure Wade would love reading your comments below. And if you know another business with a Crazy Good story, let us know. We may feature it in an upcoming article.