David Arms // Conversations with Creatives

Photo by  Jeremy Cowart  (all other photos are by me, which is why they look less professional ;) 

Photo by Jeremy Cowart (all other photos are by me, which is why they look less professional ;) 

As I walked into David's studio it was filled with the aroma of a perfect blend of pachouli, coffee, and the sweet scent of pipe tobacco. David's studio greets you with a warmth, just like his gallery in Leiper's Fork. Both are more like meticulously curated museums than anything else, but not the cold and sterile kind.  They almost hug you into them. Not only is David an amazing artist, but he also has an eye for antiques and carefully crafted artisan items, and his hand picked collection is nothing short of marvelous. 

I have had the pleasure of knowing David for years.  I grew up with his kids, living next door to their family. I have had the honor of watching his creativity as it's manifested in so many different ways over the years.  When I was young, my sister and I would go over to their house what seemed like daily.  There was always an art project and freshly baked brownies.  These are some of my favorite childhood memories and I truly believe that growing up with the Arms has had a huge part in why I do what I do today.  

When I began to think about creating a series where I document conversations with creative entrepreneurs, it's no surprise that David was the first person I thought of. 



What do you do and how did you get started?

My path has been so windy and crooked. Everything I have been in to a large degree, I didn't pursue.  There was company in town putting on an event, and they realized the person they had doing all the visual aspects for the event wasn't going to pan out- so they started asking around and someone said " I know a guy " and they ended up recommending me- Why? I had no idea. We had a very short time to do it, and pulled it off.  Then they called me into their office and told me they wanted me to take all of their next year projects.  The clients were big, Acura, American Honda.  Somehow I ended up starting off with huge clients.  This was the late 80s, early 90s, and the amount companies were spending on events was ridiculous, but it was the norm. It was crazy the events I got to do.  It pushed me hard and was the most stressful work I ever did.  Once the concept and budget were established, I kind of just got to run with it, but you better get it done and exceed expectations.  My favorite project was for American Honda.  We created a snow village inside all these a joining ballrooms- it looked like you were walking through a town.  The coffee shops, restaurants, and bars all worked- you could go in them.  We were inside and had horse drawn carriages inside.  It was snowing outside and it was incredible.  I felt guilty because I didn't know a thing and was getting thrown into these huge projects. I didn't know anything about events, but I had to act like I did.  I showed confidence.  You had to make sure that you got everything done and when they opened the doors, it was magic. 

At that point were you painting?

No, never.  Only as a child.  I would draw every now and then, but that was about it.  The event industry was extremely stressful- extremely.  I would be gone chunks of time- it was nothing to be gone two weeks.  Michelle and I lived in Inglewood, and we had a big wall and couldn't afford a painting that large at that time, and I thought, "I can do something." We had a great, big frame, and I thought, I'm just going to piddle at this.  Soon after, people started seeing the work and becoming interested in it. I had a woman that wanted to start repping my work.  After that, I started selling my work at Bennett Galleries and some shows, and it was really just like, "where did this come from." I was literally burning the candle at both ends. I was working two more than full time jobs at once.  We hadn't had children yet because I couldn't imagine having a child and then being gone for weeks at a time, so it just kept delaying us having a child. We finally decided to have a child, and the art career was going so full time. It's funny, there's a GALA awards where events are nominated for these things- I had won a few over the years. They had had me design the GALA that year, and I didn't realize they were giving me the "award of excellence" that year, and the same night I said, "I'm leaving the industry." My last event was the Swan Ball in June and Shelly, my first daughter, was born in July. God always always had a plan and was one step ahead.  Just like that first event, I had no idea it would open an immediate door to all those events I could have never gotten if I'd tried. I was full time artist as of that June, and it's been almost 22 years since then, and then the gallery came along almost 6 years ago...and none of that started until my mid- 30s

I've got a close friend who is one of the top songwriters in town, and it all came later for him too.  You know, he talks to all these 20-somethings who think if they haven't made it, it's over, and at 20-something, we had no idea where we were going or what was coming. If you would have asked me what I wanted to do when I was a child, I probably would have said artist, that would have been like a dream, but in that generation it wasn't an option for a man to raise a family and be an artist.  It wasn't even a consideration, but you guys have that as an option.  There are so many creative fields, or if there is something you want to do that's not out there, you can just kind of make it up. But I think the pressure of that would be strong. 


In your work, where do you tend to draw most of your inspiration, or how do you stay inspired?

Sometimes thats hard, and other times it's easy. The no-fail place is nature, it always gives ya something.  The hard part is stopping to get out in it.  I am a move forward kind of guy and can just keep going, and going, and going, but there's a downside to that, and Michelle pushes me often saying "stop and go somewhere different." One time she got me to do it, and Lilly (daughter) and I got out and went to the Frist. There was a small area of a work of art where the shapes and colors really inspired me.  It changed my thought and gave me something fresh. 

With your Gallery, when did you decide that you wanted to do that, or did that kind of organically come into play also?

It's organic too, my whole life's organic, honestly. It's kind of the way I even do business- organically, not everything at once.  I was showing at multiple galleries in multiple states, and it was good to me- I mean, Atlanta was so good to me and Nasvhille has always been good to me.  It was in the back of my mind because I knew I always wanted to show art how I wanted to, and I knew if I created a gallery, it wouldn't be conventional.  I thought, " wouldn't it be fun to show art the way you wanted to do it". I didn't want a stuffy gallery, I wanted it to be friendly and warm.  So I started listing parts of town I'd consider and I'd go drive around or walk in those parts of town and I started checking things off, and Leiper's Fork is the only one that stayed on the list. I'd go visit Lisa Fox out there and I told her I was toying with the idea of a gallery.  One day, she called and said, " I don't know what you're doing, but whatever it is, drop it and get out here right now." So I did.  That barn, the people who were originally renovating it were pretty far along, and Lisa went down to look at it.  I think she knew it was a perfect fit and when she walked in, she thought, "this is David Arms."

It was pretty sparse at first really.  As I could afford it, I would invest in the next piece and the next piece. Now it functions like it really needs to.  I wanted to do just a little bit at a time and let it take care of itself instead of going out and getting the money.  I've just let it pay for itself as it's went along. I tell the staff, pretend like someone is just coming in your living room.  I want it to feel warm and welcoming.  The stuff in there is totally curated- its quirky, but it's very authentic.  It's only stuff that I love.  We make as much of the product as we can and then fill in with things that I love.  


What does a normal day look like for you? 

It's really inconsistent.  In some ways I am a very routine person, you know, my family laughs at me because I eat the same bowl of cereal every night before bed.  I always try to be out in the studio every morning by 5am- that's my read, pray, write time.  It's a great painting day if I can spend 10-12 hours at the easel, but that's rare. That's something I always tell young people who are wanting to do what I do- "are you willing to put in the time."  I really don't get days off.  I wouldn't have it any other way, though.  I can be in here and do what I want to do, but I am willing to do the work.  You've got to be willing to do the work.  I think if I had to work away the hours that I do, I couldn't do it. You've got to be able to adapt.  From the outside, people look at what I do like, "man, you can just get up when you want to- you can paint when you get inspired" and it just doesn't work that way. You have to be disciplined to get anywhere in anything.

Are there any times that you failed or made mistakes business-wise that you feel like have made you better?

Yes- it's hard to remember specifics.  When I started painting I had no idea.  And then when I went on to open the retail space, I really had no idea what I was doing.  You just kind of have to figure it out on your own and you just have to know that you're going to make some mistakes.  I don't think you beat yourself up over it, you can be disappointed that they happened, but it's what you do with that. You better yourself in that area.  It's when you don't learn from them that I think it's a problem. You just have to throw a little grace in there, and that's hard for me because I'm really hard on myself and have high expectations for myself.  But I almost just have to plan on them.  If you're thorough on the front end, you have a lot better odds on the back end.

If you were giving a couple lines of advice to someone who was trying to start a business, what would you tell them?

The first that comes to mind is to be sure to be passionate about whatever it is you want to do.  It's going to be hard work.  The passion will make up for a lot.  I can get so much energy and fulfillment off the passion side of my work that it makes up for the hard work and long hours.  It sure is a nice cushion to have that.  And it keeps you going, it really does. 

You have to be willing to work dog-gone hard.  I always try to teach my kids, go above and beyond, do more than is expected, and always be early.  It's going to pay off.  It just is.  The law of averages say that it just is... And you've made someone else's life better, you feel good about what you've done.  In the event world, I would just think, "I'm going to make it better than they even think it can be." Now with painting, I've done all these paintings, but I still want to make my best one.


My conversation with David was nothing short of inspiring, and so encouraging as a young entrepreneur.  If you want to learn more about David and his work, you can do so here.  If you have a chance, take the time to go out and visit his gallery.  You won't regret it!