MAKING IT: This Alaska artist’s career has been a series of leaps of faith

SPONSORED: From ceramics to shoes to painted taxidermy, Romney Dodd isn’t afraid to take chances with her art when she knows her fellow Alaskans are standing behind her.

Dishes. Clogs. Fish.

Anchorage artist Romney Dodd paints on just about anything except the expected.

In the course of her career, Dodd has dressed up dining tables, launched a viral footwear trend, and put a new twist on taxidermy. Each new medium has come with a lot of uncertainty, and each has been a resounding success -- something Dodd attributes to the support of her community.

“[Alaskans] support local artists,” Dodd said. “Always have.”

Leaps of faith

Dodd started making art for a living in 1991, after the birth of her first child. During her maternity leave, she began painting and selling ceramics. By the second month, she was earning more each month selling hand-painted platters and pitchers than she had as an airline customer service agent. So she took a chance, quit that job and never looked back.

Dodd’s kiln is largely dormant these days, although she does fire some ceramics from time to time, and she said she’ll go back to it eventually.

“I don’t ever give up what I’ve done, but I continue to grow as something new presents itself,” she said.

And you never know when something new will present itself. That’s what happened with the clogs.

“I had a pair of old, tired Danskos in the studio,” Dodd said. “They were the red nubuck, and I painted them. I wore them into Skinny Raven, and Daniel (Greenhalgh, the company’s then president and now owner) said, ‘Oh my god, I could sell those like crazy.’”

He sent her home with a case of shoes to paint. They sold almost immediately, and an Alaska trend was born. Soon the Romney clog was Anchorage’s must-have fashion accessory and by 2004, Dodd was painting original clogs for sale at Nordstrom and in Dansko stores.

A parade of salmon

These days, Dodd paints fish -- skin mounts that she bought from a local taxidermist. It all started when a customer asked for an original piece similar to one she’d painted for Anchorage’s Wild Salmon on Parade event.

“I didn’t even know what a skin mount was,” Dodd said. “I saw all of the fish in the shop and the idea just started. I just thought -- ‘I could do something with that.’”

She didn’t have room for a roomful of fish mounts in her home studio, so it was time to move into a bigger space. Dodd rented a storefront downtown and opened a new workspace and gallery. It was a bit of a gamble, but one she was ready to make.

“It definitely is a leap of faith,” she said. “Every single time. I’d be like, ‘OK, I’ll lease the space.’ ‘OK, I’ll buy those fish.’”

Dodd’s salmon start at about $700 and can run as high as $12,000 for custom commissions. The price is based not just on her time, materials and expenses, but on the decades she has invested in growing as an artist.

“I need to cover my costs and also reward myself for the lifelong effort it’s taken me to get where I am,” she said. “These fish, for instance, are just incredibly unique.”

It’s a cue Dodd takes from another respected Alaska artist, Byron Birdsall.

“People would say ‘How long did it take you to paint that?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, about 78 years,’” she said. “It took time and courage and the willingness to step into spaces that are unknown.”

Dodd’s latest leap of faith will take her further into the world of taxidermy, this time with animal head mounts.

“I’m in the animal rescue business now,” she joked. “I got all these animals from a wildlife museum in Anchor Point. I’m priming them and sculpting them… they won’t look like taxidermy mounts anymore.”

If it sounds a little bit crazy… well, Dodd is OK with that, and so are her patrons.

“Sometimes things get scary -- maybe overwhelming, but certainly exciting,” she said. “It’s so fun. That’s what fuels the energy and the ideas.”

An artist’s finances

Dodd treasured the years she had working at home as a young mother. She’d get up in the middle of the night to nurse a baby, then sneak off to her studio to paint.

“I was so lucky to be able to carve out my life in that way, that I could be home with my kids,” she said.

There was a tradeoff -- financial stability. Being a full-time working artist doesn’t exactly come with a steady paycheck.

“I’ve never planned my finances,” Dodd said. “That is the honest-to-god truth. I guess that’s an artist’s way. I don’t think any of us do. But it always worked out.”

There were times over the years when Dodd had to resort to what she calls “creative financing” -- robbing Peter to pay Paul. Trying to map out a profit and loss statement is more or less impossible. But these days, work is steady and the financial problems she encounters tend to be the good kind -- like when her Affordable Care Act insurance got more expensive because her income increased.

It also helps that she learned some lessons about financial responsibility at a young age.

“When I was like 11 or 12, I wanted a bike in the worst way,” Dodd said. “I’d only had hand-me-downs. It was a Centurion from Fairweather Sports.”

Dodd had saved her money, but she was still only about halfway to being able to buy her bike. So her dad took her to meet with Dan Cuddy, then president of First National Bank Alaska. Dodd had opened her first savings account with the bank when she was just 6 years old.

“He was very serious about it,” Dodd said. She recalled that Cuddy told her, “You know, young lady, if you don’t make payments on your bicycle, we’ll have to take it away.”

She agreed to the loan terms and financed her first brand-new bicycle, making $11 payments each month until she owned it outright. A few years later, when she turned 16, she did it again, meeting with Cuddy and putting 50 percent down on a Honda Accord.

“That was such a great experience, and certainly built that trust with the bank,” she said. “Just to be comfortable dealing with an adult, with a banker, our local community bank -- (it was) such a cool experience.”

Community and confidence

Today, the original First National Bank Alaska branch sits just across the street from Dodd’s latest leap of faith -- her downtown Anchorage studio, located at 420 G St.

“The downtown shop really has changed everything for me,” she said. “Changing from a home studio to a public space definitely -- I don’t know if it’s given more credibility to my work or just changed it up. And it’s changed up my perspective, too. I show up differently in my business.”

Now she welcomes the public into her studio and enjoys the sense of community and friendship when locals stop in for First Friday events. It’s a new chapter in the story of her life in downtown Anchorage.

“I am so lucky,” Dodd said. “I feel so fortunate every day, really. I live downtown. I walk to work. I go paint. I can take a break, walk home, walk back down and paint late if I want.”

Community support is a big part of the reason Dodd has been able to make it all work. Local galleries and customers have supported her from the very beginning. While Anchorage has grown and changed over the years, Dodd said that community spirit has stayed strong.

“I feel like the sense of community is definitely still here,” she said. “People come and go, we have new influences, but we do still have the community.”

That’s why she’s been able to make so many leaps into the unknown, Dodd said -- because she knows her hometown fans have her back, whether she’s painting flowers on their footwear or exploring the artistic possibilities of taxidermy.

“My community totally supports me,” Dodd said. “That support of my community gives me the confidence to do crazy things. My community offers me the confidence to be courageous.”

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.