Monika Agic described her style as abstract expressionism, and has sold about 20 paintings since she began her studio, Art by Magic, last April. Photo by Duane Tinkey
Monika Agic described her style as abstract expressionism, and has sold about 20 paintings since she began her studio, Art by Magic, last April. Photo by Duane Tinkey

The transition from war-ravaged Bosnia to Des Moines in 1995 was relatively smooth for the newly married Monika and Sonjin Agic. They found a place to live, both found jobs, and thanks to years of studying English in school, Monika was able to help the couple navigate the not-so-culturally diverse Des Moines.

Her only problem: understanding the nuances of the language. After all "getting all your ducks in a row" or "breaking a leg" can be quite befuddling in a literal sense.

Thirteen years later in December 2008, after working for nine years at Principal Financial Group Inc., Agic was laid off, right before a pipe broke, flooding their beautiful Urbandale home.

She figured it was as good as time as any to pursue her talent for art, and said what the heck, I'll "break a leg."

Her son promptly broke his arm, of course.

But, without a job holding her back, she developed her passion for painting, took a chance, started her own art studio, developed a Web site, had a little luck, saw it take off, sold 20 paintings, and is in talks to be featured on a New York-based art auction Web site.

Not a bad opening act for the abstract expressionist artist.

"She was really disappointed after she was laid off, but she started focusing on art, and art was her escape at the time when it happened," said Sonjin. "I think she handled it better than anybody, and art really helped her."

Agic never went to art school - she got a bachelor's degree in social studies - but always loved art and painted as a hobby for more than 10 years. She started her studio, "Art by Magic," (Magic being a combination of her first initial "M" and her last name "Agic") after the layoff, and officially registered the trademark in March.

"It is amazing, because you work at it, and it is kind of a hard process, and all of a sudden things snowball and all of a sudden people seek you out, and all of a sudden you become successful," she said.

The final push to get her selling her art came when people visiting her house started offering to buy her paintings off the walls.

"I was totally baffled," Agic said. "At that time, I still didn't think in the terms of, 'yeah I can take my art and I can offer it as a product and a service.' That kind of nudged me."

Still it took Agic time, and a bevy of canvases that ended up in the trash before she had the confidence to begin selling her work.

"It actually takes a while before you feel confident, because you have to have a lot of confidence to make a piece of art and throw it out there and say, look what I am selling," she said. "I feel like I am at that point."

There also used to be more barriers to entry into the art world, but new technology has made it easier for an emerging artist to break in.

"Today you can do so many things that you couldn't do several years ago in terms of getting your name out and getting images of your work out, and reaching a variety of audiences that would have been impossible several years ago," said Jeff Fleming, director of the Des Moines Art Center.

Agic has a Web site where she posts images of all her works, and gives users the option to buy directly from the site. She also maintains a YouTube channel, where you can see walk-throughs of her style of painting and a blog, and Facebook and Twitter accounts, all done in an effort to market her work.

"The demographics are changing. Younger people are more comfortable making purchases online. I believe that going forward, that will be the main way to sell," Agic said

Artists have to sell art in order to make more art. Although Agic sells paintings for an average of $600 (prices range from $200 to $1,000 depending on size and quality), once the cost of the canvas (from $20-$130 depending on size) and acrylic paints ($30-$50 per bottle) are factored in, her actual profit winds up at an average of $350 per painting. At that price she would have to sell 114 paintings per year to make $40,000 before taxes - approximately one every three days.

"That is the reason why art cannot stay at this price," Agic said. "I am now in a category of an emerging artist, and once you have a following of people that like and collect your work, then you have to increase your prices. Otherwise you are out, you can't survive."

While she is trying to expand her market, technology is offering one potential release from the burden of selling art. Agic said she has been approached by Artists in Auction, a selective online gallery in New York, that will market her work and set up an online auction in December.

"By having that representation, that is very helpful, because it takes off some of the burden of having to sell everything on your own and you can spend more time creating the work," Agic said.

She is also trying a new approach where she offers free consultations to those looking to commission an artist to do an original painting. She visits the potential client's home or office, takes pictures of things and colors to incorporate into the painting, and even has the client provide examples or a drawing of his or her vision.

Allison Pendroy, a colleague at Principal who also had been laid off, had a need for a piece of art, and got in contact with Agic through Facebook. Agic did a free consultation with Pendroy, who eventually commissioned her to do a painting. Pendroy marveled at Agic's ability to capture exactly what she desired, and her ability to match colors with the surroundings in the room. The nicest part about it, she said, was having her own personal artist.

"I think the commission side is attractive, because she will work to understand what that client exactly wants and what would fit in the space that they have in mind," Pendroy said. "It's also knowing that you get one-on-one attention and an artist designing and interpreting something specifically for you."

Original artwork, she said, was also one of the reasons she recommends Agic to other art seekers.

"You can always go to a furniture store and buy a painting that is a framed print, but 1,000 other people might have that hanging in their living rooms," Pendroy said. "I know no one else has this. It is a one of a kind that was created for us, that we will have and be able to cherish for the rest of our years."

Agic is hoping to expand her business offerings to the corporate setting as well, and has set a goal to be the brand and name of choice in Des Moines for anyone who wants custom, sophisticated artwork. Agic has a job she is keeping for the time being to help provide for her family, which includes two sons, ages 14 and 8, but she is throwing all her extra energy into her new business.

"It takes a lot of energy, not only to create your work, but to do your marketing, your PR, your advertising, your selling," she said. "It is kind of like one big operation, something a company of 10,000 people would do, and you are a sole person and you do everything."

Agic's abstract art may seem easy to produce -- to the uninitiated, it appears to be just paint thrown on the canvas -- but Agic offers this rebuttal.

"I challenge anybody who thinks that, just to go and get some supplies and paint something," she said.

Go ahead, break an arm.

Or give Agic a call when your painting ends up in the trash.