Brent Houzenga left his mundane job as a graphic artist for a small-town newspaper and moved to Des Moines to follow his career as an artist. Now, Houzenga attends at least one art event a month to sell his art work. Photo by Sarah Bzdega
Brent Houzenga left his mundane job as a graphic artist for a small-town newspaper and moved to Des Moines to follow his career as an artist. Now, Houzenga attends at least one art event a month to sell his art work. Photo by Sarah Bzdega

While helping a friend find an apartment in Des Moines, Brent Houzenga ventured into Mars Café and asked if he could display his work. Typically the waiting list is long, but the Mars staff called him shortly after his visit to see if he could fill a slot that had just opened. Even before his official opening, Houzenga had sold four pieces, and by the end of the show, he had sold 15, nearly his entire collection. Within a week, Houzenga packed up his things in his small hometown of Fulton, Ill., and moved to Des Moines.

Two years later, the artist's work is featured in at least one show nearly every month, he is officially "national" with three shows out of state and aspires to reach an international level in five years.

When he's not working his four-hour shift, four days a week as the assistant director at the Ankeny Art Center or taking on freelance graphic design projects, Houzenga is outside his Sherman Hill home, painting faces from old photographs onto windows or doors and scratching them off with a blade, a representation of "how we throw out history and history gets rewritten," he said. Or he's on the Internet making contacts that could lead to new shows in Midwestern cities and planning public events featuring emerging artists' work around town.

"It kind of came out of nowhere," Houzenga said. "I didn't expect a lot of the stuff that happened, but I got here, and things started happening, and that motivated me to go for it."

Two years ago, Houzenga was working in a mundane graphic design position at his small town's local newspaper. He had recently graduated from Western Illinois University, where he had become known for starting a magazine and putting on events while working toward an art degree. He also spent a year taking graphic design courses, with the thought that he'd have to get a full-time job in that field and practice his art on the side just to make enough to live.

But while on a jog his senior year, he discovered a red velvet book filled with old photos that someone had discarded. He turned the faces in the photos into stencils for a graphic design project, but soon began using them for his paintings. "I just really loved the way it looked," he said. "There really was no message to begin with, it just kind of happened, and I really liked it."

Instead of focusing on his artistic work full time when he arrived in Des Moines, he took a job as a barista at The Village Bean Co., which helped him form connections with business professionals and government officials who came into the East Village shop. After a year, he quit his job and lived off artwork he made for four months until he joined the Ankeny Art Center in January.

"I wasn't living comfortably," he said about the four months he went without a formal job. But over time, as more people have taken interest in his work and he continues to improve it, he has increased his price-per-piece to a range of $700 to $1,200, versus $200 or less two years ago. He usually sells three pieces per show and has had a few "big" solo shows, he said, including one in the Crossroads Art District in Kansas City, Mo.

Houzenga also has kept up his habit of putting on public events, with a show featuring emerging artists coming up in Gateway Lofts. He is the curator for the Crossroads Entertainment Conference and Showcase and helped plan the Subjective Circus for the Des Moines Social Club.

But he admits, "I'm really just learning how to be a businessman as well as an artist - having business cards, going up to someone and shaking their hand." He even has employed the tactic favored by graffiti artists, strategically placing his work or business cards around town to become better known.

One of his next moves may be applying to get his work on display in a retail gallery around town. "I think the only thing that's really lacking here is a middle ground between showing at a restaurant or coffee shop and showing at one of the more high-end galleries," he said.

But his plans of moving to a big city have changed; he discovered that Des Moines being "a small town with big city things to do" has helped his career.

"It's not such a saturated market, so if there's something going on and they need an artist or someone to organize an art show for an event, people will call me because they know I can get it done," he said. "Whereas in Chicago, there are 200 people just like me. It might be harder to make all those connections that I've made here."