By Connor Dziawura

Niki Woehler was checking her social media feed earlier this spring when she stumbled across an emotional video she says was shared by Pizzeria Bianco owner Chris Bianco.

A frequenter of Bianco’s restaurant, the Scottsdale contemporary abstract artist says she was brought to tears and concerned about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on locally owned restaurants like Pizzeria Bianco in the months to come.

“I started to think, ‘OK, well God, if he’s going through that, so are all of our local guys going through that,’” Woehler recalls.

So, she decided to rally the community behind her—in the form of a raffle. Entrants who spend $30 or more on takeout, delivery or gift cards at any Phoenix-area restaurant can email a copy of the receipt along with their contact info to theartoftogo@nikiwoehler.com to be entered for a custom, commissioned creation worth up to $10,300 from Woehler.

Cash substitutions are excluded, as are franchises and national chains; however, multiple entries are allowed. Submissions must be received by June 10, and a winner will be announced June 11—or National Making Life Beautiful Day.

“What if I come up with an idea where I can give art?” Woehler recalls thinking. “So, my thinking process was one person can’t make a difference for all of these restaurants, but if we all collectively put some of our resources in to help them stay alive, then maybe they’ll be there when we’re done with all of this crazy.”

The value of the winner’s piece of artwork will ultimately depend on the specifications determined during an in-person meeting with Woehler. The prize must be redeemed by January 1.

Woehler says she will take everything into account, from the planned space which the finished piece will occupy to its surrounding furniture and lighting; to the mood, colors and size; to which of her previous paintings the winner does or doesn’t like. Its dimensions can be up to 48 inches by 72 inches.

“It’s important for me to understand what you love, what you don’t love, and tell me what you don’t love about that particular piece—I won’t be insulted by it; art is so subjective—because when I’m creating a custom piece for somebody, I want them to love it,” she explains.

After meeting with Woehler, the winner can expect to receive the painting in between four to six weeks.

An accidental artist

Woehler deals in two different styles: acrylic on canvas, which she describes as “very organic, very textural pieces,” and resin on wood, which is “super high gloss and very, very, very richly hued and very dimensional.” She also creates waterproof art installations, substituting the wood panels for aluminum sheets.

“I’m typically inspired by nature and all the elements,” she describes of her paintings, likening her canvas creations to weathered wood or metal, and comparing her resin works to cut pieces of stone, amethyst and onyx.

But while her art can now be found throughout the state and even the country, Woehler in fact stumbled into the profession seemingly by accident.

A Toronto native, Woehler essentially began what became a lengthy career in marketing when she was 14. Her mom, she says, working at a large ad agency in Toronto, would share ideas with Woehler, who would then pitch those ideas to her friends and collect data.

By the time she was 16, Woehler was a paid copywriter “making a lot of money, even in today’s standards,” she says.

She studied broadcasting and marketing at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, and ultimately moved to Phoenix in 1994. She ran her own boutique ad agency for over a decade, serving clients like vitaminwater, smartwater, the Harlem Globetrotters and Cirque du Soleil.

But she was a closet artist, she says.

About two decades ago, after a friend’s funeral, she recalls, she was driving home on that beautiful day, with the top down, reminiscing. “A little voice whispered in my ear and said, ‘Pull in.’ And I looked to my right and it was a Michaels,” she says.

Her friend’s name? Michael.

“I walked in and I bought canvases and paints and brushes, and to this day I still don’t know what prompted that. I didn’t even like art. I hated art in school,” she admits.

That moment launched a short-lived hobby painting in secret. Despite positive words from her neighbor, an ASU art professor, life got in the way—she still had a marketing career and she mothered several children—so she put the brush down and left it behind for nearly a decade, she estimates.

Then the recession hit.

“I found myself turning to painting just kind of as my peace and quiet and something for me,” she says.

She still wanted to keep her talent a secret, but a client of hers found out and wanted to buy a piece. That snowballed to the client commissioning several more paintings, before suggesting Woehler pursue art more strongly. So, she went home, listed a painting online, and “it sold in under an hour for a lot of money,” she recalls. She tried it again and it happened again, she adds.

“I kind of looked up at the universe and I said, ‘Alright, I’m paying attention right now. I am listening. If this happens again, I’ll shut my agency down and I’ll be an artist for a living,’” she recounts. “And it did. So I shut down my agency within 30 days and I’ve been painting full time ever since.”

That was 2012, when she still didn’t have a reputation in the art world. Using her marketing knowledge, and with some help from an art consultant, she slowly established herself.

“She set me off on the right path there,” Woehler says of the consultant. “She said, ‘Value yourself. If you don’t value yourself, nobody else will. Don’t give your work away; it’s great.’

“She also gave me the confidence. She said, ‘No, your work is good enough. You should be going after great galleries and museums and interior designers.’ And she said, ‘You’ve got a lot to be proud of here, so put it out there and don’t be afraid of doing it.’”

The gallery that ultimately gave her confidence, she says, is the Forré & Co. Fine Art Gallery in Aspen.

“The fact that she (the curator) took me still, to this day, blows my mind,” Woehler says. “I am still her entry-level artist. I hang next to paintings that are half a million dollars all the time. That gave me, for myself, credibility.

“From there, I had absolutely no fear about going out. It’s time consuming and you have to have thick skin, because you send out 200 emails, and if you get two responses you did really, really well. It’s just of built from there over time.”

Over the years, Woehler’s art has been showcased everywhere from galleries and showrooms to museums, hotels and other private and corporate collections in and out of Arizona. As for her most notable creation, she says she was once commissioned to create a 54-by-6-foot painting for real estate firm CBRE’s Esplanade office.

She also took first place in an Arizona State Fair fine art competition, with the same painting that got her into the Aspen gallery. David E. Adler is going to turn that design into a rug.

But as the COVID-19 crisis has impacted some of her recent planned projects, including Let’s Throw Paint Workshops that she launched earlier this spring, she says she’s now redirecting her focus from galleries to building her own business and working with interior designers.

“I think there’s kind of a paradigm shift in the world more so even now, and I think it’s really important that artists take their career into their own hands,” she says. “Not that I don’t want to be in galleries—you do, of course you want to be in galleries, it expands your reach, and people who’ve never seen you before see you—but I think it’s good to have a balanced business.

“So I’ve really been focusing on building my own personal business as well.”

For more information, visit nikiwoehler.com or follow Woehler on Instagram at @NikiWoehlerArtist.

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