Tarra Wood was not going to become an artist. Wood, who describes herself as a practical person, said she loved art but resisted the idea of becoming a professional artist for a long time. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s not practical. It’s going to be tough, I don’t want to be poor,’” Wood said with a laugh.
Her plan changed when she came to FGCU. Although she started school with a focus on biology, hoping to pursue her interest in science, Wood was drawn to the FGCU art program and its close-knit community. Two semesters into her undergraduate career, Wood switched her major to art, and seized opportunities to use her skills everywhere she saw them – from working as a freelance photo editor for wedding photographers, to working as a ceramics studio assistant for FGCU’s art program director, Patricia Fay.
Now Wood, a 2011 alumna, has her own art studio in Naples. She is juggling roles as a freelance photo editor, graphic designer, businesswoman and, most importantly, independent artist. Wood describes a lot of her art as “fun and happy.” In fact, the first piece of art she sold as a student was from a cartoon-like group of paintings called “The Frat Boy Series,” which followed the escapades of a fictional fraternity brother. “It was just a small painting,” Wood said, “but it was a fun series. It was always fun to make, and people always laughed.”
The “fun and happy” brand stuck with Wood when she designed her Etsy shop, an online forum where people can sell handmade goods. Wood named the shop “walrus & toad” because she wanted to incorporate her initials and pay homage to her first animal painting, a toad. Wood focuses on prints and buttons for the shop, often depicting cacti, animals or doughnuts.
Wood likes being a part of the Etsy community because it rebels against what she calls the “art scene.” “I like the accessibility for anybody to have art,” Wood said. “I get kind of frustrated sometimes with the art scene, and you make it based on who you know. I like having my artwork out there, and if people like it, great, and if they don’t, it’s not like I have to convince them to like it, because I am the artist.”
Wood said Etsy is an ideal community for people to find art they like without being an “art expert.” The Etsy website has helped draw a lot of people to Wood’s work, and the main website even featured one of Wood’s items. “That got me a ton of traffic for a whole month,” Wood said.
Both Etsy and Instagram have allowed Wood to make new connections in the global art community. In fact, Wood recently traded one of her cactus paintings for an embroidery hoop made by an Australian artist. While Wood has had customers purchase her art from as far away as Australia, she said she sells most of it in the United States and Canada, because of high shipping rates outside of North America
Wood’s walrus & toad shop focuses on light-hearted art, but Wood said her studio art doesn’t have the same aesthetic. “Some of my personal artwork that I would show in a gallery is maybe a little stranger and darker,” Wood said. FGCU Art Program Director Patricia Fay said Wood’s stranger pieces as an undergraduate showed Fay that Wood could do well as a professional artist. “It was very clear early on that this was really who she was,” Fay said. “She has the capacity to grapple with concepts, ideas in her work in a way that’s very accessible.”
A recent example of this for Fay was a series of air-dry clay pieces Wood made for the alumni art show in fall 2015. One of the pieces was a cube-shaped sculpture showing cigarettes connected and woven together. “It was meticulously made, and compelling from a distance,” Fay said. “[It showed] the sort of obsessive nature of people who grapple with addiction.”
Fay said Wood’s success is possible not only because of her “quirky, unique perspective,” but because of her personality. “She’s so smart and she’s so disciplined that she has found ways to make it work,” Fay said. “A life in the arts is always a juggling act … You not only have to be a good artist, you have to be a good businessperson and a marketer and a promoter.”
Wood has certainly learned to work within that juggling act. She said she works an average of 12 hours each day, dedicating half of her time to freelance photo editing and graphic design jobs, and using the rest of the day to update the Etsy shop. She tries to produce one to three new pieces of art every week. “I try to do jobs that I know guarantee me money,” Wood said. “With art, you could sell it, you might not. It’s a gamble.”
Although her schedule is hectic, Wood said she doesn’t think she could work in an office again. “The freedom of my schedule and being able to actually do what I like is totally worth being stressed out,” Wood said. “I love it.”
Moving forward, Wood would like to open up another Etsy shop with a focus on monsters and dinosaurs, which she says don’t fit the walrus & toad brand. She hopes the Etsy shops will grow to the point that she can focus more on producing physical art and less on graphic design freelancing.
Fay said that while many of her students use art in their careers, not many move on to set up individual studios, as Wood has done. “Tarra has really distinguished herself,” Fay said, adding that her schedule is typical of professional artists. “There are not many artists out there who do nothing but make art. It comes as a package: the day job that supports your art habit.”
Wood said the FGCU art program she fell in love with is growing in a positive way. “As I’ve gone to the shows, I do think that the body of work is getting better and more interesting,” she said. “I think that the growth from the students’ work that I see is impressive overall since I’ve been there.”
Wood’s advice for students who have doubts about following their passion, as she still does sometimes, is: “Don’t wait to try.” She said she thinks sometimes about the jobs that she took and hated before she finally gave the Etsy shop and her studio a try, and wishes she had given art a chance earlier. “The work you put in is directly related to the success,” Wood said. “It’s more work than a lot of 9-to-5 jobs. You have more hours to put in, but if you really want to do it, just go for it.”
Nina Barbero is a 2015 graduate of FGCU who majored in business and minored in journalism and lives in Fort Myers.
For more of Tarra Wood’s work visit: