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Elizabeth McDonnell Started Her New Career With a Blank Canvas

Elizabeth McDonnell of ElizabethMcDArt

It was 2013 and Elizabeth McDonnell, now mother to a 1-year-old son and the artist behind the ElizabethMcDArt Etsy shop, found herself on the edge of turning 30 and on a career path that no longer worked for her. She had been working in nonprofit management for 10 years and was burnt out. But she knew that entering a new decade in life was an opportunity to switch things up. Although she had often worked with artists in her day job, she never considered pursuing a career in art—until she met someone who changed her perspective.

“I stumbled upon an artist whose story transfixed me. She’d left her first career at age 30, when she discovered painting, and it transformed her life. I could see how she inspired people and how her whole life just radiated joy," McDonnell tells Mom.me. "It was an incredibly powerful realization for me that someone could so purposefully create her own happiness through her art, while also contributing so tangibly to the happiness of others."

She thought about the story for weeks, then finally gave in to that little voice in her head telling her that maybe—just, maybe—this kind of change in career was possible for her, too.

“It was terrifying. Admitting that I wanted to create art professionally meant uprooting my life and starting from scratch. I had no business background and hadn’t painted in years, but once I sat down at my desk and put paint to paper for the first time, I felt such genuine happiness that everything snapped into focus,” says McDonnell.

She hasn’t looked back since that day. McDonnell spent a year building her portfolio with inspiring paintings for imaginitive children and learning the business before opening her shop in 2014. Today, McDonnell spends her days with her son and her nights on her art and business, filling orders and shipping her work around the world.

McDonnell tells Mom.me how she managed a career change and building her business while also tackling the challenge of being a new mom.

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How long have you been creating artwork? What made you want to pursue this as a career?

I painted in high school but lost track of creating my own art during college. I didn't create any art for 12 years, until I decided to start a business and needed to create my portfolio. I had to teach myself how to paint all over again, which was a humbling and entertaining process. I love creating art so much, and I love that something I've made with my own hands and heart is making someone else's life a little more joyful. Once I rediscovered painting and realized that artists could make a living from their work, it was the only way forward for me.

Elizabeth McDonnell Family

As a mother, as well as the founder of ElizabethMcDArt, how do you make it all work?

Every day is different and I had to learn quickly how to be very flexible and gentle on myself for moving more slowly in my business than I'd ideally like. Slower progress is still progress, and my 1-year-old son will only be little for so long. I currently stay at home with my son and work from my home studio after he goes to bed. We take field trips to the post office to drop off orders, but other than that, I keep my focus on him during the day and save my work for evenings. What motivates me most is knowing that my son will grow up watching me reach for my dreams every day. When he gets older, I'd love to incorporate him more into my art life by painting together.

When did you first feel successful?

The first time I truly felt successful was when an early customer left me feedback that they'd bought my “You Are Loved” art print for a friend's new baby as a welcome into the world. I felt so honored that my art was being given as a gift of such love and celebration. It felt like I'd achieved my primary goal of creating something that had personal meaning for people.

As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your son about "girl power"?

I want my son to see that his mama has big dreams and goals and that I'm working toward them every day, no matter how long it takes or how difficult the path may be. I want to model hard work and passion so that he grows up with a strong female role model and never knows anything different. I wasn't always on this path, as my previous career was making me miserable by the end, and that could have easily been the path my child saw me on. That fact in itself is very motivating, and I'm excited to show him that while I can't do it all, I can prioritize what makes my family happy and what contributes meaning and value back into our lives and the world.

Has there been anything about creating Elizabeth McDArt that surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?

I've been so inspired to hear the stories of why people choose my art for themselves, their children or as gifts. One mama offered art to her 10-year-old daughter to boost her confidence and help soothe her anxiety. Another gave a gift as a comfort to parents who had recently lost a child. There have been “thinking of you” gifts, “I love you” gifts, “welcome baby” gifts and so many others that have completely humbled me and made me feel so honored to be even a small part of how people choose to share their love, grief, support and tenderness.

What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own Etsy shop?

If you have a craft or product that you love making but feel intimidated by the business end or don't have much time, [Etsy is] a great place to start and test the waters. Etsy has a lot of resources that take the mystery out of things like taxes and shipping, so that you aren't walking in blind. That being said, definitely take the time and do your research first so that both you and your customers feel supported. Personally, I made sure I had clear policies in place and fully outlined what the process looked like to get a package out the door to a customer before I opened my shop so I wasn't scrambling when that first sale came in. Owning a business and raising a child has proved to be incredibly hard, but it's been such a worthwhile journey all the same.

Elizabeth McDonnell artwork

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What sacrifices have you made as a mom and business owner to keep everything in balance?

Sleep, of course! It's also a rare and special treat to see friends or go on an actual date with my husband, since our time is often accounted for. I rarely go shopping or watch movies and spend my evenings working on my business after my son is sleeping. I generally work until about midnight and sometimes during my son's naps, as well, so that I can be there for my family during the rest of the day and evening. It's a pretty exhausting phase we're in right now and it stretches me quite thin at times, but I know it won't last forever. I'm thankful that my schedule is flexible enough where I can be there for my little guy without giving up on my dream.

Are there any new initiatives or products on the horizon for Elizabeth McDArt?

My big dreams include writing and illustrating a children's book, as well as creating some beautiful products with my art like blankets or growth charts or calendars. I'm also working on a new collection of inspirational art prints for kids featuring some of my favorite animals and flowers.

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