Machyar Gleuenta | Artist's Dream Becomes 'Half-Paradise'

Monday, December 11, 2006

The artist's studio is tucked into the converted garage of a two-story home in Springfield. On a six-foot-tall wooden easel rests a well-used palette, covered in gobs of muted blues, grays and maroons. Several large oil paintings, carefully boxed, lean against the opposite wall. A sleeping bag, microwave oven and refrigerator are a few steps away.

The crowded room is home and work space for painter Machyar Gleuenta, an Indonesian immigrant trying to make a profitable business out of his art.

"Having a career in fine arts is probably one of the least desirable careers to have," Gleuenta said with a laugh. "This is kind of like half-paradise."

Gleuenta grew up in rural Sumatra, where his parents were subsistence farmers who tended their rice patties with the help of a water buffalo. "That's how we survived," he said. But what he wanted to do was paint, a craft he learned by working for his uncle, an artist.

So he moved to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta and spent as much time as he could around the U.S. Embassy, hoping to meet an American who could help him emigrate and advance his study of fine art.

From some university officials who had come for a convention, he learned about scholarship programs for foreign art students and applied. Ten years ago, at the age of 24, he came to the United States and studied on scholarships at the Maine College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Upon graduation he launched MK Fine Arts and began looking for commissions and sales venues. In the meantime, he worked as a plumber by day and painted at night.

His big break came in 2004, when Georgia State University commissioned him to paint a portrait of civil rights stalwart, former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young. But such high-profile work isn't easy to come by. Soon after the Young portrait was unveiled last year, Gleuenta began looking for financial support -- and learned from a Somali refugee group about the Ethiopian Community Development Council's Enterprise Development Group.

The business plan Gleuenta showed EDG proposed buying additional supplies and marketing MK Fine Arts online. EDG lent him $15,000, using a loan fund it administers for the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Gleuenta used some of the money to have half a dozen of his paintings professionally scanned at a $650 apiece, so he could make high-quality prints and marketing materials. He also used some of the money to rent a car to transport the paintings to New York, where the scanning company is located. He spent a few hundred dollars on software to build a Web site ( for the studio, and bought a credit card machine so he didn't have to be limited to cash or check sales at art shows. He spent another $50 on a small scanner/printer and a ream of fine photo paper.

"To get it done right, there's no way around it," Gleuenta said.

Paying back the loan was challenging for Gleuenta, whose income these days comes from selling paintings and teaching occasional art courses. He was late a few times, but he called EDG and was granted a grace period. He said he paid off the 18-month loan last week.

"It is very fickle as far as an income base, but I'm not worried about that anymore," he said. "My concentration now is to produce good art and people will come."

Sometimes, they do come. Recently an Indonesian businessman sent him a letter in Bahasa Indonesia, Gleuenta's native language, commissioning three large paintings with tsunami-related themes. Gleuenta, who lost 19 relatives in the 2004 tsunami, immediately accepted.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company