Making It

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Adecade or so ago, Valerie Theberge "didn't think it was possible for me to do what I'm doing now." But in the same manner that the 38-year-old mosaic-maker pieces together her projects -- with careful planning and determination -- she has fashioned a way to support herself through her artwork.

Valerie wasn't the kind of child who said she wanted to be an artist when she grew up. It wasn't until the Washington area native had dropped out of college, moved to California and signed up for a drawing class at the San Francisco Art Institute that anyone recognized her artistic talent. "It was the first place I was encouraged," she says.

That praise led her to enroll in the school, where she received a bachelor's of fine arts in painting and drawing. Valerie then lived in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1990s, studying Mandarin, Chinese painting and Asian studies. She was working in a well-paying but non-art-related job in Hong Kong when she read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, a book designed to help people access their creativity. "It changed the trajectory of my life," she says.

Valerie rededicated herself to art, apprenticing for a Hong Kong-based British mosaic company. She says she was attracted to mosaic-making as an art form because of its meditative rhythm and collaborative nature, as well as the solidity of its materials. In 2000, she decided to move back to the United States, but first traveled through China, Tibet, Nepal, India and Turkey, at times studying and working on mosaics. "It was the best year of my life."

Back in the Washington region, Valerie took a communications job in the global affairs division of the National Academy of Sciences and bought a house in Mount Rainier, an affordable neighborhood and up-and-coming arts district in Prince George's County. (She later bought a second house there and turned the first into a rental property, which provides her some financial insurance. She has been working out of a Capitol Hill studio she shares with her partner, painter Shahin Shikhaliyev, while the Mount Rainier house is being renovated.)

Knowing that she wanted to become a full-time artist, Valerie started out four days a week at NAS, cutting back to half time over three years as she feverishly tried to make a name for herself in the mosaic field. Her colleagues were fully supportive, she says.

Valerie left NAS in January 2006. She was making more money through her art than her day job and believed she couldn't progress creatively unless she devoted more time to her mosaics. "I kind of knew in my heart that it would work out," she says. She's bringing in about $50,000 a year through her artwork and teaching mosaic-making. The greatest drawback to leaving NAS was losing her health insurance.

Valerie specializes in public art: large-scale, multi-hued mural mosaics. Among other venues, her creations can be found at an Arlington park, the Prince George's County Correctional Center and the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts in Adams Morgan. Angela Fox, president of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, cites the "vibrance and color" of Valerie's work in the organization's decision to commission one of her murals for a Metro underpass.

Valerie says people often ask her how she accomplished her goal of becoming a full-time artist. "I think the biggest thing is believing it's possible," she says. That's "probably worth more than anything else."

Have you managed to transition into a profitable career as an artist? E-mail changb@washpost.com.

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