Art, Adventure, and Adversity: How John and I Started Collaborating Artistically - The Conclusion

The Milan Family sharing their single sandwhich in joy while living abroad in greece

As our stomachs growled and the girls, growing increasingly fussy, started complaining of hunger, I wondered what was taking John so long. Finally, he burst through the door full of excitement, thrust the sausage sandwich at me, and started rummaging through my things. “Where's your box full of necklaces you made? Quick, I need it!” I handed him a shoe box filled with silver and gemstone beaded necklaces, and out the door, he flew.

An Unexpected Lifeline for Starving Artists

I cut the huge sandwich into five pieces and gave the girls their lunch. They asked for ketchup. “We have mustard!” I said. No takers on the mustard. I ate my sandwich waiting for John, dying of curiosity about what was going on.

Then I heard the apartment door shut and John entered the kitchen with the shoe box tucked under his arm. He laid out a bunch of bills on the kitchen table and looked at me, beaming. I counted the money and yelled, “John! There are 400 euros here! How? Who? What the heck happened? You saved us!” I jumped into his arms and hugged him tight - what a relief. We could literally live off this money for a month while we waited for our royalties to come.

John's Discovery of a Financial Lifeline

“I was on my way home after buying the sandwich. I was feeling down and worried, so I started praying, just asking God to help me to get some groceries. Then I was coming into the building and our neighbor was coming in too. She asked me if you made the necklaces she sees you wearing. I told her yes, that you had a whole box of them and asked if she wanted to see them. I didn't know how much you charged for them so I just told her 100 euros each. So she bought four! She's giving some as gifts.”

“Oh my gosh! John, you did it! You saved us! Now we can go to the store and get food!”

I thought back to when I was standing at the carousel, picking up our suitcases a few months back. I saw a bunch of tiny little beads - silver and amethyst, garnet and peridot - glistening in the light, adorning everyone's suitcase as they passed. My heart sank as I realized that my suitcase zipper had busted on the trip out and now all of my jewelry supplies were spilling out onto the carousel.

I started picking up as many of the beads as I could and watched as others joined in to help. It was a scene and the first introduction to how our trip would go. It was a standing metaphor for our lives for the next six months. The tiny gemstones of our guts spilled open, carouseling around and around until we could pick up the pieces and become whole again. But now, at this moment, my jewelry hobby and a praying husband have saved our souls from being starving artists! We will live!

The Saga of the Struggling Artists Continues

But our troubles with creating better art or finding a new dealer were far from over. We were still in a ridiculous slump that just wouldn't end. About a week later, five-year-old Dimitra came bouncing into the studio and asked if she could paint. I was finished for the day and handed her the last of my acrylic palette of paint and told her she could grab any painting she saw on the studio floor and paint on it.

She casually chose a painting of a man standing, looking over the vast horizon on the edge of the beach where the waves touched the shore. He was looking into the possibilities of his future. As I cleaned up, Dimitra sat on the floor and painted. She used brushes, fingers, fists, and mushed paint all around. I hardly paid attention until I glanced her way 10 minutes later. “Dimitra! Stop!! Don't paint anymore! John, look at what she has done!” We picked up the painting and put it on our easel.

“What did I do wrong, mommy?”

“Nothing, you made a masterpiece!” I could hardly believe it. Dimitra created a stunning abstract, the exact kind a dealer in Canada wanted from us.

Dealer's Demand: The Abstract Challenge

Before we left for Greece, this dealer visited our studio to meet us and see our work.He owned the largest fine art company we knew of at the time. He was the top dealer at Art Expo in New York and represented over 200 artists. He looked carefully at all of our work we had and finally said to us, “Well…I can see that you guys are really talented, but I’m just wondering if you will ever paint anything that is any good.” And with those encouraging words, he left.

He had wanted to buy abstracts. He didn't want our landscapes, chefs, or poppy fields. He wanted what we were unable to paint. Neither John nor I could paint a successful abstract. We had given up and convinced ourselves we weren't abstract painters. We painted representationally.

Now, we were looking at an abstract masterpiece painted by a five-year-old. So I took a picture of it and emailed it to this dealer from Canada, asking him how he liked my new work. I got an immediate reply: “If you send me 20 abstracts that look similar to this, I will buy them all.” I was stunned! I could hardly believe my eyes.

I sat Dimitra on the floor with some paint and another canvas and placed a brush in her hand. She set the brush down, grabbed a Sharpie, and started drawing polka-dot dresses hanging on a clothesline. “Dimitra, paint like you painted before!” I showed her the abstract. She squished up her nose and continued drawing dresses. I could see this wasn’t going to work. I knew it wasn’t sustainable.

A Collaborative Dance of Brushes Begins

I told John, “It’s okay, I’m a professional artist; I’ll just copy exactly what she did, and then I will understand how she did it.” I got to work and began trying to emulate Dimitra’s abstract. I felt highly motivated as I saw the check for 20 paintings hitting my starving artist bank account. But after a couple of hours, I looked at John, feeling hopeless. He said, “I’ll give it a try in the morning, I think I can pull it off.”

The next morning, John was in the studio early. I walked in with a couple of coffees and told him, “Well, no offense, but it’s not that great; pass it here.” So, I worked on it for a bit until John interrupted and pulled it to his side of the easel, saying, “I got it from here.”

Developing a Synergy in Our Art and Mastering Abstracts

Elli and John Milan's First attempt at replicating their daughter's successful abstract painting

We passed it back and forth all morning until we had two pieces that looked like they were done by the same artist. We proudly stared at our one accomplishment and realized we had 18 more to go. After about five or six paintings, John and I developed a system that quickened our process. I started the paintings, laid out the collage, acrylic washes, and established the composition and color palette. I blocked in the forms and created fields of depth with atmosphere. Then, I passed it to John who would finish it with oil, adding details and beautifying what I had done.

I learned to surrender my control, to die to myself, and to allow John to have the final say. I understood that the whole was more important than the individual parts, and this collaborative approach was the only way to create something better than what I could create alone.

Not only were John and I collaborating successfully, but we were also painting beautiful abstracts, something that had eluded us before. It felt like we had walked through a door into a magical kingdom where only color, line, form, depth, texture, and value existed. We lived in a poetic realm of art that was centered around our process and being in the moment. We walked through the door guided by a child. We entered the kingdom as a child.

We sold all 20 paintings, and two weeks later, he ordered 60 more. John and I became abstract painting machines and worked with this dealer for the next six years. We were his best-selling artists for three years straight and were featured on the cover of Art Business News for our abstracts.

Art, Adventure, and Overcoming Adversity: Fighting For the Inspiration

Elli Milan and her three daughters smiling and playing on the beach in Greece

We had finally found the inspiration we came to Greece for. We faced incredible resistance. We fought our way through a battlefield of self-doubt, discouragement, a cold and dark winter, near-starvation, betrayal, and fear to discover redemption, restoration, and resurrection.

Beneath Dimitra’s abstract was the underpainting of a man looking into the distance. It was God, standing in our future, calling us toward it. He was standing on the shores of a future where Dimitra would become a worldwide sensation, influencer, and professional artist; where Milan Art Institute would help thousands of artists around the globe; where Art Social, the retreats, the art sales, and changed lives would all take place; where three more children would become professional artists, with so much more to come.

Drowning in an ocean of self-doubt and reliving my father’s doom-filled words, I couldn’t see or believe in this future. I had lost sight of that line where heaven meets earth, but I am grateful for the One, the Advocate, who stands in my future and calls me to it.

Share your experience in the comments below!


  • Rachel Greer

    Elli, I have been meaning to leave you a comment here.
    I was very moved by how God answered prayer for provision for your family in such a direct loving way.
    I was visiting my parents at the time I read your story.
    I was so inspired and moved, I asked Mom and Dad if I could read it to them.
    My parents have been ‘just making it’ through the months.
    My Dad continues to search for a permanent job after his previous company of 13 years had a fresh change of hands and decided they would replace him with a younger less experienced person who they could pay a cheaper salary.
    He is very experienced in many trades and has been getting by with commissions of all kinds for about a year but there has not always been enough work to go around especially where he lives. This month especially was weighing heavy on his mind.
    He used to tell my sister and myself, that it is hard to become a successful artist or to work for yourself and we should think hard about following that path. Thankfully though he was very proud of our art and always encouraged us to take commissions and keep improving our skills.

    As I read my parents your story, my dad listened while flustering around the kitchen during his tea break.
    As he listened he became still…only stirring his tea slowly … and then the tiniest tears wet the corners of his eyes.
    My Dad looks like a Harley Davidson Biker, Big, Strong and tough.
    Only those who know him know he is so incredibly soft inside and those tears showed ‘even if for a moment’ how God had used your story to touch him deeply, encouraging him in his situation to keep trusting God for those groceries… for provision and blessing even when things look bad.
    So Thank You so very much for opening up your life’s story to us all.
    We count ourselves blessed to be encouraged through it and found His love touching us that morning as a family.

    Love from Rachel

    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi Rachel! This really touched my heart! Thank you for sharing this moment with your dad with me and writing it out so beautifully. I could picture him slowly stirring his tea. I have so many stories of miracle money and God’s faithfulness and I believe your dad is on the brink of a breakthrough! God will come through for him and draw him to the perfect job. thank you again! Reading this made my morning! Elli

  • June Lizotte

    Although I’ve heard this story before ( a few times as) it never gets old. This time it inspired something new in my own art pursuits. There seemed to be somewhat of a divine impartation in some of what you shared. I am ever thankful for the God-centered inspiration that affects so many. 👆👍🎨🖌️
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi June I’m so glad this story inspired you. 😊

  • Natalia Heredia

    Beautiful story 😍😍😍
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Thank you!

  • Layane Smith

    Elli, I look forward to hear your stories and get motivated by them. Thank you so much for sharing and helping so many artists ! You and your family are definitely fulfilling God’s purpose by inspiring us all !
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Thank you! It encourages me to know my stories inspire you! 😊

  • Kelli

    Thank you for such an encouraging post. I struggle with self doubt. You mention in the Mastery class videos that the right brain is the spiritual non-critical side of the brain. I’m determined to encourage my right brain to be stronger. Today. I sang and danced with my bernedoodle. She smiled and wagged her tail.

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