The Catalyst That Catapulted My Art Career in a New Direction

Mixed Media Abstract Painting with teal and red hues, by Artist Couple Elli and John Milan

For many years, John and I sold our artwork to dealers, who then placed them in galleries and waited for them to sell. We received payment upfront from the dealers at about 20% of the retail price. The dealer pocketed 30%, and the gallery took the remaining 50%. The dealer's cut was essentially the price of assuming the risk associated with waiting for the art to sell, or not sell at all. This model was how we were able to sell our art all over the world rather quickly.

We created a huge draw on our work, but the demand soon exceeded our production. With about 80 paintings ordered monthly, we were at our capacity. Our prices gradually increased but not enough to curb the surging demand.

From High Demand to Emotional Depletion

We clinched the title of top-selling artists for three consecutive years with the premier dealer at the New York Art Expo. Everything was going well, but John and I felt empty. We felt like art-producing machines churning out one painting after another, losing touch with the WHY behind our business.

Financially, we were flourishing but starved of time. Our life was saturated with work, leaving no room for time off to experiment and challenge ourselves artistically. We didn’t even take vacations. Deep in our hearts, we knew there was a better way. We yearned to work directly with galleries but couldn’t get off the treadmill to make extra artwork to present to them.

A New Opportunity For Artistic Transformation

Then, 2008 rolled around. The global economy crumbled, and in its wreckage, we found an unexpected opportunity to realign our art's purpose. We began developing a portfolio and inventory we could sell through galleries. Up until this point in our careers, our art was influenced by interior design and home decor. We painted to appeal aesthetically with little thought into what we were expressing, or saying, through our art, only that it had the right look. We painted mostly abstracts, abstract cities, and abstract landscapes.

One gallery caught our eye—the "Whitestone Gallery" in Philadelphia where we submitted our work to. They offered us a solo show for the entire month of July 2009. We selected 33 pieces to ship to the gallery for exhibition. The gallery owner, Susan, requested titles, descriptions for each painting, information about the overarching theme of the show, what inspires us to paint, and what our artwork is about. She wanted the information by the end of the week to begin advertising and press releases.

I felt absolutely sick! She wanted a name for the show? Blurbs on each painting? What our message was? I felt like a giant imposter – a complete fraud! Our paintings weren’t about anything. We were just painting what we felt like abstract forms, colors, lines, and texture. They were just paintings to hang on a wall to make a room look high-end and put together.

I didn’t know what to do. If I told Susan the truth, she would cancel our show. If I lied and fabricated some meaning, I was even more of a fraud. I was in complete turmoil. I felt like I had nothing to show for my last 12 years of success. My career was about matching couches and money. My art school friends were right, I had sold my soul.

Divine Design: The Hidden Messages in Our Art

"Traffic" - Mixed Media Oil Painting by Artist Couple Elli and John Milan

I was sitting in my studio at my computer, staring at this big 48x60 abstract that was supposed to go to Philadelphia. I was almost in tears, thinking about calling Susan and coming clean. I prayed and asked God for help, and to guide me to a title for this abstract. Immediately, the word “Traffic” came to mind. Yes! “Traffic” — that’s a great title.

As I looked carefully at the painting, I realized it was about the traffic between heaven and earth. I saw that these round abstract forms were like portals, opening to receive these tiny little circles that were floating up, while other larger bubbles were falling and coming down. It looked like the ascension of prayer and the descent of answers.

At the bottom of the painting was an abstract depiction of flowing water, circling around what looked like fiery lava. At the top, I could see John had faintly drawn little helicopters with angel wings, and little army men were ascending ladders and landing on some of the orbs and portals.

How did we paint the traffic between heaven and earth and not even realize it? As I looked at the other work, I saw we had painted two vertical abstract landscapes that were 36x48, and stacked right next to them was a triptych of a city that comprised two verticals of 36x48 and one 48x48. Altogether, this was an entire wall in the gallery schematics, all meeting at 48 inches tall.

I started to get goosebumps as I realized the two landscapes would flank the large city triptych, which also had the floating orbs of prayer. We called the city piece “Blessed in the City” and the landscapes, “Blessed in the Country”. I started to see all the interpretations of each painting and knew that they all meant something about the exchange between heaven and earth. We called the show, “Heaven’s Exchange”.

Unveiling the Hidden Messages in Our Paintings

Best of all, I realized there was a Divine Hand that inspired each of these paintings, infusing them with meaning without us even knowing. The creative Spirit was speaking through us. We are just conduits, responsible only for the work, but completely open and free for the Voice to speak in our paintings through color, form, and the subtle desires and inklings that led us to doodle little helicopters in pencil where only someone examining the painting closely could see them. All of these decisions, from the start, were happening according to some divine design, and we didn’t even know it.

I began to think about the thousands of paintings we had sold and created in the past years and how much meaning and messages were conveyed through them. We thought we were just matching couches, but God was speaking through the paintings.

The meanings were decipherable and understandable if you were open and listening. I was completely in awe. I put my face in my hands and sobbed with gratitude, struck by the wondrous thought that our art meant something after all. It was a complete paradigm shift for me.

A New Purpose and Vision For Our Art

Reinvigorated with this newfound insight, I got everything written and sent to Susan on time. We started packaging all of these paintings that now seemed beyond precious to us. My heart swelled at the wondrous thought of who would own these. In which house would they be placed? What city would they dwell in? How would they influence the people who saw them?

John found a super large and sturdy box in my parent’s garage. They had just bought an extra-large screen TV and kept the box. John reinforced the corners and carefully stacked paintings within paintings inside this box. The large city triptych was in this box, along with 15 other paintings.

We shipped out three boxes in total with UPS and paid extra for insurance. We could hardly wait for Susan to receive the paintings, unpack everything, and begin setting them up on the walls of the gallery that we had all to ourselves for a whole month.

But destiny had other plans. Five days later, Susan called and said, “I’m really sorry, but only 2 out of the 3 boxes arrived. The third, largest box with the majority of the paintings is missing. I called UPS, and they say they last tracked it to a warehouse in Indiana, but when they checked in the warehouse, it isn’t there.”

I was stunned! “Blessed in the City” is in that box! Desperate, I asked, “Susan, what will we do if it doesn’t turn up in the next few days? The show starts next Friday!”

Her words sent a chill down my spine: “We may have to cancel the show…”

How will the tale unfold? Find out next week in the Artist Odyssey newsletter to discover the profound impact on my career!


Share your experience in the comments below!


  • Jo Cooney

    This is so interesting! I was an intern at White Stone with Susan years ago. She helped me discover some things about myself and my art. I met a lot of artists there. I can’t wait to hear the rest of your story!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi Jo! Wow! That’s so cool! Small world.

  • Heather Beers

    NOOOOOOO! 😱 anxiously awaits next week’s newsletter
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    🤣! It’s a doozy! 😊

  • Pamela King

    I had the most profound inspiration that I knew was God speaking directly to me in guidance to create certain pieces this past year during a family members deep depression. God gave me hope where in the natural realm looked hopeless. Once the season had passed I truly saw how not only was I carried through very rough terrain, my Lord used my art to inspire my loved one & bring them peace & encouragement to keep going. Today, my loved one is in counseling & taking medication to increase his serontonin. This truly showed me, even in a shut- in type situation, how life changing our work is in the world we live. I have been an artist since a very young child & just recently have experienced the true expansion of all of me. Heart, Soul, Spirit, Body. So much I can only move forward & chase art like a child chasing a kite in the wind. My heart is set on the Mastery Program. I believe my finances will open up for the oppurtunity, which I believe, will be the oppurtunity if my lifetime. I am 53 and I want to encourage that no age is limited for the journey to begin. I appreciate all of what you have in your heart to share with the world.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Thank you for this beautiful and inspirational story. Yes! Art is so powerful and can move people very deeply and even shift something inside of them to get them on a new trajectory. I totally agree that age is irrelevant and it’s never too or too late to put commitment and effort into what you are passionate about.

  • Angie Toungate

    Wow! I can’t wait to read the continued part. Inspired by the fact that you’re spiritual. And incorporate/ express it in your paintings. Thankful to know and learn from you.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi Angie. Thank you. I think most artists have a spiritual side. 😊 A creative life and so much time in right brain land helps! 🤣

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.