Art the Way You Want It: Q&A with Bespoke Artists

Art by Ruth Cisse

Art by Ruth Cisse

If art represents how the artist feels about a subject, the most personal and meaningful art is art you create yourself. If you’re not an artist, bespoke art can achieve the same goal. This goes beyond decor and into the realm of art made with your message.

Max Luxe spoke with two New York City-based artists, Lisa Waltuch and Ruth Cisse, who specialize in working with clients to design custom pieces.

Ruth Cisse

– How long have you been making custom art?

While completing my BFA in Drawing and Painting at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design in 2001, I became fascinated by the connection between art and wellness. I also delved deeply into the study of the Hebrew alphabet and its symbolic meaning as part of understanding my own heritage. I researched cross-cultural symbols and visual traditions to understand the role of the artist in society and to find how I could create art in a meaningful way.

I came across the art of the ancient mandala, which psychologist Carl Jung used as a tool for repairing fragments of the psyche. A mandala is a radial, symmetrical, circular design used cross-culturally for meditation and representation of sacred themes. As the daughter of a father who was an ER doctor turned psychiatrist and a mother who was a physical therapist turned holistic counselor and Kabbalah teacher, I knew that the intricate connection between the mind, body, and spirit was something that I wanted to explore.

I began interviewing people in my community to make Custom Fine Art, often with a focus on mandalas. Like a portrait that sees into the multi-faceted world beneath and beyond the surface of the skin, I asked people to share with me their goals for health and wellness in all aspects of their life, along with colors, symbols, scenes from nature, flowers, trees, traditions, design aesthetics, and anything else that brought meaning to their lives. By giving them a work of art with a personal intention, it could help them to focus on what they wanted to create in their lives. I began writing notes to each client, explaining the symbolism and how it applies to accompany each custom piece. I am very much inspired by people’s stories and strive to reflect back to them their best selves, the innate beauty of their human experience with each shadow and light representing the bigger “picture,” or painting of their lives.

Over the past year, I have also begun to incorporate custom jewelry created from a detail of a client’s painting along with gemstone beads and charms. This allows them to wear it close to their body as a comforting reminder of their special goals and dreams.

– What sort of art do you do as custom pieces?

In addition to interviewing individual clients, I really love collaborative custom art. I recently worked on a custom piece with a local Girl Scout troop, where they helped me tear and collage handmade paper around a painting of a sunflower that they had planted on the roof of their school. Much of the cafeteria food is planted, grown, and harvested by the kids. The finished piece is hanging in Chop’t Creative Salad Company in Upper East Side Manhattan to show the connection between community building and delicious food.

I also loved working with a local family when they moved into a beautiful new Upper East Side apartment. After seeing my work as chair of children’s art with their school’s annual auction, they asked me to create a handmade paper collage with their children. Choosing greys and teals to reflect their color scheme, with other accenting shades of handmade paper, they wanted it to feel calming yet energizing, while strengthening their family’s bond. We had a blast working with their 2 year-old and 7 year-old, tearing and collaging the paper on a large canvas. I pulled it together visually at the end, and we put each family member’s handprint with their name and the date on the back.

I wound up creating a second oil-based colored pencil drawing of a banyan tree with the many twists and layers of branches and roots symbolizing the strength and beauty of their family tree. We are currently working on a 3rd Mark Rothko-inspired oil-painting to bring a vivid pop of color to their grey walls.

Another special piece was commissioned by a client for the 70th Birthday celebration of her aunt who had lost her twin sister (the client’s mother) 20 years ago. In addition to celebrating her milestone, it also was to commemorate and honor her sister’s life and passing. My client wrote a beautiful poem about her mother as her butterfly that we incorporated into the note explaining the symbolism. When she spoke of her mother, a butterfly often landed on her, so the painting was filled with beautiful butterflies in flight. Her aunt was deeply touched by the love and connection the painting held as a reflection of her family’s story.

– What’s the most unusual request you’ve had from a client?

One time, my neighbor, who was a grad student, wanted to give a special gift to her professor upon the completion of their research on Greek and Roman History. She asked me to draw a paused scene from a black and white film where a woman was pleading with a Roman emperor who was about to throw her to the serpents. A portrait of the student and her professor watching this scene was to be inserted in the background architecture. This was quite a bizarre request, and I would’ve loved to have seen the professor’s reaction!

– What do you charge?
A custom painting starts at $450 for a 12×12 canvas. Prices are determined based on a personal interview where size, special requests, and materials are discussed. I require half down at the start of the piece and half upon completion. A mid-session review can be scheduled to make sure the client is happy with the direction of the piece. My medium is mixed media and can combine any of the below mediums or could use just a single medium: oil-based colored pencil, black and white pencil drawing, acrylic or oil paint, tree-free Japanese handmade paper, and Swarovski crystals. Custom jewelry based on a detail of a painting with gemstones can be created for an additional charge, starting at $75.

– Why do clients want custom art?

Clients want art that they can deeply connect to on a personal level, that holds the heart and soul of their family traditions, that makes them feel peaceful after a long day at work because it has their chosen colors or symbols, and that gives vibrancy, life, and energy to their goals and dreams.

I see beauty in each person’s story and all that they have overcome to be the person they are today. I see beauty in the flaws, the struggles, the losses, and the pain as well as in the strengths, the victories, and the joys. To be able to support someone on their journey through life by enriching their visual space with a painting that holds special meaning is truly my privilege and pleasure.

A family crest created by Lisa Waltuch.

A family crest created by Lisa Waltuch.

Lisa Waltuch

– What’s your background?

I have a background in graphic design and creative direction, a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design. I have worked with interesting clients including technology CEOs, Ivy League professors, and even a Sudanese refugee who was the subject of a bestselling book. I have done work all over the US and in Europe and most recently exhibited in Miami during Art Basel.
– What sort of art do you do?

My custom pieces are inspired by the people who commission them and can take any form including a sculpture, a book, a film, an installation, a performance, a garden, a piece of furniture, or a more traditional two-dimensional piece of art that can be hung on a wall.

My exploratory process with my clients guides the choice of medium. Typically I work through a few directions with my clients until we settle on a medium and a concept. Once the idea is finalized, I find the right artisans to collaborate with to execute the piece.

– What’s the most unusual request you’ve had from a client?

One of my clients asked me to create a visual and aesthetic representation of a decade’s worth of genealogy research. He and his father had spent years researching six generations of their family history, contacting relatives, working with a genealogist, visiting graveyards, and searching for documents. At the end of this personal odyssey, they came to me to commemorate their efforts. We re-designed their family crest, made two family fonts, a family tree and a hand-made, hand-bound book that chronicles every person in their family tree.

– What do you charge?

Since the projects are so customized the charges depend on the scope, collaborators and materials for the project and can be in the range of $10,000 to $100,000.
– Why do clients want custom art?

My clients aren’t looking for custom art per se; they are looking for a piece or experience that tells a personal story. The focus on the personal always produces powerful emotions in my clients. This is art that goes beyond the aesthetic and investment value and to something that becomes a revered and meaningful keepsake.