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Megh Knappenberger: “Making art is my happy place!”

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Megh Knappenberger’s business account was scraping the bottom with a measly 28 cents, not enough to secure even a cheap brush or pencil. But she never allowed the dreams she had painted in the bright hues of success to ever dry up. And then it happened.

The Overland Park, Kansas, artist secured a deal that would catapult her into a world that many artists long for but never achieve. A relative unknown, she was able to secure a licensing agreement to capture the icon that signals you’re in University of Kansas (KU) country. It’s a mythical, feathered creature, a cross between two common birds in the area, the sparrow hawk and the blue jay. It’s the Jayhawk, and this story of success for Megh is no myth.

“I received licensing from KU in 2016, and I am one of the only artists granted licensing from the university. I created paintings of all six Jayhawks and over time added other licensed things such as the Fieldhouse and other people who are part of the KU lore, like Dr. Naismith and Wilt Chamberlain,” noted Megh. “KU has granted me a license that means I can sell artwork that has the Jayhawk logo on it. It’s very hard to get and it’s very special. I take pride in that.”

The first Jayhawk logo was created in 1912 and has morphed five more times into the current symbol. Megh used each logo in separate large paintings. But her technique included mixing in rock chalk, which is limestone that dominates the geology of Kansas and is a popular slogan used throughout the university and the state. Megh has used this special rock chalk paint on only these original works of art. The set sold for $150,000 to one collector and big KU fan.

Over the next few years, Megh built a thriving art business. Then KU won the 2022 NCAA National Basketball Championship. “I didn’t prepare anything in advance because I’m too superstitious but when they did win, I went about getting the special NCAA licensing for the national championship. I included some of the red and blue confetti from the actual game,” she recalled. “It took me a while but I found a fan through social media who was willing to share their bag of confetti with me. I created an original painting and then limited edition prints that sold out in about one week.”

Over the last six years of the KU licensing agreement, Megh has connected with Jayhawks from all over the world. She is also using the fruits of her hard work and joy of creating to help others in the collegiate arts. When the final set of limited-edition Jayhawks, number 151, was sold, Megh used the $10,000 proceeds to seed a scholarship in the school of fine arts. Through the scholarship, students can apply for funds to replenish their supplies, which can help them stay in school. Megh says she’s fortunate to have the means to give back to her beloved KU that has given her so much. 

The studio that houses Megh Knappenberger Art is located in the West Bottoms neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. Megh and her familyhusband, Tory, seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughtercall Overland Park home. She’s been operating as a full-time artist for six years and creates work that brings delight and pleasure to those who view it.

Her creative roots go back to 2010 as a freelance designer helping clients build their brands. Eventually, she focused on the fast-casual restaurant business. But a back injury in 2016 put her into rehab and she used painting as a part of her recovery process. During that time, she realized how much she missed this segment of her creative skillset and wondered if she could devote all of her energies to painting. So she closed her design business and took a huge leap of faith.

“Making art is my happy place, and I consciously choose to paint subjects that are a part of my story in some way and bring me joy. So when I paint, they feel happy or celebratory and have depth to them,” Megh stated. “All of those things I feel about a subject are going into the piece. That’s why and how people enjoy my work because they have the connection to it that I feel. I really enjoy painting subjects that are joyful or celebratory or have a deep story to them. That’s why I’m drawn to them and I think others are as well.”

But Megh is far from fitting into the preconceived notion of a starving artist, laser-focused on the creative side but not paying attention to the business of running a business. In her mind, Megh Knappenberger Art is a company that allows her to paint, but if people aren’t buying, she’s not painting.

“The vision of what an artist spends their day doing is very romantic, but the reality of it is much like that of many other entrepreneurs. It’s running a business: accounting, marketing, administration and more. It’s not painting all day every day,” she commented. “It requires building the business up so that it has an engine that runs more constantly. The bigger that engine gets, the more time I have to paint, be creative and research.”

Her tools of the trade include acrylics, watercolors or inks for her originals. Depending on the subject, she might choose to putter with a pencil or scribble with Sharpie. Finished sizes range from small paper pieces to 5’ x 6’ canvases. While her originals are mostly done on canvas or paper, she offers print reproductions on many different material types: wood, acrylic, metal and canvas. The idea is to offer an extensive range of not only materials, but price points to fit the needs of the customers and make it their own.

“I believe the art we surround ourselves with should mean something to us. We hang up photos of families. We do that because family reminds us of our center, reminds us of a place we love. That’s what we love and value more than anything else in the world. Art can do the same thing. It can remind us of a place we love,” she said. “For instance, I’ve painted many sunflowers, which is symbolic of Kansas. Many will buy my work to give as gifts as a simple reminder of that place. We can conjure memories just in a split second when we look at art. You look at a sunflower and, if you’re a Kansan, you have this warm feeling. You remember this sense of place and remember something good. Art can be bland or it can mean something and change the entire feeling of a room or space.”

Megh considers the backstory of each work the solid foundation upon which she can create. She considers research to be the “warm-up” for her creative skillset. She calls upon reading books, listening to audio stories, music or podcasts and exploring from any angle she can to try to capture the story behind the art piece. This knowledge will guide her in how to create the piece and also the materials she will use in that creation. When complete, she will call upon her social media tools to share those learnings and the backstory.

“I want to make art that’s approachable and open-hearted. And I want to tell people about all of it. I don’t want people standing around and trying to guess,” she commented. I want them to come with me on the journey. I want them to be a part of the whole process. It’s important to me to tell the story and that it makes you feel good.”

As a successful businesswoman, Megh has years of experience to call upon to build a solid company. From what she has learned, she shares these points to help other entrepreneurs. “Take yourself very seriously, and get specific about what you want and what you need. Do the math, the numbers. What do you want your days to look like and what do you want your life to look like?”
she shared. 

“As an entrepreneur, planning should include your personal life. Don’t separate the two. I’ve been creating my business as I was creating my family. My son was only one when I started painting full time. Don’t measure success only by numbers or sales but by how you feel. Do I have quality time with family? How can I use my business to explore my passions, sell work and do what I need to do but not at the expense of my personal health and my family?”

Her accolades have been steady during the time she’s been in business, but 2022 has proven to be one she particularly enjoys. Megh was commissioned by American Century Investment to paint portraits of four KC Current soccer players as part of a program to empower and celebrate strong and independent women. She also points with pride to another project that brought her great satisfaction.

“I did a National Champions’ heart for the Parade of Hearts, the last edition, #156. It was celebrating KU’s National Championship win. At the auction, it sold at the highest price of $27,500,” she remarked. “That was a big deal. It’s a unique position and I want to celebrate that those things happened at nearly the same time, but not intentionally. I was proud to be a part of the Parade
of Hearts.”

To make it in this world, artists must not only be creative but also serious business people, constantly learning better ways to create better art. But Megh also points out that the community has a responsibility to creative people as well. “Artists move our culture forward, creating new ideas and helping people think differently about places, people and things. It’s important for our society to take care of creative people and artists.”

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