If you’d told Michelle McCarthy in January 2020 what she’d be doing now, she probably wouldn’t have believed you.

At that time, the Whatcom County native and Lynden High School graduate was living in Seattle, managing a professional art gallery, and doing business development for the second-largest glass-blowing and sculpting studio in the United States.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the indefinite closure of the places where McCarthy had established herself in the world of art, she was forced to pack up everything and move back to Whatcom County.

“It was one of those real whirlwind things, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really happening,’” says the 36-year-old. “I kind of had no choice in it.”

But as 2021 inches towards a close, the longtime artist has more than found her footing again, selling paintings of adorable animals to eager online customers. In addition to a new career path as an operations manager for a local financial advisor, McCarthy has also partnered with local resident Aaron Crow to open “The Gallery at 3rd and Main,” known as G3M for short.

Former Lynden High School graduate Michelle McCarthy is bringing regional artwork to a new art gallery in downtown Ferndale. Photo courtesy Michelle McCarthy

Occupying a former bank space at 2046 Main Street, McCarthy and Crow now provide downtown Ferndale with a professional art gallery that showcases local and regional artists of various mediums.

“I don’t think it even feels real yet,” she says, of bringing an art gallery to her home community. “This is a gorgeous space. When I saw it, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pull it off, but it has to happen.’”

An Eye for Eyes

McCarthy has been an artist most of her life.

She grew up sketching and drawing people—particularly portrait and figure work—and when she was 10, her mom began getting her issues of Vogue magazine, which she loved for the portrait photography of artists like Annie Leibovitz.

A lifelong artist, McCarthy has found a financially and creatively fulfilling niche painting adorable animal portraits. Photo courtesy Michelle McCarthy

As she grew up, she took art classes and moved into working with chalk. Eventually, a teacher told her she was being too comfortable.

“Every good artist paints,” he told her. Regardless of how true the axiom was, it led McCarthy to meeting an artist at the Edmonds Arts and Crafts show when she was a teenager. This artist said to move into paint only once she’d learned how colors blended through chalk, gaining a basic understanding of how to create image depth before tackling a new medium.

Slowly, she transitioned into paint. At age 21, McCarthy moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. Becoming entranced with photosynthesis after taking a biology class, she majored in molecular developmental biology—a hard science one might not consider an artist to focus on.

McCarthy said the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in requests for pet portraiture, such as this painting of a client’s dog. Photo courtesy Michelle McCarthy

But science, McCarthy says, helps the whole world make sense, whether it’s understanding the beauty of a rainbow or how the human immune system responds to a virus.

“You just appreciate everything so much more,” she says of seeing science in the natural world. “It just made me want to paint more and be able to capture that.”

McCarthy bartended after college and painted on the side, but eventually she joined an artist’s collective that gained significant attention with pop-up shows in places like holiday markets. She moved to working in galleries, receiving contract work before a full-time jump into galleries.

As to how she wound up doing a bunch of acrylic paintings of cute animals, McCarthy points to the pandemic and how lockdowns made people want pets. During the pandemic, she began painting raccoons and foxes on pieces of wood.

As paintings sold, more inquiries came in. McCarthy started receiving commissions for portraits of people’s pets. Many clients told her they were happy to have something happy on their work desk, or a little image they could wake up to on their nightstand. Pictures of birds, otters, llamas, frogs, and numerous other creatures—often with anthropomorphic qualities—have since followed and sold.

“I always wanted to have some kind of weird expression on them,” she says. “I love that about portraits; I love that about animals. So, it became this thing of just painting adorable little creatures, and then naming them and giving them probably too-detailed backstories.”

McCarthy usually begins with a minimal sketch of an animal, ensuring it’ll properly fit on a certain canvas size. Some of the images come from actual photos, such as a painting of Rudy the Crow. The original image—of a crow pecking at the lens of a woman’s home security camera—came about after the woman kept finding marbles on her porch as a gift for leaving seeds out for the bird.

McCarthy takes several hours to several days to complete each piece and sells them through her website and social media accounts. Photo courtesy Michelle McCarthy

McCarthy pays special attention to the eyes of her animals, as the way light hits them often dictates a subject’s entire expression, she says. Paintings take from a couple hours to a couple days, depending on her busy schedule and sense of perfection.

She sells them through her website, as well as through her Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Falling into Place

As for the gallery, it came about naturally.

While looking for apartments in Ferndale, McCarthy noticed the vacant bank space and marveled at what a great location it would be for a gallery. While socializing soon after, McCarthy met Aaron Crow—another Whatcom County resident who moved back to the area after several years elsewhere. When he jokingly asked when she’d be starting up her own art gallery, she jokingly replied that it’d be when she could obtain the vacant bank space. He replied that he’d look into it—and wasn’t joking.

The new gallery, located at 2046 Main Street inside a former bank, held its grand opening on November 6. Photo courtesy Michelle McCarthy

As it turned out, the building’s owner—a Seattle resident—had just purchased the place as a long-term investment and didn’t yet have plans for tenants. The owner liked Crow’s art gallery idea, and they drew up a contract.

“Things just fell into place,” he says.

Together, Crow and McCarthy have blended their business and art savvy, respectively, to create a unique gallery (art will be showcased in two of the former bank’s vault rooms, one of which still has a vault door attached). It held its grand opening on November 6.

A combination of Seattle and local Whatcom artists already have pieces hung at the gallery, and McCarthy says she continues to make more contacts all the time. Interested artists can also apply to have their work shown at the gallery’s website.

“The reception so far has been very well,” she says. “I’m really excited.”

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