Follow Your Interests Wherever They Lead!
Growing up in suburban Maryland, I had a lot of pressure to excel in school and bring home good grades, but had so little interest in the material that I struggled to learn, and my performance was disappointing.
In hindsight, I suppose that was the first evidence of an artistic temperament bubbling up. Forcing myself to learn, because my teacher and father wanted me to, wasn’t working. At age 14, I remember being alone in my room, trying hard to read the books, but my mind refused to absorb the words on the page.
Recently I had changed schools, from Bullis to Landon, which was more advanced, and as always, I was behind in my studies trying to catch up. Feeling totally overwhelmed, I had reached my breaking point. Whatever I’m doing is not working, I thought. Something’s got to change!
Rebel by Nature
A rebel by nature, love for girls, beer and marijuana soon over-powered my love for sports, music, and of course …. school. About the same time, my parents split up, my mother moved away with my two youngest brothers, and I chose to stay in town with my father, his girlfriend (later wife) and one brother in a rented house in Rockville,MD.
Dad hired an older Pakistani gentlemen, who was pursuing an advanced degree in America, to cook, clean and chauffeur us around, while dad tended to his DC law practice and girlfriend. I was still in 10th grade, and mainly occupied playing guitar, drinking beer, smoking pot, chasing girls and flunking out of school.
Although I have many entertaining memories of teaching ‘Moine’, our Pakistani Manny, about American culture, which primarily consisted of pretty young ladies, beer and pot, a shouting match with my father eventually ensued, which ended the party, and with tears in his eyes, he showed me the door. I was not yet 17, and penniless.
On My Own
Browsing the classified section of Washington Post, I found an $80 month attic room for rent in a house with many interesting characters, took a job as a trainee shoe salesman/stock boy for $3.10 hr, minimum wage at the time, and occasionally had dinner with my father on Sundays. My new found freedom was exhilarating, though I quickly learned that my income provided only peanut butter/ jelly sandwiches, an uncomfortable bed to sleep in, and worries that I was headed down a tough road!
My father was an entrepreneur at heart, and given my limited education and skills, he encouraged me to get my own business going. What could I do? I thought I could start a cleaning business, so I solicited my best beer drinking buddy to join me, ran an ad to offering window cleaning services, and American Cleaning Company was born. Before long we had an old work van, and had expanded to offer carpet and floor cleaning. I believe we would have done well if it weren’t for the fact that I was drinking a six pack of beer every night, had no interest in the cleaning business, and my work habits and motivation were severely lacking.
Over a six pack of beer one night I remember pondering, what if I dont succeed in the cleaning business? I knew I wasnt giving it my best effort, and the thought of living to the ripe old age of 50 and possibly having to seek employment as a janitor someday sufficiently frightened me into getting out of the business. Of course, the thought of quitting drinking and working hard at growing the business didnt seem to be an option. The idea of learning a skill was appealing. The electrical trade seemed like it would be interesting, offered more prestige than janitorial work, and offered job security!
Learn A Trade Young Man
The words I heard, “Learn a trade young man. Nobody can take that away from you! ” was running through my mind, so I filled out an application at WK Trunnell Co and was immediately hired, again, for minimum wage, $3.10 hr, as an electrician’s helper. This was my first experience working with my hands around construction workers and contractors and I liked the blue collar folks and the work. My only problem, and it was a big one, was that I was not a morning person. I was a musician at heart, that played in clubs occasionally on weekends, and struggled to get on an early schedule.
After my first six months, I was rewarded with a 10 cent an hour raise, fairly standard for a high school drop-out, beginner, non-union, electrician’s helper in 1973. I’m broke, but at least I’m my employer wants me, and someday I’ll have a valuable skill and my own business.
Hoping to get over my sleep problem, I stuck with it, and for several years I woke up with beer hangovers at 5am with only about 5 hours sleep every night. It was brutal! Quite often I was working 7 to 3:30pm, and having to wake by 5. Mornings were consistently uncomfortable, and even after 4 years in the trade, I never could get used to sleeping on an early schedule.
During this time, I was not happy with my work which led me to drink more. I married a lady who loved to drink beer too, as well as take drugs. In a short time, after partnering with Beth, I was a mess, and had hit rock bottom. I sought help for my alcohol and drug use, but she wanted to continue drinking. We had no children, or much keeping us together, so I left, got a divorce. We had been together a total of about two years.
At the ripe age of about 24, I was single again, sober, a fairly skilled electrician, but looking for a new career. After looking into the possibility of starting my own electrical business, licensing requirements were 8 years in the trade, and Maryland regulation was stifling. On a scale of 1-10, I would rate my interest in the trade only about 5, and when combined with the stifling regulation and early construction sleep schedule, I found myself looking for a career change.
Guitar was my true passion back then. I had been playing since I was eight, and playing guitar and singing on the weekends suited me much better than construction work, so I began focusing on a music career. As half of the Lovett & Moran guitar/singing duo, at one point, we were working 3 to 4 nights a week, even receiving a paid gig in the Virgin Islands working 5 nights a week for a month. As a single young guy with no dependents, I was working a more suitable schedule, doing work I enjoy and making enough money to get by.
Although I love making music, I knew that my talent was not exceptional enough to be financially secure, or raise a family. I had no interest in developing the business side of the music business either, and once again, I felt like my career had reached a dead end with no solution in sight.
Mother of Children
In the meantime, this single, sober, electrician, who was playing music full time, met a really great young lady, my wife to be, and mother of my children, Laurel. A strong attraction quickly brought us together in 1983, we got married in 1985, and still going strong. She’s the love of my life. My rock. Stuck through thick and thin with me.
Not drinking, and my only work consisted of playing music a few nights a week, left me with plenty of free time to go back to school. I had previously managed to get my GED, thinking that someday I’ll continue my education. I do everything backwards. My dad says Im a late bloomer. What’s next? Ah yes. Computers! I enrolled in Capital Institute of Technology in Kensington, MD full time for six months. This experience led me to enroll in the University of Maryland working toward a computer engineer major.
University of Maryland
First, I had to take high school algebra again, with no credit, to get up to speed. I spent all my time studying, mostly math, and within a few years I had completed all the computer engineering calculus courses, with a B average. Of course, I was taking other UMD accredited science and business courses at the same time, but came to the conclusion it was taking me too long, at my age (mid 20’s), to get up to speed to complete the computer engineering curriculum within a reasonable time frame, therefore I needed to adjust my career goals once again. I completed my bachelor degree at UMD in business and science, and with my new college degree and new found confidence, decided to pursue commercial real estate.
Married, with no children, and keeping my expenses low by living in my mother-in-law’s home, I took a 100% commission, commercial real estate sales job at the Kenneth H Michael Companies. I remember putting on that suit and tie, strapping on that brief case, and initially feeling like an imposter. I felt like an electrician, musician posing as a commercial real estate guy. In any case, I took quite a few real estate courses, passed multiple exams, and partnered with experienced commercial real estate agents, spending all my time cold calling clients and trying to set up meetings. I worked very hard at putting together small deals, to get some income rolling in, and it worked.
I wasnt making a lot but I was closing small deals, earning money, learning, and developing my commercial real estate skills.
Children Coming – Commercial Real Estate
My commercial real estate career was starting to blossom, and my wife informed me that she was pregnant and that it was time to move out of her mother’s home. Laurel’s mother, Jean, treated me like a king. I loved her very much, and it was so comfortable living in her beautiful Bethesda home that I didn’t want to leave! Heeding my wife’s instructions, I reluctantly moved out with her into our own little apartment, and we prepared for the birth of our son, Taylor, in 1988.
My wife, Laurel, was working part-time for my brother, who was involved in preparing cellular phone applications with my father, while I was working in commercial real estate. In those days, cellular licenses were issued through applications chosen by a government lottery, and we were fortunate enough to reap a financial gain as a result of my wife’s work.
Cellular Gains – Mortgages
Now with funds in hand, and a desire to start my own business, I began researching opportunities related to the real estate work that I had been engaged in. I was studying buy/sell real estate strategies, and became fascinated with the debt side of the business. A sharp mortgage note entrepreneur captured my attention, and because I already had a fairly good real estate background to help understand this business, I jumped in. This guy, Jay Turner, later turned out to be a crook. He burned investors for millions and was went into hiding, occasionally coming out to give a seminar, only to burn a few more unsuspecting, novice, investors. I have no idea whatever happened to him. I managed to learn quite a bit without getting burned or burning anyone.
My experience with high yielding real estate secured notes with Jay Turner led me to seek employment with a reputable licensed mortgage broker. As I did in commercial real estate, I took a commission from the mortgage business I brought in, and learned from the owner of the business and other mortgage brokers. We were mainly doing refinances and higher interest equity loans. I learned enough that within a couple of years I had my mortgage brokers license and had my own little mortgage shop …. I called it American Federal Mortgage. I had a small office on Rockville Pike and specialized in high interest equity real estate loans. Sometimes I brokered loans, other times we closed mortgages in our name. I invested my own money, loaning it to borrowers, secured by real estate, and collected payments. In addition, I had developed relationships with individual investors and closed loans in their names and collected a broker fee.
I did very well in the mortgage business and had a great deal of steady income coming in, and rarely if ever took a loss. I took a couple loan officers and a processor on board and even began doing some Fannie Mae mortgages, but once again, I noticed the regulators hovering like vultures. We didnt do anything wrong, but I felt stifled. I remember trusting one of my loan officers to do his paperwork properly, and long after he left, the regulators came in and fined me because a piece of paper was missing from his file. I felt vulnerable, and I did not want this responsibility anymore.
My phone used to ring off the hook from people needing small loans, and we were not setup to handle this business. Real estate secured loans needed to be at least $10,000 and they were a lot of work. Upscale suburban pawnshops were taking centerstage around the country at the time. Many upscale national chains were doing well and I found it interesting. Growing bored of the mortgage business, and with all these folks calling for small loans, the upscale pawnshop business caught my attention.
I was sitting on a lot of cash (for me, not for Donald Trump), was bored of mortgages, lots of folks were calling for small loans, and I was fascinated with the upscale pawnshop business, so I jumped in. Did my usual routine. Researched, studied, talked to people, learned about the licensing, met people in the business, and rented a little retail space that I could afford near my suburban home. American Pawnbrokers in Frederick, MD was born. I set it up as cheaply as possible and hired an experienced pawnbroker. This was kind of a test and I was a novice. In a short period of time, I was having much more fun with this business, so I closed my mortgage business doors, retained servicing the mortgage loans I had on the books, and delved full time into my new passion ….. the pawn business.
I was learning about diamonds, Rolexes, gold, jewelry, guns and musical instruments. We even took in art, cars and even had a monster truck once! Never a dull moment. It was always exciting to see what would walk in the door from day to day. We all got into security, had cameras, guns and even dogs sometimes. I enjoyed the business, and working with my employees so much, that as soon as I felt the business was paying for itself, I opened a new one. At one point I had three locations …. Frederick, Rockville and Gaithersburg.
One of the biggest challenges with this business was trying to keep track of everything. We had computer software, and of course everything had to be documented, held for a time, and the documentation sent to the police, but the stuff came in faster then we could get rid of it, and it was very hard keeping the stores looking nice. They tended to quickly feel unorganized and dirty, kind of like a junk shop. I fought very hard trying to keep track of all the inventory, but there were just too many small transactions with inventory coming in fast, but slow to sell.
After a few years of focusing on suburban pawnshops, my interest was waning, and we weren’t making enough money to make it worthwhile. Sitting in a pawnshop one day, I asked myself how can I get away from this multitude of miniscule pawnshop transactions? It dawned on me that vintage guitar values have steadily increases for years. They seemed to follow the real estate market, and guitars are easier to buy, sell or loan against than real estate, and a lot more fun too! I had dabbled in vintage guitars a bit, always done well and really enjoyed playing them. Vintage guitars may be the answer to increasing transaction size, and may be the spark I need to get out of bed in the morning!
From that day forward, while my guys were taking in $50 pawns, I was sitting in the back searching through Vintage Guitar publications, negotiating with sellers, and purchasing high end, original 1950’s, 1960’s Stratocasters, Telecasters, Les pauls, and old Martins. American Vintage Guitar was born. Somehow, the word ‘American’ always worked it’s way into my business names 🙂
I purchased only vintage guitars that I loved, then created professional presentations to sell them. I usually held the instruments for 3-6 months waiting for the right buyer, and because they were steadily going up in value, it worked out very well. At the peak of my vintage guitar dealing, I was selling rare guitars and amps to celebrities such as John Mayer and actor Steven Seagal. I remember selling an original pre-CBS, 1960’s twin reverb amp to a guy in New York named John Mayer. My 16 year old son, who was looking over my shoulder as I prepared the paperwork, asked ‘Is that the famous guy dad ?’ I told him I had no idea. At the time, I was not familiar with Mayer. I told my son Taylor, ‘All I know is that his name is John Mayer, he lives in Time Square, he’s very young, and he has a lot of money. Taylor said, ‘That’s him!”
Later I sold Mayer another amp as well as a rare 1960’s custom color Gold strat. I also had a 1950’s custom color strat that John was very interested in, so he offered me a couple of backstage passes to his concert in Virginia and invited me to meet him after the show. Mayer had a huge following of teenage girls, and he was just starting to get into playing Hendrix and the blues. His fans were too young to know who Hendrix was, and I thought for certain that he would lose his fan base if continued down that path. I was wrong.
In any case, John Mayer was just beginning to exhibit signs of an extreme guitar talent soon to blossom. When my buddy, Keith Lanzoni, and I were visiting Mayer after his Virginia concert, and after John returned from his shower and changed his clothes, amidst a crowd of screaming young lady admirers peering outside the gate, John, Keith and I discussed guitars. I almost died when Keith told John that I was a monster guitar player! The frugal, John Mayer ended up low balling me, so I kept the strat, and ended up selling it a year later for 3 times the money that Mayer was willing to pay me. John and I haven’t spoken since.
I continued buying and selling a couple million dollars worth of vintage guitars and amps until the market finally went south with real estate in 2007.
In 1998, bored and sedating my creativity with alcohol and drugs, I hit bottom again. Realizing that the pawnshops were not profitable enough to be worth the headache, I began closing them down, and at the admonition of my wife, I entered into an alcohol and drug recovery program on 10/4/1998, and, by the grace of God, been clean and sober ever since. My daughter, Braeden, was 6 and my son, Taylor, was 10. This marked the beginning of a new life.
With plenty of assets and cash at my disposal, once again clean and sober, pawnshops winding down, servicing some portfolio mortgages, vintage guitars doing well, I discovered a new passion, and as always, jumped in with both feet.
Sober with an Artistic Passion
On my beautiful daughter’s eighth birthday, in 2000, my wife instructed me to get art supplies for Braeden’s party. I came home from the art supply store with watercolor paint, canvases and brushes for all the little girls, sat down at the table with my daughter and her friends, and we all began to paint. Minutes later, the girls finished, jumped up from the table and left the room, but I continued painting, and painting, until this day, some 17 years later.
I had found a new love, a new passion, that seemed to be a vital part of my recovery from alcohol and drug abuse. My new creative expression was healing, and I thought it may be a source of income someday in retirement. So I invested all of my time for several years into oil painting. I studied under mentors, enrolled in classes, practiced, became a regular at local live figure painting groups.
“Re-Invention” Oil Painting for a Living?
My first couple of years were devoted to landscape impressionism, followed by realistic figure and portrait painting which has continued to this day. I participated in shows, joined artist societies, set up a couple of studios outside my home, distributed my paintings through various galleries throughout the united states. I created my own artist website, Mark Lovett Studio, won awards, sold paintings, and eventually landed a well known New York gallery, Rehs, to handle all my paintings.
Read the full story, “Re-Invention” , Painting His Way Out of A Corner, a Bethesda Magazine article by Adrienne Messeca
I started selling my paintings for $2,500, and after many years, they eventually were selling at the New York gallery usually between $12k-$15k. Some sold the first day, others were slow to sell. Teaching oil painting by live streaming online was an activity that I enjoyed for a while. I had several good students, who kept me company while I painted, and I loved their friendship as well. As much as I loved their company, it seemed a bit distracting from my purpose of creating world class art so I set the teaching aside.
One of my highlights was presenting Gregg Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band, a painting that I created of his brother, Duane, performing live. I’m Gregg’s biggest fan!. What a great person he is.
My interest in creating spec paintings for galleries declined because sales were too unpredictable. We needed a more steady, and reliable income. Portrait painting by commission seemed like the best way to go. I have clients that occasionally pay me $20k to $25k to create an oil painting for them. One of my most memorable commissions was painting the Mona Lisa exactly like the original in the Louvre. I wrote an extensive Mona Lisa article documenting my process, which receives about 400 views every month.
Financial Reality Sets In
From about 1996 to 2005 we were living an expensive lifestyle with a big Potomac home, an inground pool in the backyard, kids in private school, my wife was a full time homemaker, two new cars in the garage. The money was going out much faster than it was coming in, and my oil painting, as a business to support a family with a lavish lifestyle, wasn’t cutting it. I considered myself semi-retired, but the cash flow situation could not continue like this forever.
Time to downsize. We cashed out of our big beautiful Potomac home, and moved into a smaller, more modest home, cutting our monthly expenditures in half. The photography that I had been developing as a resource for my painting seemed like a new potential source of income for the family that was closely related to my art. It made sense, that we needed to have an affordable product to sell in addition to our very expensive paintings.
New Source of Income – Portrait Photography
Learning and becoming a successful portrait photographer was next on the agenda. It used much of the same skills and mindset as my portrait painting. Portrait photography, like portrait and figure painting was about light, shadow, color, posing and composition. I had been using professional Nikon cameras and lenses for several years so I was positioned to pick it up quickly. I immersed myself into portrait photography books, tapes, courses, associations, online memberships, local meetups, mentorships, and got up to speed quickly.
I worked as an assistant for a few pro wedding photographers, then started out shooting a few low budget weddings. I created my own photography website at Mark Lovett Photography, and began marketing my portrait photography service. Over a several year period, I was the lead photographer in dozens of weddings, and have photographed thousands of people and families in my business. My two car garage was sacrificed and converted into a photography/art studio, and I use it on a regular basis to photograph clients, as well as photograph clients on location.
I was introduced to the pageant photography market, and have enjoyed photographing Miss Maryland and Miss Maryland Teen USA pageant contestants for several years. With the increase in social media and websites, an increased demand for business portraits led me to create Bethesda Headshots, and focus more on corporate portrait photography. Since that time, my business has expanded to include editorial photography for magazines as well.
During the development of my oil painting and photography businesses, I needed quite a bit of web work. Initially I turned to my genius, web engineer son, Taylor, who was building websites for contractors at the age of 16. Taylor helped me get started learning to build websites. After all, I graduated from Capital Institute of Technology, and studied engineering calculus in college with the hopes of becoming a computer guy someday, so it’s time I learn to do my own web work.
My son, Taylor, did a masterful job creating my first vintage guitar website. It was amazing. He created little sound bytes of my guitar playing that would play when the user clicked a button! I was so proud of him. Everyone was blown away by the quality, creativity, and Taylor’s young age when he created it. Code changed, it became out of date, and unfortunately it wasnt worthwhile trying to maintain it, so it’s gone.
About 2006, I had been dabbling in web work, learning from my son, who encouraged me to learn WordPress when it first came out, and working on my own websites. I had been using Photoshop for several years in my photography business, and given my art background, I was interested in becoming a graphic designer. In between oil painting and portrait photography, I purchased the Adobe Photo suite and began studying Lynda.com online videos learning popular graphic design software such as Illustrator and In-Design. After about a year of study and graphic design practice, I began looking for freelance graphic design work.
Since much of print work had gone online, it seemed that every potential client wanted a graphic designer who could code. I initially was hesitant to start down that path, but determined that some HTML and CSS couldnt hurt, so once again, I was back to Lynda.com watching videos on HTML, CSS and WordPress. I eventually became convinced that to learn coding was the way to go, and I enjoyed it, so I was all in.
I passed online coding exams and joined web developer freelance websites, all the while soliciting and doing web work for clients and my own business sites. Since 2006 I’ve been steadily tweaking and maintaining WordPress websites for clients, building sites from scratch, and even worked at RP3 Web Agency in Bethesda with a team of developers and graphic designers on some major client websites.
The creation and marketing of my own web design business site at marklovettdesign.com occupied a great deal of my time, and I developed an extensive web portfolio of client web work. Some of my latest web clients include a major eCommerce site for a College Logo Gameroom Co, a satellite engineering company site, a fitness site, a kitchen and bath design site etc.. Most of my client sites that I maintain are hosted on my fast siteground.com server.
My two wonderful children are grown, on their own, and doing so well in spite of me. I’m a very proud dad! Now it’s just my wife, Laurel, our little Cairn terrier, Riley, and me, living in our modest home, with minimal expense. My time is spent painting an occasional commision oil portrait, portrait photography, and web development/digital marketing. I work for myself, mostly from home, and I enjoy what I do for a living very much.
Aside from earning a creative, self-employed living doing what I love, I’m blessed with a loving family, wife, children, siblings, parents, nieces, nephews, and most of them live nearby so we can stay in touch, and be there for each other.
Last but not least, as a recovering alcoholic/addict myself , who’s been clean and sober for almost 18 years now, I work with other alcoholics/addicts, helping them with their recovery. Helping others recover, and find a new wonderful life as I did, is perhaps the most rewarding part of life now.
Life is good!
Follow your interests wherever they take you.