How does a business graduate become a master of American impressionism? By taking more calculated risks and chances than many take in a lifetime, and by trusting his instincts to share one big talent on a small 5 x 7 card. W. Carl Ealy ’76 is a perfect example of how God-given talent and a lot of persistence can pay off.
Regarded as one of the most celebrated nature artists in the country, Ealy was guided in the fine arts by his father Thomas C. Ealy who was an artist and art teacher. Growing up in Charlotte, NC, Ealy was surrounded by art, including his mother Garnice Knight Ealy’s sophistication and flair as an interior designer. Annual summer trips to his family’s beach cottage in Topsail Island, near Wilmington, NC, inspired Ealy to paint sailboats and ships, birds, animals, and seascapes—an early start to perfecting his contemporary, bold color combinations.
Ealy enrolled at East Carolina in 1972. Despite his desire to major in art, Ealy choose business at his father’s encouragement. “During the Great Depression, my dad worked his way through school to get an art degree from the University of Michigan, but he insisted I should get a business degree instead of an art degree. Of course, that wasn’t the most exciting thing for me at the time, but as the years went on that business degree became incredibly valuable and I wouldn’t be able to have a successful business without it,” said Ealy.
“ECU afforded me many opportunities to stay involved with art, including visiting the art school and hanging out with lots of art students here and there. In the business school, I tended to gravitate toward advertising classes because they usually involved art and how to incorporate art into business. My advertising professor had been a big ad exec in Chicago and we did wonderful projects in his classes, like TV commercials. Those are some of my favorite memories of my time at East Carolina,” remembered Ealy. It was after college that Ealy began to paint more and more as he turned to art as a possible career, beyond that of a hobby, finding renewed inspiration in nature.
As many artists do, Ealy traveled Europe to hone his craft. He spent time in Nice, France, studied art history at the Louvre in Paris, and sketched Europe’s picturesque countryside. His free style of impressionism and masterful use of color is often compared to European masters like Claude Monet and American artist Georgia O’Keefe. “It’s a blessing to be able to paint despite many distractions with the business,” said Ealy. “I love the outdoors and nature, and that’s what my art focuses on.”
Ealy works primarily in watercolor, but uses oil on occasion. Although he paints cityscapes and beach scenes, he is best known for his single-subject paintings, such as dragonflies, butterflies, and frogs, along with sea turtles, beach birds, and solitary flowers. “If I can see it, I can paint it.” Ealy often works in miniature and has even reproduced his floral miniatures in a limited, framed series for 1,200 Target stores. He was commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC to paint ballet and opera, as well as the Center itself in all four seasons. The National Historic Preservation Trust even asked Ealy to paint a number of national historic landmarks, including Decatur House on Layette Park in front of the White House, but his work is best known on Pathway Art Cards.
“Before Philip Martz, my business partner, and I founded this company in early 1995, I would create small works of art on card-size for friends, and also donated them as invitations for local charities and fund-raising events. Once I decided to go commercial, I started painting primarily cards with coastal scenes for one Topsail Island retailer—who did not do well with the cards and was convinced that I had no talent for making cards. That was about the same time that Barnes & Noble asked me to create 16 cards for their newest bookstore in Charlotte. Several hundred cards sold so quickly, within weeks, that I was soon convinced I could go much broader, and more quickly than I initially thought.
“It was then that I took a bigger chance, in hindsight, and traveled at Philip’s advice to Washington, DC to find and open new stores in and around the Washington metropolitan area. To my surprise, I sold 8,000 cards on the first order (2,000 cards of 4 designs) to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Art in 1995. Soon thereafter, we began selling hundreds of cards monthly at Host Marriott airport shops, thanks to Teddy Hawkins, a brave gift shop manager, who took a big chance to put us in the Raleigh-Durham International Airport; from there we took flight like the Wright Brothers, and never came back to earth again, except to refuel occasionally and get our bearings.
“But over the years we’ve listened carefully to both our customers and our retailers, and evolved to the point where I now focus the card art on close-up paintings of birds, flowers, and winged creatures—those are the pieces that our loyal customer base, as well as new card buyers love to buy and always seem to sell through,” said Ealy.
Pathway Art Cards are sold nationwide, primarily in exclusive boutiques, museum shops, resorts, and botanical gardens (see the bottom of the page for a list of retailers). The Whitney Museum of Art’s Store Next Door, the New York Botanical Garden, the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the Plaza Hotel are just a few revered cultural institutions that carried Pathway Art Cards early on. But success for Ealy’s art didn’t come as easily as it might appear on the card’s surface.
“My family had a Charlotte real estate company and that’s where I worked after college for a number of years, but I felt a growing sense of urgency, if not compelled to do something with my art talents, that could be bought and shared by the public. With encouragement from family and friends, along with some skeptics and naysayers, I took an even bigger financial risk and launched myself as a card artist, before I knew I had wings strong enough to carry me.
“Then I persuaded Philip, who had apprehensions and a young family, including three children, that the combination of his evocative poetry and my paintings would make the art more meaningful to both card buyers and recipients. We had a tough go of it in the beginning, including selling our cards to retailers who had never carried cards, and competing head-to-head with older, well-established national card companies across the country.
“When you hear ‘NO’ from a retailer, it usually means ‘not today,’ especially if you believe in the power and beauty of your art to sell itself, which has been a great blessing. I have several suggestions for artists: Don’t be afraid to take repeated chances, change what you’re doing to get different results, and be committed to improving one’s art. Most important, don’t be afraid to overcome repeated rejections from those who will tell you it can’t be done,” said Ealy.
Working with the Kennedy Center gift shop was Pathway Art Cards’ first big break, as well as opening numerous stores around Washington, DC. Ealy and Martz were then able to get approved as a local interest sideline in 25+ Borders Books & Music stores. Unfortunately, when they were opening four new Borders stores in Texas, the national card and stationary buyer called from Ann Arbor to say that “all card buying would from now on be made in-house or corporately,” in spite of record card sales in Borders. Still, the art cards became a sought after commodity among letter writers, card senders, and art lovers. Pathway Art Cards have been carried and promoted in Neiman Marcus’ Horchow Catalog, Lowe’s, Plow & Hearth, and Macy’s West in both California and Hawaii, among other national chains.
Despite his success as an artist and high-profile clients, Ealy is warm, generous, approachable, and full of southern charm. He loves to regale his fans and any listeners with long-forgotten lore and enough fascinating stories about retail to fill a book. He frequently visits the stores that carry Pathway’s cards to do signings and meet with card-buying customers. “I love to have a good time in the stores with both our buyers and customers. My favorite thing about being an artist is still the love and appreciation that I get from our customers; it means so much to me to know one card design using my art positively effects others, over and over again in thousands of personalized ways.
“After 9-11, we still had two full-time showrooms in Atlanta’s AmericasMart. One afternoon as I was sitting by myself in an empty showroom and feeling sorry for myself because there wasn’t even a soul in the hallway, two older ladies suddenly appeared in the doorway, like guardian angels, and told me how much they loved my art and work on cards. They described how they routinely buy our cards from stores around Atlanta and frame them to take to cancer patients at several local hospitals. It was an incredible moment that opened my eyes and helped sharpen my focus and commitment into a passion—to play a role to serve the great good in humanity—in the midst of adversity and setbacks to both our great country and retail, specifically,” recalled Ealy.
During the late 1990’s Pathway Art Cards enjoyed significant success and was able to open five permanent showrooms in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles for large urban retailers. After retail at every level took a sustained hit following 9-11, Ealy and Martz had to make some tough decisions—to effectively change how they did business, primarily at market, and to keep growing by focusing on old-fashioned, hands-on service, to the point of approving most locations where their cards are sold.
Having spent many years traveling between East and West coasts, Ealy and Martz refocused the business on Southern states and the Mid-Atlantic region, with the exception of some of their larger urban markets. The company’s focus changed from growing piecemeal into every big city nationally, to building greater market share and a comprehensive base in every area where cards are bought—especially in the South, where people are warm, hospitable, and civil by any measurable standard. “Here in the Carolinas, for example, most people are very friendly and relaxed; our whole way of doing business is more gracious. It’s still a place where people who appreciate the finer things in life live at their own pace and try to think more highly of others than themselves. I wouldn’t trade all our card buyers and retailers for the world,” said Ealy.
Sending Pathway Art Cards is a southern tradition and rite of passage for passionate card buyers, including those who typically rely on e-mail. Ealy’s recognizable art is widely beloved and treasured by both prominent collectors and art lovers alike—especially those who regularly share the gift of beautiful art and poetry with friends and family.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND PATHWAY ART CARDS
Asheville Museum of Art
Buxton Village Books
John Dabbs Ltd.
Park Road Books
Page After Page
Elizabeth City, NC
Garden & Gazebo
Hickory Museum of Art Galleria Store
Mountain Fresh Grocer
Montreat Books & Gifts
New Bern, NC
Cameron & Co.
Cameron Museum of Art
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The Green Thumb
The Ritz Carlton Hotel
Amelia Island, FL
Palm Beach, FL
Beverly Hills, CA
Costa Mesa, CA
New York, NY
Palm Springs Museum of Art and Gardens
Palm Springs, CA
Los Angeles Natural History Museum
Los Angeles, CA
The San Diego Zoo and Botanical Garden
San Diego, CA
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Chicago Botanic Garden
The New York Botanical Garden
The Plaza Hotel
The Whitney Museum of Art
New York, NY
Museum of Art
Norfolk Botanical Garden