Meeting Marla for the first time you would never guess that this successful watercolorist traded a lucrative career in finance for the sake of her creative muse and family harmony. Now the risk she took seems like the right decision but at the time it was far from a sure bet. How did Marla make the transition from high-heels and power suits to paint brushes and canvases?
Marla entered the predominantly male investment business directly after receiving her MBA from Boston University in the early 1980, joining the ranks of a small institutional investment banking firm specializing in emerging growth companies. She stepped up to the challenge with gusto, grew fabulous accounts, and became a star on the team. Marla was young, smart, and passionate about her work.
During that time, Marla met her soul mate, Jim, who also worked in the investment business. After Marla and Jim married in 1983, they traveled, shared a multitude of adventures and after six years of work and play decided to start their family.
Fortunately Marla’s pregnancy went well and she gave birth to a beautiful daughter, Anna. Marla loved being a mother, yet she also longed to return to the excitement of her work. Three months after Anna’s birth, Marla hired a nanny and rejoined her career in the investment business.
Motherhood marks the beginning of major changes
Marla found that balancing motherhood and her job left her feeling polarized. Everything in her life shifted with the birth of Anna. Leaving her little girl in the morning was difficult and managing a succession of nannies was complicated. She felt both grateful and resentful for the nannies that took turns living in her home, caring for her precious daughter.
Marla had created a fabulous niche for herself in Boston’s financial circles. She did not feel ready to walk away from the professional status she had worked so hard to create. When Marla decided to work part-time in an industry that seldom allowed for anything but total commitment, she brought enough value to her firm that the partners agreed to this special arrangement.
Returning to work presented challenges, particularly fitting in while having a unique work schedule. Marla did exceptionally well in institutional sales, at least as well as many of the full-time employees. At home she had her beautiful little family. Still, Marla began to feel alienated, as she did not have a sizable support system of female colleagues or close friends she relied on. She was perpetually torn about her choices. When she was at work, she missed being with Anna and when she was with Anna she missed the action of her job.
Despite her inner conflict, she continued working. Almost four years later Marla gave birth to Michael. She told me, “My life was suddenly turned upside down.” For the first time in their married lives, she and Jim faced some challenges. As Marla explained, “Jim’s work life hardly changed at all with the birth of Anna or Michael and mine had become complicated and chaotic. I had to make so many adjustments, being the mother. I knew it wasn’t Jim’s fault. It just didn’t seem fair, so sometimes I would feel angry and resentful. It was difficult being pulled in so many directions. I just did not know what to do.”
Although Marla stayed with her job for another six years, the situation took its toll. She struggled with giving up the intellectually stimulating people and the high-powered, financially rewarding environment. She was stymied by a lack of outlets to vent her frustrations and not enough time to pursue activities for herself. Then just as Marla was about to turn forty, she discovered her father had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. In addition, with her children older (Anna was 10 and Michael was 6), she felt she was nearing a time when it would be important for her to be more present, especially as the children approached middle and high school. She also wanted to further explore her creative aptitude for painting.
“It wasn’t from guilt that I decided to leave work, it was that in my heart I knew I needed and wanted to be around my family. I wanted every moment possible with my father and wanted more time with my children.” With Jim’s support, Marla left her corporate career.
Family and art become the focus
Marla knew her resignation would be a big change, but she was not prepared for the isolation that was to come. At the local school and community meetings, she felt disconnected. All the women seemed to be talking about their respective play groups, the politics of the school system, or fundraising events. They used a vocabulary that was unfamiliar to Marla. “I just didn’t share the same experiences. The women seemed to be good friends and very involved in each others lives. There was also a big part of my life that I couldn’t talk about with them. I had lost a huge part of my identity.”
She spent more time with her parents and children. Her life was good, although there were moments when she missed the independence of her corporate career. Marla had not built many close relationships outside of her work environment and did not have an extensive support system revolving around her family.
Not too long after the devastating loss of her father, Marla delved more deeply into her painting. She had always loved to paint, but now she felt she could devote herself to this passion. The time had come for Marla to actively pursue one of her untapped aptitudes and build new relationships.
It took about three years to adjust from the bawdy trading room to the quiet existence of suburban life. Her children became the center of her world and flourished in school, sports, and their own friendships. Marla began painting more, yet her sense of where she belonged was still hazy, except when her children were home or when she was taking one of her watercolor classes.
Marla joined a cooperative gallery where she met a large group of local artists. Friendships emerged and as she became more drawn in to this small community, her commitment to painting blossomed. Enlivened by her immersion into art, Marla embraced the opportunity to learn and grow.
Marla entered juried competitions and earned a membership into the New England Watercolor Society. At first showing her work intimidated Marla. The potential rejection and judgment was daunting. In time Marla went from being an unknown artist without a resume to winning numerous awards and prizes for her watercolor paintings. The awards came even before her sense of confidence began to shift.
Marla succeeds in her transition
For some time, Marla still secretly struggled with the identity issues that came with giving up her successful corporate career and finding her aptitude in an entirely different arena. She went from newbie art student, soaking in the challenges of this unfamiliar learning curve, to participating in showings of her paintings.
In time Marla moved into the role of teacher and began helping other emerging artists. Eventually she found her way to a leadership role in the art world, serving as President of the New England Watercolor Society. Marla began speaking about her journey as an artist and her work in a variety of venues.
Initially, Marla’s transition from the corporate world to home life had felt lonely and frustrating without a cohesive support system to encourage her growth and development. Step by step she found a way to achieve balance in her relationships, in her role as a mother and as a woman infused with talents, dreams, and passions.
Marla continues to grow and inspire others to reach their potential artistically. She continues to win awards and her work can be seen at exhibits around the country. For more information about Marla’s extraordinary work, visit her website marlagreenfield.com