TAMPA — Five years ago, Amy Leigh Carstensen left a lucrative career with one of Florida's most prestigious law firms to paint a future on her own terms.
"I am doing two things I love," said Carstensen, now a full-time artist and part-time lawyer. "With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work."
Call her gutsy or call her crazy, but the leap has earned her entry into the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts four times, including this weekend, where she'll exhibit with 235 artists culled from 1,000 fine arts and crafts applicants.
Her oil paintings will be seen by 100,000 viewers in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday and Sunday, where nearly $75,000 will be awarded in artists' prizes.
Painting relieved the tedium of law school, said Carstensen, 40, who graduated second in her class at Stetson University College of Law in 2005. Later, working in mergers and acquisitions at Carlton Fields, she always had a canvas — or two or three — in progress at home.
"I've dabbled all my life … photography, scrapbooking," she said. "A clay project in second or third grade started out to be a penguin and ended up a yellow, misshapen pot. Nothing like what I intended it to be.
"It won a blue ribbon and I became an artist by accident."
Browsing the 2009 Gasparilla arts festival, self-taught Carstensen chatted with Atlanta artist Daphne Covington. Their conversation and eventual friendship spurred the career shift.
One year later, the festival committee awarded Carstensen an emerging artist grant and she quit the firm.
"I've been very fortunate to have been accepted in some of the top shows," she said, listing as examples Sausalito, Calif.; Denver's Cherry Creek; the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Coconut Grove art festival.
"Daphne became a great mentor and travel buddy, teaching me the ins and outs of the art show circuit."
For the Gasparilla arts festival, a three-member jury selects the seasoned artists who pay to be in the show. The entire board votes on emerging artists, who receive about $250 and a free booth. With four appearances, Carstensen's work clearly has found favor with the organization.
"Many of my friends and board members have bought from Amy," said festival vice president Ashly Anderson, explaining the dual process of acceptance, pleased at the role the board played launching Carstensen as a professional artist who now supports them.
These days, Carstensen limits her practice to estate planning and business transactions from her South Tampa home law office/studio. A subspecialty in art law developed from helping friends with gallery contracts, intellectual property and copyright issues. In 2013, she started an online business, Smockingbird, designing and sewing dresses for little girls.
"I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of practicing law and I don't see myself ever putting that aside entirely," she said.
Unlike the law, her art is unpredictable and intuitive, mostly abstracts. She works mostly in oils, multiple layers painted wet-on-wet in a strong, vibrant palette.
"Unlike some people who know what they are going to paint, I don't," she said. "I turn off my mind and see what comes out of the paintbrush, as opposed to thinking or analyzing."
She also has won awards creating monotypes, painting with water-based ink on plexiglass. Paper is placed on top and run through an etching press. The pressure of the drum transfers the ink in the opposite order than it was painted.
"There are so many variables," she said. "It's always a surprise when you pull it off the press."
Along the way, Carstensen discovered the art of travel, spending as much as 20 weeks in transit to sell her work. After the Gasparilla show, she'll pack up the "beast," a GMC van, and drive 40 hours to the La Quinta art show in Palm Springs, Calif.
"I'm kind of a roadie now," she said. "My two dogs have seat belts and they pretty much go everywhere. It's not living the dream for everybody but I really enjoy it."
So, gutsy or crazy?
"A little of both," she said, "but mostly fortunate."
Contact Amy Scherzer at [email protected]