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NM’s Great Resigners
Did you leave your job in 2021? If so, you certainly aren’t alone. Nationwide, there were 68.1 million layoffs, resignations or other separations across the country over the previous 12 months, the highest figure on record for a single year. In many ways, people leaving their jobs for higher pay, more flexibility, or a higher calling proved to be the dominant business story of last year. As a new year begins, the Journal will be posting stories throughout January from New Mexicans who left their jobs to follow their dreams or build new ones.
Chris Easley has worn a lot of hats in his 47 years.
Growing up in California, he played football and studied history at the University of California, Berkeley. Since graduation, he’s been a loan officer, a law clerk and, for nearly 15 years, a teacher in Oklahoma and New Mexico.
But Easley described those jobs as being first and foremost a means to an end, allowing him to pursue his true passion: landscape and abstract paintings.
“Everywhere that I’ve ever gone, I’ve just been painting and trying to find an odd job to support my habit,” Easley told the Journal.
But now, the odd job and the habit are one and the same. Easley gave notice at La Cueva High School in October, where he taught art last semester, and plans to make a living selling his paintings.
It was a long-awaited change.
“A weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I saw the light at the end of the tunnel,” Easley said. “And I was liberated from all the stress.”
It wasn’t until pandemic restrictions began to abate that Easley realized how much teaching had been frustrating him. When 21st Century Public Academy, a charter middle school in Albuquerque where he was teaching at the start of the pandemic, went remote, Easley taught art class virtually, and suddenly found himself with more free time to paint at home than he was accustomed to.
“I was not only productive, but I was getting somewhere where it was starting to get really good,” he said.
By contrast, going back into the classroom represented a loss of that freedom, and proved to be a struggle for Easley. He took a new job at La Cueva before the new school year hoping the change would do him some good, but he said the fit wasn’t right.
Easley acknowledged that there were things he knew he’d miss about teaching, saying there’s nothing like the “light bulb” moment where a student grasps a concept that had previously eluded them. Still, he felt worn down by behavior issues with a new generation of kids, and a school system that he felt wasn’t set up to make things better.
“In the past five years, it’s just become more and more apparent that I need to move out of it,” he said.
Easley has always been artistic, and began painting in college after his girlfriend at the time introduced him to the medium.
During the worst of the pandemic, painting became a way to relieve stress, but also inspired him to learn more about the history of his craft. He jumped into research on famous French painters like Henri Matisse and, in particular, Paul Cézanne, and his work changed as a consequence.
“When he’s painting, it’s a document of the whole experience,” Easley said of Cézanne.
On the surface, there’s a stark contrast between Easley’s pastoral landscape paintings and his vibrant, chaotic abstract work. But to hear him talk about it, the only difference is the level of modification.
Easley said many of his abstract paintings start as straightforward landscapes, before he “breaks” them by painting over them in a more abstracted way.
In some cases, Easley said he’ll paint over his work five or six times, getting more and more abstracted even as “ghosts” of previous iterations of the painting peek through under the canvas. Often, he said he doesn’t understand what he’s painting until he steps back and looks at it.
“When it’s done, that’s when I start to see the reflection happening,” Easley said.
On the other hand, focusing on landscapes gets the former football player “back to fundamentals” when he gets too buried in the abstraction.
After years of steady paychecks, Easley acknowledged that he has some trepidation about relying on selling his art for income. A strong month of sales in October, while he was still working at the school, encouraged him to try, but he said there may be months when sales drop or disappear altogether.
“January may go dry, we’re well aware of that,” he said.
Still, leaving his job has given him the mental bandwidth to think more about marketing his work rather than just making it for himself. Easley has started building an online presence, with profiles on Etsy and Saatchi Art. Here in New Mexico, he has upcoming shows at Zendo and Farm & Table.
The goal is for Easley to invest in his work with the hope that it will pay off for him and his family down the road.
“We know that success economically may be a long-haul strategy, and we’re willing to do what it takes to just get the ball rolling,” he said.