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Start Your Business Success Stories

My Second Act: The Journey from Hotel Entrepreneur to Artist

My Second Act: The Journey from Hotel Entrepreneur to Artist Awakening III, monument (pictured with the artist, Mark Yale Harris) / Credit: Mark Yale Harris

I am a living embodiment of the fact that it is never too late to jump and make a career change. At 63 years of age, I traded the security of an extremely successful business career for the risky life of an artist.

When I was young, I showed a definite aptitude for making art. I loved creating, and I envisioned being an artist as an adult. Awards and scholarships validated my early talents, but I ended up following the advice and guidance of my parents, who, having lived through the Great Depression, advocated a less risky, conventional career. I supported myself through Ohio State University, earning a business degree, and then began 30-plus years in the realm of hospitality/urban development, specifically real estate and hotels.

In 1972, I co-founded the Red Roof Inns, a successful chain including over 300 hotels across the United States. In 1984, I founded the Amerisuites Hotels, innovating a new concept of suite accommodations. All the while, I raised a beautiful family of my own.

My career was flourishing and lucrative. I exercised creativity in the business sphere — inventing new ways of doing business, some of my success hinging on vision and ingenuity. However, eventually I felt the need for something more.

After over 30 years of success in the hotel business, I grappled with continuing my career path or upending my life to go after my true destiny. I had spent that time yearning to get back to what made me joyful and expressive when I was younger. My artistic side was no longer willing to wait in the shadows. I chose art.

At age 63, I sold my business interests. When I made the leap to a (hopeful) career in the arts, my friends began to ask me when I was going to get a real job!

It was a big adjustment, becoming a "nobody" in the art world. However, as a self-made man who began with nothing, I understood this enormous pivot required starting at the bottom. Respectful of this new role, I knew my craftsmanship had to be worthy to earn respect as an artist. While my business acumen was not a directly transferable skill, my work ethic of discipline and perseverance was.

In 1999, I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to be mentored by Aleut sculptor Bill Prokopiof and study with Nez Perce sculptor Doug Hyde, both protégés of the renowned Apache sculptor Allan Houser. They took me under their wings and generously shared their immense knowledge, talent, and vision. Inspired by the geographical region and grounded in the wisdom of my teachers, I dedicated myself to learning how to sculpt.

Over the years, I honed my technical skills as well as my artistic vision. There is little margin for error in the reductive art of stone carving. My Native American mentors believed that you quietly observe the shape of the rock, see the image within, and it will come forth.  Try and fail, continue working through a concept until it feels complete – this is what I learned and kept in mind as I grew more self-assured in my work. I also realized the importance of editing: Not everything is a masterpiece, and only my best work should be presented.

This "second act," returning full circle to a childhood/lifelong interest, has been at least as richly rewarding as my first career. Often, I have found the "business" practices of art in contrast to those in the general business sphere, because the world of art is inhabited by people who inherently reason things out in a more emotional and creative way. When you are an artist, art is your business. Hence, if I wanted to succeed, I needed to reeducate myself in the ways of art business, attending to the practical side of marketing my work.

Overall, my business background has been helpful to me in my new career. When dealing with the administrative aspects, my business background of professionalism and judgment has served to benefit me. I have also found that researching and understanding my audience, collectors and venues is key to getting my work seen. 

Over the past 20 years as an artist, my dream has come to fruition. I am fortunate to have a thriving studio practice in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. My works have been featured in 112 solo, museum, university and international art exhibitions, including the Royal Academy of London. My sculpture has been included in over 120 feature press publications, including Art & Antiques; American Art Collector and The Guardian, as well as the cover of "Contemporary Sculptors: 84 International Artists" (Schiffer Publishing). Public collections worldwide currently present my sculpture, including Four Seasons Hotels, Hilton Hotels, State of New Mexico, and the city of Brooklyn, New York.

For anyone contemplating a life change this dramatic, my advice is simple: Follow your heart.  I did, and I couldn't be happier. Jump — you may just find yourself landing firmly on both feet, with the sun on your face and the wind at your back.

About the author: Mark Yale Harris is a sculptor and contemporary artist. Prior to starting his art career, he co-founded the Red Roof Inns and founded the Amerisuites Hotels.

Edited for length and clarity by Nicole Taylor. Have a great entrepreneurial story to tell? Contact Nicole at ntaylor@purch.com with your pitch.