Earlier this year, Rachel Smith found herself disillusioned with her job at a nursing home.

A 2011 Art Therapy graduate of Marywood University in Pennsylvania, Smith found the endless paperwork and fear of making mistakes inherent in the healthcare field to be draining, and at 24, she quit her day job to throw herself fully at her true passion - art.

Smith took a part-time position at the Chora Leone gallery in Somers Point and began volunteering at the Ocean City Fine Arts League, which gives space at its Asbury Ave. gallery in exchange for hours.

On a whim, she entered a painting she had done while in school into the Fine Arts League's February show, themed "Anything Goes."

Of about sixty entries, Smith's won first prize.

While it's far from career-making, the blue ribbon hanging beside Smith's piece in the gallery gives her some validation that the decision to pursue painting was the right one, she said.

"I don't know if it's a career you can continue with, how many people actually survive off artwork. It takes a lot of perseverance," said Smith, who lives in the Scullville section of Egg Harbor Township. "(Winning) made me feel like maybe I can do this."

Smith's winning piece, aptly titled "Figure Study of Back," is an oil figure study of a nude woman looking over her shoulder with her back facing the viewer.

The piece was painted with a palette knife, a small, flat metal blade used to dab and smear paint across a canvas, which allows for softer lines and more texture than the typical brush, Smith said.

"That gives you more of a messy look," Smith said. "You don't have to be as careful."

While a palette knife can be a more forgiving tool than a paintbrush, it's far from Painting For Dummies, Smith explained. Because palette knives are lest precise than brushes, they require a greater understanding in the artist of the underlying shapes and structure of a subject. Additionally, artists must be careful to maintain soft focus across an entire piece, as inconsistent detail is jarring for the viewer.

Rae Jaffe, President of the Fine Arts League, said it was a staff favorite because it serves as a good example of both a figure study and a palette knife work.

"We really liked the composition of it and the feeling of it, and the colors of it, and the way she used different tones and different knife strokes to delineate the form," Jaffe said.

The Fine Arts League holds monthly art shows, each of which is judged by a guest artist. February's judge was Lance Balderson of Seaville, a nationally recognized painter, one of whose works is soon to be added to the permanent collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Winning the approval of a successful artist like Balderson is a boost for a young artist, Jaffe said.

"To have an affirmation like that about your artwork, it makes you feel really good," Jaffe said.

Smith is unsure what the future holds for her art career past the next few months. She plans to continue volunteering at the Fine Arts League, which doles out space by seniority, as well as enter its monthly shows.

For now, Smith is busily painting about twenty new pieces which will be displayed at a solo show at the Great Bay Art Gallery in Somers Point April 24-May 18.

There is no magic formula for success in the art world, Smith said, and the only certain aspect of the climb is its uncertainty. As best as Smith can tell, there's no substitute for hard work and getting her name out there, and that's just what she plans to do.

"I'm trying to get connected with as many people as I can right now, just networking," Smith said. "I'm trying to just meet as many people as I can and connect with local artists and find opportunities."

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