arts

How CJ Hendry used Instagram to make millions from her art -- and sell Kanye to Kanye

Updated 19th May 2020
Credit: Courtesy of Cj Hendry
How CJ Hendry used Instagram to make millions from her art -- and sell Kanye to Kanye
Written by Nathan Sing, CNN
Cj Hendry is part of a new wave of self-made Instagram artists who have crashed their way into the art world via the internet.
Through Instagram, Hendry's photorealistic pencil drawings have reached millions online, and she has also made millions selling her work. This is a step outside the customary approach of finding a gallerist to represent you, or accessing a patron or public funds.
"In the past, artists had to wait for a gallery to do your show and people couldn't just see your work. They had to come to the exhibition when the gallery allowed it to happen. Now you can show people whatever you want at any time you wish," said Australia-born Hendry over the phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York.
Hendry's color pencil drawings are so realistic they can be likened to photocopies, and take up to 80 hours to complete. She has drawn everything from Chanel perfume bottles, Louboutin sneakers, crumpled up Hermès shopping bags, and a Zebra with a Louis Vuitton monogram pattern replacing the animal's stripes. These were done as an homage to luxury goods, which, in a roundabout way, brought Hendry success in the first place.
A photorealistic illustration of a Chanel shopping bag by CJ Hendry
A photorealistic illustration of a Chanel shopping bag by CJ Hendry Credit: Courtesy of Cj Hendry
While she may have half a million followers on Instagram and a 22,000-square-foot warehouse to work out of today, just a few years ago the Australian artist said her life was at "rock bottom."
One night in 2014 while out with friends, Hendry reached into her $5,000 purse to pay for a round of drinks only to have her card declined. After years of excessive spending her bank account was dry. "From a young age, I've just been obsessed with luxury and spending all my money on things I couldn't afford," said Hendry. At that moment she had an epiphany. "I thought, 'surely I can amount to more than this?'"
Hendry, who had dabbled in art since she was a child, decided to quit her retail job at Chanel, drop out of university where she had been studying architecture and finance for seven years, and pursue a full-time career as an artist. As a way to fund her endeavor she sold her entire collection of handbags, shoes, and clothes on eBay.
A drawing of a Dior scarf by CJ Hendry
A drawing of a Dior scarf by CJ Hendry Credit: Courtesy of Cj Hendry
She started posting images of incomplete drawings that showed her meticulous process, as well as the finished products, on Instagram -- which, at the time, was still in its infancy. "I, along with many other people, had a dinky Instagram account and literally that was all there was to it. I just started posting things and it kind of went from there," said Hendry.
After a couple of months of consistent posting, Hendry's drawing of a pair of R.M. Williams boots caught the eye of a family friend, who direct messaged her to inquire about the piece and eventually purchased it for $6,500 ($10,000 AUD).
Artist CJ Hendry making a photorealistic drawing of a disco ball
Artist CJ Hendry making a photorealistic drawing of a disco ball Credit: Courtesy of Cj Hendry
This first sale pushed her to keep going, and soon Hendry's audience began to grow by the thousands. She branched out from luxury items into photorealistic drawings of everything from Andy Warhol's Polaroids, Rorschach tests, disco balls, and a crumpled $100 bill with Kanye West's face on it -- which was eventually purchased by West himself (for an undisclosed amount). Hendry gradually shifted her online fame to success in the real world and now, her collections sell out in seconds for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.
"I've been really lucky in that I've been able to use social media to my advantage," said. "Being focused on my artwork means not having to rely on 'working the algorithm' but rather using Instagram as a means for me to get my work out into the world. The work then speaks for itself. It's been a powerful tool and has enabled me to expand my practice and work on building complex exhibitions, shows and installations without the backing or financial support that comes with being part of the gallery system."

It's better in real life

Today, over a billion people have an Instagram account, and the photo and video-sharing app has proved to be a hotbed of new creative talent; a place where artists can reach audiences without the need for a middleman. Instead of trying to appeal to a gallerist to put on one of their shows, or pay to rent spaces themselves, artists can easily post and share what they want (within guidelines set by Facebook, who now own Instagram, of course).
Instagram may be the biggest transformative tool for the sale and promotion of art since the advent of art fairs in the late-1960s. Not only has it changed the way art is seen and sold, it has added a digital layer to the work itself. Because it is visually driven, the artist's that can make their work sparkle on this platform -- like Callen Schaub with his pendulum paintings, or French street artist JR's photo curation -- can kickstart their careers.
"The big galleries and mega players in the art world now realize the importance of Instagram. They have all realized that the biggest collectors are all on Instagram and the collectors of tomorrow are on Instagram, so they have to build those relationships now," said Joe Kennedy, co-founder of contemporary art gallery UNIT London, in a phone interview. He jumped on the Instagram game early, and used to it help build his gallery's reputation from scratch. Now, UNIT often works with emerging artists that they've discovered online.
Aside from some financial successes such as Hendry's, however, Kennedy says the app is more of a launchpad, and may not be enough to advance an artist to the next stages of their career.
"You will struggle to find any artists out there that have got serious museum shows or have a serious legacy who don't have gallery relationships or aren't represented formally," Kennedy said.
"Red Poppy" by CJ Hendry.
"Red Poppy" by CJ Hendry. Credit: CJ Hendry
These days, even Hendry is focused more on her big-budget shows. "So much of art, not just mine but everyone's art, is viewed online and through your iPhone. I think it's more important now than ever for people to have the energy and capacity to take it offline and to showcase ideas in a physical setting," she said.
For her seventh solo exhibition "Epilogue," (which was originally scheduled to show in London in April but has been moved to later this year due to Covid-19 restrictions), Hendry and her team renovated a derelict east London church. They drilled holes in the ceiling to install four industrial confetti machines filled with 10 tons of custom-made white confetti in the shape of flower petals, which will slowly fall over guests over the course of each day, gradually gathering on the ground.
These kinds of ways of engaging with the public, and the experiential potential of art, is now at the heart of what Hendry does. "We can sell the art without the exhibition, but that's just being an Instagrammer. I can just sell art, but that is no interest to me," she said. "It's about, for me, building a bigger narrative, something more conceptual."