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Pandemic prompts high school art teacher to quit his job and become an artist

"Life is too short not to do what you feel like you were born to do."
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Posted at 1:09 PM, Oct 19, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS — Michael Schulbaum believes he's possessed with the power of art.

"I've been doing it since I was three and maybe lifetimes before that. Who knows. And the more you do anything, the better you get at it," Schulbaum told WRTV during an interview at a storage unit for his artwork in downtown Indianapolis. "I remember kind of looking at my work, and all of a sudden ... I was just like, 'I can paint anything. This is crazy.'"

Even though Schulbaum has been creating, studying, and teaching art most of his life, it wasn't something he knew how to monetize. He became a teacher after he married his wife 16 years ago and started a family.

It wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year that Schulbaum took a moment of pause to consider his next move. As a type 1 diabetic, the public school teacher was high-risk for contracting the virus.

"I had to be safe, so I had to take months off of school. And as things went, I was just kind of like, I've always wanted to be an artist and always wanted that just to be my life and to make my living from art," Schulbaum explained. "COVID really made me realize life is too short not to do what you feel like you were born to do. So I was like, 'forget it. I'm done.'"

At the beginning of 2021, he officially left his job at Lawrence North High School and set his eyes on the canvas of his next chapter.

Now, Schulbaum's one of 20 artists selected to display their art on billboards across the country. These 20 artists were chosen out of thousands of submissions into the Fine Art America competition.

"I feel most at home. I'm like a fish in water if I'm creating."

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A painting by Michael Schulbaum.
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Michael Schulbaum photographed with one of his paintings.
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A painting by Michael Schulbaum directly after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016.

Schulbaum, 47, is far from an anomaly this year.

According to The Atlantic, we're in what is dubbed the "Great Resignation," and it's impacting every industry.

Perhaps most noticeably, those in the hospitality industry started the trend earlier this year. Still, it now has hit every corner of the economy as people seek better pay, work-week flexibility, and happiness.

The Indianapolis public school teacher was searching for all three of those necessities as he changed careers.

"I couldn't go back," Schulbaum said.

"So, it just started, that little intuition, or whatever you want to call it, started nagging me and being like, 'what is most natural for you?' 'Where do you love to be?' 'What do you love to do? Like, I mean, I am most natural painting."

Schulbuam has taught at public high schools all around the Indianapolis area — from John Marshal High School on the far east side to Carmel High School.

"The kids are always awesome," he says.

Schulbaum admires all teachers, especially elementary school teachers, who, he says, have to be highly organized. The artist has much respect for principals and overall enjoyed being a long-term sub.

"Teaching is great, and I loved working with the kids. And I loved my fellow teachers and everybody there," Schulbaum said. "But it wasn't like a natural fit."

After four years at Lawrence North as a long-term sub and 12 years of teaching in Indianapolis, he quit.

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A painting by Michael Schulbaum that represents his time teaching at Lawrence North High School. Schulbaum said he painted it while still working as a full-time teacher to help evoke excitement and a sense of pride about graduating high school.
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Michael Schulbaum submitted a painting, "Love and Service," to Fine Art America's 2021 Billboard Contest in early 2021 after taking the leap to become a full-time artist. He's one of 20 winners, out of thousands of submissions.

"COVID really made me realize life is too short not to do what you feel like you were born to do. So I was like, 'forget it. I'm done.'"
Michael Schulbaum

Schulbaum, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, has made art in several different mediums in his life.

As the lead singer of his college band during his Bloomington days, he toured the world and made two albums. He's painted in many styles, from abstraction and super-realism to portraits and murals. He also can draw in extravagant detail, all with a ballpoint pen.

"I started this when I was 16," Schulbaum said, explaining a drawing that's near and dear to his heart.

For Schulbaum, it's not winning the billboard competition that makes him most proud; it's a drawing that took him 23 years to complete. To him, that's his most accomplished piece of work.

He calls it "Reincarnations." At the top, you'll see the word "Simran" written, meaning "the act of remembrance, reminiscence, and recollection."

In the drawing, you see 23 years of Schulbaum's life. His wife rising like a phoenix, a portrait of his child's face sketched into the form of a cloud and a leaf that pops out at you, as if you could pick it up off the page.

"It's less of a drawing and more of a passage of time," Schulbaum said. "The more you look at it, the more you're going to see."

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It took Michael Schulbaum 23 years to finish drawing this picture — all with a ballpoint pen. He calls it Simran.
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Michael Schulbaum explained the intricate details of a drawing he started at age 16.
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The Simran drawing.

Schulbaum submitted a painting, "Love and Service," to Fine Art America's 2021 Billboard Contest earlier this year after leaping to become an artist.

It was a commissioned painting that a longtime friend of Schulbaum's wanted as a gift for his daughter, who was getting married.

He wouldn't typically submit himself for competition, Schulbaum said. "You know, there are a lot of forces out there that will say, 'you can't do this, you can't do that.' 'That's not practical.' 'You're never going to — blah, blah, blah.' And COVID really made me realize life is too short."

The location of the billboard with Schulbaum's art will be located in Chicago. It can be seen going northbound on I-294 on the Tri-State Tollway, just south of the Irving Park Road exit.

Since winning and taking himself more seriously as an artist, Schulbaum has been asked more and more to commission other pieces of art. Additionally, the recognition has given him the confidence he needed to market himself more.

"I'm thankful that it comes through, and I feel like the luckiest boy in the world. You know?" Schulbaum said, expressing his gratitude. "But I can't claim it. It's not from me, you know? It's really — it's a gift. They say that we all have gifts, you know, and this is just something that I have."

To commission a piece of art or contact Michael Schulbaum, you can visit his website. You can also keep up with his journey on Instagram. He will also have a painting of Johnny Cash showing at Sun King Brewery in Broad Ripple from October 20 through November 14.

WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at shakkira.harris@wrtv.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.

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