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Artfully inspired: Joyce Hunt turns tragedy into triumph.

Joyce Hunt's life proves that something positive can come out of tragedy. As the owner of Mitchie's Fine Black Art in Austin, Texas, she sells original art and reproductions by African American artists, along with books, greeting cards and crafts. With 10 employees and $500,000 in sales last year, hers is the largest African American art store in the Austin area.

Had it not been for a terrible tragedy seven years ago, the 36-year-old Hunt might never have become a successful entrepreneur. As she recalls, her ex-husband had taken their three-year-old son, Mitchie, for a weekend visit. While returning from a party at the house of one of Mitchie's playmates, he crashed the car into a concrete culvert.

At the time of the crash, her ex-husband's blood alcohol content was almost three times the legal limit, says Hunt. "It was not an accident. It was a crash. It left Mitchie's lower intestines, spleen, colon and pancreas ruptured," she recalls.

Now 10 years old, Mitchie spent almost a year in the hospital, endured two years of rehabilitation and 18 operations and remains paralyzed from the waist down.

Hunt was forced to leave her job as a senior systems analyst at a bank to help care for her only child. "I went from making more than $4,000 a month to getting a $300-a-month reserve check."

As part of Mitchie's rehabilitation, he was encouraged to use his hands. He soon began to draw, but Hunt noticed that he only drew pictures of white people. When she asked him why, he said he had never seen pictures of black people. At that point, Hunt began reading up on black artists and collecting their works.

"I displayed the art all over my house. Whenever my friends would come over, they'd ask me where I got the pieces. Some even asked if they could purchase the pieces hanging on my walls," recalls Hunt.

A friend referred her to an art store owner in New York City who gave her resources and advised her to buy in volume. With $125, she purchased 500 copies of a Black Jesus print. "If I were to purchase one or two of those pieces, I would have had to pay $10 wholesale and sell for $20," says Hunt. "By buying in volume, I found I could get them for $1.25 each and sell them for $10. Thus, my customers were also getting a good price."

For a year, Hunt sold art out of her home while continuing to care for Mitchie. She also began a framing business, selling through mail order, home shows and conventions. Before long, Hunt was making a monthly profit of $1,700.

In December 1991, Hunt purchased $500 in wholesale inventory and moved into a storefront. With an extensive mailing list gathered from home shows, she executed a directmail campaign. In honor of her son, she named the business Mitchie's Fine Black Art.

Her first year in business, Hunt had sales of $115,000. Three years later, sales tripled at more than $350,000; 60% of the business is from framing.

In December 1995, Hunt purchased a 10,000-sq.-ft. building for $475,000 (the owner will carry the note for three years until Hunt gets bank financing). Spending $20,000 to renovate the building, Hunt leased 2,500 sq. ft. to 11 African American small businesses, including a hair and nail salon, florist and cleaners. She calls the place African Village.

"It's really like a small business incubator," she explains. "We offer the businesses co-op advertising in our newsletter, free accounting seminars, loan information and services to stimulate business growth and development. By helping others, we also increase our traffic flow."

Today, Hunt's business is growing by leaps and bounds. Her showroom has even been featured in local commercials. And with 31 state contracts--including the Texas Transportation Department and the Texas Historical Commission--Hunt hopes to hit the $1 million mark in sales by the end of the year.

Mitchie's Fine Black Art, 5312 Airport Blvd., Austin, TX 78751; 512-323-6901;
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Title Annotation:forced to be home with her injured son, she finds a new career in retailing African American art
Author:Gite, Lloyd
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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