Seated cross-legged on the floor wearing a black tank top, painted-splattered blue jean overalls and black shoes peppered with speckles of even more paint, Fox Gradin carefully swipes her brush across the frame of a small doghouse at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia in Gainesville.
To visitors at the nonprofit animal shelter, the 39-year-old woman appears to be your average volunteer sprucing up a multicolored doghouse with a fresh coat of paint. But she is, in fact, is an artist on all levels with a multitude of skills ranging from photographer (her main profession) and painter (her art is showcased at Quinlan Visual Arts Center) to belly dancer (she is an instructor) to author (her book is “The Forty”).
Overall, Gradin classifies herself as a storyteller by using all of the artistic techniques she has studied, learned and picked up along the way.
Julie Edwards, executive director of the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia, deemed her a “jack of all trades” as Gradin worked on the doghouse on a recent Friday morning. But Gradin was quick to make a mild addition to the old saying.
“I’m a jack of all trades and master of everything I try,” she said with a laugh and twinkle in her eye.
Based on her resume, volunteerism and those who know and love her, it is all true.
An artist’s beginnings
Born and raised in Gainesville, Gradin started out as a photographer at a young age. Her father was the first person to give her a camera, and she took to it like a duck to water.
“My dad taught me everything I knew about my first camera,” Gradin said on her photography business website, www.celestialphotography.com. “I experimented with that camera on my family and friends, trying to replicate photos I saw in advertisements and National Geographic magazines.”
Her affinity for the artistic endeavor led the young woman to make a study of it. She enrolled at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega (now the University of North Georgia) to study art with a concentration in photography.
During her studies, one of her professors required all students to enter a juried show with no expectations of being selected. By being required to do so, Gradin filled out her registration form with her name as Fox “on a lark.”
To her surprise as well as her professor and classmates, Gradin was juried into the show, which featured famous collector Fay Gold.
During the event, a woman approached Gradin and questioned her about her piece and her unique name. Gradin later learned it was Gold, and from then forth she would be known as “Fox.”
“My professor told me ‘Even if art doesn’t get you attention, your name will. And people will associate your name with your art. And your name will get attention either way,’” Gradin said. “And it is true.”
Now Gradin is well-known throughout the artistic community.
“Fox is a connector,” said Anne Brodie Hill, former director of the Art in the Square festival. “She’s good at meeting new people and connecting them with other people to get done what needs to get done. ... That’s why she’s so good at Art in the Square.”
Gradin volunteered to become the new director of Art in the Square in 2014 when Hill retired. But Hill was quick to point out Gradin has been with the art festival since its inception in 2004.
“She volunteered to take the job, and it’s an all-year job,” Hill said. “She’s a good delegator, and good at getting people to get things done.”
A snapshot decision
Fox Gradin’s husband, Olaf, supports her in all of her many projects, including her decision to start a brick-and-mortar photography business the same year they welcomed their first child, Balthazar.
“I was in the hospital and I remember telling him (Olaf) I was going to open a business,” she said. “He said ‘OK.”
But Olaf, an IT professional, had one stipulation: He wanted to see his wife’s business plan first.
“I told her ‘I want to see you develop some business administration skills,’” he said.
Fox rose to her husband’s challenge, writing a business plan in two days.
“I was fired up,” she said. “I was going to do anything.”
Olaf Gradin, 38, was not surprised by her determination and passion.
“Her thing is to put everything into it and get it done,” he said. “Nobody’s project is 100 percent, so you might as well give it what you got.”
After Balthazar’s birth in March, Fox opened Celestial Studios that October. And she toted her baby boy with her to her new studio.
“It never occurred to me to slow down and take a break,” she said. “I’m a restless spirit. I’m always looking for new projects and (Balthazar) made me feel I could do that 10 times over.”
Since its inception in 2003, Fox has brought Balthazar, now 12, along with her other two children — Sorscha, 6 and Galio, 4 — to the studio. She says having her children with her daily has helped in her artistic endeavors.
“Those kids are a big inspiration,” she said.
She uses her inspiration to evolve her photography as well as herself.
“I’m a storyteller at heart,” she said. “(Photography) is most used to capture a moment in time. I was used to pushing it into a storyteller medium.”
With that mindset, Gradin’s business is thriving after nearly 12 years. But she is no longer limited to photography alone.
As a student majoring in art in college, Gradin was exposed to a plethora of outlets, spanning photography to mixed media to painting. With that knowledge, Gradin has used her talents to expand her business skill set.
She has been hired to paint a mandala, or a mural similar to a kaleidoscope, at a house. She also was commissioned recently to paint a sky on a ceiling in a Woodstock home.
“I was 18 feet in the air ... on a ladder (last week),” she said, explaining she is painting a sky on a vaulted ceiling in a bedroom.
Gradin also is a performance artist as a belly dancer.
“Dance is what I look forward to most,” she said. “I’m passionate about it and passionate about teaching it to adults.”
She established a belly dancing troupe, which performs for parties, events and parades. She also teaches belly dancing to help people acquire a different perspective of themselves.
“It’s like peeling away the mundane layers of life,” she said. “Then all of a sudden, it’s a reinvention of self.”
Meghan Schuler said she gained self-confidence from taking Gradin’s belly dancing class.
“It’s very empowering for women,” the 2011 Brenau graduate said. “It’s about embracing your own body and what it can do.”
Since enrolling in the class as a Brenau student, Schuler has learned how the muscle structure in her body works and about Middle Eastern culture.
“(Gradin’s) class includes where the dance comes from and what’s proper in the dance,” said Schuler, now a member of the belly dancing troupe.
The 26-year-old Cumming resident also has seen the effect Gradin has on her students.
“If someone is body-conscious or shy, she’s very encouraging of having them do what feels natural to you,” Schuler said, explaining most of them dance in yoga pants and T-shirts. “We are all just people who have fun and trying to embrace and accept what Middle Eastern dance is.
Family time and volunteerism
Belly dancing isn’t the only performing she does. The mother of three is a trained clown and has taken to the streets in her clown attire along with her children.
In fact, her children look forward to being old enough to join her in parades as baby clowns. Her husband joins the fun as a stilt walker.
“We have a family bucket list, and one is to be in a parade in every state,” Fox said.
Thus, the Gradins plan vacations around potential parades.
“Our ultimate goal is being in the (Macy’s) Thanksgiving Day Parade” in New York City, Olaf said.
And hanging with her family and sharing time with them is what Fox looks “forward to most.” But they do not slow her down.
“I’m there every night to tuck them into bed and I go back to work,” she said.
The self-proclaimed storyteller has a lot to keep her busy. A week ago, she was working on an item for DragonCon in Atlanta. This week, she is focusing on the Art in the Square in downtown Gainesville.
As the director, she is keeping track of the artists, booths and other odds and ends. She is also responsible for the new Post-it exhibit, which allowed community members to draw on the sticky notes and submit them to Art in the Square. Each Post-it will then be sold to help pay for the art festival.
Hill said the Post-it exhibit was one of many ideas Gradin has developed for Art in the Square.
“She comes up with really cool ideas,” Hill Ill the 71-year-old Gainesville woman said. “She got the chalk art on the sidewalks previously.”
With so many things on her plate, one might assume she would not spend her time painting a doghouse at the humane society. But volunteering is another passion of Gradin’s.
“Fox is always the ‘official’ photographer for Pet Photos and our adopters/customers love her,” Edwards said. “She makes people and their pets feel at ease and everyone has a wonderful memory of the holidays.”
The love of animals is apparent in her own Gainesville home. They have 2 dogs, Eloise and D’Yoji; one boa constrictor, Sebaya; and one rat, Jon Snow.
“Jon Snow was one of Sebaya’s pardoned meals,” she said with a smile. “Everyone assumed I would give him water and food and try to feed him to Sebaya the next day. But I held him and he snuggled me.”
Therefore, the rat became part of the family.
“Jon Snow is friend, not food,” Fox Gradin said, referencing a line from “Finding Nemo.”
“I’m open to anything,” Fox said. “I’m always looking for the new inspiration and sparks of creativity.
“My mind is always turning from the time I jump out of bed to the time I lay down.”
Fun time and the future
Having fun with friends is a priority for the Gradin family, especially when it is one of the children’s birthdays.
“We like to throw parties,” Fox Gradin said. “But we don’t do birthday parties until they are 5 years old.”
Olaf Gradin explained when he and Fox became new parents, they did not see the value in throwing big parties for a child who would not know what was going on and could not remember the event. But when the children were in kindergarten, they would make friends. Olaf Gradin said it marked a good age to throw a birthday party.
The children then are given a choice, ranging from a big birthday bash with a theme to traveling to a desired destination. One year, the couple threw a Star Wars-themed bash and invited friends to come dressed as their favorite characters, Fox Gradin said. One of Sorscha’s parties involved renting out Main Street Marketplace, having a bounce house inside it and setting up a photo booth for the girls.
“We had fairy wings for all of the little girls and printed (the pictures) out,” Olaf Gradin said. “They were wonderful studio shots.”
Recently, Balthazar was given the choice of going to Legoland in Florida with his family or taking his friends to Medieval Times. He chose both — Legoland one year and Medieval Times the next.
“They are not constrained to birthday party places and things,” Olaf said. “We try to get them to think about bigger possibilities.”
Keeping an open mind about birthday parties as well as life is an element Fox tries to instill in her children. And she leads by example.
Olaf is looking forward to what his wife plans next.
“We are on a new phase of our relationship together and it’s an excitement about what the future holds,” he said.