At the annual running of the Indianapolis 500, names like Scott Dixon, Rinus VeeKay and Tony Kanaan hit the top of every fans’ list.
Running down for autographs, fans were looking for these names. But not one young boy, he was looking for Justin Patten, a local artist that most race fans may not have ever heard of.
But they’d know his art.
Walking around the world-famous facility, the young boy who had been following Justin and Rachel Patten’s business on social media ran up to Justin with tears in his eyes.
His dad explained the boy had been waiting for the moment to meet Justin for a year and had saved up his money to buy Justin’s artwork.
It solidified a giant leap Justin and his wife, Rachel Patten, took.
“Moments like that, it’s just really uplifting,” Justin said. “It really gives a lot of energy to the situation and just makes me feel like ... I am doing the right thing. I think we’re constantly getting those feelings like, ‘This is what we need to be doing.’”
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was Justin and Rachel’s first experience creating products outside of what was, at the time, his part-time painting job. Around Ball State University’s campus and at the Cardinal Fanstore in The Village, Justin’s work is on display in the form of the iconic Ball State Cardinal in a new, artistically expressed way.
This was the first year that Justin and Rachel, now both former teachers, did not set up a classroom for the school year. They are running Storm Striker Art full time with Rachel on the business side and Justin creating art.
“I did leave teaching this year, so this was the first year I didn’t go back,” Justin said. “It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Even though only now has his artwork become a full-time job, Justin joked it was his full-time job when he still had a full-time job teaching. Growing up, Justin was a sports fan and a growing artist, always trying to blend the two.
“They always kind of clashed a bit growing up,” Justin said, “Like art people would be like, ‘Maybe you need to focus more on art,’ or sports people would be like, ‘Maybe you need to focus more on sports,’ and I was kind of like, ‘I really want to do the two together.’ That’s where I’ve ended up over time, and it took a little while to get there.”
Rachel, who taught in the Indiana Public School system after her graduation from Auburn University, met Justin during a time when he was playing vintage baseball for the Indianapolis Hoosiers.
Justin Patten poses with a painting of Auburn University's Samford Hall. Patten creates collegiate art for major collegiate universities including Ball State University. Justin Patten, Photo Provided
A graduate of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Justin taught art for five years before his school dropped the art curriculum entirely, leaving him to shift around different subjects.
“He was teaching these other things like robotics and stuff,” Rachel said. “They were cool, but he was really missing art which is what drew him back into making art at home.”
Justin started making paintings while he was still teaching; he said he wanted to paint in a way that made his art feel like it was his. It began with a few paintings for friends and family, then a few to sell on the e-commerce platform Etsy, then it just continued to grow.
After the wife of the man who bought one of his early paintings wanted to hang it up in their living room, Justin began to think of the audience that might like his work.
“My whole thing as an artist has always been to create paintings and real art for fans and alumni rather than everything being printed,” Justin said. “I wanted to make real art that people could actually purchase at a price they could afford.”
Over the last 10 years, Justin would come home from school and paint from 4 p.m. until midnight with a break for dinner.
“It’s definitely a grind as an artist, like producing work all the time,” Justin said. “Then you know, there’s always the business side of things to where you’re taking care of paperwork and stuff, which is never the exciting part. But anytime I’m painting, I’m always like, ‘This is exactly what I want to be doing. This is the best thing I could be doing. It’s the right place.’”
When it began to cost more for daycare for the couple’s two children than for Rachel to teach, she quit and started a home daycare while Justin continued to teach during the day and paint at night.
“So we had this little bitty house, and we had four toddlers and an infant,” Rachel said. “Then, our kids went to school and then they came home, so I had this house full of a billion kids. He would come home and paint. We didn’t have a studio because the house was only 1,200 square feet, so he’d paint in the dining room which was our big family room, which was also the daycare.”
It was a busy time for the Pattens but one the two remember fondly.
“There was a lot of fun from that,” Justin said. “Sometimes I would have a baby in a BabyBjörn, and I’d have the baby here [in my arm], and I’d be painting and playing with the baby while I was painting … a lot happening at once, but I feel like we’ve always had a lot happening at once.”
Rachel joked that Justin’s artwork is busy, channeling all the busy energy of their life into the final product.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and Rachel’s daycare shut down. As a result, the couple faced another big question.
“Then we were like, ‘What are we going to do? Again?’” Justin said. “So we were like, ‘Let's make some T-shirts and see what happens and some stickers.’ And so we started working with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on that, and that kind of got our feet wet and got us into the process of creating some products also outside of my paintings.”
He started painting randomly for a while based on people’s requests and around 2017, he started looking for colleges that offered to license artists. After picking up bigger schools like Alabama and Wisconsin, Rachel and Justin decided they needed to go to the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) to get fully licensed.
“There’s a crafters’ license, which is rare, not every college does it, and I think some of them have even disappeared at this point,” Justin said. “Actually, the first college I ever got started with was Oklahoma State.”
Michelle Lidey, a customer, was first introduced to Justin’s work at a local arts and crafts show where she was also a vendor. He was doing pieces with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway logo.
“Just his colors and his vision, his interpretation of the logo was just really cool,” Lidey said. “We bought t-shirts and sweatshirts and yard flags and all kinds of stuff with that initial [IMS] logo and then I started following him on social media and saw that he started to do some collegiate stuff.”
Lidey’s daughter had recently started at Ball State, so when Justin came out with Ball State merchandise, she said she bought Cardinal gear.
Coming out of the pandemic, Rachel chose to stay home and work with the business full-time.
“Last year, the business was growing so much,” Rachel said. “I was running the business with two really busy, athletic kids that both play sports and try[ing] to run the business with him being gone all day, we either had to grow or start saying no to projects.”
The choice was then for Justin to go back to teaching full-time and painting full-time or go all in on the business.
“We were like, ‘If I go back, it will be really crazy; if I stay home, it’s going to be crazy,’ but Rachel and I work together with the business, and we decided that if it’s really crazy and we’re together, I think we’ll be able to handle it better,” Justin said.
Justin and Rachel Patten pose for a picture in front of one of his paintings. This was the first year that both Justin and Rachel did not return to a classroom at the beginning of the school year. Justin Patten, Photo Provided
Once all in, the business continued to gain traction and grow with professional teams like the Chicago Cubs licensing work to Storm Striker.
“Creating art for the teams that I enjoy, like the Cubs are my favorite team, and I was like, ‘I’m painting for the Cubs right now? Interesting, like this is cool,’” Justin said.
He said the Patten family dog is named Wrigley after Chicago’s stadium.
Even the business’s name has ties to the Patten family. Striker, a term that refers to the batter in vintage baseball in the 1800s, serves as their older son’s middle name and the later term of their business, Storm Striker Art.
All of Justin’s work was at one point a painting, before being photographed, edited and turned into a design for sale.
“That’s always been really important to me,” Justin said, “to make sure that everything comes from me comes from a painting that I’ve made.”
From 12 years teaching in Lawrence, Indiana, to about six years teaching in Zionsville, Indiana, Justin refers to his path to his art style as a “journey.”
“I just really wanted to make things that people could really enjoy and feel proud of,” Justin said. “I want people to have art that I paint, that I made with my hands, that they can hang up in their homes and know that that’s a real piece of art that somebody made, not a print.”
Contact Daniel Kehn with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @daniel_kehn.