ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
(Soundbite of music)
This next story should be music to the ears of art students around the country and their parents. Next time you're in a grocery store, one of those fancy places that sell organic this and free-range that, take a close look at the signs. A couple of upscale chains employ hundreds of in-store artists. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, these artists do pretty well.
NEDA ULABY: Philadelphia's Callowhill neighborhood is filled with former factories that are now expensive lofts. So of course, there's a Whole Foods Market, too. That's where Katie Lanciano works.
Ms. KATIE LANCIANO (Artist, Whole Foods Market): I get to come in and do art. It's just plain - my hands and a chalkboard and a marker, and I get to go nuts.
ULABY: Lanciano inscribes the store's blackboards with hand lettering and original art. This week, there's a theme: elegant, art-deco ladies. A willowy geisha holding a fish decorates the seafood department blackboard. In meat, there's a come-hither flapper.
Ms. LANCIANO: Her back is exposed, and she has a very slinky nightdress on. It's sexy.
ULABY: Lanciano started at Whole Foods nine years ago. She made smoothies at the juice bar. She kept working at Whole Foods during art school, where she studied jewelry making and sculpture. Now she's best known as a grocery-store chalkboard artist, which does not bother her a bit.
Ms. LANCIANO: It's like a revolving gallery. My things are up all the time. People get to see my artwork every day.
ULABY: Lanciano could use stock pictures of fruit and farmers the company keeps on hand, but she says she'd rather reflect Philadelphia life. When a Salvador Dali exhibition opened in town, Lanciano drew chalkboards with dripping clocks. Lanciano says her style has evolved at the store.
Ms. LANCIANO: I use black marker on a blacktop board. Everything comes from dark to light in my drawings, and it started to reflect in my own artwork as well. I like to work this way.
ULABY: Whole Foods Markets employs a full-time artist at each of its 183 stores in the United States. Another national chain, Trader Joe's, uses artists mostly part time at each of its 263 stores. Both give their artists health benefits, a starting salary of around $13 an hour and a store discount. John Basilone is senior vice president of marketing at Trader Joe's. He started as an in-store artist. Basilone says a centralized art department would be cheaper, but in-store artists pay off through local flavor and irreverent humor.
Mr. JOHN BASILONE (Vice President of Marketing, Trader Joe's): For instance, when we opened our store in Yorba Linda, which is the birthplace of Richard Nixon, the great end cap sign that the artist had created was a drawing of President Nixon, not a caricature in any way, just a straightforward drawing above some product, and the tag line was: I am not a cook.
ULABY: Such idiosyncratic signs were common in the small natural-food stores and co-ops the big chains have replaced, says Catherine Shuta(ph). She directs career development at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Shuta misses those little stores, but she's pleased by the flexibility and health insurance her students can have if they work as in-store artists.
Ms. CATHERINE SHUTA (Career Development Director, School of Art Institute of Chicago): I am not sure that I would consider that job a career goal, but it's certainly not a bad option for a few years.
(Soundbite of music)
ULABY: At a swanky Washington, D.C., art gallery, the graffiti-inspired work of a former Whole Foods artist is on display. Kelly Towles is an in-store artist success story. He says Whole Foods taught him practical skills.
Mr. KELLY TOWLES: I learned to stick - to manage myself a lot. No matter how grungy graffiti or bleh-bleh-bleh you think you are, you need to learn how to be business-oriented.
ULABY: Towles learned how to manage invoices, meet deadlines and make commissions, he says. Katie Lanciano of Philadelphia says her time drawing Whole Foods chalkboards paid off in a way few artists expect.
Ms. LANCIANO: I got a huge amount of stocks because I've been - I guess nine years is about 15 to 16,000 hours of service time, and so the stocks that I got from Whole Foods bought my house.
ULABY: Artists found patronage during the Italian Renaissance with powerful families like the Medigis(ph). Now they're supported by companies that sell Florentine cookies.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.