Mike Vail, pictured with some of the names he artistically rendered, started his business as a way to cut back on his hours as an autoworker.
When Mike Vail was laid off from American Axle’s Tonawanda Forge Plant in Buffalo over four years ago, the now 45-year-old former autoworker took one day to feel down and out.
“I was 40-years-old, I had outdated skills, and I was depressed for about a day,” Vail said from the kitchen of his home on the outskirts of Hamburg. “Everybody was devastated. It took about a day. I woke up the next morning and I told my wife, ‘I am going to go back to school, reinvent myself and get into a field that I think is interesting and has a future.’”
Almost five years later, Vail has a bachelor’s degree in computer security/information assurance from Hilbert College and several job prospects, while the art business he started while still employed at the auto plant, Name Art Up, is flourishing.
Vail had always been good at drawing, and attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale just after graduating from Hamburg High School in 1986. After earning an associate’s degree there, Vail worked at ad agencies and for a newspaper in Florida. He began to feel homesick and couldn’t really picture raising a family in Florida, so he decided to head back to Hamburg. After trying to make a handmade greeting card business work, Vail’s father gave him an application for what was then the General Motors plant in Buffalo.
“I filled it out, and the next day, I got the job,” he said. “I worked there for one week, got a huge paycheck, and I said, ‘that’s it.’ I was in heaven.”
Vail dropped his artistic endeavors and became an autoworker. After about 10 years of working at the plant, Vail started “getting the itch” to do something artistic.
“I called my wife at work, and I told her I was sick of working 60 hours a week, and I wanted to work 40 hours and do something on the side, something artistic,” he said.
Vail had done an illustration of his niece’s name for her birthday, and everyone seemed to like it. After speaking with his wife, he decided he’d be able to make illustrations like that for any child’s name and sell them. The idea for Name Art Up was born.
After starting out small, Vail decided to see what the general public would think about his artwork. In 2010, he created 400 girls names and 400 boys names. He debuted the names at Springtime in the Country at The Fairgrounds.
“It was a huge success,” he said. “We knew we had something right there.”
Vail and his family starting displaying his work at various art shows around Western New York. He also started getting orders on his website from people in other parts of the country who had heard about the name renderings. Things took off from there.
“Every year, the names are getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “We’re now in all 50 states and about eight countries.”
The business has truly become a family calling, as Vail’s sons now work for him, framing the names and working at the various art shows.
“The boys are older, and they’re saying they want to do the shows by themselves,” he said. “They’ve learned a lot.”
None of this has come easy for Vail or his family, but they always knew there was an end goal in this process.
“It’s been a grind,” he said. “But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
As for people in a similar situation to Vail’s, he does offer some advice.
“Follow your dreams and passions,” he said. “Life is too short. If you’re stuck in a rut at a job or something, it’s never too late. Do what makes you happy. Everything will come around.”