Stay in the Virgin Hotel in Dallas’ Design District, and more than 890 pieces of art will surround you.
Drive through the Deep Ellum neighborhood, and murals will parade across your windshield.
These creative touches all have a common denominator: Lesli Marshall. She’s the artist painting the streets of Dallas red, blue, yellow and all the colors in between.
Her work jumps out from around every corner of the Design District. The same is true in Deep Ellum, Victory Park and inside swanky hotels, big-name company offices and popular restaurants.
Marshall didn’t physically create all these projects, but she painted D-FW’s brick-and-concrete canvas with her own kind of brush — Articulation Art, an art curation and consulting firm she started in 2007. Her business offers everything from mural work and sculpture installation to interior design. Some of the city’s most iconic murals and Instagram-worthy spots bear Marshall’s touch.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, Articulation Art has curated the Virgin Hotel, Renaissance Hotel, Deep Ellum Brewing Co., Indie Deep Ellum apartments, the Case Building apartments’ interior art, Common Desk, Thompson’s Bookstore speakeasy, The Local, Cushman & Wakefield, Embassy Suites and the Wishbone & Flynt restaurant with its Amber Room speakeasy — and that’s just scratching the surface.
Articulation Art is a one-woman show, but Marshall works with hundreds of artists every year on projects all over the country. She got her first big break when Dallas embraced its creative side.
Her mural work began to take off in 2016, when she was hired for the 42 Real Estate urban revitalization project in Deep Ellum. The 42 Real Estate developer, an investment and development company known for the Deep Ellum project, bought 55 properties in the downtown neighborhood and commissioned Marshall to help find local artists to create 42 murals. She painted one herself.
“There was just a huge surge for mural work in the public space during that time,” she said. “It was like a free billboard in one of the hottest neighborhoods in the United States.”
Her business hit another milestone in 2020, breaking $1 million in sales during the initial peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marshall continued working during lockdowns because her work was considered to be part of the construction business. That’s when she helped create the Design District Playground murals, which people were able to enjoy outdoors during the pandemic.
“Especially during COVID, people were stopping, getting out of their cars, having a playful moment in a time of uncertainty,” she said. “Being able to create something like that during that time was really special.”
From basketball star to ‘starving artist’ to Dallas success
Marshall didn’t always know she wanted to be an artist. When she was a kid, she dreamed of becoming a basketball star. As a senior at Colleyville Heritage High School, she realized her passion had changed.
“I hit burnout,” she said. “I was over it. I had played basketball every day of my life, every weekend, every summer. Finally, it hit me, I don’t want to play basketball in college. It was kind of a blow at the time because everyone thought that was what I was going to do.”
Though few people thought of her as an artist during her childhood, hints of her creativity had been there all along.
“In kindergarten I was caught drawing all over the furniture in Ms. Maples’ class. Years later I went to visit her, and my drawings were still visible,” she said. “I loved dressing in costume, wearing wigs to school and being creative with my clothing.”
Marshall’s love for art finally had a chance to emerge during classes she took her freshman year at the University of North Texas. Even then, her instructors did not consider her a prodigy.
“I took a few art classes, and I loved it. But I was horrible,” she said. “Even my freshman year teaching assistants told me, ‘This is not for you.’”
On that advice, Marshall dropped out and went to study art at Brookhaven College. Then she went back to the University of North Texas to finish out a business degree. She started Articulation Art the same year she graduated, at age 21.
At that time, Marshall said, artists didn’t stay in Dallas. They moved to Los Angeles or New York City — places with a more creative reputation.
“No one really thought of Dallas as being a creative city, more of just corporate, a lot of concrete and highways,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of aesthetically pleasing design going into buildings.”
As Dallas-born artists packed up their easels to search for creative locations, Marshall did the same. She moved to Austin. Business was booming at first. Then the 2008 recession hit.
“I took a huge hit with my business,” Marshall said. “I actually ended up working three different jobs. I was doing everything I could to make money. I was driving around neighborhoods, picking up furniture from the curb and selling it on craigslist just to try to keep my company afloat.”
Marshall eventually landed a much-needed restaurant art job in Dallas.
“It saved me. That’s when I knew I had to make the move back to Dallas,” she said.
Soon other corporate clients from the city began reaching out, and Marshall found success in D-FW.
“It’s great to see Dallas evolve as much as it has — from a place that was not seen as a creative city to really giving artists an amazing platform and place to make a living,” she said. “As an artist. I’m so thankful for Dallas. I’m thankful that I started my business there.”
The business of art
While many artists seem unable to break free of the starving artist stereotype, Marshall is bridging the business and art worlds. She brings other artists into the fold on a project-by-project basis, and she teaches business classes to fellow artists through the Shreveport Regional Arts Council in Louisiana and other organizations. She plans to launch her own self-paced course in the future.
“That is my career. There is a place for people like me to bring those two worlds together. A lot of times, artists don’t have the understanding of the corporate process,” she said. “There’s a lot of overlap where I’m able to help and bring those two worlds together.”
Working at the intersection of business and art is the storybook ending to Marshall’s educational background — a bachelor’s in organizational development and business from the University of North Texas with a two-year associate of art from Brookhaven College sandwiched in the middle.
“I ended up leaving school having an art degree and a business degree,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but it kind of worked out to where now I have a company that’s art and business.”
Starting out as a mixed-media artist, Marshall eventually discovered the business of art consulting.
“I didn’t even realize that that was a position,” she said. “But once I kind of got into that world, I realized that if you think of any office building, any hospital, any house — every place has art, right? Like every single place of business.”
Marshall hopes to show other artists that there is a place for their passion.
“No matter where you start,” she said. “I made really weird mixed-media art that people said was weird and no one would want to buy to now building a design firm that does over a million a year in sales. It’s all about mindset,” she said. “I like to say that everyone’s into something. Your style is going to fit a certain client or a certain project, right? So I try and help [artists] find who that is for their style.”
Today, Marshall proves that artists can build successful business careers. She said she had to overcome the feeling of “selling out” when starting her business, but she quickly embraced the opportunity to make a living doing what she loves.
That mental trap is one of the first things she untangles in her business class, along with telling artists about how they often need to charge more for their skills and services.
“We’ve been told our whole life that there’s not a career. You won’t make a lot of money as an artist and how difficult it can be,” Marshall said. “So my first thing is to kind of go in and switch that mentality. You can make a lot of money as an artist.”
Despite Marshall’s confidence, Articulation Art wouldn’t be the business it is today without several leaps of faith Marshall made throughout the years. Even her reputation for murals began by taking a risk.
Marshall’s first mural graced the back of Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum. She insisted on painting it, but she was terrified to complete it.
“The first day, I had a freak-out. What am I doing here? I’ve never painted a mural before. I have an art business in Dallas, and I’m doing a mural on the back of one of the most popular businesses in a popular neighborhood. If it’s bad, this could be bad exposure,” she recalled.
Scott Rohrman, the 42 Real Estate developer who worked on the Deep Ellum mural project with Marshall, remembers her asking to complete that mural in the premier location of the project.
“Well, have you ever painted a mural before?” Rohrman remembers asking. “She was just so persistent, a good sales lady. She finally talked me into doing it, and she ended up painting two hands that got a lot of internet and social media play.”
Rohrman was awed by the final mural.
“It was very much Lesli — Sante Fe, Pagosa Springs, West Texas — but it was also really meaningful,” he said. “Those two hands really meant a lot for a lot of people, coming together, being diverse and living in a community.”
Rohrman views Marshall’s success as a testament to the power of following a passion. The convergence of her art and business talents makes perfect sense to him today.
“I’m not surprised now, but it was surprising when I first met her to know that she could do both sides of the brain like that. It’s just been really impressive to watch her,” he said.
That Pecan Lodge mural attracted the attention of Facebook, and the company hired her to create an installation for its Fort Worth data center. Marshall’s work only grew from there. She became a firsthand witness as Dallas blossomed from concrete jungle to creative canvas.
Inside Marshall’s strategy
Marshall focuses on keeping overhead low and pricing flexible. She is the only Articulation Art employee, and she prides herself on not needing an elaborate studio or other business expenses.
“Something that’s really helped my business grow is low overhead. That’s what I like to tell other artists and people starting out,” Marshall said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a giant studio space or hire a bunch of employees.”
Marshall continues to subcontract artists for each new project. Right now, she’s working on 22.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘How do you manage?’” she said. “I don’t know. I think I’m able to work on a lot of different projects simultaneously.”
While many muralists and artists charge by the square foot, Marshall prices out each project individually, accounting for the unique logistics of each mural and maximizing her number of clients.
“I don’t really stick to a certain number per square foot like a lot of artists do,” she said. “We have more opportunities to work with different people and still make a profit based on the budget they have to work within.”
She said the largest budget she’s had to work with was around a half-million dollars.
The explosion of social media has also helped Marshall keep costs low, both for marketing and recruiting artists. That little @lm_artndesign painted in the corner of each of her murals has big exposure potential, especially in the Design District playground, a popular Instagram destination.
“We’re still tagged every day,” she said.
For urban artists like Marshall, the social media age couldn’t have dawned at a more opportune time.
“Instagram really took off for artists,” she said. “A ton of my clients come through social media, and it’s a way that I find other artists, whether I’m working locally in Dallas or in other cities.”
Yet, Marshall isn’t just sitting back. She’s searching for still more opportunities to broker art projects and design interior spaces. She’s even started renting out Airbnb glamping tents and a tiny house she designed on her family’s Texas Hill Country farm, which she recently repurchased.
Marshall is 38 years old now. It’s been 17 years since she started Articulation Art, and things have changed quite a bit.
In the future, she wants to shift from the physical work of creating art and focus on brokering projects and helping other artists find well-paying gigs.
“It’s so much on your body. It’s so hard. I mean just lugging your materials around, being on a lift or a scaffold, the ladders, painting giant walls — it is a full physical overhaul of your body,” she said. “I’ve really evolved over time, realizing that I can do a lot more with less physical work.”
Even though her work has changed over the years, her collaborative efforts today aren’t all that different from the mixed-media work she first fell in love with.
“When I started out, I was really inspired by mixed media and using different textures and materials,” she said. “Now I do creative work for my clients. It’s always a different mix of styles and working with different artists. I constantly try to research and find new styles. I also like to bring together two artists that maybe wouldn’t normally work together.”
As Marshall has evolved, she finds things she could’ve improved in every piece of her work. That only motivates her.
“I believe most artists look back at their work and see things they would change or improve on,” she said. “Reflecting on your work allows you to see how far you’ve come and gives you courage to continue creating new things and growing into your style.”