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Successful Entrepreneur Blends Artistry With Building Skills

Successful Entrepreneur Blends Artistry with Building Skills
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Chryssa Wolfe’s parents died when she was a very young girl, so she spent her childhood living with different relatives, but primarily with one who, according to Wolfe, came from an amazing family of artists.

Those artists painted frescoes in churches and homes in Greece, a tradition that continued when two of her two uncles emigrated to America.

“They would do churches and do paintings in churches and then on top of it, they did construction which was their way of making money because nobody was paying for frescoes in America,” she said. “I was in awe of it. I wanted to go to work with them whenever I could.”

Her uncles let her mix paint for them and help out wherever she could.

“I think that the influence of my uncles, seeing the art of the possible - that they could paint and build - sort of opened that door for me in my mind,” Wolfe said.

Artful inheritance

That early exposure paid off.

Today, Wolfe is a professional artist who draws inspiration from the world around her. She paints bold and colorful images, often with a touch of whimsy.

In one series of paintings, she represents the lives of busy women by showing them balancing balls in the air, symbolic of the need to juggle family and career.

Another painting depicts an osprey she became attached to after he chose a spot outside of her studio to build a nest every summer.

“I watched him guard his family, [he] comes every year; he builds this incredible nest," she said. "He’s a builder, he’s a hunter; I became very interested in him emotionally.”

Wolfe is also inspired by memories of her childhood.

Yaya's Doilies by Chryssa Wolfe (Julie Taboh/VOA)
Yaya's Doilies by Chryssa Wolfe (Julie Taboh/VOA)

“My grandmother was a great influence on me and she made doilies all the time," she recalled. "And we got doily slippers and doily hats for Christmas every year. And I was in my studio not too long ago and I started to think about her doilies, and I did a series of paintings about all her doilies, and they’re integrated in my paintings.”

And - like her immigrant family and the osprey that nests near her studio - Wolfe is also a homebuilder.

“As long as I can remember I loved building things,” she said. “So when I wasn’t painting, I was building things.”

But becoming a professional in the male-dominated construction industry was not easy. That point was driven home in an especially memorable occasion.

“I was very excited about doing this project for this couple and I had spent a lot of time on drawings and the woman was so excited about them and I felt I was really going to get that job and as I walked away I heard the husband say ‘there’s no way in hell we’re going to hire a woman to do our house,’" she said. "So I just kind of knew that was that!”

So Wolfe used her own money to restore rundown properties and sell them at a profit, which allowed her to start building her own homes.

Hanlon Design Build

Today, she is president of Hanlon Design Build, an architectural and custom-build firm based in Washington, D.C., where, for more than 25 years, she's been renovating and building award-winning properties for high-income homeowners.

Interior of one of Chryssa Wolfe's homes in Washington, D.C., 2014. (Julie Taboh/VOA)
Interior of one of Chryssa Wolfe's homes in Washington, D.C., 2014. (Julie Taboh/VOA)

Her artistic influence can be seen throughout her homes. A red ladder propped up against a bright blue bookshelf and elegant, eye-catching light fixtures are details, she says, that speak to her particular artistic flair. They are details, she adds, that are especially appreciated by her female clients.

And while Wolfe says women in male-dominated professions still have to work longer and harder to be successful, she is optimistic about the future.

“I would love to see more women - young women - do what I’m doing because I love what I do. It has brought me such joy and I have been greatly blessed to be able to have a career doing what I love and what I’m passionate about," she said. "And if there’s some little girl out there who is putting sticks together and building something, or making her own doll house, or designing it and drawing pictures and that’s what’s bringing her joy, I would love for her to have the same experience - and probably better experience - in her life because this is a beautiful thing to be able to do.”