After Conquering the Business World With Ross Perot, Steve McElroy Turned to Fine Art

Steve McElroy, BBA ’81, knows how to bet on himself. One day in 1988, he sent a letter to business magnate and former presidential candidate Ross Perot about an invention he came up with. Miraculously, Perot loved the idea, and the two went into business together. Years later, at 37, McElroy—who at the time had never picked up a paintbrush—left the business world to pursue painting. Since then, he’s sold more than 3,700 works of art.

McElroy, now 60, has made a name for himself selling paintings to collectors and major brands around the world. He’s called Austin, New York City, and Los Angeles home, but these days, McElroy lives by himself in a high rise apartment building in Uptown Dallas.

“I never get bored of it,” McElroy says of his art, “and I never run out of ideas.” Lately, he has been dabbling in furniture design, and he’s eager to show me examples. Jan Showers & Associates, the showroom of prominent interior designer Jan Showers, located in Dallas’ Design District, is full of French antiques, luxury furniture, and modern side and coffee tables McElroy has created, composed of painted birch panels, with acrylic legs and tops. His signature butterfly drawings line the walls of the showroom. Done in pencil and India ink on handmade paper, the butterflies appear ready to fly off the page.

McElroy’s art is reflective of his personality: overwhelmingly positive. As we drive down Cedar Springs Road, which cuts through chic Uptown, we pass some of his work displayed in the windows of the luxury apartment complex The Ashton. One of his colorful paintings hangs next to his favorite quote from Pablo Picasso: Everything you can imagine is real. “I always want people—through my art or through me—to feel like they can do whatever they want,” he says.

Many Dallas residents are collectors of McElroy’s work, and on the quiet neighborhood street that leads to his studio, nearly every home has a painting from him hanging on the wall. But McElroy is humble. And generous—he likes to dole out life lessons (“Never compete with anybody but yourself.”) and pieces of advice he picked up from Perot (“Never push the ‘on’ button when you’re 100 percent ready. Push it when you’re 70 percent ready. You’ll never be 100 percent ready.”).

Over sandwiches at BIRD Bakery, McElroy says that when he left his hometown of Abilene for UT in the late 1970s, he immersed himself in peer groups and schoolwork but made important connections playing tennis. When Clark Thomas, one of the top law firms in Austin, reached out to UT professors asking for a sharp student to work in the mailroom, the professors picked him. McElroy took the job, and after he graduated, the firm hired him as its business manager. “I was playing with the best business people in Austin through tennis,” McElroy says. “I learned that to be successful, you surround yourself with good people.”

That is why, in 1988, when the then-29-year-old inventor needed a business partner, McElroy went straight to Perot. McElroy, then a salesman of Latex gloves to dentists and doctors, stretched a glove over the top of a coffee cup, and realized he could make a biodegradable, stretchable lid to keep food products fresh. His idea was a one-size-fits-all lid for cups, cans, and food containers.

Soon enough, Rubbermaid and other packing companies approached him regarding the rights to his patent, but McElroy needed some guidance on negotiating the matter. So, he wrote a letter. Three days later, Perot, the billionaire founder of Electronic Data Systems corporation and one of McElroy’s heroes, called him and a partnership was formed. The two stayed in business together selling stretchable lids, called Total Top, around the world for eight years.

McElroy sold his interest in the company in 1996. Though he didn’t draw or paint, he had always had a reverence for art, sparked by a Picasso exhibit he saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was 19. “[The paintings] were like permanent time capsules of life and what he’d gone through,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘Wow, buildings come and go. People come and go. But art always carries forward.’”

Eighteen years later, he finally had the time and resources to pursue his passion. McElroy went to museums and bought books to study shadowing and technique. He started selling his work—abstract paintings using oil on canvas—to family, friends, and strangers on eBay. Within two years, he had already sold nearly 200 paintings. He credits much of his early success to the business techniques he learned from Perot. “I am not the smartest businessperson or the best artist in the world, but I’m getting the best partners because I just go for it,” he says.

Luck also played a role in one of his big breaks as an artist. In the late 1990s, on a flight to Los Angeles, McElroy found himself sitting next to the head of marketing for Barbie at Mattel. At the time, Mattel was looking for artists to create interpretations of Barbie to celebrate the toy’s 40th anniversary. She told McElroy to send her an idea.

That chance meeting skyrocketed his career. McElroy’s images of Barbie, elegantly dressed and surrounded by flowers and vivid colors—were chosen for the series, and sold as posters, puzzles, and other merchandise alongside Andy Warhol’s 1986 Barbie portrait. Suddenly, Rosie O’Donnell was acquiring a piece from him. Then Madonna and Carlos Leon requested a piece for their daughter. McElroy started selling his work to major companies like McDonald’s, Absolut Vodka, and Mercedes-Benz. Last year, Mattel commissioned him to create a new image of Barbie for the toy’s 60th anniversary in 2019. The 4- by 4-foot painting now hangs in the home of a local collector.

But in 2009, a mugger hit McElroy on the forehead with a golf club while he was stepping off the subway in Brooklyn, and his life screeched to a halt. His brain swelled, resulting in speech problems and double vision, and he was told it could take up to a year to recover.

He moved to Dallas to stay with his nephew, Travis McElroy, and, unable to create art, distracted himself with other things, like giving business advice to Travis. When he could finally paint again, he went at it with a vengeance. “I started working day and night,” McElroy says. “I was so glad I could still do it.”

Travis noticed his uncle’s resilience. “He frolics through life with a jump and a skip in his step. After something like that happens, most people would be much more scared and timid,” he says. “He still does it.”

The experience influenced his art. After the mugging, McElroy’s work is even more joyous and bright—and compelling.
His signature butterflies, which he began drawing in his Dallas studio as a representation of new life and new beginnings, have been sold to collectors as far away as Hong Kong and London.

The material gain isn’t what makes McElroy most proud, though. “I think my biggest success,” he says, tears in his eyes, “[is] that at 60 years old, I still feel childlike in my enthusiasm to keep going at it.”

Portrait by Jonathan Zizzo


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