back to school

photo by Michael Nagle

My beloved New York Times recently did a story about business education for artists. Okay, so the NYT is definitely not “mine,” but I do spend an obscene amount of time trolling its online pages. Procrastination or research? A good dose of both.

Where was I? Right. Art in the classroom.

A June 18th story, “Creative Types, Learning to Be Business Minded,” by Kate Taylor, describes a City of New York-funded program (run by the New York Foundation for the Arts) that teaches business skills to artists. School’s in session for 55 students on five consecutive Saturdays. They’re painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, creative writers, actors, directors, dancers, musicians and others who can’t be slotted into single-word titles, and they’re learning to make money from their creative talents.

The program is a terrific idea and a great public service. It’s also smart thinking for a city that prides itself as North America’s top creative hub, underscored by the fact that the New York City Economic Development Corporation is footing the $50,000 tab. A similar series is also being run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a “lanky puppeteer” and program participant, Eric Wright, who tells reporter Kate Taylor: “People think that art and business are at odds, but you can create great art and have it also be a business.”

Amen to that.

posted 28 Jun 10 in: art, business, media. This post currently has no responses.

the cheaper show

- 200 artists

- 400 pieces of art

- $200 each

That’s The Cheaper Show in a nutshell — and the ninth edition runs this Saturday, June 26th from 6 pm to midnight!

Even if you’re not in the Vancouver area, The Cheaper Show is worth noting. You can even watch a live stream of the action from the event website, filmed by ArtLive.Tv.

Originally called “Cheaper Than a One Night Stand,” the first show was launched in 2001 by Graeme Berglund, Steve Cole and Syx Langeman as a vehicle to promote talented, underexposed artists — and to sell their work at one affordable price. It’s now a non-profit event organized by the Emerging Arts Foundation and run by the Cheaper Crew — 12 artists from East Vancouver — and a team of over 100 volunteers.

The show has grown exponentially to become one of the hottest summer tickets in town (the afterparties don’t hurt, either). Last year, line-ups began snaking around the block a full seven hours before the doors opened and 5,000 people vied to purchase over 200 pieces of art in just five hours. Organizers are expecting 7,000-10,000 for Saturday’s festivities.

The Cheaper Show highlights the hunger for accessible art, introductions to talented new creators, and a lively forum to mingle, sip a cocktail (or three) and celebrate the local visual art scene. Talk about art meeting commerce in the most authentic way possible. It’s also a format that could be easily re-created in cities from coast to coast.

Any art-minded connectors and planners up for the challenge?

posted 23 Jun 10 in: art, business, retail. This post currently has no responses.

meet jamie beck

photos by Jamie Beck

Easy: Getting lost in the dreamy, evocative photographs of From Me To You.

Ridiculously difficult: Choosing just a few images to include in this post.

I have no idea what series of online snakes and ladders first delivered me to Jamie’s gorgeous photo blog; I’m just glad I ended up there at all. Not that the Texas-born, NYC-based photographer is suffering for digital traffic. The girl has a perceptive eye for everything from portraits to urban landscapes to make-you-weep still life shots — and people everywhere are quickly taking notice.

Jamie lives on New York’s Upper West Side and contributes to several online art and lifestyle publications, including Working Class, This Recording, Westside Independent, Apartment Therapy and more. She also shoots editorial and commercial work for a variety of clients and is working to expand her published portfolio (hint: hire her while you still can).

Food is a key theme in both Jamie’s life and photography. Her Friday “Dinner & A Movie” series serves up film-and-food pairings, such as Amélie with mussels or Viva Las Vegas with homestyle pot roast and creamy mashed potatoes. She also posts the recipes and photographs the entire process, so readers can simply drool at the delicious pics or re-create the feast at home.

Despite her busy schedule, Jamie was kind enough to share more about her work, her plans and her growing business. Read on and visit From Me to You to glimpse the world through Jamie’s prolific lens. Just be sure you have a good hour to spare — you, too, are likely to get lost in her extensive visual archives.

1. What fuels your work?

My imagination. It is a blessing and a curse. I can look at things or scenarios or even times of life and make believe what I want to see, which is what I capture in the end. I create through my work the world I see in my head.

2. How do you organize the business side of your life so you still have the time, energy and focus to practice your craft?

That is really really tough. At a certain point I had to just decide that my main purpose is to create and that creating will take priority. I try not to beat myself up when I can’t get everything finished on time or corresponded or there’s a missed opportunity, because I am only one person who can only do one thing at a time. So I just decide what is most important at that moment and do it.

3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

I haven’t met anyone yet who has it all figured out and balanced. So I’ll just say that I admire French people’s approach to life.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

I could have a few but right now I’m just focusing on creating work, getting shoots and putting my name out there. If I wanted to have a steady stream of income I could sell prints / postcards online, stock photography, in addition to being hired for shoots. But like I said, I’m only one person and I choose to spend my time creating and sharing my work in hopes to be hired to shoot commercial / editorial content.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Being hired to photograph whatever it is people want photographed.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

Not yet, however, because there have been so many inquiries about the design of my blog, I am developing a blog design with the web designer who created my blog that people can buy and start their own blogs with! So once that is up for sale, if it is successful, then the answer is YES!

7. What tools or opportunities do you think most creative pros fail to leverage?

I’m not 100% sure how to answer that question right now. I feel at the moment artists (much thanks to everything going digital) are being taken advantage of and devalued by others, as so much has become available through the Internet, and cheaper but better digital cameras are available to consumers. I think it’s really tough being a creative person and making money at your talent. I’d like for someone to answer that question for me!

8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Hands down it has been my blog. It’s been such a great outlet to share projects I’m working on, what I’m doing for clients, and just as a place for this archive of images I have. Through blogging my work, I’ve gown so much as an artist and made wonderful connections which have led to work.

9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?
My knowledge of basic black and white photography. How film works, what it’s made of, how to process it and print it. It’s like how a chef first learns the basics, such as sharpening knifes. This is my foundation.

What has been the biggest waste of time and / or money?

Saying yes to many of those free shoots that promise “great exposure and opportunity.” Some are really worth it but most are not. Go with your gut.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? Do you believe it’s possible to sell out?

Yes, people can sell out. For me, at the end of the day I just do what my gut says and make sure it’s something I’m proud of and will always be proud of, I mean… it is my name attached to it.

Thanks, Jamie!

posted 20 Jun 10 in: art, business, food, inspiration, interviews. This post currently has 12 responses.

meet matte stephens

all images courtesy Matte Stephens

Graceful, eclectic, traditional and cheeky — with a nice dash of impending doom. That’s the world of Portland-based artist Matte Stephens.

Born and raised in Boaz, Alabama, one of the most amazing things about Matte is that he’s never had a job. That’s right: no waiting tables or selling hardware while painting on the side. Straight out of high school, Matte (who’s self-taught) set his sights on a full-time art career. He painted like crazy, put on his best duds and approached all the galleries in a 100-mile radius of his town, asking them to exhibit his work.

As the Internet developed, so did Matte’s career. He was among the first artists to sell his work on eBay — despite the auction site’s less-than-glamorous reputation at the time — and launched his popular blog in 2004. He experimented, made connections, and most of all, kept on painting his expressive gouache-on-panel creations.

Today, Matte shows his work at Seattle’s Velocity Art & Design, Jonathan Adler, and Sebastian Foster. He also does a brisk business from his Etsy shop, sells wholesale prints to galleries around the globe, and takes commercial assignments for select clients including Herman Miller, American Express, Disney, NPR, the Boston Globe, Sunset magazine, Glow magazine and IBM.

In more than 16 years as an independent artist, Matte has learned a lot about business, staying creative and imposing constraints on your work. He’s got a charming southern drawl that’s punctuated by an infectious chuckle – and he generously shared his experiences in a recent phone conversation.

My one regret? That we didn’t have more time to talk.

1. What inspires your work?

I’ve always loved old English movies – Alec Guinness films, like Kind Hearts & Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and lots of old European movies, too, like Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi.

European stuff attracts me more than anything else. It has that sense of impending doom mixed with humor, and a class system that doesn’t exist anymore and that was kind of silly to begin with, but people still seem to have fond memories of it.

2. How do you organize the business side of your life so you still have the time, energy and focus to paint – and to paint well?

My wife, Vivienne, helps me with the shipping and business duties. Otherwise, I find it’s just not that hard. If you get orders, you ship them. If you get commercial work, you make time to do it. Our lives are consumed with it 24 hours a day, but you just make time to do what you need to do. Sometimes if you’re busy, you don’t have a regular life – you don’t go to dinner, or to movies, or have a weekend. You just get the stuff done and you have to find ways to enjoy your life while you’re doing the work. It’s not like we walk in somewhere, put in our eight hours and leave. I’ve lived and breathed painting for 16 years.

3. Is there another artist or creative pro whose business model you admire?

Not necessarily. I started off selling my paintings on eBay in 1999, when I first figured out how to use it. There was an art section, so I thought, “I’m going to try this.” I’ve always just followed my own direction. In 2005, Velocity Art & Design picked my work up, and that changed everything for me. I’ve never asked anyone’s advice about marketing. I’ve just tried to do the work.

How did Velocity change everything?

I sold my work on eBay and made a living. I paid the rent and bought supplies, but there was no extra money. When Velocity picked up my work, it was a whole new world, because Velocity was – and still is, I think – a big deal. They had work by Amy Ruppel and Rex Ray and I already looked up to those people. John, who owns Velocity, bought one of my paintings on eBay for his son and asked me to show there, just out of the blue.

Mostly, it’s been luck. Jonathan Adler contacted me two years ago, and that’s helped a lot, too, with a sense of validation. When they say, “this is good,” it helps your business. And if they say it’s good, maybe other people think it’s good, too.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

I do commercial work for clients like IBM and NPR, Chronicle Books and Disney. I sell paintings at Velocity, Jonathan Adler and Sebastian Foster and I also wholesale prints to galleries all over the world, as long as I like what they do. I make sure to keep control of it. Then there’s my Etsy shop.

My father had seven kids to support in his house, so he had a job, then at night he did woodworking and sold it on the weekends at flea markets. I grew up with a man who knew business really well and showed me that you can’t just depend on one thing to make a living – ever – because nothing is stable. I try to have as many things going on as I can possibly handle.

You want something coming in all the time, so if my Etsy shop is slow or wholesale is slow, then I’ll have commercial work. Something’s always there. The best advice I can offer is to do whatever you have to do. People don’t make that conscious decision anymore. They just think, “well, I’m going to try this,” and if it doesn’t work in a month, they quit.  I never had the option to quit. It was either do this, or work in a chicken plant.

5. What is your bread-and-butter income source?

Print sales through Etsy probably provide the bulk of my income. On average, I sell about 1,100 prints a year, with wholesale on top of that. Galleries will place an order for 30 or 40 prints at a time – wholesale at $60, cut in half to $30, and that’s still really good money.

People probably look down on artists who sell on eBay, but it was such an excellent start for me. I was also in a gallery that wanted me to paint 15 paintings a month. It taught me to be able to create quickly, which is important, and to have consistency in your work that is sellable and good, and it taught me the commercial aspect of art.

The other thing is that you can’t just paint whatever you want to paint; you need to have a connection with people to make a living. You have to find ways to connect or it won’t work at all. It’s the same thing with following trends. If you just follow trends, you’re going to hit a brick wall.

How have you learned to make that connection?

Over years and years of studying. I love movies, and when I was young, every extra cent of my money went to art books. I still study all the time. The European illustrators from the ’40s through the ’70s, for example, were so much further ahead of us Americans. It’s amazing. The stuff they did just blows me away.

English movies and early American movies, they also have a feeling to them. Jacques Tati is one of my favorite filmmakers. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle – I just love those films, and if you can capture a feeling in your art, people like that.

I put constraints on what I do, and that’s helped me a lot, too. I get most of my advice from a man named Irving Harper, who worked for George Nelson Associates in the ‘50s. He designed most of the clocks for George Nelson. He’s 93 years old now. We went to visit him in New York City and that changed my life – my ideas of what you should do in design and art, and how you should make your choices.

Constraints in medium are critical. The less you have to work with, the better you’ll make your work. If you limit yourself to a pencil and a piece of paper and five colors of gouache, you can do a lot more than if you have a computer sitting there with Photoshop, Illustrator, and inks and everything in the world. If you limit what you have to work with, you’ll be surprised by what you can do. They don’t teach that in school.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

Oh yeah – Etsy and wholesale print sales. I wake up every day and check my email, and most of the time I’ve sold something, and that’s wonderful. That’s dinner or a trip to Trader Joe’s!

I’ve been on Etsy for three years and it’s not just the money; it’s the idea that people are buying your work. That’s fun. There are a lot of people on Etsy who do a lot better than I do, too. I went in with the idea of having higher prices. That may have hurt me in some ways, but in many ways it has helped me a lot. My lowest price is $35 for an 8.5 x 11 print. I wanted people to want them.

Artists really need to open their minds to several different ways of making money. That’s what most people don’t understand. Especially out of college, they’ve been prepped to believe that their art is really good and that they deserve a certain amount of something. So they get out of college, they have all this momentum built up, and they’re very excited to start their career, but it doesn’t go the way they expected.

You have to come at it with a different approach. I didn’t think I deserved anything. Art was something that I had to do, instead of something that I chose to do or that I went to college for. Don’t get me wrong; I totally believe in college. I used to dream of going to college. We went to Chicago several years ago and sat across the street from the Art Institute at a place where all these artist kids hang out and it was just depressing to me, because I didn’t get to live that life.

But a lot of students will come out of school and have no idea how to make a living at it. They’ll go straight into commercial work, and that’s a drag. Half of it is boring. I turn down a lot of jobs just because I don’t like the idea, or the assignment doesn’t suit me – and I have the comfort of doing that because of Etsy, original painting sales and the galleries.

7. What tools or opportunities do you think most creative pros fail to leverage?

I think the first thing they have to do is get their work noticed. If they’re doing fairly well and they want to expand, I’d say try to make prints and promote yourself on a blog, and get a Flickr account. Become buddies with the other artists around that are doing similar work to yours. A lot of times other artists can help you as much as you can help yourself.

8. What has brought the most opportunities and attention to your work?

Velocity Art & Design, for sure. But eBay as well. Overall, there were several things that happened. I was featured on Design Sponge early on, and I’ve been on lots of blogs, like sfgirlbybay, and my work was in (the now-defunct) Domino magazine. Having a painting in Domino caused my Etsy sales to shoot up in a single day. The blogs really helped, too. Now I have 16,500 people who “heart” my Etsy shop. That’s amazing. It’s just unbelievable to me.

9. What is the best investment you’ve made in your career?

Books. By far, books – and movies. Knowledge is the best thing that you can have. I collect design stuff, too, like old Herman Miller clocks. To be able to live with that quality of work, it helps you understand what they were doing.

Study and buy books and look at other people’s art and get inspired. Find things that you love about life – and it doesn’t have to be grand ideas. The simplest ideas are the best ones. It’s like when you’re a kid, you go to the fair and you want the biggest, cheesiest stuffed animal and there’s no way you’re going to get it. You want your art to be like that giant, stupid stuffed animal.

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out” debate?

Contributing to some horrific idea of American consumerism. That’s my idea of selling out. And working for big companies that don’t mean anything to you. Taking whatever jobs people offer you.

To me, the point is career longevity, to be able to paint what I want and to control what I do. You’ve got to be very careful, especially if you’re licensing your work. You just have to keep your integrity – whatever that is. I’m not interested in making money for corporations, unless I like the corporation. A lot of artists strive to do that kind of work, but I just never imagined it.

– – –

Thanks, Matte!

posted 25 May 10 in: art, business, inspiration, interviews, retail. This post currently has one response.

TED strikes again

photo of Mary N. Crawford / Smithsonian Institute

Here’s another intriguing TED lecture, this time from Sir Ken Robinson, filmed back in 2006. And yes, that’s “Sir Ken” to you.

Robinson is a professor, leader, speaker and author who has been decorated with more awards than he can juggle, and in 2003, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to the arts. An underachiever, really.

The TED archive is an endless vault of inspiration. Such amazing people and ideas. But back to the talk…

Robinson (funny and perfectly self-deprecating) believes we educate children out of their creative capacities. To paraphrase Picasso, we’re all born artists, but the challenge is to remain one as you grow up.

The highlights:

– “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

– We stigmatize mistakes and our schools reinforce the notion that errors are the worst thing a child can produce.

– Global education systems prioritize math and languages, then humanities. Arts sit at the bottom — if there’s any money left.

– Many brilliant, creative people think they’re deficient. They’re often tagged as unfocused, learning disabled, dreamers, and now, given meds for ADHD.

– Intelligence is diverse, dynamic and distinct. It doesn’t fit a mold.

– We need to educate kids as complete beings — not just floating heads run by left-brain logic.

This summary doesn’t do justice to Robinson’s well-woven argument. But I wanted to pull these points out and chew them over a bit.

My friends and I often discuss the idea that as you get older, it feels tougher to get out of your own way and create something truly new. We’ve debated the possible reasons: cynicism, financial struggles, life and family responsibilities, disappointments, becoming more set in your ways, losing a sense of “freshness” about the world and its possibilities, and on and on.

At the same time, all those opposing forces don’t eliminate the desire to push and stretch and surprise yourself. Robinson makes me feel better about actively protecting creativity. If it’s something you want (both for yourself and a new generation), you’ve got to fight for it.

posted 29 Apr 10 in: art, inspiration, media. This post currently has 4 responses.

the critical question

photo by Leo Reynolds

There’s a question that my friend & collaborator, Lisa Johnson, has taught me to ask — over and over again:

What am I noticing?

You can apply it to your career, a frustrating project, a personal issue, or any other situation that requires assessment. Somehow, this one question unlocks all the ideas and scraps of inspiration that lurk in your mind, eluding conscious thought. It’s a personal barometer — or thermometer. Either way, it pulls up the mental roots and forces you to tell the truth.

It can also provide a creative kick-start. Grab a pen and paper (and a double decaf iced Americano, if you’re Lisa), write this question at the top and get down everything that spills into your head. We’re all familiar with the brainstorming process, but you might be surprised by what this single question reveals.

Then ask it with a twist: What am I noticing about X? Or pose it to someone else: What are you noticing about X?

Ask it often enough and you’ll have a potent guide for your creative life.

posted 27 Apr 10 in: art, inspiration. This post currently has no responses.

brief encounters

aerialist Keely Sills

What happens when you cross a marketing executive with a theatrical dance artist? How about a floral designer and an African drummer? If you’re lucky, you get Brief Encounters — the ultimate live mashup created by Vancouver’s Tomorrow Collective.

Produced by Katy Harris-McLeod and Mara Branscombe, each installment matches 12 artists in six unexpected pairings. The partners meet just two weeks before the show to create a 10-minute live performance. The results are strange, unpredictable and sometimes even breathtaking.

I had been meaning for months to check out Brief Encounters (they’re on installment #14), and a well-timed text finally got me in the audience on Saturday. Two high points of the night included a moving collaboration between hip hop dancer Yoshi Hisanaga and visual artist Yun Lam Li, and the partnership between aerialist Keely Sills and acclaimed storyteller Ivan Coyote.

producers Mara Branscombe and Katy Harris-McLeod

It all comes down to chemistry. Hisanaga and Li joked about their generation gap in an intro video, but blended video, music and masterful live dancing into an experience that stunned the silent crowd. Then, suspended high above the stage, Sills effortlessly flipped and stretched her body through the silks while Coyote wove a restrained tale of love, loss and family. Magic.

There will always be bigger hits and a few near-misses, but I love the spirit of this series. It made me think more deeply about collaboration — and breaking boundaries. What could give your work new colour? And why not impose a two-week timeline on an ambitious project? It’s an effective way to stop procrastinating and second-guessing yourself. There simply isn’t time.

Creativity is always pulsing below the surface, but sometimes it takes an impossible deadline (and flat-out panic) to push past what feels like a barrier. We’ve all had 11th hour triumphs. This show demonstrated that time and collaboration are ingredients — elements you can mix at will to create something surprising.

posted 19 Apr 10 in: art, dance, media, performance. This post currently has no responses.

april is for poetry

April is always a brighter month for my inbox. Each day, Knopf Poetry sends out a free poem from a diverse roster of writers including Marge Piercy, Mark Strand, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edward Hirsch. It’s Knopf’s way of celebrating National Poetry Month and bringing some well-deserved attention to the genre. The program also offers bonus features such as downloadable broadsides, audio clips and signed books.

This beauty by Anne Michaels arrived one April morning last year — right next to the cell phone bill and news of a Dutch lottery jackpot — and took my breath away. Hope it fuels your creative fires, too.

There is No City that Does Not Dream

There is no city that does not dream
from its foundations. The lost lake
crumbling in the hands of the brickmakers,
the floor of the ravine where light lies broken
with the memory of rivers. All the winters
stored in that geologic
garden. Dinosaurs sleep in the subway
at Bloor and Shaw, a bed of bones
under the rumbling track. The storm
that lit the city with the voltage
of spring, when we were eighteen
on the clean earth. The ferry ride in the rain,
wind wet with wedding music and everything that
sings in the carbon of stone and bone
like a page of love, wind-lost from a hand, unread.

posted 9 Apr 10 in: art, books. This post currently has no responses.

the look of creativity

Where is the lightning to lick you with its tongue? Where is the madness with which you should be cleansed? Behold, I show you the Superman. He is this lightning, he is this madness.

Friedrich Nietzsche (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Here’s another interesting thread from Psychology Today (a magazine I’ve been surprised to find myself reading with increasing frequency).

In a post titled, “What Do Creative People Look Like?” psychologist and resident blogger Mark Batey writes about the intellectual and personality markers that often define highly creative people — traits such as divergent thinking, curiousity, extroversion vs. introversion, and comfort with disagreement. Then he moves on to tackle motivation. Batey writes:

“There are two major strands to thinking about motivation and creativity. The first concerns general motivation. Creative people tend to be highly driven, hard working, persistent and possessive of a ‘never say die’ attitude. Coming up with new ideas that challenge existing paradigms is never an easy task. Armed with indefatigability — the creator ploughs a lonely, but steady furrow.

The second strand involves motivational orientation. In simple terms, we find that creative people have a tendency towards intrinsic motivation. That is, they are driven from within — by a sense of challenge, curiosity, desire to explore and to meet internal expectations. However, the picture is not so clear cut… Extrinsic motives (external facing motives like – respect, reward, remuneration, etc.,) can also be high priorities for creative people. The challenge lies in balancing the desire to listen to internal drives whilst maintaining enough external focus to see how the creative idea, process or product will be welcomed (or not!) by the outside world.”

Sounds true to me. I like Batey’s assessment of general motivation, which fights a cartoonish, Hollywood image of the artist struck with sudden genius, eschewing sleep and sustenance to channel overnight genius. That happens, clearly, and it’s a pretty fantastic high. But creativity is a daily business that can sometimes feel like drudgery, and, when it does, that doesn’t mean the outcome will be any less innovative.

I also appreciate the grey fabric of internal motivation. Is it inauthentic to feel driven by creative excitement AND a solid paycheck? Does it have to be a lonely path littered with empty bottles? Obviously not. Batey’s post highlights the slippery median between creativity and commerce. It acknowledges that feeding an internal fire can co-exist with paying the mortgage, and that it’s human to consider intangibles like respect and reward. Creativity is never a simple beast. Like all of us, it’s complicated, murky, and fascinating — especially when fully engaged.

posted 4 Mar 10 in: art, media. This post currently has one response.


The City of Light has been good to Pierre Lamielle. The Calgary author, artist and chef has won “Best Food Book Illustrations in the World” at the Gourmand Awards for his cookbook, Kitchen Scraps. Now that the prize is in the bag, Pierre can begin the serious (and well deserved) task of tasting his way across Paris.

illustration by Pierre Lamielle

posted 16 Feb 10 in: art, business, food. This post currently has no responses.

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