inspiration

meet zoe pawlak

photo by RAD Studio

Today, my friends, you’re in for a treat, because Vancouver-based painter Zoe Pawlak is sharing her well-earned wisdom on art, persistence and strategic creativity.

I first met Zoe through Loaded Bow – a venture she co-owns with Genevieve Ennis designed to connect and support women entrepreneurs. Zoe’s one of those people who can turn strangers into allies in five minutes flat. She’s warm and driven with a ridiculously sharp mind for business. Most importantly, her paintings draw you deep into the canvas with vibrant, vivid colors and hypnotic images.

Zoe studied painting at Concordia University and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. She’s the rare artist who enjoys both a thriving critical practice – including solo and group shows across the continent – and a successful career painting commissioned, site-specific works. She also served as Head of Community Relations for the 2010 Cheaper Show and writes for the Art Toronto blog, impression / expression.

Whew.

As the mom of two kids under five, Zoe’s determined to follow her creative instincts and support her family. She also talks about painting with a sense of excitement that’s surprisingly rare.  Zoe’s downright giddy about spending her days in the studio and sees sales and marketing as a welcome challenge – and a great adventure.  So sharpen your pencil or power up your iPad and prepare to take notes. There’s so much to learn from this lovely and talented lady.

1. What fuels your work?

I started painting because I love people, so I painted the figure for a long time and I practiced figure drawing and portraiture, because I wanted to tell the story of what people physically look like and how they move through the world. Over the last few years, my work has been emotive landscapes that are either physical or emotional places, and the paintings are made from memory. I arrive at them through experimentation and intuition and I just sense when they’re complete.

These days, I’m moving back into figurative work and trying to combine the figure with partial narratives and stories about women, specifically, and what we’re experiencing.

2. How do you balance the different demands of painting and business?

There’s a natural intrusion that occurs and I actually really enjoy it. It’s the spontaneity that drives my work. When I’m painting, I have a lot of time by myself and ideas just come to me about how I could sell work and move it through the market. I actually enjoy the peace and the rest that painting gives me. It fuels creative ideas and innovative ways of doing business.

I’ll paint for about an hour, hour and a half, put on music and get into it. If an idea comes to me about a client that I have to follow up with or a really beautiful blog that I forgot to write down, I’ll stop painting. I have my laptop in my studio and I’ll work for 20 or 30 minutes and pursue certain ideas. I’m a strong believer in always putting your work out there, so for the past three or four years, I’ve always spent a minimum of 15 minutes a day putting my work out into the world.

I feel like being in business drives a lot of the ways I think about painting. I have a responsibility to make honest work, but I also want it to be relevant to people.

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

I really admire two Vancouver women: designer Martha Sturdy and Jane Cox, who works in partnership with her husband at Cause+Affect.

Martha is very persistent and she’s built an empire. She paved the way for us. We get to do what we do because women like Martha Sturdy have pushed through. I was fortunate to have a phone interview with Martha once and she ended by saying, “make sure that you’re always having adventures.” But throughout our the conversation, she kept saying that you have to be persistent, make what you want, put it out in the world – and if you love it, people will love it. Well, sometimes they won’t, but as a creative person, you have to continue to make the work that you really want to make.

I’ve recently gotten to know Jane and I respect the fact that she’s worked hard and shaped the company based on her strong philosophical beliefs. Jane is very attentive to what she thinks is going on, what people need, and she’s behind so many great cultural events in the city, like the introduction of Pecha Kucha in Vancouver. She’s taken Vancouver up as a calling. I think she’s very wise and innovative, and I feel that Cause+Affect thinks farther into the future than many other companies.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

I make my money only through painting and drawing, but I do so in two ways. One is selling my original paintings and the other is commission work, which I’ve really pursued and tried to carve out as niche for myself by providing clients with a service. I say service, because people do receive an original painting. I believe in that originality and I don’t make prints.

Last month, for example, I worked with a clinic that needed art for their interiors and I sold them five paintings. Three were commissions based on their space. They sent photographs and I took elements from the pre-existing colour scheme and other details and I made them into original paintings. They also two bought two of my original pieces. I always make sure to bring the work right into the client’s space. Nine times out of ten when I bring work into a space, it doesn’t leave.

I’ll give minor discounts and I offer payment plans – I try to make it accessible – but I pay real attention to customer service. I think of myself as a people person and customer service is of the utmost importance.

I applied to participate in a recent city mural project with RUF Project and for Brief Encounters, as well, which are dependent on grant funding. I’m really interested in the public and performative aspects of painting.

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

Commissions probably represent 60 percent of my income. The sale of original pieces accounts for the other 40 percent.

How do people – especially other artists – react to your focus on custom work and the idea of customer service?

Artists want to make a living from their work, but a lot of them don’t want to alter their art to meet the needs of clients, or they don’t even think of the people who buy their art as clients. So, sometimes it’s met with suspicion. Most artists believe that they’re doomed to carry another job and few believe that it’s possible to make a living independently. But when you go through traditional systems, such as galleries, you’re still subject to other people’s ideas of what your art should look like and how it should ultimately be.

I’ve seen a lot of artists who think they’ve arrived after securing gallery representation and then they’re either disappointed or surprised if they don’t sell well. They just assume “Okay, now I’m in this big gallery, now I’m going to sell,” but if they’re not making a living, their studio practice suffers. At the end of the day, my mission is to support my studio practice, which affords me the ability to make new ideas happen. I get to advance my career and I work full-time in the studio. I don’t take that lightly and consider it a huge blessing.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

I’ve done other things, such as teaching, and I’ve let my attention become very divided in the pursuit of making a living. But time and time again, my husband always says, “you pay yourself the most when you’re painting.” At this point in my career, I’m very committed to doing what is the most lucrative. I only have to sell one big painting in order to make my monthly income, for example, so why would I do 15 other little things and run around like crazy? But you still have to do a lot of work to ensure one or two sales.

photo by RAD Studio

7. What tools or money-making opportunities do you think artists and creative pros should consider?

Right now, I’m really excited about video. I think video and YouTube are a great way to give people a glimpse into your studio practice and who you are. Essentially, I believe that people are looking for connection – across the board. Through Oprah, through yoga, through everything, we’re looking to connect with each other. So, anything that allows you to touch your customer and connect with people is going to make you more prosperous.

I also believe in follow-up. My last 50 clients have come from following up on leads. You have to be first-of-mind for people. I often meet people who don’t have any money – they’re students, they have debt, whatever – but I know that in seven years when they have $2,000 in the bank, I trust that they may buy a painting from me, because they’ve responded to the paintings, I’ve planted that seed and I’m authentically building that relationship.

I feel honored, too, when I sell a painting, because that means you’re leaving a piece in someone’s home. They live with that painting every day and they’re giving you a huge piece of their interior physical space. It’s a big responsibility. People wake up in the morning, they’re drying their hair and doing their thing and I feel honored that they let me live permanently in their homes.

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

Design*Sponge. In 2008, Grace Bonney featured my work on her blog and I sold over 20 paintings in three days. It also led to a commission with Chloe Warner of Redmond Aldrich Design. She hired me to create a piece in San Francisco, which was my biggest commission to date. I also got to travel down there and the piece was photographed for Martha Stewart Living.

Building visibility in my hometown, Vancouver, has also been valuable. I’ve done that through the Cheaper Show, IDS West, and a couple wedding fairs. I also send free thank you cards (with my website on the back) for real estate agents. They give the cards to clients who have new homes with empty walls. I’ve also offered agents a deal on a commission and they, in turn, give their clients my card with the gift of a custom painting. When the agent knows their client is an art lover, it connects me to the client, the homeowner gets a commissioned, one-of-a-kind piece – and they always have more walls to fill.

After the first Design*Sponge feature, I wrote a story for the site’s Biz Ladies section and provided a PDF of my thank you card. Anyone who reads it can take the PDF to a printer and, of course, the card has my website on the back. That led to about 300 email requests and now those cards are living out in the world. There are all kinds of ways to do things for free.

From a business perspective, I never see selling one painting as good enough. If someone says they want one painting, I bring three and show them more. Or if they say, “I love that, but it’s sold,” I say, “I’d love to do a commission for you. Let me come over and I can customize it to your space.” I work hard to meet people’s needs. There’s no such thing as a dead end.

I’ve also done a lot of business with women through Loaded Bow. I give work to charitable auctions, which has been awesome and ultimately, very lucrative. I make sure to attend the auction and talk to people. You can’t let your piece sit out in the middle of nowhere. I also promote emerging Canadian artists for impression/expression, which is the Art Toronto blog. When I write for others, I always ensure that my name is hyper-linked to my site and I get a lot of traffic back that way.

Is there anything that hasn’t been worth the effort?

I’ve done so many things that aren’t worth it! I did a joint show during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. At the end, we realized, “oh, so people were here for the sports and the beer!” That was an expensive mistake. We rented an empty space and took a month out of our studio practice to be present and the show, but no one came. The South Granville area was like a ghost town.

Still, I wouldn’t discourage people from trying new things. Make small, thoughtful investments and do them really well. I’ve made this mistake a lot – and I keep making it: Appearing mediocre because you’re too cheap or unwilling to go all the way to fully realize an idea. That is a weakness.

Even if you only have a bit of money, do it 110%. Really commit. People recognize quality and they’re looking for quality – and if you’re not good at the little details, ask for help. I outsource all the time. I’m always asking to do trades with people. I trade for yoga and haircuts and massages, but also to promote my business. Try and outsource that which is not your strength. Again, I pay myself the most when I’m painting.

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

Ever since I had kids, I feel strongly that you need to do what you’re meant to do. The biggest investment is actually the time you give up to work. You have to be apart from your home and the people who matter to you. I spend a lot of hours in the studio in pursuit of this thing that I could be wrong about and that I’m often wrong about. It takes faith to commit your time and energy. I was out four nights last week promoting my work. I feel very fortunate that I can do it, but it’s still a sacrifice and an investment. I really want my children to do exactly what they’re meant to do in the world – whatever that is.

photo by RAD Studio

10. Where do you stand on the “selling out?” debate? What would selling out look like to you?

Why are we creating this polarized conversation about selling out versus purity? I’m so excited when I experience art that comes from a clear vision. Someone like Rothko, for example. When I look at his work, I’m so grateful that he never deviated from the “purity” of his vision. He never sold out, so to speak. I think there’s a stronger cultural impact if someone is true to his or her art. But can you afford that in this capitalist world? I’m unwilling to suffer in the ways so many artists have and still do. I want to have a balanced life more than I want to have my ideas completely manifested through my paintings.

Ultimately, I know when I’ve sold out. I know when I’ve sold something and I thought it wasn’t really done or very good or it deviated from my true style. But you can only find your compass by messing up. I hear that from a lot of entrepreneurs. Cut ties with the things that you know are wrong, right from the beginning. You knew it six months ago. You knew it a year ago. Then when you’re free, you have space for other things to come in.

Thanks, Zoe!

posted 6 Dec 10 in: art, business, inspiration, interviews, media, performance. This post currently has 7 responses.

impossibly cool

Talk about inspired outsiders — and a damn simple blog concept. Check out the legendary images that Sean Sullivan curates over at the impossible cool.

Karina, Godard, Picasso, Davis, Bardot, Brando, Bacall, Hendrix, Harry, Hopper and many, many more.

Enjoy!

posted 24 Nov 10 in: inspiration, media. This post currently has no responses.

meet molly watson

photos courtesy Molly Watson

I live on the West Coast and love seafood, so you’d think I’d be intimately familiar with mussels. Right? Wrong. For years, those delicious little devils scared the shells out of me. I feared the de-bearding and most of all, serving my guests an unexpected side of toxic encephalopathy (look it up – actually, on second thought, please don’t).

That all changed when I discovered Molly Watson and her lovely blog, The Dinner Files. Molly makes simple, seasonal foods that are easy to replicate. Even the most basic recipes, like a cherry smoothie or chickpea salad, get a unique twist in Molly’s deft hands. She’s also got a subversive sense of humor that gives her writing a delightfully cranky edge.

After earning a PhD in Modern European History, the reality of teaching French history failed to live up to her ideal vision, so Molly channeled her love of all things culinary into a career in food writing. She landed her first gig with Epicurious – in the early days when friends repeatedly asked “epi-what?” – and interned for Citysearch San Francisco. When the economy turned sluggish and 9/11 blindsided the nation, Molly decided to don her apron full time. She completed a professional cooking program and joined Sunset magazine as the staff food writer from 2005 to 2008.

Today, Molly is an independent writer. Her words have been published in The New York Times, Edible San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle, and she contributed an essay, “Scrambled Eggs” to the best-selling anthology, The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image, and Other Hazards of Being Female. She also writes a guide to local foods for About.com, works as a recipe developer and teaches food writing through Mediabistro.

Oh, and the mussels? Thanks to Molly, they’re now a (perfectly safe) staple dish in my kitchen.

1. What fuels your work?

Some of my work is fuelled by the fact that I like to get a check on a regular basis. But, I try to make sure that everything I do is informed either by my interest in food or my drive to write. That’s how I make sure that I don’t get too far afield.

Overall, what really fuels my work is craft. I love the craft of writing, I love the craft of cooking, I love the craft of quilting – which is one of my hobbies – and I used to be a historian, and I love the craft of history. That’s the connective thread between all of my work.

2. How do you organize the business side of your career so it doesn’t intrude on your creativity or productivity?

I try to sequester it. I try to set aside a time each week where I deal with those tasks. Now, I don’t always follow through with that plan. I’ve been quite busy this year, so I usually deal with the administrative stuff at night when I’m not as fresh. I also tend it to do it when I have a movie or a podcast on, because I find it’s so boring that being slightly distracted is helpful. I try to turn it into a reward.

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

I can’t think of anyone specifically, but there is a type of person. I admire people who manage to turn their creative endeavors into their day jobs. So much of that is luck, but I really admire the people who keep their creative work in the forefront, even when they’re doing other kinds of work. To me, that’s really the goal: to make sure that my creative work comes first.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

Four: writing for publications, editing, teaching food writing and recipe development. But, my short answer is: too many. I’m doing too many different things right now and I’m stretched a little thin.

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

Editing.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

It’s something that’s definitely on the horizon for me. I have a lot of ideas and I just need the time to follow through on them.

7. What tools or money-making opportunities do you think creative pros fail to leverage?

I think some people are ashamed to admit how they make money, or they think they’re supposed to earn it purely through their creative work, or they think all the creative people they know or have heard of make their money that way, and it’s just so rarely the case.

It’s important to get a sense how other people make it work – just to get ideas and to feel better about how difficult it is, because it’s really hard. It’s really, really hard to make a living in a creative field, and everyone comes to their own conclusions about how to do it.

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

Going to professional conferences. I find that meeting people in person makes a big difference in terms of the opportunities that will come to you.

Writers, in particular, tend to be such reclusive creatures. Part of what we like about writing is being by ourselves. And I would say that’s one of the fine lines of difference between journalists and writers. Journalists tend to enjoy being out in the world. I think writers really don’t. I know I don’t, not really. I’m a perfectly socialized individual, but I thrive when I have a lot of time to myself.

I think a mistake writers often make is thinking they can do everything over the computer or over the phone. Sometimes it’s good to get out and meet people. Certainly all the opportunities I’ve had in my career have come from people that I’ve actually met in person.

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

Spending the money to attend food writing conferences.

Is there anything that didn’t live up to your expectations?

Sometimes I question my time in culinary school. On one hand, I feel like I didn’t get that much out of it, because of how culinary school is set up and what I wanted to learn. But, I had a big break when I got a staff job at Sunset magazine. I don’t think I would have gotten that job if I hadn’t gone to cooking school. Even though I had already developed recipes for the magazine as a freelancer, I think having that stamp on my resume made a big difference.

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

To me, it’s about staying true to what you want to do. As long as you feel good about what you’re doing, you’re not really selling out and other people can throw all the rocks they want from their glass houses. I don’t judge people on that kind of thing. I figure everyone has different goals. I don’t know what someone’s goals are – they’re going to be totally different from mine. And even mine change over time.

At the beginning of this year, I made a professional New Years resolution that any work I would take needed to be fulfilling or lucrative. It had to be at least one of those two things. It has made a real difference in the kind of work that I do. I found myself taking work that at one point I might have considered “selling out,” but taking that work has freed up time I used to spend chasing marginally paying magazine articles and allows me to work on more creative projects.

Is there anything else you’ve learned and would like to share?

My biggest lesson is that no one is going to invite you to the party. You have to just show up. You can’t sit around your house waiting for someone to call you up and ask if you’d like to write this book or get this job. Maybe that will happen eventually, and it does happen to some people, but for the most part, you have to go out into the world and show up and do it.

Today, people worry that there are so many food bloggers and all these people who want to do food writing, and I say, “yeah, and most of them aren’t very good and most of them aren’t going to follow through.” I don’t mean that in a nasty way or that most people aren’t any good. I mean there are a lot of people who say they want to be writers or painters or artists, but they don’t do it. They don’t show up. It’s important to realize that it’s unusual to show up and actually do the work. Persistence really is at least half the battle.

Thanks Molly!

posted 7 Nov 10 in: books, business, food, inspiration, interviews, media. This post currently has no responses.

taking stock

photo by Simon Pais

Somehow I never get around to spring cleaning. Once the leaves appear I have the same itch to burst out and be free. Who wants to spend quality time with a toilet brush when the air outside is so delicious?

Fall is a different story.

I get that Neanderthalian urge to roast some meat, cozy up in the cave and pull out the sweaters — some of which inevitably look strange after a year in hiding. They’re pilly or stretched out or just plain weird. Hence my need to do some serious fall cleaning, which is exactly how I spent this last rainy weekend.

Grade school first trains us in the rhythms of the seasons. Fall is busy, productive and often highly focused. It can be tricky just to keep up. But that’s why it’s an important time to keep the cobwebs at bay, in every sense of the word.  Creative pursuits need heavy scrubbing, too. Ask yourself:

– Where do I feel the most heat in my work?

– What gets me out of bed in the morning?

– What activities, contracts, tasks, or ideas have lost their shine?

– What should I spend more time doing?

– What should I stop doing?

Clearing out the clutter sounds cheery and virtuous, but it can also be hard work. It’s tedious and it’s not always easy to release a dead-end project — or a threadbare sweater. With cleaning, though, comes clarity. Suddenly, it’s so much easier to appreciate what you’ve already got while moving steadily toward what you really want.

posted 25 Oct 10 in: business, inspiration. This post currently has 2 responses.

kate vs. the kitten heel

I love the clean, girlie-punk look of Elle style director Kate Lanphear — and I’m not alone. She’s got hoardes of online fans who dissect each and every thread she sports on the streets of NYC.

Even more impressive than Kate’s way with black silk and silver chains is her unwavering self-possession. In this story for Elle.com, Kate describes her conservative upbringing and a brief period of conformity via preppy plaid, ladylike slingbacks and knee-length dresses.

But when a pair of acid-washed jeans drew her like a sailor to a siren, she decided to chuck convention and wore the denim to a critical meeting. It was time to unveil her true fashion-savant self — take it or leave it.

Now her distinctive aesthetic is copied in cities worldwide. It’s perhaps her greatest professional asset. What’s even better? Fashion insiders say she’s a kind and generous presence in a notoriously catty industry. Heck, she’s even talked about leaving the fashion world to become a social worker. Kate demonstrates beautifully why style is always best served up with substance.

posted 21 Sep 10 in: design, fashion, inspiration, media. This post currently has no responses.

photography

I’ve been thinking lately about photography as a tool for innovation. Of course, it’s also a serious art form, but even the most amateur photos reveal something that’s nearly impossible to write or speak. Cameras are instruments of creative democracy.

Painters, architects, writers, foodies, fashion designers — name an artsy pursuit and it inevitably intersects with photography. Still images offer inspiration, reference, perspective, memory and so much more.

My first camera was a Kodak disc. I took it to the zoo and when the prints came back, I had shot after blurry, bleary shot of llama nostrils and elephant skin. Following a series of increasingly high-tech point-and-shoots (a mini zoom lens! leather wrist strap!) I graduated to my Mom’s Nikon FG manual SLR, which had been gathering dust in the broom closet. I took an art college course to learn basic shooting and darkroom techniques and began snapping photos for my university’s student newspaper.

I loved the constant access to a darkroom and, more importantly, I was thrilled to stand below the stage and capture Radiohead, the Cowboy Junkies, Art Bergmann, Billy Bragg and long-gone punk bands in the dusty light. I lost track of photography after I graduated and struggled to join the digital revolution. But I’m finding my way back. I have a new camera that I love and I’m using it more often for interviews and to explore my favorite subject — people.

I hope to post more photos in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I dug out some old black & white prints and put the scanner through its paces.

How do you use photography in your creative work?

posted 16 Sep 10 in: art, inspiration, performance. This post currently has no responses.

meet gretchen gammell

all images courtesy Gretchen Gammell

Is it cheating that I first saw Gretchen Gammell’s paintings in a gallery just a block from my home – and that I had a wine glass in my hand? Regardless, I was quickly smitten. She’s got a graceful, evocative, deceptively simple style and a near-obsession with technique.

Painting has always flowed through Gretchen’s veins. She was a creative kid whose grandfather is a working artist and whose uncle is a children’s book illustrator. “In my family, it wasn’t considered completely crazy to be an artist,” she says. “I was comfortable with art as a career path.”

After completing a painting degree from the Oregon College of Art and Craft, Gretchen began exhibiting her acrylic and watercolor work in Portland. Soon, the Winsor Gallery in Vancouver, B.C. came calling, then the Hallway Gallery in Bellevue, followed by Whistler’s Hayden Beck Gallery. December will take her into SoCal with a show at L.A.’s Left Coast Galleries.

Gretchen now lives in Vancouver, Washington (the other Vancouver) and takes commissions from private clients and businesses, in addition to expanding her gallery roster. Like her hero, the late American watercolor virtuoso Andrew Wyeth, Gretchen is focused on mastering her chosen subject matter – the female form. She’s determined to improve her painting with every brushstroke.

She’s also a heck of a lot of fun. You’ll notice that this interview is a little long. That’s because we kept talking and talking. If only Gretchen herself lived right around the corner…

1. What fuels your work?

I’m obsessed with becoming absolutely adept at working with the materials. Trying to master acrylic and watercolor paint is my main focus. It’s not about the images – it’s about asking myself, how can I come up with the best color palette? How do I handle line? How do I handle paint? It’s almost a science experiment for me when I’m in my studio.

I want to be a really, really good craftsman and luckily, I also really enjoy coming up with subject matter and themes and there are lots of things that I love to paint and draw, but once I’m actually working, it’s so process-oriented. I’m a perfectionist and I want to be the best painter that I can possibly be – in a strictly manual sense.

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

I find it amusing how people think that being an artist is so glamorous. They imagine I’m on an existential high all the time – and it’s so not like that. The older I get and the more I branch out, it also increases the paperwork and schedules and details. It’s exhausting, but I make painting my first priority. That’s what comes first. I treat painting like a job, and that means I go to my studio for at least an eight-hour work day, and I work and paint for that time, just like anyone else with a 9-to-5 job. Then I take care of all the other things and I usually go back to work until I need to fall asleep. So, I just work all the time.

I used to work in a separate studio, which I loved, but now I work from home, so I have access to everything else I need to do. It’s totally boring, but I can do laundry, take care of my dogs, handle mail and I can take care of everything else that goes with it.

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

No, but not because there aren’t people I would admire, but because I never make time to find out what’s going on with anybody else. That’s just how I am. I don’t know many other artists and I don’t really talk about business with many other people. So, I never know how anybody else is doing it. It would be great if someone would show up and say, “Hey, I have this fantastic business model! Try it out.” But, I’d need it hand-delivered to my doorstep.

4. How many revenue streams do you have?

Two. Gallery representation and commission work.

I’ve almost always had a part-time job on the side, too. There are a couple reasons for it: One, I’m super paranoid. I was raised by a father who wanted to make sure I was completely capable of taking care of myself financially, and being an artist is such an unpredictable thing that it’s nice to have one paycheck that you know is coming – even if it’s $90. Also, working from home as an artist can be incredibly isolating and your world can get smaller and smaller. Having a reason to get out of the house and be social and be back in touch with reality is really necessary for me.  Right now I’m working as a barista. I do that two days a week and I really like it.

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

Gallery representation. But, it does change from year to year. It’s very unpredictable. Some years I get a lot of commission work, and some years I don’t.

Where do your commissions typically come from?

Often people will see my website and contact me to request a commission. Other times, they’ll have seen my work at one of the galleries and maybe the piece they wanted had sold, so they want to talk to me about creating something especially for them. I’ve also noticed that a lot of businesses are starting to pay attention to artwork in their décor, so I’ve had a big increase in commissions from hotels and other companies.

6. Do you have a passive income stream?

No. I’ve thought about it, but I’m not ready to go there.

Why?

I don’t think I’m established enough to make prints. I’m a big fan of one-of-a-kind pieces. It’s really wonderful to think about someone having the only piece. However, I’m not against prints. I think they’re great, but I feel like I need to be at a higher level to image that my work justifies having editions.

I also think craftsmanship is a really lost component of art these days. I think that art – fine art – is a craft, just like carpentry. It’s something that distinguishes artists from each other. It’s really important for me to stand behind my work, not just conceptually or aesthetically, but also to know that I made it the best I could possibly make it and it’s not lacking attention to detail – even the details that people don’t know or care about.

7. What tools or opportunities do you think artists often fail to leverage?

I know there are grants and other funding sources out there. I hear about them, but I just don’t have time to look into those things and I don’t have the energy to convince someone to give me money to make something. Maybe I’m choosing the harder route by not taking advantage of those opportunities, but I know what kind of energy levels I have, and I can only put my energy into so many places.

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

Honestly, it’s people who are generous enough to support and spread news about me through word of mouth – even perfect strangers. I get a lot of emails from people who see my work and want to write about it, or post it on their Facebook profile, or they bought a piece and shared it at a dinner party. That’s how I’ve gotten attention over the years. I’m always amazed by how willing people are to advertise for someone they don’t know, just because they’re excited about the work – and that’s great.

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

I think there are two:

When I first started showing my work, for about four years, I would always send a note to anybody who bought a painting – just to tell them something about the painting that they didn’t know, or to thank them for coming to a show. As a result, I have this box filled with the most amazing letters that people sent in response. They would send me very personal letters about themselves and pictures and incredible stuff that they were entrusting me with, just because they had one of my paintings. It was so cool to have these private notes and I think at the time, it gave me a great perspective on how people react to art. I don’t have the time to do that anymore, and I wish I did.

Then, two years ago, I got divorced and was having a very difficult time. I was burnt out and struggling. So, I went to France. My plan was to stay for three months to paint and get in touch with myself again, and I ended up not painting for three months – which sounds like the antithesis of investing in my career. But, it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done for myself. It was the first time since I was a teenager that I didn’t touch any art materials at all. I just played the piano and shut my head off, and it was amazing.

At the end of the three months, I was supposed to come back to the U.S., because I had two shows opening and I needed to start working on them. I realized that if I didn’t make the shows there, I wouldn’t make them at all. I didn’t have a visa, but I had my materials sent over and I stayed another five months. I painted there and shipped everything home. It was really expensive and I was terrified that I was going to get deported – and I’m someone who doesn’t like to break the rules – but I just had to do it. And after those three months of not painting, I was so ready to work and something had changed for me. I was more focused than I’d ever been.

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

It definitely wasn’t a waste, but art school was frustrating because I was very, very clear about what I was doing from a young age. My instructors all said, “You’re too young to know what your style is yet. You really need to start from the basics, then when you’re older and have more experience, you can start to develop your own style.”

I just knew that wasn’t true for me, so it was a battle all through school. I knew my style was young, but I just wanted to get a grasp on it and flesh it out and get better. I’m happy that I went to college. I met wonderful people and it was a good time to learn about materials, but it was difficult in the sense that I had to be kind of a brat in order to preserve what I thought was most beneficial to me as an artist.

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

I don’t think that trying to make money from your art and treating it as a business is selling out. I don’t think you need to be starving and struggling all the time in order to be an authentic artist. Learning how to be a good business person, in my opinion, is a really smart move, because it’s all about protecting yourself and providing the means to be a better artist.

What I think of as selling out is taking your art in a direction that isn’t what you truly think it is. For example, because my paintings are so figurative and I use a lot of symbolism, they tend to get interpreted as having all sorts of deep meanings. But, I don’t have those kinds of thoughts, and I’m not super profound. If I claimed to have these really intellectual, deep, political, feminist theories behind my work, it wouldn’t be authentic and that would be selling out. People can project that onto my work as much as they want, and that’s fine, because it’s there for them to do so, but I can’t claim those things. That would make me a sell-out, because I’d just be pleasing what people want to hear.

Is there anything else you’ve learned and want to share?

The business side of being an artist is completely overlooked. I think it’s hard to balance being creative with being a businesswoman, because I’m not necessarily oriented that way. I’m very visual, I’m very color-oriented, so then I have to think about math and deadlines and being formal and it’s a very different side of me that I’ve had to train over the years. But it’s important, because you can get really taken advantage of. It’s not necessarily about making money. It’s about protecting myself and being in charge of what I’m doing. It’s about being self sufficient, and that’s really important to me.

Also, I think that simply making time to work is one of the most important things an artist can do. A lot of people don’t have the discipline to just work. When I was really young and thinking about an art career, my uncle said, “my only advice is that you go into your studio and you stay there until your work day is over – even if you just end up staring at a wall.”

Thanks, Gretchen!

posted 23 Aug 10 in: art, inspiration, interviews. This post currently has 9 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.

break it down: hussein chalayan

Still think you can’t honour your creative vision and find success? Clearly you haven’t met fashion designer Hussein Chalayan (well, neither have I, but that won’t stop us from analyzing his playbook).

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1970, Chalayan moved with his family to England in 1978 and studied design at London’s famed Central Saint Martins. He immediately raised eyebrows with his 1993 graduate collection, called “The Tangent Flows,” which included clothes that he buried in his backyard and later dug up to exhibit. Struck by the strange beauty of his vision, luxury London retailer Browns snapped up the whole collection and displayed it in-house.

The publicity spree continued when Chalayan won a fashion competition sponsored by design-forward liquor brand Absolut. The win meant that at age 25, Chalayan was given approximately £28,000 in financial backing to develop a collection for the 1995 London Fashion Week.

spring 2009 ready-to-wear

His reputation for avant-garde, intellectual, rigorous designs grew and Chalayn soon connected with the famously eclectic Icelandic singer Björk, who wore a Chalayan jacket on the cover of her 1995 album, Post, and donned several of his pieces throughout her Post tour.

For the next three years, Chalayan was a design consultant for New York knitwear label TSE. He also designed for Marks and Spencer, worked with Italian clothing manufacturer Gibo, and served as fashion director for Asprey, the British jewellery and luxury goods company, all while designing and showing his own label. He was also named British Designer of the Year for 1999 and 2000, and in 2006, Chalayan was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

fall 2008 ready-to-wear

What’s most impressive is that Chalayan has had serious low points to match all those career highlights. When TSE terminated his contract in 2001, it forced Chalayan into voluntary financial liquidation. He refused to go down without a fight, however, and restructured his company to design a comeback collection later that year. In the following seasons, Chalayan had to move his studio three times and at one point, he worked from home with his entire team before relocating to Paris.

Collaboration has always been a key part of Chalayan’s creative ethos. He’s designed laser LED dresses with Swarovski and in 2008, he was named the creative director for sports lifestyle brand Puma — just to name a few of his more famous match-ups. He’s now partnering with Susie Crippen of J Brand Jeans. And if you’re after more highbrow credentials, Chalayan’s work has been exhibited at London’s Design Museum, The Tate Modern, The Contemporary Art Museum in Tokyo, the Musée de la Mode in Paris, New York’s F.I.T., and at the 51st International Venice Biennale, among others.

spring 2007 ready-to-wear

The position

Chalayan’s name is synonomous with experimentation. He’s the futuristic designer who has sent models down the runway in self-undressing clothes and repeatedly pulls from world politics, science, culture and technology to produce creations that blur the lines between art, fashion, performance and culture.

The math

Talent and audacity

After spreading himself — and his finances — too thin in the early 2000s, Chalayan stripped his business (if not his designs) back to basics and refocused his brand. He continues to produce collections that challenge and inspire. You never know what to expect from Chalayn, and everyone from well-heeled fashion houses to sneaker companies are eager to leverage his modern, in-your-face creative attitude and technical skill to boost their own cool quotient.

Will he go too far with the commercial collaborations? That’s a matter of time and opinion. For now, Chalayn provides a terrific model of how to stick to your creative guns and still build a career that works. And if you fall down, return to your original vision and think hard about what really matters. Then get right back up again.

spring 2007 ready-to-wear

posted 5 May 10 in: business, fashion, inspiration, media, retail. This post currently has 2 responses.

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