Creativity often defies rational explanation. You can think about the work and break it down into pieces, but you can’t think your way around it. And the hallmark of originality is attention. It’s a rare creation today that will make us stop multitasking and focus completely on reading, listening or seeing.
In school, I consistently daydreamed my way through math class (and then wondered why I couldn’t do the homework… but that’s another story). My mind would travel so far from the classroom that I was practically orbiting the moon. Original creations make that kind of mental escape nearly impossible. They snap you back into the moment and command your attention. They shake you up and change your very thought patterns. The brain connects disparate emotions and ideas in one seamless thread — and whether or not those thoughts make conscious sense, you’re always, always engaged with the experience.
The American poet Audre Lorde said, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” We’re all building on the words or brush strokes or visions of the brilliant minds that came before us. True originality lies in absorbing those influences, mixing them in with the mess of daily life, and then saying something completely, uttery true. That’s creativity in action.
Is this original work?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately — and it’s a bar I want to set high.
photo by Amir K.
Just like bungee jumping, skydiving and shopping for swimsuits, sometimes you’ve got to trick your brain into taking risks.
Here’s one technique that really works. Start by making a list of 30 people, gatekeepers, institutions or opportunities that represent a big stretch in your career. Think long shots and lofty goals. For example:
- request representation with a gallery you admire
- book a venue far bigger than where you currently perform
- pitch your designs to a prestigious retailer
You get the idea. Keep writing until you reach 30. Heck, make it 50. Force yourself to be really outlandish.
Now it’s time to take action. Start working through your list with the intention of getting 30 or 50 “nos.” Just make sure you’re backing up all those pitches and plans with the necessary legwork. Do your homework and give every item your best shot. As you’ve probably guessed, two important things will happen:
1. You’re going to hear the word “yes” a lot more often than you expected.
2. You’ll become more comfortable with rejection, which is essential for artists and creatives at every point in their careers. The dagger becomes a little dulled — and you start growing a tougher skin.
Give it a try and let me know what happens.
David Downton is one of those prolific artists whose work just seems to pop up everywhere. His illustrations have graced the pages of Vogue, The Financial Times, Harper’s Bazaar and V Magazine, and he draws for commercial clients including Chanel, Barney’s, L’Oreal, Dior, and Tiffany & Co.
In 2007, Downton started an international fashion illustration journal called Pourquoi Pas? Printed on heavyweight paper in a limited edition of 1,500, the periodical is intended to “celebrate drawing in our digital, disposable, point and shoot world.” Pretty fantastic.
He also published a glossy coffee table book last year called Masters of Fashion Illustration, which celebrates some of the world’s most outlandish talents (himself included). Light on text but heavy on eye candy, it looks like a gorgeous source of inspiration — whether you work in a visual field or not.
Surely you all know (and maybe love) The Sartorialist, right? Photographer Scott Schuman is the reigning curator of street style, with a ridiculously popular blog that attracts people-watchers from around the globe. He also does assignment-based client work and is represented by the same gallery as Annie Leibovitz, Chuck Close, and the late Andy Warhol.
Whatever you think about the man behind the lens, I enjoyed watching this slick, day-in-the-life film by Intel — a company that’s obviously leveraging Scott’s cool factor in an attempt to boost their own.
- John Fraser leased a soon-to-be-demolished space in SoHo for a “temporary restaurant installation” called What Happens When. The lean bar is a mobile cart, chairs were bought on eBay for less than $10, and customers will set their own tables to keep staff costs down. Fraser is also funding the nine-month project with contributions from the microfinancing site, Kickstarter.
- Chicago super-chef Grant Achatz is leveraging the power of precise numbers to launch Next, where diners puchase advance tickets for a specific hour and a set menu.
- Manhattan chef Will Goldfarb has experimented with Picknick Smoked, a BBQ trailer in the financial district, and a two-day stint whipping up desserts in a borrowed SoHo bar space. It’s safe to say he’ll continue pushing the boundaries.
And the list goes on…
I celebrated my last birthday at an underground supper club, and it was a delicious, memorable night that ended with a fraction of the typical restaurant bill. The chef also provided advance wine pairing suggestions to enhance what could have been a jumbled BYOB collection.
Clearly, novelty and word-of-mouth buzz have the power to attract even the most jaded diners — especially if you’ve got the kitchen chops to back up your bravery. Pared-down dining makes sense, too, when people are still keeping a tight grip on their wallets. When restaurants eschew convention to focus on making incredible food, we all reap the benefits.
Cheers to creativity that goes beyond the kitchen.
Rockstar Diaries is one of my daily blog reads. Writer / dancer / photographer / red lipstick afficionado Naomi Davis has such an unbridled zest for life that you always want to know what she’s thinking and what vintage frock she’s wearing.
Her site recently saved my carol-addled ears with a great online holiday album called, Hey, It’s Christmas.
And while we’re on the topic, what are your picks for best and worst Christmas songs? Here are mine:
Worst: Wonderful Christmastime by Paul McCartney. Oh, Paul. My ears are bleeding tinsel.
** p.s. Morrissey clearly doesn’t share my love for the 1984 charity single:
“I’m not afraid to say that I think Band Aid was diabolical. Or to say that I think Bob Geldof is a nauseating character. Many people find that very unsettling, but I’ll say it as loud as anyone wants me to. In the first instance the record itself was absolutely tuneless. One can have great concern for the people of Ethiopia, but it’s another thing to inflict daily torture on the people of Great Britain. It was an awful record considering the mass of talent involved. And it wasn’t done shyly it was the most self-righteous platform ever in the history of popular music.” 
paintings by carolyn stockbridge / images courtesy elliott louis gallery
The very best thing about the Internet (in my humble opinion) is the chain of inspired connections it promotes. Have I written about that here before? It’s definitely one of my obsessions, and I think it goes far beyond the immediate links of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. I love stumbling into fresh ideas and creative work online, just as we used to rely purely on bookshelves, gallery walls and local clubs for new discoveries.
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.
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?
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.
Karina, Godard, Picasso, Davis, Bardot, Brando, Bacall, Hendrix, Harry, Hopper and many, many more.
The concept of passive income really trips people up. I always ask artists whether they have a passive income stream, but I’m continually surprised when they call it laziness, or a form of cheating on their “real” work. Not true. Here’s my definition:
Passive income is anything that can (theoretically) earn money while you sleep. Once you’ve created and/or arranged this revenue source, it continues to pay dividends – without your direct time, attention or effort.
Now for a new example.
Kendi Skeen writes a charmingly candid fashion blog called Kendi Everyday. After moving with her husband to a small Texas town, she started the site as a creative outlet, explaining, “Many people use words to journal, I just use my clothes.”
Recently, Kendi launched the 30 for 30 challenge, where she and her readers vow to wear and remix just 30 items of clothing (including shoes) for 30 days. It’s a way to flex your fashion muscles and appreciate what you’ve already got — much like the six items or less movement, without all the laundry.
Smart cookie that she is, Kendi also created a 30 for 30 Remix Workbook. The $4 downloadable e-book helps readers to navigate their closets with style. It’s a perfect example of passive revenue – and it’s a natural extension of her online conent.
I wanted to know more, and Kendi was kind enough to answer my questions.
1. Why did you decide to write the 30 for 30 Remix Workbook?
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a close friend who asked me what I wanted to do in my life. In jest, I answered, “I want to write a book.” In jest, mind you. With that, she told me to do it, to start small with an e-book, just to see if I could do it. So when we started talking about it I figured that I should start with my upcoming 30 for 30 remix challenge. Since the remix was my brainchild, the possibility of everyone understanding the idea behind it and the process is slim. And who better to write a guide than someone who came up with the idea? So after much pushing from my husband and friend, I penned the 15-page guide.
2. How long did it take you to create it?
The guide took me about a month to create, design, and write. A very long month. I had never done this before and really I hadn’t seen many of these guides on other blogs, so it was kind of a trial-and-error process. I now know many things that I would do better and differently. So I hope to write a few more to post on my blog.
3. How has the response been so far?
It’s been good! Like I said, I’d never done this before so if I sold five, that would have been successful in my mind! There was no real benchmark for the guide; I just wanted to create something to help someone with the ins and outs of their closet.
Passive revenue was not the ultimate goal, but it has been a great perk. I certainly could not work on something for a solid month and send it out in the world for free. I consider myself an artist after all, maybe not with a canvas and paint, but with words and design. And no artist should give their art out for free. I hope people have received the guide and felt the hard work that I put in and that it has helped them in their day-to-day closet matters. If it has helped even one person, then I think it was worth the work.