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.

monocle magazine

Anyone out there suffering from information overload? Yeah? Me, too.

It’s a constant challenge. Carving out quite time and space is one piece of the creative equation. The other part requires what my friend Lisa calls “drinking from the fire hydrant.” You’ve got to fill yourself with all manner of inspiring stuff — words, music, eye candy and real-life experiences. And regardless of what you create, it’s critical to know what’s happening in your field and beyond.

One of the best ways to stay current is to find your filters. Monocle magazine has become one of mine.

The magazine was launched in 2007 by good Winnipeg boy* Tyler Brûlé, who also created Wallpaper and writes a column for the Financial Times. The print mag is crammed with smart writing about global culture, politics, design and business. Most of the website content is subscriber-only, but steer over to the “sections” tab and settle in to watch short videos on everything from Turkish soap opera tourists to an interview with the CEO of Lego.

It’s a quick way to expand the world beyond your Firefox window.

*For my lovely American visitors, other prominent Winnipeggers include Neil Young, the Weakerthans, Brett Hull, Carol Shields, Miriam Toews, Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Nia Vardalos and Monty Hall (okay, maybe the word “prominent” is a stretch in some cases…)

Happy Friday!

posted 8 Oct 10 in: art, business, media. This post currently has no responses.

in the line of fire

Tonight I’m going to see Arcade Fire – Montreal’s indie darlings who now fill stadiums around the globe. That means, of course, that music geeks are beginning to call them “sellouts.”

On the website Consequence of Sound, Alex Young writes:

“I feel like Arcade Fire has reached that point where they’re now Mother-approved. As in, you’ll soon be receiving a call from your mom asking if you’ve heard of this band called ‘The Arcade Fires’, because she read about them in Entertainment Weekly or heard them on NPR’s Morning Edition. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course…”

Ouch.

It’s an age-old story. A band / artist / designer / performer tips into mainstream popularity and is immediately branded dull and irrelevant. But unless they start churning out sub-par material (see U2), popularity doesn’t have to equal creative compromise.

As for Arcade Fire, their third album, The Suburbs, has received heaps of critical acclaim and they’re known for serving up positively electric live shows. They’ve also become savvy viral marketers.

The band doesn’t court mainstream press, but partnered with Google Chrome to release a buzzy, interactive film that quickly made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. They also created eight different covers for The Suburbs and multiple purchase options, including CD, premium digital files, double 12-inch vinyl, and combinations of all three. They’re smart with social media — and they give back, with a focus on rebuilding Haiti through the KANPE Foundation and Partners in Health.

Sellouts? Not in my book, but we’ll see if they deliver the goods tonight.

posted 28 Sep 10 in: art, business, music, performance. This post currently has no 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.

rue style

Have you noticed the new trend in home decor, design and lifestyle magazines? They’re going exclusively online.

First came Lonny. Now there’s Rue — a polished new publication from co-founders Crystal Gentilello and Anne Sage.

Like the pioneering Lonny, the free pages of Rue are beautifully laid out with a full index, searchable content, and clickable links that make it a breeze to learn more about featured items. You can also choose to read in magazine, presentation or paper layout, depending on your viewing preferences. All the pages are printable, too.

Thanks to bigger, brighter computer screens, e-readers and iPad mania, digital publications are coming of age. Both Lonny and Rue have strong content and staff that understand how to create for this brave new medium. I still prefer that slick paper in my hands, but more than anything, I love magazines. I want to see them survive.  For that selfish reason alone, I’m excited to see how this technology evolves.

posted 20 Sep 10 in: business, design, media. This post currently has 2 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.

content questions

Tommy Ton photo by Kurt Geiger

Women’s Wear Daily recently published an interesting article by Cate T. Corcoran about the blossoming relationship between clothing brands and influential fashion bloggers. The story suggests that these popular (and formerly DIY) sites now provide increasingly hospitable territory for big budget advertisers.

Companies such as Coach, Gap, Barneys New York, Urban Outfitters and JCPenney are testing new connections — and the idea of customer-brand “conversations” — with fashion bloggers that can include product references, design collaborations, videos, giveaways and contests.

– Is this smart business or corporations invading what were formerly organic online spaces and communities?

– Are fashion bloggers independent self-publishers or simply small-scale fashion magazines (which have always been supported by advertising)?

– How do you draw appropriate lines between editorial content and advertising? And who does the drawing?

The article raises these and other questions that apply not just to fashion scribblers, but also to anyone who’s developing content — and hoping to earn a paycheck from their work. Take a look and let me know what you think.

posted 8 Sep 10 in: business, fashion, media, retail. 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.

malicious intent

I realize it’s been quiet around here lately and unfortunately, I haven’t been lounging poolside — despite what this tempting photo might suggest.

My WordPress platform was recently hit with malware, which is kind of like digital H1N1. Fun times. But, everything has been thoroughly scrubbed and debugged, so watch for new interviews and content coming soon.

In the meantime, I hope you’ve been soaking up the sun and the last, lovely days of summer.

posted 18 Aug 10 in: Uncategorized. This post currently has no responses.

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