Category Archives: An Artist’s Life

My art supports my community.

I posted this collection of photos to Instagram the other day and it got me thinking. I took the photos as I was walking over to the post office that is just down the block from my house. This is part of my regular routine: walking over to the post office to drop off an Etsy order. Unless it is -20 degrees, I usually walk over there; I don’t like to “work out”, so I make myself walk places a lot. I thought to myself (and laughed a little as I thought about it) “I bet nobody knows that every Etsy shop order they place with me is delivered part of the way on foot.”

And then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that’s part of the story I should be telling. That’s part of the cool thing about both having a small business and working with small businesses. It’s not about distribution centers and corporate culture; it’s about people with stories.

So here are some stories that you wouldn’t know about my business.

I do hand deliver every order you place with me to my neighborhood post office on foot. Sometimes I walk my dogs over too. I have known the people that work in that post office for more than 12 years. It’s a really nice group and they are super helpful whenever I have a question or a problem with shipping something.

My small business also helps support a bunch of other small businesses. There is an art form in itself to sourcing materials to make handmade items for sale. When I first started making and selling things, I used to save all of my coupons and buy everything at Joann Fabrics. But as my business grew, I started to find other sources for the things I needed a lot of. I get all of my zippers for zipper bags from a shop on Etsy called Zipit. She carries everything I could possibly need and she lives just 1 state away from me, so everything ships to me super fast. Similarly, I get purse frames from another Etsy shop, and ribbon for zipper pulls from another Etsy shop. I ordered ultra suede scraps from a shop the other day for a new project I am working on. All of the buttons for the garments for my last exhibition came from Etsy shops. That’s always the place I start when I need a new material; I love the idea that I help make those shops successful too.

I also make a lot of my items with the help of two companies: Spoonflower and Ponoko. They are bigger businesses than mine, but they are still small businesses. And they are small enough that I have a relationship with them. I know people who have worked at both places and I have visited Spoonflower many times. They own equipment that I could never have access to without them. A $100,000 fabric printer and $40,000 laser cutter are really not in my budget. Not to mention that my house is just too small to fit either machine. I have all of the technical skills to design things and I get access to this professional quality equipment. They get to handle all of the tech support and maintenance of those machines. What’s not to love about that?

The holiday show I was accepted into in November is renting space in a local artist studio building. My booth fee is helping to support that small business. I did a lecture just last night with a focus of helping other local sellers to be more successful selling on Etsy. I’ve spend the last almost 2 years partnering with theaters and museums in my community to design and make things for their gift shops. Those partnerships help support me and the organization, which is part of my community.

The more I got thinking about this, the more I realized that is a core value for my artistic practice. And I think it’s a pretty cool one. My art supports my community. And that’s a story I need to tell more about.

Teaching is all about the preparation.

This is me teaching a school residency where I worked with 700+ students in 5 days.

I am prepping for a teaching trip this week. I am heading out to NC to teach some highschool teachers about how to use Spoonflower in their classrooms. It should be great. I like teaching teachers.

As I was getting ready to start polishing up my slides and handouts I was thinking about some of the more interesting teaching gigs I have had over the years. A few standout examples:

  • Taught a digital photography class in an unheated 4-H barn with no wifi access. Had to use my LCD projector by projecting on to a piece of foam core propped up onto a chair. It was supposed to be an adults class, but the venue registered just two 8th grade girls in the class instead. Talk about revising your class on the fly.
  • I taught at a national conference where instead of booking classrooms for some of the smaller classes, they put us in a regular hotel room with a bunch of extra chairs in it. I taught the class sitting on the bed and pointed my projector at the bedsheet which we took off the bed and taped to the wall to make a screen because the walls were dark and textured.
  • I showed up to teach a digital design class at a venue on a Saturday morning that had a policy of turning off their internet access completely on the weekends. No wifi at all. We ended up gathering everyone up and driving nearby to a student’s house. I taught the class using her pool table as my work space.
  • I taught a quilting workshop to non-English speakers, using a college student as a translator. None of my adult students had ever used scissors before.
  • I had a daughter who bought a class for her mom as a surprise gift. The mother walked in to the shop and when she found out what the class was about she said to her daughter “Who does that? I am not taking any damn tatting class. Why would you think I wanted to do that?” I (the instructor) was standing right there.

Let’s just say that I have learned to be very flexible and just a little over prepared. As Tim Gunn says, “Make it work!” I am basically ready for everything. So, I wanted to share a few thoughts about what goes in to that prep work; call this a teaching “behind the scenes” post.

Preparing to be flexible

For a while now I have been sending out pre-class surveys to students who are registered in my classes so that I can get a handle on who is in the class. This way I have a chance to adapt to the group I have and to make sure that everyone is really getting the class they thought they were getting and I can troubleshoot a few things in advance. I teach with technology; there is always troubleshooting to do.

For example, a venue I worked with recently really wanted me to teach an “advanced” Photoshop class. They assured me that all of their pool of potential students would already know how to use Photoshop well and they were sure that we could skip over the beginner stuff and go right into an intermediate/advanced class. So I put together a description and projects and so on, and after registrations were all in, I sent out my survey.

Yes, that is 0% of my “advanced” class that say they are experienced with Photoshop and about 4 students who have basically never used it at all. This isn’t the first time that has happened. Fortunately, I had a feeling that this was going to be the case and I was mostly prepared for that.

The importance of class descriptions

A lot of that preparation is spending a significant amount of time writing the class description. I know that I need it to be specific enough so students have a concrete idea of what they will be doing in class, but flexible enough that I can actually accomplish the projects with students who are at a different skill level. Nothing makes a class start to head for disaster more quickly than poorly matched expectations. Now that I know that my “advanced” class actually has very little experience with Photoshop, I can make sure I am introducing things at a level where everyone can have success, starting with the basics.

This was from a class that I took where the teacher actually labeled our stations with post it notes so she could keep track of our experience level. I was a beginner, so I was a “1”. I have my students rate themselves too.

I spent this morning writing new class proposals for something in 2018 and thinking a lot about the students I thought I would expect to see at that venue. I basically construct a “model student” in my head. For the proposals I was writing this morning and based on what I know about the venue, I was pretty confident that my students would be:

  • quilters and crafters (not making clothing)
  • retired or near retirement age, budget conscious
  • not very technical/computer focused
  • skilled and experienced sewists

I have taught at this venue before, so I feel like I have a pretty good model to go on. So when I wrote my class descriptions, I wrote them for that audience:

  • Classes focused on process not product. We will be designing fabric and learning design concepts, not making a bag or a tea towel. They know how to do that already so that project won’t get them excited.
  • Beginner level technical skills. Several of the techniques can be done in more sophisticated ways with Photoshop or Illustrator, but you can do the basic version in any graphics software. It’s about the concept not the tool you use to get there.
  • Using free/online design software. You can do them in Photoshop if you have it, but you can try it out without having to invest in a lot of software and equipment. Making it approachable so people are willing to try it.

As a teacher, the phrase “That was worth the whole price of the class right there.” is a huge high five for me. That means I exceeded expectations and that’s awesome. I took a silversmithing class once where the supply list was so full of technical jargon that I showed up for class with not quite the right supplies and ended up spending a lot of time (and $) making something I hated. The instructor assumed that I knew more than I did. Expectations can work both ways.

What do you think this class is about?

Another question I ask in my pre-class survey is “What would you like to get out of this class?” Sometimes people skip over this one, but when they answer, the answers are always super helpful. For the “teacher training” class I am teaching next week, most of the answers were about getting ideas and inspiration for high school students and projects to do in their classrooms, specifically for interior and apparel design. Which is exactly what you would expect from that audience and assures me that I am preparing the right things – less about personal designs and more about ways to incorporate this into lessons, projects and how to break it down into components you can teach to others. I can do that.

I have had overzealous copy editors edit my class descriptions in ways that unfortunately changed the student’s whole expectation of the class. I learned this the hard way in one of the first professional classes I taught at an art center venue. It was a purse making class that I thought was a beginner sewing class where you made your own simple paper pattern, but it suddenly evolved into a pattern drafting class for designing your own purse. Similar on the surface, but a few words can make all the difference. I ended up with a horribly mis-matched class of beginners who didn’t know how to use a sewing machine (which I was prepared for) and a few students who thought they were getting a pattern drafting class for custom purse making (which was far beyond the scope of what I was teaching). It was awkward for everyone. The beginners felt like they were dumb, the experienced students looked at the project samples and said “Is that all we are doing?” and I wanted to crawl under a table and die. The venue had written the description for me since I was a newbie. That was a valuable lesson. Most venues still don’t check back with me when something gets edited before it gets sent out, so this survey question is also a quick reality check for me to make sure we are all still on the same page.

So, I am curious, what’s the weirdest venue where you have taught or taken a class? How did you make it work? Can you beat my hotel room story?

Sunday & Seurat: Gone to the dogs

This is part of a series of “behind the scenes” posts about my Sunday & Seurat designs for the Guthrie. Click here to see all of the posts in this series.


If you look closely at the Sunday on the Isle painting, you will find a black dog whuffling in the grass. Those of you that know me know that I have a fondness for black dogs.

This is Chester and Leo. They are my black lab mutts. Brothers from the same litter. 3 yrs old.

So, I had to use the black dog as the inspiration for a design. When we were talking about what kinds of pieces we wanted for this collection, I felt like there should be something that wasn’t necessarily a kids item, but something that would appeal to kids. And there are a lot of people who love dogs. So this one seemed like it would be pretty popular. (Turns out we were right, but more about that in a minute.)

I made two versions of the dog from cut paper and I added a little colored pencil shading to them. I scanned the cut paper designs and layered together with a painted background that was just a swirl of different colors. And I added the paintbrush from the Red Yellow Blue design as if the dog is holding up his paw to be painted.

That turned in to this, which I call Brush to Paw. I printed it on eco-canvas. The hidden “easter egg” in this print is that the dogs have a different colored collar on each side of the bag, which match my dogs (red for Chester and turquoise for Leo).

And when you sew it together, it makes a little bag that looks like this. I use these as travel bags and keep my phone charger, jewelry, bandaids and those kinds of odds & ends.

 

We quickly realized that this little guy was going to be a hit, so we added a piece to the collection and I gave him a place on a tea towel as well. I just got this fabric yesterday and I am going to spend the rest of the afternoon hemming and making some linen/cotton tea towels which should be in the Guthrie shop very soon.

It always catches me off-guard but one question I get asked all the time is “Who does your sewing? Or where do you get them made?” The answer is: Me at my dining room table.

That part is just as important to me as the design is. I have no interest in designing things to send off and have mass produced overseas.

The fabric for all of these is printed by my friends at Spoonflower in Durham NC. They are friends and I have been to Spoonflower HQ and have seen my fabric coming off of their printers. I can’t own the kinds of machines that they have (They cost more than my first house did.) so I am thrilled I am able to work with them to make my designs happen.

Part of the cost of making these is paying myself a fair wage for the time spent sewing them. I work hard to make that part as efficient as I can because I don’t want to spend 24 hours a day sewing, but I can be confident that they are the quality that I want and that the person sewing them isn’t working in a sweatshop. This week I have been drinking tea and watching the Great British Baking Show as I sew. I can’t complain about my job this week.

You have to remember to take a day off.

Because I am self-employed, I rarely work a regular 9-5 week. Last weekend I worked a show all weekend long. I have a class coming up on Saturday and a residency tonight, both outside of “work hours”. It’s easy to basically be working 12 hour days for days in a row and not notice it.

It’s been kind of a crazy week. It’s been raining and my hubby has been sick with a hacking cough and the dogs have been squirrely so I feel like I am a little discombobulated. So yesterday I settled in to work on a project I have, with a deadline fast approaching, and I just couldn’t get motivated. I checked Facebook and ordered supplies and dawdled around and finally just made myself get to work late in the afternoon. But my enthusiasm (and my brain) weren’t really in it.

So then I cut out about 8 pieces for this important project completely, totally, un-fixably wrong. I printed one specially to be cut out a certain way and then blithely cut it in half (wrong). I tore one with the grain only to find that it didn’t tear with the grain but left me with two edges about 2 inches different from one another. I measured something else incorrectly. Welcome to Amateur Hour! Sheesh. When I finally figured it out, there was no other solution but to give up and order the fabric again.

So I left it in a pile on the table and went off to a meeting last night. This morning, I pulled it out and remeasured to make sure it was really as bad as I thought it was and I started over with a rush order of new fabric. I have time to fix it. It’s not an emergency. And there is enough mis-cut fabric for me to make myself a couple of tank dresses if I am clever about cutting it out. It’s all going to work out in the end, but it’s not exactly the way I had it planned.

I posted a comment on Facebook a while back about feeling like I had a day where I was operating at about 50% power and my good friend Marjorie replied with a comment something like “Well, you usually are operating at 150%, so you probably just need some down time.” Smart woman. And she is totally right. I should have listened to my own listlessness yesterday, made a latte and sat on the porch with a good book.

I have a personal rule about never operating a sewing machine after 10pm no matter how “awake” I am feeling. It always ends in too many hours with the seam ripper. I think I need a new rule about listening to my brain when it says “Today is not a work day.” Powering through that feeling didn’t work out so well for me. So this afternoon, before I have to go be an “artist in residence” for a few hours this evening, I am going to make a pot of tea and let my brain reset. I’ll get my work day in; I’m just doing it in pieces.


Speaking of pieces, the paper pieced block shown above I made in about 2005. It’s from a site called Paper Panache and was part of her Mystery Blocks sew along. She gives you the paper pieced pattern and colors but no clues as to the subject of the block. I am not really a quilter, but I think these are great fun for using up scraps and this alarm clock was a favorite one that I created. Her design work is beautiful and they always go together so nicely.

Shepherd’s Harvest Festival this weekend.

I think this is the 7th year I have been at Shepherd’s Harvest Festival with my friends Doreen and Jen. If you have never been to a fiber festival like this, it’s a lot of fun. It is held at a county fairgrounds. We have been snowed on and had 80 degree weather, which is pretty typical for May in MN. It looks like this year might be one of the nice ones. The 4H barns are full of vendors selling yarn, fiber, fiber tools, candles, soap, baskets. There are animals in the barns. You can watch sheep shearing, angora spinning, weaving, and all kinds of demos. There are food trucks. They’ve moved the festival back to Mother’s Day weekend after trying some different dates and we are really happy about that. It makes a great family outing for Mother’s day. I will have all of my zipper bags and punny fiber art geekery. I have BRAND NEW geeky designs debuting at the festival inspired by Dr Who, Firefly, Harry Potter and Settlers of Catan. Doreen, my boothmate, is a handspinner and dyer. She has all kinds of gorgeous yarns and she will probably be doing spinning demos most of the weekend. She has emu feathers that she has been spinning in to new yarns and I can’t wait to see them.

Being an artist is all a side hustle.

I first heard the term “side hustle” at a cocktail party with colleagues. When someone asks what you do for a living and you reply “I’m a full time artist”, every person you talk to pictures something different. Her vision was something like sew dresses all day and sell them to boutiques. (Which is really not what I do at all.) I tried to explain how my job is different every day of the week and I like it that way: I teach, I sell on Etsy, I do shows, I do community projects… And she said “Oh, it’s like teaching is your side hustle.”

Really, I think being an artist and being able to do it full time is all side hustle. It’s hard to support yourself by just making things and selling them. Not only do you put in the time to make it, but you have to put in the time to get it in front of people and hope that someone likes it enough to pay you for it. And you have to hope the economy is encouraging people to buy handmade. So you also sell it online, which doesn’t require you to be there standing in a booth all weekend and that helps with some of the overhead. And you teach it. And you write about it. Sometimes I wish I was making it more of the time, but balancing it with all of those other things really works better for me.

I was curious after I had this side hustle conversation with that colleague, so I pulled up my numbers for the past 2 years. 2015 and 2016 were the first two years that I have been my own boss full-time. Many of these things I have been doing part-time for many years along with my regular day job so these are established micro-businesses for me.

These are the percentages of my total income that I can attribute to each of my “jobs”.

Commissions/Digital Items includes things like the items I sell on RedBubble and Spoonflower. I make a commission from each of those designs that sell. That grew a lot in 2016. (It doesn’t even show up in 2015.) Why the growth? I put in the time. I added a lot of new designs, cleaned things up and put some care into my online shops. It made a difference.

In Person Sales includes consignment items I have at shops and art shows that I do, like the American Craft Council, Craft’za, Shepherd’s Harvest etc. I participated in more shows in 2015. I was really busy traveling to teach in 2016 so I couldn’t do as many.

Etsy sales is the things I sell on Etsy, obviously. Same story here: I did a lot of work on my Etsy shop in 2016. I rephotographed a lot of items and gave everything a fresh look and some polish to descriptions. I weeded out some things that weren’t selling and added a few new ones. Since this is a percentage of my total income, what you don’t see is that my total Etsy sales doubled from 2015 to 2016. (My income overall was greater too, so the percentage looks the same.) Seriously. The work to clean up and focus was completely worthwhile and so far 2017 is keeping pace with 2016, which is encouraging.

Teaching was huge for me in 2016. I taught a lot of classes, but I also started to adjust my teaching rates slightly to reflect what I should be paid for the expertise that I have. When I was teaching once in a while for local guilds it was fine to charge a “friends and family” kind of rate, but now that I am traveling and teaching more complex classes, I also need to be able to cover liability insurance, travel and things like that. I am hoping to roll out online classes this year, so I am teaching less in 2017 to have the time to get those up and running.

Misc is my consulting category. I have fees for writing articles & tutorials, web consulting, small graphic design projects.

Grants. I think this category is the least sustainable. I was super fortunate to get a whole bunch of large and small grants over the last two years. They are a lot of work to apply for and usually involve a lot of work for the grant project itself, but they are the thing that makes the big projects happen. I was able to do two huge teaching residencies, mount my first solo exhibition and first public art piece all because of grant funding. I will keep applying, but I know 2017 will be decreased, because I didn’t get one I applied for and I took a break from applying because I didn’t want to have too many overlapping projects. I was making myself a little crazy with so many balls in the air.


I thought these numbers were really interesting. (Did you know that my teaching degree is in math? Does this surprise you?) When I started on this adventure of being my own boss, I gave myself permission to just try stuff. I said yes to nearly everything. I applied for things that I thought would be cool and ones that I thought would be a long shot. I taught at a prestigious craft school and at the neighborhood library. This year I made enough actual profit to be able to contribute to a SEP IRA. But it was a LOT of hustle.

I’m still in the “trying stuff” phase of my business at this point. I am doing some serious thinking about opening a second online shop with all of my clothing & accessory items which I currently only sell at in-person shows. I am working on online classes which has been a goal for much too long. Time to make that one happen. I think my ideal balance would be in thirds: teaching/sales/grants. I don’t want to become a manufacturer where all I do is sew stuff to sell to other people. I like the one-on-one work of teaching people and I already have several more exhibitions dreamed up. That seems like a great balance to me.

If I want to have one message from this post to leave you with, it is actually something that I wish I could tell myself from about 8 years ago. I used to get really discouraged about not having thousands of blog followers and not being a craft-internet-celebrity or the most popular Etsy shop or whatever the success benchmark was. I was sure I couldn’t cut it on my own because I didn’t have the social media following or the giant mailing list. But I realized that doesn’t really matter. It’s about going out there and doing it. I had 11 students at the last class I taught and they could care less about how many Instagram followers I have. The 12 of us got to do nothing but make art for 2 hours together and how often does that happen? I had the privilege of being on the Etsy Sellers Advisory Board last year not because I had 16,000 sales, but because I stepped up and said “I have something valuable to contribute” and they believed me. If you don’t show up/ask/apply, they can’t say yes.