29 November, 2023

The unpredictability of running a small business

2023-11-29T18:58:50-06:00An Artist's Life|2 Comments

I was planning an afternoon of sewing up some special orders, but due to a package of materials being delayed, I found myself with an unscheduled afternoon.  So I filled it with a whole lot of admin odds and ends: ordering supplies for some end-of-the-year classes, sending some invoices, delivering class kits for another class. I was looking at a pile of to-be-sewn zipper bag fabric on my table and feeling like I am unusually low on stock this year. I feel like my making “rhythm” is a little off. So in the spirit of procrastinating doing anything about that, I decided to do a little research. :)

It’s really hard as a small business to predict what’s going to happen with sales. As you grow, I am sure that gets easier in some ways. I certainly can predict big general things like November is going to be busier in the online shops and I always have a bunch of different in-person events in May. But this year, my Etsy stats say that overall my sales are down 42% this year. It’s been hovering around 38% for most of the year, so it’s even more discouraging to see it taking a dip right now for sure. I’m not sharing this as a sob story to get you to buy something, but I really think that its helpful for other small businesses to see that maybe they aren’t alone if they feel like this year has been a rough one in more ways than one. (And I know that you are out there reading this.)

You get a gut feeling when you have made things as long as I have for what are the “trends” in your items. I always order extra when I print anything in this waterlily fabric because it is always a bestseller. I keep only one or two of some zipper bag designs in stock, but others I always order 6 when I do a restock because I know they will sell.

Some years throw a wrench in your gut feelings for things and this year felt like one of them. I design fabric whenever the mood strikes me throughout the year, often participating in Spoonflower’s weekly design challenges. I usually make a plan to do 3-4 new designs leading into the fall because that’s when I do some of my biggest in-person shows of the year and I like to have new things to show people. But this year, my big fall show got cancelled somewhat unexpectedly (and too late to apply for another event). So I found myself with time blocked off to design and sew in preparation and nothing to prepare for. I made some new designs anyway but with a different audience and product in mind than I usually do.

Today I started to wonder, how much different things were this year. Even though my Etsy shop sales are down, there’s not much else different there. The things that usually sell well are still selling well, the entire volume is just lower. There are lots of reasons that could be contributing to this, but I don’t actually think there’s much useful to be gained by trying to deep dive into that because it’s been consistent all year. (I’m not interested in talking Etsy conspiracy theories.) So instead I decided to look at my in-person sales, which was completely fascinating.

I decided to just look at my four kind of big selling item categories and the ones that I have been selling consistently for a long time. I looked back at my records just to see the number of items sold in these four categories: clutch bags, loop scarves, large project bags, and small zip notions bags. I didn’t even bother to include 2020, because all of my in-person events were cancelled. I only did one show at the very end of 2021.

The most interesting to me was to look at the blue and red bars on these charts. These represent this year 2023 and last year 2022. It’s no wonder that I feel a little like I don’t know what’s going on! The large project bags are almost exactly the same but in all of the other categories the bars are completely flip-flopped from one year to the next.

I have a few clues as to what’s happened. The loop scarves, like the one in the photo at the very top of this post are my absolute bestseller at the show that was cancelled. That design was one of my new fabrics for 2022. So it’s not surprising that the bar for loop scarves this year is so low. I did three new-to-me, in-person shows in 2023, where the zip bags were the stars. I kind of thought they would be, given the audience that would be at these events so it’s nice to know I guessed right on that. I tend to curate what I bring to different shows because I really try to pay attention to the kind of audience that will be there and what I think will be the right fit. I don’t bring scarves, for example, to the vendor market at the knitting conference.

My in-person sales total are up about 10% over last year with about the same number of show days. I don’t do a lot of in-person things but tend to do them very consistently, so people know to look for me there.

I’m not sure if I’ve learned anything that I can move ahead with, but it did feel very validating to know that I wasn’t crazy. This was an unpredictable year!

15 November, 2023

Halloween Behind the Scenes: Making of This is not the Droid

2023-11-17T13:33:42-06:00An Artist's Life|2 Comments

Many people have an annual tradition of taking a holiday photo of their family. But many years ago we decided that there wasn’t much very interesting about a photos of us and our assorted dogs year after year, so we have an annual tradition of taking a Halloween photo. My husband and I met doing summer theater. When I was 17, I wanted to be a costumer when I grew up. So we started taking Halloween photos. At first it was just us and the costumes that I made for us to go to a Halloween party. But then we started to think about how we could stage something more entertaining. This was the first planned photo.

This one we took in a borrowed photo studio with some borrowed equipment. The genie costume I had made years before. The “flight suit” was a thrifted jacket I dyed orange. We’ve been taking a photo every year pretty much for the last 17 years. I start planning in about July every year, keeping an eye out for costume bits and props. The theme of the year is top secret until Halloween day.

This year was the year for Star Wars. We had talked about Star Wars before but had never come up with the perfect characters or scene to do. Until I looked at Andy and realized that he suddenly was an old guy with a beard and perfect to play Obi Wan.

Several people asked “how do you do that?!” so I thought it would be fun to write a “Making of…” post this year. So this is your spoiler alert warning if you don’t want to know the behind the scenes secrets.

We have a few rules when we do Halloween photos. It must be both of us. It must be 90% “in camera” which means we aren’t just green screen photoing us into a stock background. So we started our Star Wars scene by creating the background of the shot as a miniature. We’ve done miniatures before as backgrounds and they are really fun.

We constructed some buildings out of corrugated cardboard, aquarium gravel and leftover tile grout. I left the scissors in this photo so you can get an idea of scale. We looked at lots of photos of the “These aren’t the droids” scene to see what the background looked like in that photo. We let this dry for a few days and then I painted some grunge with watered down acrylic paints. We added some Storm Trooper action figures to the scene, which we rubbed down with sandpaper and rolled around in some backyard dirt so that they were a little bit less new and shiny. Finally we made some free-standing set pieces because we aren’t exactly sure where we’d need them to be in the scene so we wanted to be able to move them around. In the movie you can see lots of antennae towers and that’s what we were going for with these.

This tower was made from the junk drawer: plant pot, plumbing bits, jewelry chain, safety pins, prescription bottles, snaps, telephone plug. They were stuck together with some E6000 and then spray painted. We shot the background and Storm Troopers as one shot after we did the photo of us, so we could get the angle and the Storm Troopers exactly in the places we needed them to be. We tried several things in the far distance to fill in the gaps between the buildings and actually ended up using Andy’s gauze “robe” from his costume that I stood and held behind the shot.

The first photo we took was us. We’ve learned a lot doing these for so many years. We first shoot a whole bunch of test shots with us just in plain clothes so we can adjust the light and how we are sitting and all of that before we are in costume. We use a remote trigger for the camera that is triggered by a sound. In this case, I stomped on the floor and that would trigger the shutter.

Here’s a photo of my view sitting in the “speeder” looking at the camera. The big box behind Andy is our big studio strobe light. This was a hand-me-down gift from a friend who was downsizing his photo studio. We have another smaller one that was off to the left side and there’s a big white reflector on the right. We shot us and Stanley against a big sheet of white paper so we could insert us into the background scene easily. Once the lights are set we get into costume. We coach each other about what we want to get in the shot: where to look, what’s the story we are trying to tell, who needs to sit up taller or lean back. It usually takes a few dozen photos before we find the one we both like. We shot Stanley in the same place, but by himself because he was way too excited to sit still in a shot with us. He is not normally allowed in the basement and he got about 12 treats for sitting and looking the right direction, so he thought it was the greatest day ever. He totally didn’t care that he was wearing a silly gold vest.

The costumes are always all about giving the idea we need with the simplest solution. Stanley’s C3PO was a gold lame hoodie I found on Amazon. I was looking for a ski hood but this popped up in search results and it was too funny all by itself. My costume is a bathrobe and the same wig we used to do the Dread Pirate Roberts from a couple of years ago, but with a terrible shag cut thanks to my sewing scissors. Andy is wearing a cloak that I’ve had for probably 30 years. We used it for Leonardo DaVinci in a previous year. The robe underneath is a piece of gauze fabric (which we reused as a background) and a brown t-shirt. The grey beard is his own. We have what we call the “Prop Shop” which is a built in workbench in our basement that is full of props, wigs, costume pieces, and curtains. So we pull things from there for many photos.

The funniest thing to me about this set of costumes was the number of people that thought I had cut my hair into Luke’s terrible shag. Yikes! I told my hairdresser this and when she got done laughing, she said “I would never let you leave my salon like that”.

We layered the photo of us and Stanley over the background photo. We try not to need to Photoshop much. We clean up little things so the layers blend together and erase stray fuzz and the inevitable dog hair. We adjusted the color of Andy’s cloak a little bit because it photographed a little too orange.

For the first time this year we used a tiny bit of AI to add to this photo: the windshield of the speeder. We talked and talked about how to photograph something that looked like the windshield because it needed to be in the photo. We had a clear ball ornament that we thought about adding to the background scene, but we weren’t sure how to make the reflections and transparency look right. We scrounged for a plastic something we could use for a windshield, like the plastic cover for a window well, but they were a couple hundred dollars, which was way too much for a photo effect. So we decided to try Photoshop’s “generative fill” where you select a part of the image and tell it what to fill in the space. We drew an oval and it took a couple dozen tries, but I think the prompt “dirty transparent glass dome” was what finally gave us something that worked.

We usually leave the photo up on the computer and tweak it for the last few days before Halloween. Adjusting the light or the colors and whatnot. It’s very collaborative. And so much fun.

28 September, 2023

Rejections are part of the story

2023-09-28T10:37:51-05:00An Artist's Life, Gallery Exhibitions|3 Comments

Sometime a piece of art kind of takes on a life of its own. This year for the MN State Fair Fine Arts competition, I entered a piece called Growversight. It’s one of a series of boxes I’ve been making all about the theme of detours and unexpected obstacles, plans that go awry, timelines that slip, and projects that run into snags outside of one’s control. Red is often a color used to communicate a stop and the theme of the pieces in this series is to talk about things that stop momentum from going forward. So each is made in an analogous color to red, to sort of play with the idea that these ideas were not quite a hard stop or an end, but more the idea of things that were in the way of progress.

I call this series “Portmanteaus”. The word portmanteau refers to a suitcase-like container or two words that have been joined together to form a combined meaning. Each of these boxes carries a story, just like a suitcase, and leans in to the idea that every story has an internal or personal version and an external version that you tell to other people. Each piece in the series has something going on inside and outside the box. I love puns and wordplay in my work. For Growversight, I created a paper flower that is pushing off the lid and crawling out of the box. It’s a nod to an oversight, or problems you ignore that just keep growing and growing.

It was rejected from the Fine Arts show. I’ve entered many times and been turned down far more often than I have had pieces accepted. That wasn’t unexpected. But then a friend told me about another show which was celebrating the pieces that were rejected from the exhibit. The theme is modeled after the Salon des Refusés, French for “exhibition of rejects”. The first was held infamously in 1863 as a response by artists being rejected by the Paris Salon, an annual show sponsored by the Academie of Fine Arts and the French government. Their protests were heard by Napoleon, whose office issued a statement that said “Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works of art which were refused by the jury of the Exposition. His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.”

The theme was entertaining, so I entered the show and was accepted into the show, which was titled “Rejected”. We went to the opening and enjoyed the art in the exhibition.

The story takes a detour when I went to try to pick up my piece. And I mean literal detours. The gallery is situated in a place which is currently surrounded by extensive road construction and two large event venues, where there were police cars blocking streets and officers directing traffic. I spent 30 minutes driving in circles trying to find a place to park for two minutes to run in to the gallery. I finally drove to a dodgy parking garage a mile away and walked back to retrieve my piece, my quick errand now taking up nearly two hours of my day.

When I got to the pick up desk, a kind volunteer found the paperwork and my piece, but insisted that I chat with the gallery owner about their upcoming holiday market. “Your work would be perfect!” she said. Unfortunately, the gallery owner had a different idea. She looked at me, looked at my box, and said “No. That’s too fine art. Nobody buys that.”

Rejected once again. I appreciate the irony.

She went on to explain the ways that it was a bad fit, the wrong price, and my aesthetic completely unsuitable, while I stood tired and sweaty, with a puzzled expression on my face. (It was honestly pretty rude, considering it wasn’t my idea to talk about their holiday market in the first place.) I finally made an abrupt excuse and left, hiking the mile back to my car.

On the drive home, I realized that Growversight would now always have this story associated with it in my head like an imprint. Just like the theme of piece, the story grew while I wasn’t looking. So I decided that the piece should grow as well.

In light of its transportation issues, I decided that the original box needed a little cart to ride in. But you’ll maybe notice that the cart has four flat tires and a distinctive pattern embroidered around the edge. I love this piece even more now.I am curious to see if it will grow some more the next time it goes on an adventure.

7 March, 2023

Three teacher confessions: Why I love questions

2023-03-11T11:27:18-06:00An Artist's Life, Classes & Teaching|1 Comment

Imagine putting on a blindfold. Then adding some earplugs. And then stepping into a room to teach a two hour class.

I LOVE teaching virtual/Zoom classes. If there is one spot of sunshine that came out of the past few years for me, it’s the acceptance/accessibility of online teaching. I jumped in to learning the technology enthusiastically. And I now teach something via Zoom every week from my studio table. It’s awesome.

I remember one of the late-2020 classes I taught had a group of 18 or so students and every single person had their camera and microphone turned off. I’m not complaining even for a minute that everyone chose to do that. There are many reasons to NOT have your camera and microphone on and they are all good ones. I support that 100%. But what I didn’t expect was how hard it was to teach when there is no feedback at all from students. I felt a little like I had to relearn how to do it.

It takes a lot of energy.

Until I was faced with an entire screen full of black rectangles, I didn’t realize how much I relied on simple feedback like students nodding or looking up from their project to know when it was time to move to the next step. It’s a like a conversation. I share something and then students share something back with me. But when there’s no feedback, it’s like shoveling snow. You just keep scooping up the next bit and stepping forward until you get to the end and then you stand there panting.

“Students who vigorously nod: you are life itself.” This quote popped up today in my Instagram stories and I couldn’t agree more. Those nods and smiles and thumbs up are like little shots of espresso. More so than I ever imagined.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write this post with a few “Teacher Confessions” or things that I suspect students don’t know but that make my job a thousand times easier and more fun.

1. Questions are never dumb.

I was thinking about a class I taught a few weeks ago. It was a small one and started out with everyone watching quietly from their black boxes for the first 45 minutes. But then someone unmuted and asked a question. And it was like that broke the ice. Soon there was another question and then a comment. And then a “me too” in the chat. And suddenly we were having a conversation.

I wanted to give that first question-asker a shiny gold star sticker! With an in-person class, I can watch and see if anyone looks puzzled or is struggling with a step and I can show a demonstration a different way or explain it differently or do it again. I watch for that. But virtually, I can’t see what anyone is doing so I don’t know when to repeat or move forward. Until you ask a question.

2. Sharing is even better than questions.

I am not one of those teachers who believes anything is “my way or the highway”. I’m there to show you the way I do a thing to get a specific result, but I know that there are always many ways of accomplishing that end result, sometimes more and less successfully. In another class we were working on something with a specific step that we did over and over. So we all had some time to practice this new skill. After a few repeats, someone asked a question and instead of just me answering, another student added “I moved my hand this way and tried this” and someone else said “It was easier for me when I tried it this way”. That, my friends, is like winning the lottery. Not only did I learn a new way of thinking about it, but everyone else now had three ideas for ways to do this thing instead of just one.

3. Questions + sharing = community experience.

There’s an invisible thing that I think happens when everyone is participating in the conversation too. When someone asks a question, you might think “Oh I wondered that too.” or “That makes so much sense now to me too.” If you try something another student suggested, you suddenly have something in common with that other person too. It’s a shared experience or something you did together. You had the same question, tried the same thing, had the same success or flop. Suddenly it becomes something “we” did, instead of something “I” did. It’s a little like that feeling of watching a movie in the theater and everyone lip synchs the line “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” It makes you a part of something special. You walk away with a smile.

As teachers we all say “Please ask questions” but the confession part is that I really do mean it. It helps me as much as it helps you (and probably everyone else too.)

18 January, 2023

Stepping out of your comfort zone as an artist.

2023-01-20T08:54:42-06:00An Artist's Life|1 Comment

In 2022, I applied for a Minnesota State Arts board grant. I wrote a little bit about applying for it here, just after I was awarded the stipend.

For this grant I decided to focus on reaching new audiences. Because of the work I do, which is primarily textiles and clothing related, the people who come to my community workshops and online classes are predominantly women. My social media audience is primarily women interested in crafts or sewing. I really wanted a project that would help me reach a more diverse audience. So I decided to do something a little outside of my normal work. This is a book about music and musicians, which is not my normal subject matter. I’ve been incorporating more and more paper into my work because paper is very accessible. You can always find some recycled paper to make something from. So this felt like a way to help engage with a different audience as well, in choosing a media that might feel a little more approachable. You don’t have to know how to sew to understand what I do with this project.

What I didn’t appreciate about reaching new audiences is that it also might mean reaching out of your comfort zone artistically. And boy did this project make me do that! When I wrote about the project at the beginning of the grant I talked about two challenges: instruments and people.

It turns out, I enjoyed making the instruments. They were tiny. The piccolo was only about 1 1/4 inches long and the triangle would fit on top of a nickel. That’s hard to do in bitsy pieces of cut paper. My fingers got very sticky with glue stick. I couldn’t have done the project without a pair of beautiful, pointy, handmade tweezers that my friend Jeff made.

I realized quickly that there is only so much tiny detail you can make without it looking clunky, so I decided a few things had to be created in Photoshop like violin strings and tuning pegs.

The part of the project which was maybe even harder than I thought it would be was to make people. In fact not just people, but people I know.

I knew what I was getting in to with this story. We had been talking about it for years before I ever thought about doing illustrations. There was a group of artistic friends that brainstormed how we could make the story come to life visually; whether it should be animated or paper puppets or stop motion or live drawings. Eventually a book seemed the most versatile and accessible idea. But I also had many chats with my friend Cy, an artist with decades of experience cartooning and painting, about the way to create simple portraits of people. Because I had no idea where to start.

As artists, we all have the styles and subjects we love to make. I love rich textures, bright colors, and quirky animals and objects. I do not like to draw people. And in cut paper, the shapes have to be inherently simple. I had to make tiny rectangles for noses because I couldn’t cut anything more detailed than that. So I started first thinking about what were the minimal shapes I could use to make a face: Ovals for eyes, a rectangle for a nose, a triangle or two for a mouth. You can see how tiny they are there next to the point of my scissors.

I didn’t start out thinking I would do a book in the style of Eric Carle, who was an illustrator famous for hand cut painted paper, but several people have said my work reminds them of him. A lovely compliment. I looked at a lot of Eric Carle illustrations to see how he made people. I think maybe he liked animals better too, because many of his faces are painted on instead of cut paper. I also thought a lot about Ed Emberley, who wrote a series of drawing books for kids that were all about constructing animals from simple geometric shapes. So that’s how I started to think about bodies; what rectangles and ovals and curves could I make and connect together. I left the images of the audience and the orchestra until the very last because they were intimidating. That’s 49 different people on those two pages alone and the pages each took more than a week to finish.

I’ve used painted paper in a lot of fabric designs before I started this book because I love the texture the paint gives to the paper. I think it really adds some life and dimension to otherwise flat colors. I like the imperfection. Painting the paper turned out to be really necessary for these illustrations because I was super frustrated with the colors available to work from, especially skin tones. So some of the first days I worked on the book were just about making materials: skin tones, colors of wood for all of the instruments, hair colors. I assigned each “main” character a color that follows them through the book. Ada always wears turquoise. Her mom, Carrie the oboist, wears a red-violet shade. I painted some paper in every color you see in the book. In a few places I used hand-marbled paper that I made in a class. I don’t have the setup to marble paper in my studio but I have a stash that I created in classes at the MN Center for Book Arts and I love to add in little bits. In a few places in the audience you can also see the transparent deli paper layered with security envelopes, which are my favorite recycled paper. Security envelopes are the ones that things like your bank statement come in and the insides are printed with tiny black and white patterns.

Some of the people in the book are people I know, which made it easier in some ways to think about how Rolf always wears green, so naturally he has to have a green Hawaiian shirt on page 6. But it was also simultaneously intimidating because what if they don’t like the way I made their paper alter ego look? What if I emphasize something that they don’t like about themselves? What if I made them feel self conscious or disappointed?

Although I probably should have started with it, one of the very last images I made was the self portrait of myself that’s on the “About the Illustrator” section. The one you see was actually my second try, designed for a different page on the book. Although I liked the first one ok, the second one ended up somehow looking more like me, so I decided to swap them out.

By the time I did the last couple of pages, I had a little more confidence. I put many people I know into the audience page. Sometimes I didn’t even know I was doing it until I got done with a person and said to myself, “Oh that looks like Fred.” Am I confident enough to do another project illustrating people? Absolutely not. But I surprised myself at how proud I was when I got it done. It was a big artistic hurdle to push myself through.

(A note: Books aren’t available yet; there are a couple of tweaks that need to happen, but they will be soon.)

3 August, 2022

Trying out fantastic new materials: Making a Kraftex Paper Ledger Book

2022-11-01T11:38:49-05:00An Artist's Life, Tutorials|2 Comments

A few months ago I ran across an article talking about Kraftex paper. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s like a heavy flexible paper, which feels a little like a cross between paper and leather. It comes in an unwashed version, which is stiffer like watercolor paper, and a washed version which has some flexibility and almost a drape, like fabric. I mentioned in my newsletter that I was super curious about it and a staff member from C&T Publishing reached out and offered to send me some samples to play with. I jumped at the chance!

Because I believe in transparency, I want to say that C&T didn’t ask me to review, post or promote anything in exchange for the samples. This is not a sponsored or paid post.

I’m dedicating some time this summer to both trying new things in my studio and practicing some new-to-me skills, so this morning I pulled out some of the washed Kraftex paper and decided to make a small notebook. I’ve been expanding my art practice to include more paper arts because I have found that it helps make my work more accessible when I am trying to do community projects. Fabric, and the tools needed to work with it, can be cost prohibitive and feel challenging for beginners, but paper is everywhere.

I started by tearing down some sheets of paper to make the pages for my book. This is some lightweight drawing paper and I made strips that were 3×11 inches. Tearing down pages was something I learned in a coptic sketchbook class I took recently from the MN Center for Book Arts. And although that seems like kind of a silly thing to want to practice, getting a consistent edge really does take some practice. I really love the look of a torn edge, so it’s something I want to get better at. It took just one large sheet of paper to tear down into smaller sheets for my notebook.

I cut the cover out of a piece of Kraftex paper with my rotary cutter and a ruler. This is the washed version in a color they call “Natural”. I loved how this one really looks like leather. It is about 1mm thick and very flexible. I really chose the size of my book to maximize the use of a piece of this Kraftex paper. It comes in 8.5 x 11 sheets or rolls, so I cut a strip 3×11 inches for the cover too. I folded each page and the cover in half to make a finished book that’s about 3×5.5 inches. The kraftex took a fold nicely and didn’t crack or warp like thick papers sometimes do. I think the Kraftex is going to make the perfect cover. It’s heavy enough to feel like a cover but not stiff or bulky.

I decided to use a decorative paper punch to create the holes so I could bind the book together. It was relatively easy to punch, but I should have made myself a jig so it was easier to line up the holes in the pages and cover. Something to remember for next time. This kind of a “ledger” binding just needs two holes near the folded edge and then you stitch and tie a sturdy thread through them.

I used a variegated cotton sashiko thread to bind the book together mostly because it was the first thing that caught my eye. Sashiko thread is like a very thin cotton cord and it worked just fine for this.

I thought it would be fun to add a little bit of something to the cover, so I used the same thread to stitch a couple of embroidery stitches. I punched the holes with an awl before I stitched because I didn’t want to crease the paper trying to punch the needle through it.

I have so many ideas for this! For my next project I want to try something with a little origami folding. There’s a technique to fold thicker papers where you get the paper wet before you fold it and I am really curious to see how that works with this and if I can make something interesting and three dimensional. Kraftex is also dyeable, so I am absolutely going to try shibori dyeing a couple of sheets. If you want to play with some, I think the best source for Kraftex is through C&T’s website. They have some great variety packs so you can get a bunch of sheets in different colors and they have dozens of free tutorials if you want to do a specific project.

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