11 November, 2022

What it’s like to have asbestos abatement

2022-11-29T16:47:12-06:00Everything Else|1 Comment

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I imagine that most of you have never had an asbestos abatement sign posted in your dining room. This was the first full week of the construction at my house. As I am typing this, one of our crew is upstairs with a shop-vac getting rid of the rest of the 80 year old insulation in the attic. I don’t think he was looking forward to today; it was messy.

We started the week with the asbestos crew setting up. It took an entire day for them to seal the upstairs with plastic and wide yellow tape on every surface. Then they had to construct a 3-part decontamination area at the bottom of the stairs. That’s what you can see in the photo up at the top of the post. They explained to me that they had to have three separate chambers, including a shower, right there in my dining room. On top of the middle section you can see a portable water heater and we turned on our outside faucet for them so they could run a garden hose in through the window. We had all of that set up over night, so we ate dinner at my desk. Stanley was very suspicious of this new construction in his space. We pulled out every rug in the house to put over the plastic on the floor because it was slippery and we didn’t want dog toe nails to compromise the area.

Once they got all the set up done, it really only took an hour to take out the asbestos, which was all in the floor tile. I understand that the tiles get double wrapped in plastic and then they can be disposed of. So we are no longer the proud owners of any asbestos. Yay!

The way our house is arranged, there is just one door that connects the left and right side. Our offices are one on either side of that doorway, so Stanley and my husband were kind of trapped on one side and I was stuck on the other. We made jokes about having to boost the 90lb labrador out the guestroom window to go potty, but happily we didn’t have to resort to that.

While all of that was going on inside, there was also a big project outside. Since the staircase to upstairs is narrow with a sharp corner at the top, and they need to haul huge sheets of plywood and 2x4s up there, they spent the day building an outside staircase to our second floor. So they will have an easier way to move all of the materials without everything needing to go through my living room. I’m really happy about that.

Once the asbestos was gone, demolition started! It looks so different already! We are keeping a little bit of that pine panelling in place around the stairs, but it was really too old and brittle to salvage most of it. Those yucky looking dirt piles are the disintegrated paper insulation. That’s what he has been working on most of the day today and I told him that I was really glad that was *his* job and not mine. There’s no insulation at all up there now and it’s COLD. Fortunately they will have that fixed in just a couple of weeks.

1 November, 2022

Three Camera Tries: The Making of Our Halloween Love Note

2022-11-20T21:52:43-06:00Everything Else|Comments Off on Three Camera Tries: The Making of Our Halloween Love Note

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If it’s too much of a spoiler to know how our Halloween photo is made, I don’t want to ruin the magic for you. This is your warning to skip this post. But shooting our photo this year was an interesting creative challenge and I thought it would be fun to talk about how we made it work and what we learned about our cameras.

We have an unfinished basement (which is awesome) and as an artist I have to take a LOT of photos of my work. So we have a corner that is the dedicated photo studio. It has a large roll of white paper and big lights and a tripod set up most of the time. I’ve learned just what I need to do to get great photos in that space. It’s where we usually do our Halloween photos. The previous owners of our house had built a little workbench under the basement stairs full of drawers that we affectionately call our “Prop Shop” which is where we store all of the Halloween props and costume bits as well as all of the backdrops and props to photograph things for my Etsy shop and dress forms for photographing garments. It’s a great setup. In my last blog post I talked about how we are starting construction on a house project this week. That means that everything that used to be on the second floor of our house had to move elsewhere. The furniture, our bed, our collection of board games, the exercise bike, boxes and bins all are now living in what was my photo studio. There is no way to take a photo there.

So instead of building a set, we decided that the Halloween photo needed to be something that was just our faces because that was going to be easier to do in some other part of our house. We had a couple of ideas, but we knew that the light was going to be the most challenging so we decided to go with spooky skeletons and deliberately make the light cast dark shadows on our faces.

Our rule about Halloween photos is that it should be about 80% “real” and 20% Photoshop, where we use Photoshop to just put in those details that make it awesome. This photo is a great example of that.

We took two photos. Photoshop helped make my hair blonde and change the tan windbreaker I found for Andy’s costume into flight suit orange. And we put the two photos together.

So we started this skeleton photo with two photos also. We wanted to use just our faces, so I bought a black spandex hood that we could put over our hair and we put on black shirts to make it easy to “erase” the rest of us from the photo.

Then I built a “set” out of two pieces of foam core and a black tablecloth and put it on the desk. Andy’s office has a nice big north facing window and on the Saturday morning we took these photos it had great light reflected off the house next door. So that was our light source. We wanted the light to cast some kind of dark shadows but it was too dark, so we each held up a big piece of white foam core to reflect the light back on the other side of our faces. We each took the photo of the other and because the light was exactly the same, they look like we are sitting side by side. We agreed on “dead” expressions and big wide open eyes.

Here’s where it got interesting: it took three cameras to get the shot. We started with a little Canon point-and-shoot that we got just a few months back. It’s a pretty good camera although I am still learning its quirks and we thought it would be the easiest. But when we pulled the photos off the camera they were terrible. Blurry and grainy. (I realized this morning I can’t show you because we deleted them all.) That dark “moody” lighting we were trying to get was not something this camera knew how to do.

Next we thought we’d try my iPhone. It’s a pretty new phone with a great camera too and again, we were going for easy. The photo on the left is the one from my phone. It has so many “make your photos look amazing” algorithms built into it that it basically took exactly the opposite photo from what we were going for. It took out all of the shadows and made everything bright and “perfect”.

So finally we pulled out our big old Canon DSLR. It’s more than 15 years old, but it’s the camera we usually use for Halloween. That’s the photo on the right. Although it is overall pretty dark because we were working with very little light, just look at those beautiful shadows and the sparkle in his eye. That one was a keeper. Both of these photos are straight off the cameras without any tweaking. What a difference, huh?

Now you might be wondering, where are the skeletons? That was our cheat. Someone on Facebook asked me how much was masks and how much was makeup and the answer is none of it. I bought a skeleton vector graphic on Etsy and we Photoshopped it. We layered the graphic over our faces and carefully tweaked and warped it so it fit our faces exactly, matching noses and eye brows and chins. The layer is transparent and uses some color blending to make it look like it’s painted onto our faces. We erased our eyes from the graphic so you could see them just a tiny bit brighter. I drew the hands (referring to another graphic I found) and then layered a grungy paint texture over top of them to make them match the faces.

Although we had newer and “better” tools, it turns out that when we went back to the one we knew the best we took the photos we needed on the first try. It was very satisfying, after a frustrating hour of photos that were just plain wrong, to go down and dig out the other camera and say “there it is” when we got it right.

20 October, 2022

The Construction Project: Before we start

2022-11-20T21:52:36-06:00Construction, Everything Else|2 Comments

A year ago in September, I was teaching a Zoom class and my husband heard a “whump” from the other room. He thought the dog had gotten into something upstairs, but when he went to investigate he found that a large section of our ceiling had fallen down. Our house was built in 1927 and is a beautiful Craftsman style bungalow, but the upstairs hadn’t been updated at all. So that nearly 100 year old fiber ceiling tile just gave up.

The downstairs is beautiful with all of the original oak woodwork and maple floors. Ours is very similar to this one with a little larger footprint and only a “half” story on the top level so the ceiling is only full height in some parts. Our upstairs is one big open room and was our bedroom and my husband’s work-at-home office during the pandemic. When we bought the house 20+ years ago, the people we bought it from (Harold and Olive) were in their 90s and were only the second people to own the house. They had “finished” the upstairs into what we figure must have been a family room with knotty pine paneling covering every wall and tons of closets and storage nooks. It was functional but certainly not pretty. We lived with it because (as any of you know who have lived in an old house), there was always something else more in desperate need of being fixed.

At first we stared at the piles of disintegrating ceiling tiles and dusty paper insulation and laughed. Because what else can you do? And then we tried to figure out how to fix it. We knew we couldn’t really do it ourselves, even though we are pretty experienced fixer-uppers. It’s an entire floor of the house. That’s more than a weekend project.

So we talked to friends and found a fantastic contractor. It took months to work into his schedule and talk about what we wanted to do. Then he was put on medical leave. So we had to get another contractor (also awesome) and work into his schedule. We pulled in my dad, who to our great good fortune is a retired architect with a love of old houses and creative problem solving.

Our “fix the ceiling and the insulation” project turned into a “what would happen if we cut open the roof and added a new dormer so we could have a second bathroom?” project. We had every intention of fixing up this space when we moved in so we had some money saved up (thank goodness) so that let us dream a little bigger than just fix it and we get to make it a new cool space.

Things I learned so far which I didn’t know:

  • You have to have a certain ratio of square footage of space to windows to provide light and ventilation to meet building code. We had not even close to enough. Because it’s one big room it has to have a lot of windows. Windows take 8 months to get right now. We ordered our windows in May and we are keeping our fingers crossed we will have them by the time we need them.
  • In 1927, walls of houses were insulated with newspapers sewn into booklets. We spent a lot of time crawling into the knee walls and rafters getting measurements so we could draw up plans and we pulled out fragments of December 1927 newspapers written in Norwegian (?).

  • You don’t want to have to figure out where to store the contents of an entire floor of your house for a year and a half. I just have one word for you about the state of my basement: yikes. Our basement is unfinished, so usually I have a “wet” studio for painting and a photo studio set up down there and it’s our space for working on projects like fixing computers or unpacking craft shows so things don’t have to be all over the dining room table. Next week I am rearranging, organizing and taking as many things as I can to goodwill to try and clear some space for the electrician and plumber to work. I can’t even tell you how nice it’s going to be to have the basement and upstairs usable again.

Asbestos abatement for those lovely floor tiles starts next week. Wish us luck!

8 June, 2022

Handmade pricing: Here’s why I don’t need to charge more for my art.

2022-09-28T11:07:16-05:00An Artist's Life, Everything Else|2 Comments

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A few weeks ago, a colleague reached out to me and said “I’d love it if you wrote a blog post about how you price your classes and your art”. She was looking to change direction in her business and wanted some insights into making her art and classes more affordable. One thing she said really resonated with me: I want to create high priced art, but then that’s weird because I can’t afford that myself.

This is something I think about a lot. When I decided to make this art business of mine a full time adventure, I thought alot about how I wanted that to look. I come from many years of working in the non-profit arts sector and I could recite the mission statement of my organization from memory. Part of what you do in that non-profit world is always look at things as they relate to that mission. So I needed a mission statement. I decided that mine was really made up of a set of values.

Make more art.

The first value I settled on was the idea that my job meant I was making art. I define that idea of “art” pretty broadly so for me it means I am making things. That might be fabric designs or clothing or classes or websites. I am working with my hands and my brain and creating new things. The way my brain is wired, I need to be problem solving and innovating and creating to be happy.

Support the community.

The next value I came up with was that I really wanted what I was doing to help support other artists and creators. That means when I source supplies to make my art or to teach a class I start with other small businesses as resources. About 90% of what I use for classes comes from Etsy sellers and other small businesses. I get zippers from a shop in WI and my favorite felt comes from a shop in IL. I’ve been ordering all of my fabric from Spoonflower since they were a single printer in a repurposed sock factory. I partner with local non-profit organizations like the county library system to teach classes. I want to know a person at the businesses where I do business.

The past few weeks I’ve been sitting on a grant review panel for the regional arts council. A group of about 12-14 arts professionals evaluate all of the grant applications. I wrote about that process for a grant I have going on right now. I have gotten several grants like this and other panelists have reviewed my applications, so this is my way of making sure that community thrives by taking my turn as a panelist.

That’s also why I write posts like this. When I was first getting started I didn’t know anyone else who was just getting started and it was scary and lonely. I didn’t know if I could make it work and I didn’t want to quit my day job and then fall flat on my face. If you can take something from this post and use it in your business or art practice then I am delighted and I am giving you a virtual high-five.

Make it accessible.

The last value I settled on was to make things accessible. If you’ve worked at all in non-profit orgs, that word might make you cringe a little bit. It’s been a huge focus of missions and programming for decades and it gets talked about a lot. Often in the simplest sense it gets broken down into ADA compliance and ASL interpreters. But accessibility can be addressed in so many different ways. For me, affordability was a big accessibility barrier that I wanted to work on; I’ll come back to that in a bit.

I used to teach at a venue where the class prices were on the high side. I don’t think that org is doing their pricing wrong; everyone has overhead and expenses and many other factors that go in to determining their prices. But because the prices were at the level they were, they attracted a certain kind of student. In a very broad general sense, the only people who took classes from me there were wealthy and retired. Other people told me that classes were too expensive and they felt out of place. This bothered me, so I started to try and look for other places that I could teach that might be more accessible to more different kinds of people.

I was approached by Skillshare to teach classes for them many years ago, but it bothered me that there was a membership paywall that made those classes unavailable to a lot of students. That wasn’t the only factor that made it seem inaccessible to me. Skillshare also has a video based “formula” that they want classes to follow. From a teaching standpoint, I didn’t want to be limited to only teaching in a lecture/video format, which isn’t the best match for all learners.

The pandemic era boom of online classes was, in a way, a complete revolution. At the beginning, none of us knew what we were doing and how to work with the technology. But as we all got more experience, I realized that online classes can open up accessibility in so many more ways. By using captions and other video tools like speed control and ability to pause and review, they can be adaptable to different or preferred learning styles, visual and auditory abilities, or language barriers. Allowing students to learn in their own space can help with transportation and childcare needs, physical needs and mental needs like social anxiety. Online classes absolutely have drawbacks and inherent barriers as well, but I love that there is a more available and widely acceptable option for a lot of students. I love teaching online. There was no support for me to do that before 2020.

I also look at the materials and tools I am using in classes. I love to teach Adobe Illustrator for example, but time-after-time guilds and small fiber groups asked me if I could teach them how to design with Spoonflower but not using Photoshop or Illustrator because their members couldn’t afford it. Could I teach them using free software so more people could participate? So I did that and I learned a whole bunch of free and low cost apps that I could teach with. I’ll be honest and say that I struggled with that for a while. There’s a perception that the “experts” or “professionals” use Photoshop or Illustrator or Procreate and they charge $$$$ for it. I didn’t want to be seen as less expert or less professional by teaching using free apps and recycled materials, but this was what people were asking for and it’s something I’m good at. It took me a long time to really identify and embrace that as a niche I love.

So accessibility is a value that I try to think about in all of the things I do in my business and I look at many different ways I can define accessibility and try to make things more accessible so I can work with more different kinds of people. I can’t do everything and there’s always more to do, but I am always looking for ways that I can try to pay attention and try new things.

How do values equal action?

So it’s great to talk about what you aspire to do by stating business values, but how does that actually turn into something concrete? Here’s where I want to talk about pricing and affordability as one example of that. This is how I put that value into practice.

How do I set prices?

The easiest example I can think of to tell you about prices is to talk about my Etsy shop. I make all kinds of things from zipper bags to scarves and sell them both online and occasionally in-person. I have a very specific way that I set prices. First I have to design and figure out exactly what I am making. This prototype phase is about just working out the specifics: how much of what things do I need. I look at everything I can think of from fabric and zippers to copies of instructions and packaging bags for kits. After I have the design figured out then I move on to pricing and the details of making it.

For example,

  • Let’s say a yard of fabric to make zipper bags costs $30. I can make 18 zipper bags from that yard of fabric. That’s $1.67 each. Then I add on the cost of the rest of the materials I need to make that bag (lining, zipper, tag etc) and it comes out to about $2.50.
  • Then I literally get out a stopwatch and make a dozen of them. I time myself making them per piece from cutting out the fabric to trimming the threads at the end. I can make a zipper bag in under 7 minutes. It took me a while to get to that rate, but I have all kinds of systems and patterns I do now that speed up the process. Not only does it help me figure out a fair price, but I know exactly how long it will take me to get ready for a big show or do a special order for someone.
  • Then I multiply that time per piece by the hourly rate I want to get paid. It depends on what I am doing what rate I pay myself for the time. My “just basic sewing” rate is lower than my “designing a custom fabric” rate. So let’s say for this example that’s $3 per bag or about $20/hour. Before anyone says $20 per hour is too low, let’s keep in mind that it’s more than I was paid hourly at my last “office job” and more than my mom was paid for her 20+ years of experience as a highschool special ed teacher. I consider it a fair rate.
  • So we are now at around $5.50 for materials and time. I usually double that to account for overhead & profit. Overhead is everything from the amount I will have to pay the IRS to the time it took me to design the thing to the Etsy listing fees.
  • I look at all the math and then round up or down to come up with what looks like a sensible price (ie, not $9.47). For those zipper bags, that’s $10. I am paid for time and materials, I have covered overhead expenses and I have profit I can invest back in my business and save for retirement. I don’t make a lot of profit but I do make something on every piece.

Pricing classes works in much the same way. I look at hours invested in preparing and face-to-face teaching time. I add in overhead like my Zoom subscription and time it takes me to promote classes. I total up materials and postage if I am mailing kits to students. For a class where I take individual registrations, I divide that up on a per student basis. For a class I teach for a larger guild or group I have a flat rate. I am simplifying here naturally, but if you want to dig into that deeper, I have a class all about it. I don’t charge more for a class with more students because for me it’s the same to teach a room of 3 or 20. I am still giving you 100% of my preparation, effort and experience.

Are my class and product prices accessible for everyone? No, probably not. But I have tried to make them as fair and transparent and authentic as I can. That’s not a very retail or corporate approach, but it is aligned with my brand values.

“You should charge more.”

I get this comment a lot and I don’t think it’s true. I talked at the beginning of this essay about my friend who said “I want to create high priced art, but then that’s weird because I can’t afford that myself.” I occasionally help artists and small non-profits set up their websites and Etsy shops. If I charge a high rate for designing a website, for example, then I price myself out of working with exactly the people I want to help make their website. Just because the “designers” at Joe’s Website Shack charge $200 per hour to set up a website doesn’t mean I need to charge that much or that that’s the value of website set up. I am my own target customer (ie an artist who needs a website) and I couldn’t afford to have Joe’s do my website.

One of the ways I can make my prices less than Joe’s Website Shack is to keep my overhead down. I don’t have to pay for overseas call centers. But I also don’t have to pay for every monthly fee for every marketing or business service out there. I’ve watched a lot of seminars and classes about running a small business and almost without exception, someone recommends a monthly service: something that schedules posts for you, brainstorms your SEO, provides links to your Instagram posts or templates for your graphics or the premium Etsy shop template. If I subscribed to even half of those, I would be spending hundreds of dollars a month in overhead. I kind of feel the same way about single purpose kitchen gadgets. As much as I think a Millenium Falcon waffle maker would be cool, I really don’t need that taking up space in my tiny kitchen cupboards.

I think really carefully about the tools that are important to me. My email newsletter software is essential. My newsletter list is like gold. They are the people who really engage with what I do and I am grateful for them everyday. Do I upgrade that software to include all of the “trickle campaign” and automation emails services? Nope. Because those things make me nuts. I hate automated emails. I bet you hate them too. I was asked to participate in a study that my e-newsletter software company did and after the interview I felt a little weird about it, like I was small potatoes compared to the interview questions they were asking me. I didn’t use half of their stuff. I told a friend about this and she very wisely said, “Well sure you are small potatoes, but you have an open rate that’s like 5 times what the big potatoes do. That’s why they wanted to talk to you.” Luring people into signing up for the newsletter with free stuff and “onboarding” might be the marketing wisdom of the day, but the additional cost would raise my overhead.

I added a plugin to my website a few months ago that automatically delivers the Zoom link to students who sign up for my classes, so I don’t need to remember to email them and send it before class. This was an investment for me not only as a time saver, but after I nearly forgot to send the links out to a class, I decided it was also an accessibility upgrade in making sure that students had the information they needed to participate in a timely manner and a format that was easy to find. I need to try to recruit a few more people in to signing up for some classes to cover that additional cost, but I decided that it was a great investment. My Adobe subscription is another great example of this. I subscribe to the Adobe Suite and I use it for everything: creating art, marketing, website, graphic design, video etc. It’s one tool that can help me with many aspects of my business activities so it’s a great value for me.

Finally, I also look at all of the different things that I do and I look for synthesis. I am not just a retail business or a teacher or a website designer or an artist. I do ALL of those. The grant project I am working on right now has a big part of it that is paying me for my time to make the art. I will use it to complete the grant project, but that art is going to go on and be 15 more things once I get done. I’m illustrating a book, but those cut paper illustrations can also become fabric designs and postcards. I will have the books to sell in my shop. I will teach some classes about the art and the book. I love finding ways to “reuse” my art. That grant is going to subsidize a big body of other work so those future projects have less overhead. My Etsy sales have been really great in the last couple of years, which has allowed me to invest in time to make some new designs. When I make a kit for my shop, writing the instructions is the same as the majority of my class prep for teaching. So making a kit and a class at the same time is more economical than doing one or the other.

What about the free stuff?

Now you might be saying to yourself: “But Becka, there’s a lot of FREE stuff on your website. How does that work? How are you covering your costs if it’s free?” I don’t teach for free. But you can take a lot of my classes for free and it’s because of that synthesis I was just talking about. A couple of my classes are free because I put them in my marketing budget. Instead of buying an ad somewhere, I made a free class about Spoonflower so you can take a class from me and see if you like it and maybe come back for another class another time. That felt like a better investment than an ad in a magazine. The “free” classes I teach for the county library system are free for students, but I get paid to teach them from the library’s programming budget, funded by a state sales tax amendment. They are a win for everybody. Another set of free classes were something I was paid to do and “licensed” to a group for a certain period of time and when that time was up, I could put them up on my website as a class. I was already paid for the time to teach and develop those, so I can offer them free to students now.

Will you be able to run your business the same way I do? I can’t answer that for you. We all have different things that we have to factor in to what makes our art practice “successful” and what that means for each of us. I do hope that this post has given you an idea or made you think about how you can bring more of your values into what you do. I’d love to hear about what works for you.

24 April, 2022

Stanley’s Birthday Party: Fold an Origami Labrador

2022-04-24T11:05:34-05:00Everything Else, Freebies & Patterns, Tutorials|Comments Off on Stanley’s Birthday Party: Fold an Origami Labrador

It’s Stanley’s first birthday today. Make your own origami labrador party favor to celebrate with us. You just need a square of paper. It should be about 6 inches and it’s the most fun if it’s a different color on each side. You can use origami paper, wrapping paper, tissue, scrapbooking paper, or recycled magazine pages.

19 April, 2022

New Online Classes!

2022-04-19T15:32:39-05:00Classes & Teaching, Everything Else, Spoonflower & Fabric Design, UpcomingClasses|Comments Off on New Online Classes!

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It’s class launch day! I have four new online classes open for registration today, from fabric design to hands-on art with recycled materials. I offer both on-demand classes where you can register and take the class on your schedule any time and live online classes where you can join me on Zoom for a virtual class. Here’s what’s new!

New on-demand classes at Teachable

Postcard Art From Everyday Materials. In 2020, I developed a series about making art from every day materials you might find around your house like scrap paper, glue stick, recycled envelopes, post-it notes. For each technique, I show you three or four designs to make into mailable postcards or other small art pieces. I originally partnered with Dakota County Libraries to host these on Facebook, but now I have them here on my website with added links, ideas and resources.

Crafting a Class. Learn how to plan, prepare, promote, and teach an awesome hands-on class. From setting goals and writing your description to fine tuning your supply list and managing students at different skill levels, this online class goes in-depth to help you craft the best class you can. I’ve redone all of the videos and added new lessons about teaching online, setting up a Zoom classroom and more.

Live online classes held on Zoom

A Spoonful of Spoonflower. Thursday May 12, 7:00 pm CDT Get a tour of what it’s like to design fabrics and print them using Spoonflower, a web-based service for printing your own fabric designs. During class, I’ll walk through creating a simple two-color design from creating a sketch to uploading and ordering. I usually only offer this for guilds and private groups and I thought I should do one that’s open to anyone!

Designing Kumihimo Braids Thursday June 16, 7:00 pm CDT Learn the basics of kumihimo, a multi-stranded braid which originated in Japan. In this class you will learn both an 8 and 16 stranded braid pattern and how to make your own marudai braiding loom. We will talk about how to design your own braid variations with different colors and yarn weights or textures.

Be sure to also check out the other classes I have available by clicking the links to Live Classes & Events or On Demand Online Classes in the menu above.

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