The Learning Curve…strike that…Wave

Learning Wave 2

“Why,” said Ford, “are you lying face down in the dust?”

“It’s a very effective way of being wretched,” said Marvin.

from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Ok, confession time. After I posted my last post, accidentally deleted it, panicked, didn’t realize I could un-delete it, posted it again, then discovered that I’d forgotten to title it—right in front of everyone and their kittens—I’ve been wrestling with a crisis of confidence about this blogging thing. I tried to get back on the horse by writing the second half of the post, but I had so many different ideas, it was like trying to make a pie crust with wet dough—it stuck to everything but itself. Eventually it all spiraled into an extravaganza of self-criticism: “I’m a spaz and my baking skills suck and I’m not smart enough and I’m not funny enough and my titles are dumb and I can’t remember how to use commas or quotation marks or how to spell ‘vacuum.’ Why am I littering the inter-webs with this incompetent drivel?”

Then out from behind all of the negativity peeked this faint memory of Stephen Colbert talking to Terry Gross on “Fresh Air.” The conversation seemed naggingly relevent, so I rummaged around the web until I found it. (Hooray for podcast archives!) It’s from 2016, and Stephen was discussing his transition from “The Colbert Report” to the “The Late Show,” which meant having to shed the Colbert Report character and just be himself.

Terry asked, “…did you know what your authentic voice was going to be? You know, what your voice, like the actual Stephen Colbert, was going to be…?”

And he replied, “Um, I don’t think so. I knew that it would be a little bit of a public discovery. You know, what’s the—it’s somebody else’s joke—but, ‘Life is like learning to play the violin in public. You don’t know what you’re doing until you do it.’ I knew that there would be a learning curve that had to happen in public on air.”

He went on to say that it took him “half a year” to figure it out. Six months at 20 nightly shows a month is 120 shows. It took him 120 shows to discover his voice. That’s a lot of shows! He seemed very accepting and matter-of-fact about the whole thing too. No apologies. No self-flagellation or embarrassment. Just, “Yep, that’s what it took.”

I found that so comforting and reassuring. I can reevaluate the blog after 120 posts, but not before. Like chugging through an intersection when you’re learning to drive a stick shift, this painful learning-in-public phase is just an unavoidable part of the process. As my dear husband is so good about reminding me, “It’s a’ight, it’s a’ight.”

And now I know not to believe the WordPress App when it tells me that my published post is still in the draft box.

. . . . .

(Google says that the quote Stephen was paraphrasing was by Samuel Butler: “Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”)

Spoonflower Power, Part 1

I love living in the digital age! The opportunities for artists have burst wide open with the inception of the interwebs, the print-on-demand phenomena, and companies like Society6, RedBubble, Blurb, and Spoonflower that allow you to upload digitized artwork and apply them to a crazy cool array of objects. Mugs, cutting boards, clocks, rugs, curtains, bedding, towels, placemats, furniture(!), iphone cases, t-shirts, leggings, tote bags, backpacks, books, and notebooks, not to mention frameable prints. It’s brilliant!

With on-demand printing, there’s no inventory for the artist, so it’s eco and storage-space friendly. There are no gatekeepers, so all interested artists can participate. Someone else takes care of production and shipping, so more time can be spent doing the fun, creative stuff. And, in comparison with the fabric industry, there’s no seasonality. The big fabric companies, or at least those who print quilt fabric, run a collection once and then move on. A fabric designer for a big-name company recently said that she wrote a project book to show how her commercial fabrics could be used, and by the time the book was available, the fabrics no longer were. With a print-on-demand company, patterns and images are available as long as the company is in business and the artist keeps them in her shop. Again, so brilliant!

I haven’t ventured into Mug, Bathmat, or Legging Land yet, but I’ve been DIY-ing fabric through Spoonflower for several years. I found my happy place when I learned how to use Photoshop. I looooove it! The only time I’ve ever had to be called to dinner twice was when I was messing around in Photoshop. And when I learned how to create seamless repeat designs, a whole new world of possibilities opened up.

About four years ago I decided that I knew just enough to participate in the design challenges that Spoonflower hosts each week. They announce a theme, designers design designs in response to the theme, the Spoonflower community votes on them, and the top vote-getters receive prizes, usually in the form of Spoondollars. I entered four challenges within a two-month period and had a fairish amount of success. Three of my four designs were voted into the top third, and my second entry, a recipe tea towel for Mother’s Day, actually won 4th place. Beginner’s luck!

L to R: “Bestrewn,” Floral Coloring Book Wallpaper challenge, 83rd/310; “Ambrosia Bites,” Mom’s Recipe Tea Towel challenge, 4th/127; “Glossy Peaks,” Utensil challenge, 57th/201; “Waikiki Quiver,” Surfing (Limited Color Palette) challenge, 39th/169.

The quality of the artwork created by many in the Spoonflower community is impressive. The top designers appear to be professional illustrators and painters, and as a ceramist turned quilter and novice designer, after the fourth entry, I realized that I didn’t have the chops to compete with them. It became painfully clear that 1) tossed repeats (where all the motifs are scattered through the block) are very hard to do well and 2) that I wasn’t really the novelty fabric type, both of which earn big votes in the challenges. Discouraged, I ended up dropping out of the challenge scene and wandering away for a while to chase other butterflies.

. . . . .

In keeping with the goal of this blog—to find out how much artists can earn—I can report that I did make a little money with that first challenge adventure. At the time, Spoonflower sold a packet of fat-quarters—one from each of the top ten designs—for the week following the announcement of the winners. Eleven people bought the “Mom’s Recipe Tea Towel” collection, so I, along with the other top nine, earned $15.40 from the sales (a commission of $1.40 on each sale). I couldn’t buy new tires for my car, but it was an encouraging beginning. It’s good to know that there are buyers out there!

Sadly, Spoonflower doesn’t offer the Top 10 packets anymore. I still get occasional sales on the tea towel however. I’m always amazed when people find it because I’ve done absolutely nothing to promote it. My other entries were never made available for sale because I didn’t proof them—a Spoonflower prerequisite. Looking back, it seems like a bit of a waste given the time I put into them. A wise woman would flesh out collections for those designs and add them to her shop.

My So-Called Business Plan

Shifting gears from “artist” to “artist who sells stuff” reminds me of the day I got tired of losing at Scrabble and decided to play for points instead of poetry. Up until then, if I’d been given the choice of playing “qi” on a triple word score for 33 points or “quince” for a plain, old 17 points, I would have chosen “quince” because it was prettier and more exotic.* Seriously. I compared it to seeing a rare bird in the wild. “Oh, look! A whooping crane! Cool!” A moment to be commemorated and celebrated. Points be damned.

Being intent on winning seemed a bit distasteful too, as so many of the world’s problems—greed, aggression, ruthlessness—can be boiled down to “playing for points.” And so with art. Focusing on the money rather than the art seems unsavory—kind of soulless and sellout-y—but I either need to up my game or find a soul-sucking, back-aching desk job. Surely I can find a way to be congenially competitive at art and Scrabble.

610 MAGNOLIA, 2016, 51” x 40”

Making art for art’s sake is a wonderful thing, but it hasn’t gotten me very far. Like the rare bird, novelty has been something I’ve sought in the studio: “What can I make that doesn’t look like anything else even though it might end up being weird and ugly?” And—surprise!—even though I found the work fun and quirky, others found it strange. I once heard my quilts described as something from “outer space.” Few people were beating down the studio door to take any of them home.

So, I need to change tactics, and looking at my work through a lens of greater appeal and sale potential has helped crystalize the issue. Some ideas get pushed immediately to the periphery while others come whizzing into the forefront, and I see them falling into three categories:

  1. Items that are made and sold and that’s it. A one time deal. Let’s call it, “Art.”
  2. Items that are made and sold and can be remade and sold again, which sounds a lot like “craft.”
  3. Items that I design but are made by someone else as often as demand dictates. Mmmmm . . . “Royalties!”
I still have a cute, little, R2D2-sized kiln, so ceramics are still on the table. Licensing, podcasting, and workshops also seem like viable possibilities, but they don’t fit particularly well in any of the Business Bubbles.

Potential avenues:

  • Art—galleries, exhibits, juried shows, Etsy, Instagram, interior designers, a 2nd blog
  • Craft—Etsy, craft fairs, a 2nd blog
  • Royalties—Spoonflower, Society6, RedBubble, Blurb

So, now that I have too many ideas, where do I start??

Putting on my pragmatist’s hat, it seems like “royalties” are my best bet. If I can create a library of digital designs that can be printed and delivered by third parties, that would create an income stream that would give me time and space to focus on the more labor-intensive, riskier, higher overhead arts and crafts.


* I know “qi” isn’t all that ordinary in real life, but in Scrabble whenever you draw a “q,” you can almost always find an “i” to give it a home.)

To Quilt . . . or Not

Being a quilter does not give me a strong standing in the art world. When I started quilting in the 90s, “quilt art” was the hot, new thing. Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had made a valiant attempt to bridge the gap between art and craft with their exhibition of Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 generating an upsurge of enthusiasm for the art form, and many artists hopped on the wave to take advantage of the unexplored territory. Almost 50 years later, however, that show has been mostly forgotten, and those who have fought the good fight to elevate the status of quilts—Nancy Crow, Michael James, Jan Myers-Newbury, Terrie Mangat, and Pauline Burbidge to name just a tiny few—have not changed many minds.

Quilts may be beloved as heirlooms, but generally they’re not well respected. Anecdotal cases in point:

  • On a semi-recent episode (that I wish I could find) of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” a guest called from Paducah, Kentucky. The host, Peter Sagal, asked for more information about her hometown, and she mentioned the National Quilt Museum. He was incredulous. To paraphrase his gasps of amazement and dismissive comments: “A museum? Devoted to quilts?? That’s hilarious!”
  • I’ve often heard quilters say that when someone has been interested in commissioning a quilt from them, they’ve had to reply, “You wouldn’t want to pay what I would charge.” The sad truth is that the final product is generally worth less to the consumer than the value of the quilter’s time and skill.
  • I’m aware of a quilt artist who was told by a gallery owner that if she were a painter, he would represent her, but as she worked in thread and fabric, he wasn’t interested.
  • Some galleries are now asking artists who quilt to frame their work, ostensibly to make the quilts appear art-ier and more attractive to collectors.
  • In episode 132 of “The Jealous Curator” podcast, Danielle Krysa, who has a good handle on the art world, introduced her guest, Terrence Payne, by saying that he has “put his oil pastels down for just a minute to make—wait for it—quilts! Yes, quilts!” She continues, “I’ve written about plenty of women who blur the line between fine art and craft with their material choices, but I honestly can’t think of one male artist. I’m sure there are some, but off-hand, none jump to mind.” If quilts were more accepted and mainstream, artists like Aaron McIntosh or Shawn Quinlan wouldn’t be so far off the radar.

(Side notes: I love Danielle Krysa and her wonderful books, podcast, collages, and blog. She’s done a great service to artists. And if you want to see more work by men who quilt, you can check out these semi-recent exhibits: “Man-Made” at the Asheville Art Museum and “Ambiguity and Enigma” by Michael James at the International Quilt Study Center.)

The art scales have never fully tipped in favor of quilts, and I don’t fully understand the prejudice. Is the concept of quilt-as-art still too young? Are we still fighting a battle to make “women’s work” relevant? Is it a concern about the relative fragility of textiles? To judge a work—any work—simply by the material with which it was made seems petty to me, but here we are. Quilting is still a fringe medium, and the quilt world remains insular—quilters making quilts for other quilters. It may be that artists who might have worked with quilts have seen that the medium hasn’t gained any traction despite the best efforts of the trail blazers, and they’ve decided that they’d be playing to an empty house if they stepped into that arena. For purely economic reasons, they’ve chosen to work in other areas. The fish are moving to other ponds, so the quilt pond is shrinking, which makes it even less relevant. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not opposed to defecting to a different medium myself, but quilts are what I love and know, so for the moment, I’m going to dive in and make the best of it.

Backstory or Why it Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Museum cartoon snip

Being an artist when I grew up always seemed like a reasonable option. My parents were art collectors of the middle-shelf variety. No Klines or Matisses, but some wonderful work by artists of the western U.S.—Kaplinsky and Pinkham landscapes, Pletka portraits, Carlson bronzes, Mosijczuk batiks. My sister and I had all the paper and pens we needed to color, design houses, create paper dolls, and draw cartoons. We took private art lessons and elective art classes. I caught the art bug myself when I was nine, and we saw the Calder retrospective at the Hirshhorn. Art was always around.

There were signals that I was somewhat good at the art thing too. A young friend of mine passed off my drawings as her own. I won a Donald Duck coloring contest in kindergarten. I was always designated as the poster creator when we had group projects in school. In my sophomore year of college, one of my drawing professors called me a “real” artist, which I think had something to do with the fact that I could draw a decent representation in pen of the baby rhinoceros on display at the natural history museum. In my senior year, I won third prize in the Undergrad Art Show. All in all, it felt like the art gods were giving me the thumbs up.

I’m not sure that my parents were completely on board with the plan to study art in college, even though they’d been so supportive while I was growing up, but I’m not sure what else I would’ve done. Medicine wasn’t an option as I would’ve been the one amputating the wrong leg. Science in general wasn’t attractive. I loved the theory, but the math bits seemed irrelevant. For a brief time, I considered architecture, but an architecture friend warned me away. He said that all he did was design Arby’s restaurants, and there was very little creativity involved.

I dabbled in all of the media the university’s art department had to offer—drawing, painting, sculpture, graphic design, printmaking, ceramics, and photography—but I ended up spending most of my time in the ceramics studio. I loved the ceramics professor. She was engaged, gave interesting assignments, and had words of wisdom that I could latch onto like, “give life to dumb ideas.” She seemed to attract a lot of dedicated, talented students, and there was good energy in the ceramics room.

When I graduated with my BFA, I bought a tiny kiln, and set up a small studio in the basement of the duplex where my new husband and I lived. Then things slowly ground to a halt. This was before Etsy and Instagram, and there was no easy means of exposure, just art fairs and galleries. I missed the camaraderie of the ceramics studio and felt like I was working in a bubble. I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the kiln casualties. The wildflower-encrusted tiles I was trying to make kept blowing up. After I’d remade one for the third time and lost it for the third time, my enthusiasm crashed, and I abandoned the whole venture.

To fill the vacuum, my attention wandered to the quilt world. It was the height of the quilting resurgence in the 1980s and 90s. My mom had been into it for a few years, and my best friend wanted to get into it. I found the traditional quilted aesthetic static and repetitive, but looking through my mom’s quilting books one day, I came across the work of Nancy Crow and Michael James. They’d broken free of the grid, and suddenly I saw quilting in a new light. It had possibilities! Maybe quilting could become my new medium? There was a happy, social circle around it, and it was guaranteed not to explode.

Fast forward through quilting workshops, a textile design degree, twenty years of practice, and here I am. A quilter, for better or worse. Quilting is somewhat similar to ceramics—it’s pliable, encrustable, paintable, and capable of lovely bas relief. Quilting as a whole, though, has issues, or rather people have issues with it. It’s not the ideal spot from which to relaunch an art career.

A New Beginning

I know, blogs are so 2006, but I’ve wanted one for that long—ever since I read Julie Powell’s “Julie/Julia Project” before there was even a book or a movie—and now I finally have a reason to start one.

I’m giving myself two years to find out what kind of living I can make as an artist/designer/maker of things, and the clock starts ticking today. Becoming a professional, 9-to-5 artist was always something I meant to do, but I’ve been too busy chasing metaphorical butterflies to buckle down and do it. For the last twenty years, it’s been like that scene in the second episode of M*A*S*H where Radar is supposed to be sparring with Trapper in the boxing ring, but instead he’s dancing around, bobbing and weaving and doing lots of fancy footwork and practice jabs and completely avoiding throwing an actual punch. That would be me. In perpetual warm-up mode.

Now though, for various reasons, it’s crunch time: be an artist or be . . . what? A tap shoe repair person? An actual butterfly chaser? I’m not trained to be anything else. I’m trained to be an artist, and if I imagine myself at the end of my life not having given it a real effort, I will feel like I’d failed at life. Like I didn’t have the gumption to go for it, and I just settled.

Is making a living as an artist even a possibility though? It’s not like becoming a veterinarian or an electrician where a paycheck is virtually guaranteed. There are a lot of folks out there who are full-time artists, but how well are they really doing? Is it hand-to-mouth or do they have something left at the end of the month? Do they earn enough to make the time commitment worthwhile? Are they getting more fame than fortune? No one’s talking (and it seems gauche to ask), so I’m going to wade in and find out for myself.

This blog will chronicle the adventure.

The countdown to September 1, 2020, begins.

And . . . GO!