It feels a little gauche and taboo and unseemly and awkward, but this is a blog about making a living as an artist, so I thought I should start posting a quarterly earnings report. Transparency seems like the best way to answer the question, “Is the reward worth the effort?” For the sake of full disclosure, then, in the first three months of 2019, I earned … drumroll … fanfare … dun-ta-dah! …
It’s the 10% commission I made on the sale of two Spoonflower tea towels in February. It’s still early days, so I’m not terribly discouraged by this tiny, wee number. I kind of find it encouraging. I love hearing that artists are selling. It means that people are buying and that this whole artistic venture is not all for naught. If in two years I still can’t buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby with my quarterly earnings, then I’ll have to consider going in a new direction. But, until then, let’s see if we can make something happen!
To get the sales figures up, I need to deal with my Spoonflower shop first. I only have eleven designs in there right now, and I’ve done nothing to promote them. My immediate goals are to:
add to my design inventory (Enough dawdling, already.)
demonstrate how the designs can be used (Quilts, collages, etc.)
My favorite tea towel tip is in the video: wrap up a baguette like a burrito and hand it around the dinner table. Guests can rip off a hunk of breadular goodness while keeping the loaf unsullied. Love it! It’s relaxed, but refined. A nice way to be. It’s permission to eat with your hands!
One night last month, my husband and I were watching Drunk History when my iPad pinged with an incoming notification from Spoonflower saying that two more of my Ambrosia Bite tea towels had sold. I gave a distracted, “Whoot!,” and went back to watching First Lady Dolley Madison tell the guys who were helping her save the White House’s national treasures not to roll up the portrait of George Washington like it was a “Jimi Hendrix poster.”
(If you haven’t seen Drunk History, and you can get past the swearing and hurling, it’s a great series. It’s given me a whole new appreciation for lip-syncing.)
The next morning it dawned on me that the tea towel buyer’s name had looked familiar, so I went back to review my Spoonflower statements, and, sure enough, the same person had put in a duplicate order last September. That was odd. I assumed that the first order had been a one-to-keep/one-to-give-away sort of thing, so why did they need two more so soon?
Poking around the web, I found that the buyers were hemming and selling finished Spoonflower tea towels on Etsy, and my initial reaction was, “WHAT?!?” I felt like my cat when he’s had an encounter with the neighbor’s yellow lab, and his tail freaks out like a bottle brush. Then I chilled out and acknowledged that they really weren’t doing anything wrong. I had been paid, and they were crediting the designs to “independent artists,” so not passing them off as their own. Probably not going as far as they should attribution-wise, but they weren’t stealing from any of us.
The good news: apparently my design is likeable enough to sell. Bad news: I don’t think I signed that design, and I’m a big dummyhead.
I’ve been surprised to hear Spoonflower designers say that tea towels are their biggest sellers, which shouldn’t surprise me because the one tea towel I’ve ever made is the only thing I’ve ever sold. Over and over again.
Nonetheless, I’ve never quite understood tea towels that are made out of linen or canvas. They’re fun and collectible, but I equate tea towels with dishtowels, and in my experience, if they aren’t made out of terry cloth, they just push the water around. Why would one want to own one if they don’t dry dishes? Am I using tea towels wrong? Maybe they aren’t supposed to dry anything at all? The real question, though, is, if they’re selling so well, what am I doing not designing more tea towels?!?
I’ve had a print of Ambrosia Bites hanging around my studio for years waiting for me to hem it. I think it’s time to give it a good beta testing. If I wash it enough to soften the fibers, will it become more absorbent? I still want a tea towel to act like a towel, and they’ll be much easier to promote, if I find them useful too.
Liz Craft and Sarah Fain posed that question on a recent-ish episode of their podcast, Happier in Hollywood (#73). They were identifying the differences between their “nemeses” and their “professional crushes,” people in their Hollywood circle who either irritated them because they succeeded by taking actions that Sarah and Liz found distasteful or who they wanted to emulate.
A professional crush, they said, is not a romantic crush, but is someone who is,
“doing everything you want to do and is a person you want to be. . . . Their success doesn’t get under your skin. Their presence does not grate on you. Instead, the heavens open up.”
I was surprised at how quickly I could pinpoint designers from the Spoonflower Community who fit those profiles. My nemesis shall remain nameless, but my crush is a gal who calls herself, “ottomanbrim,” a.k.a. Tina Vey.
First of all, I adore Tina’s picturesque handle, “ottomanbrim.”
Secondly, she’s a very kind person—friendly, approachable, and supportive of others’ efforts.
And thirdly, her designs make me swoon! Every single one of them. She has a mid-century modern vibe with this cool, linocut flair. Her patterns are hard-edged, but playful. She achieves what I strive to create—designs that are elegant and fun. She enters a lot of challenges and manages to maintain her style while adhering to the letter and spirit of the competition theme. Her style is so well developed and distinct that I can recognize her work in a crowd.
Part of the reason that I abandoned the Spoonflower Challenge Play-to-Pay strategy was that my efforts were resulting in a disjointed collection of designs. Lots of one-off pieces. Since I was gearing each one toward a predetermined theme, I was taking myself down tangential, dead-end paths. They were fun exercises, but they didn’t really get me anywhere.
Tina, on the other hand, has managed to avoid those dead ends somehow. She has over 300 designs in her Spoonflower shop, many of which are challenge entries, and they all seem to work together. Even in their variety, it’s one, huge, cohesive collection, which seems like a very good goal to shoot for.
So, with that in mind, I’ve been working on a group of two-color designs that stem from my Black & White Wallpaper challenge entry. One color is always white, which, I hope, will be the hook that unites them. I’m going for whimsical, clean, and graphic.
I shot for 30 designs initially because Spoonflower will let you sample in bulk for about a $1 a piece (versus $5, if you do them singly), but what I thought I could do in one month has taken three. I’m so excited about the results, though, I’m pooping pink daisies!
I have a palette in mind, but I think I’ll upload all of them in black and white, too. You can never go wrong with black and white!
“I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.” – Henri Matisse
In a very early episode of their podcast, Happier, Gretchen and her sister, Elizabeth, discussed the fact that there can be an upside to the feeling of envy:
. . . envy is actually very helpful because it shines a spotlight on something that we try to hide from ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we feel envy, but if you really confront that envy, it can tell you something useful about yourself. Envy means that somebody has something that you wish you had. And when you know that, then you can ask yourself, ‘Well, is there a way that I could have that thing too?’
After I abandoned my second experiment with the Spoonflower challenges, I suddenly felt estranged from the designers who were still in the game. It was so silly! The whole Spoonflower community—people whose work I admired, whose Instagram posts I genuinely heart-ed, and whose success I applauded—had suddenly gotten under my skin. They were the same, lovely people, but I had benched myself because I’d decided that the challenges weren’t practical enough. I was pouting and unhappy, and, apparently, I couldn’t be happy for them either. It was just icky.
I wanted to be back on the team! I missed the camaraderie, the feedback, and the deadline. I enjoyed being in what Gretchen calls an “atmosphere of growth,” a state where we find happiness when we’re learning something new. I could do all of that on my own, but it was heightened during the challenges. When I recognized that I was just jealous and had no reason to be annoyed, I said, “Eff practicality,” and gave myself permission to get back in the game.
And it was so much fun! The pressure was off, and the goodwill was back. I entered the Large Scale Black & White Wallpaper challenge at the end of November last year, digging out an old mid-century modern design I’d abandoned and mashing it up with a chunky damask pattern. I still didn’t get into the Top 50, but I think I stumbled onto something promising with the two-color design. Win, win, win!
I was kind of amazed that I had found sunshine on the other side of the crapulence. Negotiating with envy is never going to help me get Misty Copeland’s dancer’s body, but in this case, it worked a treat. What a simple solution!
Sometimes I miss the nights of watching TV in the 90s. On Thursdays, NBC had a “Must See TV” line-up, which ran all of their funniest shows back-to-back. In various combinations, they lined up Friends, Mad About You, Seinfeld, and Fraiser, and I looked forward to it all week. I was fresh out of college, I had no more homework, I was making up for lost TV time, and it felt utterly indulgent.
A few years later, my husband went back to school, and we cancelled cable because we had to scrimp. The reception from our TV antenna was always sketchy, so we got out of the habit of planning our week around our favorite shows. Then I went back to school, we discovered Netflix, and we never returned to the land of commercials.
But “Look Forward To Thursdays” are back! Now with podcasts!
I don’t follow a ton of podcasts, but I’m very loyal to the ones I do. Some are regularly scheduled; others are happy surprises. Of the weekly shows, one drops on Tuesdays and the other two on Wednesday nights, so on Thursdays I can listen to all of them at once. It isn’t quite like the good old days when I just plopped on the couch—now I look for things to wash and fold and chop. The house tends to be tidier on Thursdays.
The shows are semi-related. Gretchen got it all started with her sister, Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth (a.k.a. Liz) started a spinoff with her TV writing partner, Sarah. Kristen Meinzer was originally the producer for Gretchen’s show before taking off on her own with Jolenta. It’s all good stuff—conversations about happiness, habits and personalities, showrunning, and self-help books. The gals are successful, candid, entertaining, grounded, thoughtful, wise, positive, badass, and unashamed to admit that they have issues too. I want to have lunch with all of them.
My favorite sporadic shows are:
The Unmade Podcastwith Tim Hein and Brady Haran. Two childhood friends from Australia brainstorm themes for podcasts. Lots of funny ideas and contagious giggling.
Art For Your Earwith The Jealous Curator, Danielle Krysa. Artist interviews and a friendly, inspiring connection to the art world.
Adventures in Artingwith Julie Fei-Fan Balzer. I’m still new to this one. Julie does a little bit of everything. She works for Brother and AccuCut, has a craft show on PBS, a blog, a vlog, and a podcast, and I’m fascinated by her productivity.
And, when he feels the whim, Wil Wheaton’s stream-of-consciousness Radio Free Burrito. (Because I like the California vibe, and I’m a wee bit of a Trekkie.)
Listening to podcasts gets me out of my head and leaves me with so many ideas to nosh on that I tend to bring them up in conversation, here, there and everywhere, so fair warning! 🙂
Way back last September, after I decided that the first step I should take toward building an art/design career would be to establish a royalty revenue and that the best place to start would be Spoonflower, I had the brilliant idea to start entering weekly design challenges again. This was my logic: if I was voted into the Top 10, I would win Spoonflower credits, which would pay for future samples. (Any design that is made available for sale has to be proofed, which costs $1 to $5 each.) Even if I only made it into the Top 50, my challenge entries would be automatically placed in the Marketplace. I figured I made it into the Top 10 once, and I could do it again.
“A very smart and cost-effective plan,” I thought, patting myself on the back.
I entered two challenges back-to-back: a Limited Color Palette for which I misread the rules that said, “use of black and white accents is optional,” as “not optional,” and a Cut-and-Sew Fat Quarter project which was a whole new adventure for me. Despite the fact that I turned them both into extra-challenging challenges, they were a lot of fun to work on.
Since my last entry, I’d taken a terrific online course with Sherry London called, “Photoshop for Designers,” through the Textile Design Lab, and I got to use some of the fancy tricks I’d learned from her. I also taught myself how to set custom shapes and use the pen tool, which got me away from futzing with rasterized drawings. I felt like I finally had the chops to run with the designer big dogs and was so pleased, I was strutting around the studio high-fiving myself.
And that should have been the signal that pride would be coming (or is it “going”?) before an eventual fall.
When the votes started flowing in (or in my case, trickling), it became crushingly apparent that while I had personally grown by leaps and handsprings, I still had not caught up with the amazing illustrators and painters who had continued to develop their skills and make connections while I was off on a four-year coffee break. I was still paddling around the design harbor in my little kayak admiring the scenery, and the others were cruising out to sea on their big, beautiful schooners.
In the first challenge, I placed in the top 47%, and in the second, top 26%, which did put me only 19 spots away from the Top 50, but still not in the Top 50. It dawned on me that trying to subsidize the development of my fabric collection by winning Spooncredits was like trying to bankroll a movie deal by playing the Powerball. No guarantees! Plus, I had created two random designs that didn’t fit in anywhere.
I finally had to admit that challenges were probably not the smartest use of my time.
“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.”)
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!
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.
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.
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:
Items that are made and sold and that’s it. A one time deal. Let’s call it, “Art.”
Items that are made and sold and can be remade and sold again, which sounds a lot like “craft.”
Items that I design but are made by someone else as often as demand dictates. Mmmmm . . . “Royalties!”
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.)
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.