Thursday, November 20, 2014

Interview an Artist

My sweet friend Kaitlyn, one of our babysitters when we lived in Virginia, is a second-year arts student at a state university.  She's switching her concentration Metals, and I couldn't be more thrilled for her.  She emailed me about an assignment the other day, and I think it is a wise one for the professor to assign: Interview an artist.  I think it would be great for art students to do this every semester!  Unless they are around artisans on a regular basis or plan to teach, I think there's a degree of disconnect between what they think being an artist will be like and what it typically is like.

I chuckled a little when Kaitlyn sent me the questions because I still don't see myself as an artist even though I've been creating little artworks with my hands professionally for ten years.  Anyway, I thought I'd share my interview here so you can learn a little more about me.

1. Would you share with me what were some of your initial experiences with art? 

My mom had these craft idea books for kids, everything from paint/glue/egg cartons to macrame. When I was bored sometimes I would just sit and look at the projects. My great aunt was a rock hound, mining and polishing rubies and opals and semiprecious stones even as an old lady. I had a rock tumbler and learned to wrap those slippery little things in wire to create pendants. This was around middle school age, and at the same time I was also into making things out of polymer clay, mixing custom colors and stringing the beads I made. My source for beads back then was a catalog, and I remember freaking out when my wish list exceeded $100. Now that's pretty common. :) As a kid I also liked to sew and crochet and paint, and I did all of that up through high school and took a creativity break during college. 

2. When did you decide to be an artist, and how did you know? 
I took a drawing class as part of my Liberal Arts curriculum, but otherwise the bulk of my art instruction was 8th-12th grade, mostly drawing, painting, and printmaking. I toyed with the idea of studying Art Ed in college, but decided to study biology because I also love medicine and the human body and I figured that field was more employable. After college I worked a desk job while Steve was in grad school, and by the time he graduated I was burnt out so he suggested taking some time off. I would walk our puppy down along the Delaware River (we lived in Old New Castle, Delaware at the time) and I started collecting sea glass. I drew on my experience of wire wrapping, and linked the pieces together to make necklaces. In March 2004 my friend/mentor, Debora, was visiting and saw me wearing one of these necklaces. She has always kind of been a mentor to me, both spiritually and artistically, and she suggested making a business out of my jewelry. I had never even thought of that, but she had a big trunk show at her house and made an appointment with a clothing store to purchase wholesale, so that is how my business got started. So to answer the question I never really decided to be an artist! I just always was, to some degree. Getting to do that for work was just icing on the cake.

3. Where did you grow up? 
Winchester, Virginia.

4. What was your family unit? Did you have brothers or sisters? 
I have a brother who is two years older. My parents still live in the house where I grew up. My mom is big into sewing clothes and quilting, and she nurtured my creative spirit when I was growing up.

5. Did you have artistic peers growing up? In high school? In college?
I had friends in my art classes, but they weren't close friends. My neighbor-friend who lived up the street was not only boy-crazy (her room was plastered with New Kids on the Block posters) but also a good painter. For one birthday she gave me a set of Windsor & Newton watercolor tubes, and that was one of the best gifts I ever got as a kid. Now she's a housewife/mom/painter in Atlanta, but we lost touch for many years because she moved during high school so I can't say she really influenced my art. I would say in general I haven't had that many friends who could be called artistic; sometimes I feel like I have this secret creative life that my friends don't really know/care about because they can't relate. Like, they may know I make jewelry but they probably have no idea what it looks like, but that's okay because I'm pretty independent.  I tend to turn to the online community when I need feedback or inspiration in my creative life.

6. Were there teachers that influenced you? How so? 
My drawing professor in college would give me Bs and Cs without telling me how I could have improved my work, so that was really discouraging and I didn't take any other art classes. Before that my art and PAVAN teachers in high school were cool people, encouraging, and gave interesting assignments so that was much more inspiring. Whenever I take jewelry workshops I always love how laid-back the instructors are, encouraging us to develop our own style.

7. What was the most important thing you learned in school? 
Figure out who you are and be that person.

8. Do you have mentors or other working artists who influence you today? 
Debora Haughton, an interior designer who is more of a mentor in terms of general creativity and being an entrepreneur. Also, since I sold jewelry at a shop downtown, the shop owner helped me develop jewelry lines that suited her customers.

9. Would you say your occupation is the same as your career?
Yes, I suppose. I have two jobs, jewelry designer and mom/wife.  Because we're in Sweden for a few years I've had to take a step back from the first one due to lack of space and tools, and to reset my priorities. I fully intend to return, though!

10. Did you have any benchmarks in your career? By the time I’m X, I’ll have done Y? 
Nope. Although I think setting goals is good, I haven't been very good at it. Because my priority is my family I said from the beginning that I don't want my business to become an empire, which is why I named it AnneMade Jewelry. There are dozens of ways I could be building and promoting my business, but while the kids are at home I want to keep it manageable for just me to wear all the hats (design, construction, shipping, invoicing, accounting, etc).

11. Were there any gatekeepers in the art world for you, people who either let you in or barred the way as you were coming through?
I didn't really try to go through that gate. It does help to know people!

12. Is there any professional organization that you joined that you found particularly helpful to your career?
In Delaware I was part of the Chamber of Commerce as a small business owner, so that helped make connections among merchants. I was looking into being part of the Delaware Arts Alliance when we decided to move to Virginia, so I didn't get to it. Same thing with the Shenandoah Arts Council when we moved to Sweden.

13. What do you think are the major turning points in your career? 
Shifting my business sales from retail (home parties) to wholesale (selling through stores). I'm sorry, but people can be a pain to deal with! I'm happy to pay someone else to sell my work and deal with customers. Being able to say no to something that wasn't fun anymore was very empowering.

14. What’s been your interaction with or relation to the public over the years? 
I have done a few public shows where I have met some wonderful, long-term customers, but in general I prefer not to deal with the general public. My feelings get hurt when I overhear someone saying that they could make a piece themselves for less, or criticizing the design in some way. I also think it's too much work to set up, sell in, and take down a booth at a venue over and over in order to peddle my wares.

15. What kind of control do you think you exert over your own destiny as an artist? 
Lots! There are definitely things I can't control, but I'm pretty confident in my talent and the quality and style of my products, so I think that speaks for itself. Finding the right niche is important, so being able to recognize when something (a design, a venue, a pricing structure) is not working and then change course is also important. Just keep trying different things until you find a niche that works for you.

16. What are you own criteria for success as an artist? 
Mental fulfillment and validation outside my role in the family. I am really thankful that my business was profitable from the beginning and we don't have to rely on income from it in order to pay for rent and groceries, so any pressure to succeed came from myself.

17. Has money or critical success influenced your artistic decision making? 
Ooh that's a good question! I guess I'll say money because I don't care if I'm famous or if I win any awards, but I do care if my pieces sell. It got to the point where I'd be taking last-minute Christmas orders for men who don't plan ahead, and then burning out and dreading Christmas each year. When I set a deadline early in December I could close my studio door and enjoy the season.

18. Are you satisfied with your career as an artist? 

19. What do you think is your greatest disappointment in your professional career? 
The realization that making jewelry was more fun than being a mom of little ones, but being a mom is more important. That's why I didn't bring any tools here to Sweden, to enforce a break and reset my priorities.

What has been you greatest success? 
Buying a new car in cash with the money I had made. Sure, Steve could afford to (and wanted to) pay for it, but I was so proud to have earned that money and saved it up instead of reinvesting in cool components or spending it on other things.

20. What advice would you give someone who wanted to be an artist today, as opposed to when you started? 
Art doesn't have to be your career or define you. You can always do art even if you can't afford to take the plunge and make it your sole source of income. Also, not everyone you know will understand your need to be creative and make things, but you can be friends for other reasons.

We've been living in Sweden for almost nine months, and it's going really well. You can read about our adventures on my family blog.  I do miss making jewelry, but it has given me the chance to refocus and so I am planning to bring back a few tools when I'm back in the States over Christmas.  I wish you all a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving!

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