Imposter Syndrome

A friend asked me a question in a letter not too long ago. One that I’ve asked myself a million times, and I’m sure every artist/san/crafter asks themselves too. “Are my friends just being nice?”

Over the course of the last two shows I’ve had several friends drop many dollars in my shop and walk away with multiple pieces each. It’s wonderful and humbling and makes me all verklempt. After the last such multiple piece purchase I turned to my bestie and said, “Man, maybe I don’t totally suck at this?”

It’s interesting that validation from strangers is easier to accept, but validation from loved ones brings up this kind of insecurity. Do we think, what, that we’re tricking people, and strangers are ok to trick? Or strangers have worse taste than our friends, who of course wouldn’t want the shabby products of our hamfisted attempts at creation if they weren’t just being nice? Why do we think that way? I’m not saying you should go around thinking you’re all brilliant and Aaahtist-ing all over people, because ego like that is gross. But can we at least go around trusting our loved ones judgement? We don’t have to agree with it. We should learn to give it the same weight as our own in this case though, even when it conflicts with ours. Maybe their perception here is right and yours is completely whack. It can happen. You could be…wrong. You might NOT suck!

Ok, if you can’t accept that at least accept your potential whack-ness of perception.

While we’re at it, accepting things that is, lets get something straight. Loving you is a perfectly valid reason to support what you’re doing. You are the work, the work is you. Art is an expression of the self. So supporting you is supporting the work, whether the work is something they’re totally into or not. If someone loves you enough to buy a piece of art they think is hideous or that just doesn’t speak to them, you’ve done something right in one of the most important relationships in your life. Someone values you and your path a lot. “Take the doughnut”*, as my new favorite book on living a creative life advises. Go you!

But lets get pragmatic, because love is lovely but I’m a cynic. Unless your friends are very wealthy people, nobody is buying art just to be nice. The scale of being nice is a very short one and your friends are probably on a tight financial leash like most everybody else. Your broke ass peeps will maybe spend a fiver on being nice. Maybe a ten or even, possibly, in a good week, a twenty. Additionally, whatever they buy from you has to go somewhere. Nobody spends money on something they’re gonna bin. So in addition to parting with funds, they need to negotiate for space with all the other things in their home. I don’t know about y’all, but I have neither money nor space in any great supply. Most people just don’t. And when they budget enough of both for your work, that’s more than loving you. That’s a sincere appreciation for the work you’re doing and a desire driven impulse to support it with their filthy lucre. Which is awesome.

But either way, the question of if your friends are sincerely loving your work, or just loving you? They are of equal value here. They both say good things about you and what you’re doing. Take the doughnut.

 

 

*In Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, she tells a story relating to this subject. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here. You can get the whole thing by reading it if you like (and I recommend you do because it’s a great book). Short version; the “doughnut” in question becomes a metaphor for help and/or validation in whatever form it comes. Just accepting that help without making it into a “Do I deserve/am I allowed” kind of thing. You deserve it. It’s allowed. The art police isn’t coming for you for impersonating an artist. You are one. No papers necessary. Take the doughnut.

Advertisements

“How did you get here?”

“Here” being doing street shows for a living. The questions come phrased in a number of ways but basically boils down to wanting to know how this is my job. And there’s no simple answer. I didn’t decide when I was a wee lass that this would be my life. Some people do. Some people have a Thing. That Thing is their focus and driving force and what they work towards for a goodly portion of their lives. I don’t have a Thing. I am fascinated by All the Things, which makes for a hell of a time picking a life path, lemme tell you. If I could manifest my perfect career, it would be reading books and going places. I would be a Book Reader and Place Explorer. But that’s not a career anyone is going to pay me a salary for. So here I am.

There is a sensible path from there to here. It probably involves art school or business school. Or both. At least it must involve being able to do math and knowing how to draw.  But that’s not how I came to be here. Like most major decisions I’ve made, I just kind of went for it with no real idea what I was doing. That fact aside, this didn’t just occur to me one day as I was wailing on a heavy bag or having my morning constitutional. It actually started as a notion a former roommate and I were batting around over coffee at a Denny’s in Metairie, Louisiana about 20 years ago, the first winter I spent in New Orleans. I wasn’t a leather worker yet. I was barely even a nomad. I think it was my second year on the road. I just wanted to be the boss of me and hang out with art, not thinking for a minute I might be the one making it. At the time, I was dreaming of a brick and mortar shop of some kind (it was the far back times, when nobody had computers and the internet was a geek thing, but not something most people used or even knew about), where I’d just like, get really great makers to sell their stuff out of it. I remember saying to my roommate, “It would need a name so people would know it was about art and traveling.” He looked up from his grilled cheese and said, “As the Crow Flies”. We thought we were brilliant. And promptly forgot all about it.

Many years later I’m on a back deck at my best friend’s mom’s house, enjoying delicious grilled foodz and having a nice yak with a lively assortment of folks. I was apprenticed to two master crafters at ren faire at the time, learning loads of stuff, on the road for nine months out of the year and spending my off season in New Orleans. This was the thick of the “no fixed address” portion of my adult life. Conversation turned to business and goals and such, and I was noodling with the idea of maybe having my own shop someday. Bestie’s mom asked me what I’d call it and I said, “As the Crow Flies” kind of out of nowhere. I hadn’t thought about my roommate or the conversation we’d had for years, but there it was right on the tip of my tongue. The talk moved on to other things, like it does. But then a few weeks later, she hands me a sign she found at a garage sale. It’s this country cute thing with crackle paint and a bird stencil and says “as the crow flies” on it, and she said it was for my shop someday. Kind of as a joke.

Instead of putting that sign in my basement or some other no mans land of gag-y gifts, I sat it on top of my bookshelf. Where it has been now for many years. Staring at me. Kind of like a dare.

Between that day and this came more years traveling, hurricane Katrina, living and marinading in the funky mojo of New Orleans, college, several personal disasters, some cancer (not mine), and my major depressive disorder trying to make me walk off a building when the tangle of Life Things got extremely unruly. I knit when I’m stressed out, so the pile of hats and scarves got huge and an acquaintance suggested Etsy as a way to deal with them and pay for the yarn. From there it was a natural progression of “I wonder if I can do -insert art thing here-“. I took some online classes (happy to pass along the links for anyone interested), and played with glue and got ideas from paying a different kind of attention to the world than I had previously been paying. Got encouragement and invaluable advice from a huge number of friendly artists at shows and art tours who were happy to talk about their work and the work involved with art as a job. Did a small, one day show to see what doing shows was all about. Had Mary not let some rando from out of state do her Market, taken pictures of my stuff with such enthusiasm and posted them on her Facebook page, had Maday not clamored to find out who the artist was who made it (first time anyone had called me that in a professional capacity), had the customers not been so positive and encouraging, I may have stalled out completely. But they did. I made friends and connections. I kept going.

Anyone who tells you that the art brain is inborn and it’s not something that can be learned is lying to you. Some people come from the factory with an art brain, which gives them a head start, but it’s definitely something you can learn and nurture in yourself, no matter what kind of brain you start out with.

And here I am. It’s not a consignment store or a gallery, and it’s not a leather shop at ren faire, though at some future point it may encompass both or either of those things (remind me to tell you about Awesome Idea For When I Win the Lottery #12 someday). When my roomie and I first hatched the notion I wasn’t any kind of artist that I was aware of. Though I’ve always written poetry (No really, since I was five. Eh-hem. “Fishy fishy fish. You are so pretty fish. I love your gold fishy fishness. The end.” My folks thought it was super freakin’ cute. They probably regretted encouraging me when it led to open mics at cafes til 4 am, but nobody is psychic.), visual arts came to me way later. I guess I did kind of have a Thing. My Thing was to be the boss of me in whatever way made sense. Super vague as far as goal setting goes, but hey, it worked, so…

 

 

 

 

 

 

That work/life balance thing

I was having lunch with an artist I share some shows with not too long ago to facilitate a creepy doll transfer, and while talking shop we happened to turn to the whole make stuff people like, or make stuff you like, conversation.

In a perfect world, your customers are attracted to whatever it is floating your artistic brain boat at the moment, and cheerfully buy it all up. In the actual working life that’s not always the case though, and the question of whether or not to devote time to commercially viable stuff you don’t love to make just to pay the bills is one that every artist making any kind of living with their art asks themselves and each other. I know that answer is personal and situational, and I’ve waffled on it numerous times, as I’m sure I’ll waffle again depending on life stuff. It’s not a hard and fast rule. At least not for me.

Last winter I spent an insane amount of time making mini shrines. I had like 125 of them by the time my season started. It was redonk. I had them laid out by the dozen like cookies on trays in various stages of completion. I did this because I couldn’t keep them in stock the previous season, and they’re my biggest online seller. But by the time I was done, I was DONE. It happens. You get on a groove with a thing, and it’s like you exhaust the energy you have for that particular thing and never want to look at it again. And interestingly, the second I ran out of energy for those, they stopped selling so hotly at shows. They’re still my biggest online seller, but more people are getting into the  assemblage than the folk art in person. My aforementioned luncheon companion (A miz Margie Criner by name, you guys should look her up on FB if you dig awesomely weird dioramas. I know I do.) put forth the notion that if your heart’s not in it, it comes across to customers. I think that’s absolutely true in some ways. Consciously or not, when you’re less enamored of a thing, you’re not working as hard for it. But regardless of whether I’m putting out some “done” vibe or not, when you’ve moved away from something, you don’t enjoy doing it, and it becomes tedious and harder to do. In some professions tedium is just par for the course. Nobody thinks working on the line in a factory or being a plumber is super stimulating, but some people work to live, some live to work. If everyone had the same needs, we’d have nothing but artists or rocket scientists or whatever, and nobody to manufacture cars or pick up the garbage or service the gas lines.

I’m a live to work person, and can’t seem to handle feeling a thing is tedious (bullshit threshold of 2, remember). And I’ve definitely come to feeling that way about shrines. I’m always going to be into mythology and belief systems and all manner of nerd-tastic anthropology stuff, but I don’t wanna make ’em anymore. I’m happy to do them for custom orders, but I’ve already stopped replacing sold out stock.

I had a gal on FB ask me at one point if I did stuff people wanted, or stuff I wanted. And the answer was “both”. And it still is. But, and what ratio of commercially successful to personally satisfying you’re going to have is totally subjective, I find I have to constantly check in with myself and ask how I feel about a thing. If I’m getting bored, it’s not getting my best attention and energy. The quality of the work doesn’t suffer, because I started creating as a crafter and crafters learn to be persnickety as hell (Just ask my bestie, who has had to deal with my dissection of his creations before I deem them ready for posting. It’s taken him from tradesman to crafter*, but is probably annoying AF.). Eternal gratitude to my crusty old leather monger teachers for that quality having been drilled into my brain. However. When your heart isn’t in it, especially when it’s something artistic, there’s good reason to ask yourself if it’s worth continuing to do.

For some people that answer is going to be “yes”. Blue dog guy seems to be making a decent living, though he’s got to be sick of painting that dog by now. Though I could be wrong. Blue dog guy might just be totally obsessed with blue dogs and that’s all he wants to paint. Either way, not judging. I guess in some ways my not making of a decent living leaves me freer to make the decision to stop making time for things that don’t stimulate me anymore. If I were making 50 grand a year on shrines, the answer might have to be different.

There’s also that pigeonhole thing. You get to be known as “That Guy who…” for anything and suddenly your options get narrowed. Both by your own sense of responsibility and by the expectations of others. By far the most favorited things on Etsy are the shrines. The irony of an atheist being popular for her religious folk art is not lost on me, but whatevs. I still don’t want to get boxed in. Again, for some people, this isn’t a problem. They really love painting fairies or blue dogs or busty fantasy novel cover babes, or whatever their thing is and it’s totally cool that that’s what everyone wants from them. For me, not so much. If I suddenly want to take up oil pastels or sculpting with ground beef and Marmite or what have you, I want my customer base to be like “Sweet. Here’s some crazy new shit she’s on to.”, not “But it’s not a saint covered in glitter…hashtag sadface”.

Sometimes I wish I was that guy who. That I had a thing that was so absorbing to me that it was the focus of my life. But I have no such thing. I’m in love with all the things. Very problematic for making a living. Maybe. Unless my customers are all, “Wheeee!” on board the S.S. Frankenjunk with me. Then, maybe not.

 

*PS – Said bestie has never referred to himself as an artist, so I don’t call him one. If he ever decides to, he’ll be one according to my philosophy of “It’s Art If You Think It Is”, and I’ll change the nomenclature.

 

Deeper down the rabbit hole than usual

It’s been three years since I started this thing. This business, this art, this part of my life. Whatever it is. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but also, it does. I’m feeling a bit “Wtf do I think I’m doing?”.

I mean, how many people actually make a sustainable living making art? Way more talented people than me are not, in fact, making a sustainable living at it, so what makes me think I can? That question keeps popping up on me lately, from the sticky depths of my brain meatz.

You’d think it wouldn’t, because I did better this year than last year by almost double. That is not small potatoes. I have had so many validating things happen this season, too. So much positive reinforcement. The kinds of compliments that mean something on a professional level. Big sales, artists I admire wanting to trade. Which I will probably never stop being all, “For realz??” when that happens. But also the support of people who just believe in me and are are like, “Go! Do the thing!”, or my broke ass friends budgeting their tiny budgets for my stuff. That’s every bit as important as big sales. That’s huge.

You’d think it wouldn’t, because I’m like, a dynamo of “fuck it”. Flinging myself into a life I had no training for just because I was out of ideas and desperately needed something to do with myself is not a new thing for me. This is how I ended up a rennie leather worker. I’d never even been camping before I buggered off to go live without plumbing or electricity for an entire decade. If it looks good, I rarely pause to wonder if I can or should do it. I just kind of go. And I do that because I grew up a shy, awkward wee lass who never had adventures, but who decided she wanted to be Stevie Nicks if Stevie Nicks was also a pirate when she grew up. I’ve made some astonishingly bad choices because of this, but I’ve also had a pretty interesting life.

Really, I’m just as freaked out as anybody. I just try not to let it get in my way. I might not be if I were 20, but at 40, most of my cohort is at least able to pay their own rent. I have been at various points, but I suck so bad at sublimating it’s comical (Unless you’re the guy that fired me after I threatened to stab him in the head with a fork. True story. He totally deserved it.). I get fired like it’s an Olympic sport and I’m bringing home the gold for America. It’s not that I don’t like to work. Oh so au contraire. I go crazy cakes when I’m not busy. Happiest time of my life was as the aforementioned rennie leather worker with a ten hour work day and a six day work week. It’s just that if I can’t get passionate about it, or if the boss/coworkers are douche canoes, I lose whatever scant filter I have in place. I have a bullshit threshold of about two, and you need at least an eleven to get by in most jobs. So pretty much I’m the best boss of me out there.

I read somewhere that a lot of the most successful musicians, artists, and entrepreneurs claim they succeeded simply because they had no plan B. Which makes a certain amount of sense. If you have but one basket, you’re really committed to making sure that basket will hold all those eggs. People say “nay” a lot when you’ve got some cockamamie notion like you wanna start a band or make a computer and a cell phone have babies. I wonder how many people tried to talk them back into their day jobs. The negative stuff sticks with you far longer than anything else, and it’s hard not to let that turn into an ongoing question about whether or not you’re cut out for whatever thing. When I first started doing this, for the most part everyone was really supportive. But there was one person who told me what I did wasn’t art. This is not unusual. People will tell you that. It’s not art, it’s not this or that thing that they think defines art. And that sucked, because I thought highly of their opinion. And for a hot second I let that slow me down. Eventually I got over that nonsense, and it taught me a valuable skill set insofar as ignoring criticism that isn’t constructive goes. It’s really easy to say, “This isn’t art.” but it’s not useful. It’s an opinion, and opinions vary widely on the subject. You wanna add to my skill set or correct my execution, I welcome it. But that’s the difference between useful criticism and opinion.

That moment sticks with me, though I don’t believe it’s true anymore. I believe that nobody gets to say what is and isn’t art, because art is so personal. My position, in a nutshell; if you think it’s art, it’s art. If you show it to the world and they love it, it’s art. If you show it to the world and they hate it, it’s art. If you lock it in a closet, set it on fire, only show it to your cat, or seal it up in a wall for future generations to find, it’s art. If you went to school for it, it’s art. If you taught yourself from YouTube videos, trial and error, or you didn’t teach yourself at all because you think the only true art is unconscious expression with no direction, it’s. Still. Art. If it’s amazing, it’s art. If it’s horrible, IT’S STILL FREAKIN’ ART. If anything that sayer of nay propelled me forward because, well, because I’m extremely ornery.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have moments of “Wtf do I think I’m doing?”. Like now. There’s that voice in my head that’s yelling “Impostor! They will figure out you’re faking it!”. It happens. But part of my process, and hopefully a useful part for other people who want to feel a little less insecure about their own feelings of insecurity, is just discussing what we all go through when setting off on an uncertain path with potentially no future as these things are reckoned, just because we had some idea that it could be awesome, and what happens when you’re not sure yet if it’s going to be. Because it helps, I think, to know that everyone feels this way. Even people who went to school and got good marks and everyone tells them they’re awesome at a thing, sometimes get impostored by their own brains. So it’s not just those of us who decide we’re going to figure it out as we go.

So relax, I’m saying. To you and me both. Wtf do I think I’m doing? I have no freakin’ idea. What an adventure. I like to think Pirate Stevie would approve.

 

 

 

It’s a wrap!

Cuz I do these. You can not bother if shows don’t interest you. I won’t be upset.

So I’m entering my self promised week of not looking at my workshop (which I have mostly adhered to, but I do have a custom order that needs attention, so I did a little bit of painting) and I’m already thinking about next season. Because I have to. Because the applications are already being sent to last years vendors. This whole running your own business thing never really lets up. That’s cool. I get crazy cakes when I sit around without enough to do anyway. It’s just the taxes that make me hyperventilate. The rest is pleasantly occupying.

So this is the part where I do the whole “this is how my shows went” and share with interested parties.

This season started out with a one day show in my favorite town, Baraboo, WI. It was a well planned and easy to navigate event, but alas, the crowd didn’t get into my glittery shenanigans. Which would have been fine without the 3 hour drive and hotel costs. So, lesson learned, one day shows are riskier than two day shows and maybe I shouldn’t spend that much money to do them. Keep it nearby and low cost because you’re far more likely to make back your nut over the whole weekend than just half of it. So, final score is, too expensive for me to do being this far away, but anyone nearby might want to give it a go. It’s cheap, load in/out was a breeze, and management is a pleasure to deal with.

Second up is Spring Green, not far from ‘Boo, but a two day shindig and very close to the more cosmopolitan Madison. It draws a strong Madison crowd and is well established and therefore well known and advertised. I had little interaction with the organizers, but what I had was easy and pleasant. Everything went very smoothly from load in on Friday to load out on Sunday. These guys have their ducks rowed. Beyond the one seriously epic (aaah, see what I did there?) sale, I didn’t move much, but interest seemed there and feedback was positive. I’ll be back next year and see how it goes. The travel made this a spendy show to do, so I’m going with the hope that I can build a buying audience.

Next we have Northbrook. Wiiiich sucked a whole lot. Management was fine and set up and tear down easy, but the crowd looked at me like I was going to steal their babies. Which, I don’t even like babies, so why would I steal them? Added to the high table fee (like $300), it’s not worth it for me. There was a ton of jewelry, so I assume that moves, and my one across the way neighbor seemed to be doing well with some tiny, cute paintings which were priced quite low, but most people I talked to weren’t happy. That’s officially it for me and the suburbs, man. I’ve had some great customers out there, but am largely not well received. They will just have to stalk me on line and come find me at my city shows.

On to Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest. I won’t belabor my last two years worth of points. Glenwood is always consistently good. Good crowd, receptive and engaged. Only $100 to get a spot there, so good profit margin, and the organization is usually on point. Load in is super easy and relaxed. Load out is always kind of a mess, but I’ve learned to get around that by parking very nearby and bringing a hand truck and a spare monkey. If I can’t get my rig to my shit, I’ll take my shit to my rig and gtfo in a timely manner while everyone else is trying to negotiate with other vehicles. Impatience has it’s advantages. I’d recommend this show to anyone. Most people I talk to love it and have been there multiple years running.

September was challenging with two big shows, the first of which was Lakeview East Festival of the Arts. Which was, in a word, bangarang. Expensive as hell though so proceed with caution. The almost $500 table fee, plus parking (if you, like me, want to be close enough to have to pay for it rather than using the free parking and shuttle bus provided) makes it a gamble. For me, it was totally worth it. The crowd was ready to spend all weekend long, crappy weather be damned. I’ve never sold that many over $100 pieces at one show. Load in and out were both an epic pain in the ass, but they provided us with a free hot breakfast both days, so I forgive. Apparently they’re going to be under new management this coming season, so hopefully they don’t screw it up, but I’m game for next year.

Second in September was the Edgewater Arts Fest. Pretty cheap to do at something like $150, and in a neighborhood similar to Rogers Park (not to mention right next door to it), where I have a good customer base. I had a great show. Other vendors I talked to were having mixed luck though. I’ll do it again, even though management needed a sound slappin’ for the absurdly horrific mess that was set up. Tear down was only slightly less stupid. But it’s my understanding that they’re still working out the kinks of this young-ish event. I wouldn’t tell anyone to stay away though, as it was my second best show this season.

October was mostly chill, with one small popup show at Prairie Moon restaurant, the second one I’ve done with this organizer (first one was in spring), but since they were only 4 hours long I’ll address them together here. The spring one I did surprisingly well at, given the event is brand spanking new and tiny. The second, not so much (seriously Cubs, I don’t care if you win or lose, unless your weird winning streak messes with my money). But it was crazy cheap, five minutes from my house, and laid back as all get out. The organizer is very into making this succeed and become a Thing, and everyone noticed. The tiny table fee was thrown entirely at advertising from what I could tell. Big sexy posters were made, and volunteer monkeys were solicited for flyering purposes. I’m on board for as many more of these as she’s willing to saddle herself with, because I believe in it strongly and think it’s got good potential. Look out Evanston, I’m gonna be so in you. You better not be scairt like them other ‘burbs.

November brought me to another new show, Re:Craft and Relic. The stated mission was to join vintage, crafters, artists and high end pickers together at an event that spans the genres. An idea I’m way into, though I think it baffled the audience. It seemed people were expecting lower prices from the art parts than they were finding, because aside from two or three nice sales, nothing over $35 moved. I think people have to get used to it. Pretty cheap table fee, but hotel costs were an issue, because it’s just far enough away from me in Milwaukee that I didn’t want to try and commute. The organizers were very available and communicative, and did a great job with the advertising. Saturday’s crowd was huge, though Sunday pretty well tanked. Not sure if it was the Packers fault or the FIVE MEGA CHURCHES with in a ten mile radius. But, Sunday’s sad sales aside,  I did well enough to do it again and I’m on board for their spring show. I won’t tell anyone to stay away from this one, but I will caution that as new as it is, and drawing a crowd that is mostly conservative in tastes, it’s a gamble.

My last three shows were one day holiday shindigs and went thusly;

Red Door- I didn’t lose money, but neither did I make any. It’s never been a big money maker, but I kept hearing that nobody knew it was even happening til the last minute, which makes me think they flubbed the advertising this year. They also lost their Santa at the last minute, but how much of the sorry crowd was to blame on that I don’t know. Table fee is kinda on the high side for a one day gig at $100, too. I’ll give it one more year for the sake of supporting the great work they do, but I can’t keep it up much longer unless the rest of my year gets so good I can write it off as a good deed. And it is a good deed.

Late Late Craft Show- The only reason I didn’t lose money at this one was because my bestie’s coworker, for reasons unknown but much appreciated, picked up our food and drinks. But it did suck most mightily. And I don’t understand why. Great location, solid advertising from what I could tell, and a really enthusiastic team at the helm. Fiber seemed to be doing well enough, but those of us on the “fine” (to me that only means something you just look at because it doesn’t do anything else) side of the art spectrum were all pretty bitchy at the end of the night. Spendy, with a $130 table fee, for one night of really poor sales, so probably not on the list for next year.

Shop Jarvis Square- Got a very late start and so probably suffered a bit from not enough heads up, but cheap and close and easy to do, so despite my sales being quite a bit less impressive than last year, I wouldn’t call it a bad year for this nifty pop up. It’s my third, and continues to be totally worth doing. Lots of the same vendors as in years past, too, so that tells you something. It’s $35 and in a row of bars and businesses that pimp the hell out of it and do a lot to encourage customers to hit all the locations. I’ll do it again, and if you’ve got a decent range of items under $60, I’d tell you to do it too.

So that’s my season, y’all. Obviously, these are the experiences of one vendor selling one type of thing, so your mileage may vary quite a lot. But it’s always good to hear feedback from others, at least in my experience, so here ya go. May it do you some good.

Have a great Whatever If Any Holiday You Celebrate!

Success

A customer, fellow maker and follower of FB posed a really good question to me this morning. She’s just started doing some small shows, and wondered what equals a “successful” show. What makes me want to go back and do it again. I thought the question was a really good one, and since the answer can be somewhat subjective, I’d do a blog post about it and invite other artists and vendors of any sort to throw their two cents in in the comments or on FB to help answer it. I’ve only been doing art shows for a little over three years now, but I spent more than 20 doing renaissance faires, and a lot of the same stuff applies.

So, in order of importance, here’s my list of the Things:

Money: Costs versus profits. I’d love to make art for art’s sake. Plenty of people do. But in those situations, making art because you love to is usually an added bonus to a life already paid for in whatever way. For those of us who make this our primary living, a show has to pay to be under consideration for the future. My formula is a loosey goosey one, and I’m sure better mathers have better formulas. But the way I reckon it is like so; add up the total cost of operations first. That means table fee, fuel, food, incidentals (I had to run to Walgreens for Advil once, another time for bubble wrap, you get the gist), hotel if applicable, and any other cost directly related to working that event. That’s your nut. The money you absolutely must make back for the show to pay back your investment in it. Related to this, you should have a budget. A number beyond which the cost of operation is higher than the gamble is worth to you. This depends hugely on your own financial situation, but you should come up with one. The One of a Kind show for example has a $2500 table fee. That’s just the show fee, not including food, fuel, parking, etc. So the actual nut would be even higher. I could potentially sell out of all my stock there, but I simply can’t come up with the initial cost of doing it, so it’s not even under consideration, despite the potential profit. Your limit will depend on what you’re willing to gamble with. Go in to every show with the understanding that you could lose your entire nut, and choose a number you can do that with and not starve to death or miss a car payment.

Say my nut for a show is $400. If I make only that back, I don’t consider it for next year. It goes without saying that if I don’t make even that, that show is also off the list. If I make up to twice that or a little better, I put it on the list of shows I’ll apply to again if something better doesn’t present itself, or if I have a slot to fill next season. Because I made a profit, it’s worth considering. I may consider it too low a profit for all the work I put in, or I may think that’s just fine. Here’s one of the places the subjectivity bit comes in. If I up to triple the nut or better, it’s officially a good show and I’ll apply again next season.

The money part is often very personal. If you have a day job that pays your bills, any profit may be just dandy because you’re doing something you enjoy and it’s paid for itself. So you have to look at your own finances and decide what equals “enough” profit for the show to be worth considering again. All this assumes this is the first time you’re at a particular show. Shows go through booms and busts like anything. Long term, sometimes you’ll do really well and sometimes you won’t. And that’s a whole different set of parameters. I’m just going to address first times here, for the sake of not writing a freakin’ novel. But commenters are welcome to add whatever they feel is relevant.

Crowd: You’re not selling appliances, you’re selling art/craft/whatever you want to call it. It’s a very personal sort of item and you want your crowd to be engaged and responsive. If they’re not, it’s a sign you might not do well in that area. I have found personally that I do really well in young, funky neighborhoods that attract a large percentage of lib arts educated people to live in them. Which isn’t to say I haven’t made some really great sales in white collar neighborhoods. I totally have. But my best shows, the ones I go back to year after year because my profit is consistent and the crowd is engaged are the “nightlife” neighborhoods. Lots of bars, cafes, galleries, music venues and general funkiness. That won’t be the case with everyone, obviously. I know lots of people who kick ass in the western suburbs like Elgin and Shaumburg, while I barely made back my nut in those areas. You’ve got to cast a wide net at first and see where the fishies swim in from. Which makes your first few years kind of an expensive gamble, but such is the cost of opening a business no matter what you’re doing.

An engaged crowd, for the sake of defining my terms, is one that is *interested in what you are doing*. That may not necessarily equal buying, but could lead to potential sales in the future. All of my post show Etsy sales and commissions, that is, people who said they saw me at a show but didn’t buy there, or bought there and found me online for another purchase, came from areas with engaged crowds. An engaged crowd asks questions, looks carefully at the work rather than just scanning and asking prices, gets excited about the stories in your work, wants to chat with you, says nice things about your stuff, and generally leaves you feeling positive about the exchange, whether or not it involved money.

Pain in My Ass: Or as I like to call it, the PMA factor. Not everyone has this variable. I am an impatient human and do not suffer bullshit well. Which I think is fair, because I’m also super flexible and easy going, so you kind of have to be disorganized on an epic scale to make me fed up with your event. The usual stuff people get their diva on about just doesn’t even bother me. So how big a pain in my ass a given show is, when added to profit and crowd, can affect whether or not I’ll do it again. If PMA is high, so better profits be. If profits are moderate and PMA high, I may skip it, if low, I may give it another go. Take Northbrook for example. PMA was very low. But I lost money at that show and the crowd was so not into my glittery shenanigans I may as well have been selling shoehorns for all the interest they had, so I say nay nay. Edgewater and Lakeview both had high PMA factor but excellent profit margins and a super engaged crowd, so worth it. Glen Ellyn had moderate profit and so so crowd, but low PMA, all of which combined makes me inclined to put it in the “would do again if not too busy” category. I was too busy this year as it turned out, but as I refine my skills and organization, it will get put back on the “to do” list.

This is, of course, a super subjective category if it even exists for you. Some people sublimate incredibly well and nothing in this business ruffles their feathers. My feathers get ruffled by dumbassery in particular, and there’s lots of room for it at these kinds of events. Organizer divas (*Your* artists? I’m sorry, is there a contract for indenture I wasn’t aware of? I’m not *your* anything, lady.), bad staging, poor communication, lack of parking, load in/out nightmares. All these things are part of the PMA factor. Your PMA factor may have totally different things in it depending on what chaps your personal ass to the point that it will affect your inclination to return to an event when taken into consideration with other factors.

These are my big three. There are other, smaller factors I figure in. Distance from my home, length of show day, little things that when taken in with other, bigger things, add up the plus or minus column for a given show, but money, crowd and PMA are the major ones that, together, equal the success or failure of a show in my eyes. And even then it’s not a given. I may do a show I considered a failure again because enough other vendors told me it’s a trainable crowd, for example. But I’ve got my baseline and that’s an important place to start from.

Fellow doers of art/craft/vintage/flea markets, you are welcome and encouraged to add your thoughts and opinions to this forum or FB. It helps us all when we share insights.

Edgewater: Highlights, Lowdowns and WTFs

First off, I had a kick ass weekend. Edgewater’s vibe is somewhere between Lakeview’s and Rogers Park’s. It’s a lib arts-y crowd with a little more dough to spend than their immediate neighbor to the northwest, but not a lot more. Lots of low to mid range items sold, but not much on the higher end. More than a few customers with multiple purchases, so that’s good.

Many people who saw me at Lakeview and Glenwood were at this show, which is fantastic. It means the organizers are getting the word out to people who like to go to art fairs, and it tells me that there’s a shared vibe between those neighborhoods that gets into my glittery shenanigans. I didn’t do as well here as I did in Lakeview, but I did slightly better than I did at Glenwood. Which makes total sense given the demographics. These three have been my three best overall shows thus far.

So, Highlights: Hella big crowd on Saturday and they were there to buy. Sunday we had ugly weather (didn’t rain, but it looked likely to) and a Bears game keeping people indoors, so it was kinda lame, but over both days I did quite well. Super friendly crowd. Educated and fun and generally a pleasure. When I say “educated” I don’t necessarily mean an advanced degree in anything. An MBA that doesn’t understand art doesn’t do me a lick of good. So when I say “educated” I mean people who *get* the arts. And that’s definitely Edgewater’s crowd.

Kick ass Korean food 50 feet away from my booth, and a Metropolis coffee shop a block away equals win. Parking was uncommonly painless for that neck of the woods. There was dedicated artist parking in a lot a couple of blocks away. Though it wasn’t a large lot, so not everyone got to use it. But it was all residential off the main strip and we found parking very nearby when not using the lot.

Lots of talent at this show, too. Plenty of artists I desperately wanted the wall space and the dough to support. Also, I had great neighbors. I’ve been lucky so far in that I haven’t had any divas around to muck up the works at these events. Just sassy characters. And that suits me right down to the ground.

Lowdowns: Did I say load in was a hot mess at Lakeview? I revise my opinion. That one was a peach compared to this one. It was a Saturday morning load in, for one. Which always makes life complicated, because people are in a hurry. They had it on paper like so; section A with booths numbered whatever through whatever loads in at 7 am, section B with numbers whatever to whatever at 8 am, and then section C at 9, going east to west, so all cars are moving in one direction, with the sections clearing out accordingly to make room for the oncoming traffic for the next load in time. And it would have worked beautifully. IF absolutely everyone showed up exactly on time, dumped their load and got their cars out of the way immediately before setting up, and nobody with a box truck or any sort of large vehicle was blocking up space off loading fences, porta potties, road blockades or rental tents.

That. Is not. What happened.

7 am people were showing up at 8:30, 8 am people rolling in at 9, and so forth. There was a huge ass truck taking up mine and two other spots for half an hour into my designated load in time offloading water barrels to weigh down rental tents. Management only had “He’s not supposed to be there” to say on that matter. Whiiiiich is not super helpful unless you’re going to move the truck. Just sayin’. The spaces were marked really vaguely and lots of folks started setting up wrong-ways because of it. I grabbed a walkie talkie wielding person and asked many questions before even pulling the bag off my tent frame so I wouldn’t have to move my shit, but not everyone did, and many people had to shift around. There was also nothing even slightly resembling traffic control. People were meandering around and clogging up the works every which way, because, understandably, they need to unload and get set up. But there were cars, trucks and humans in everybody’s way, so they just tetris-ed as best they could, which of course contributed to the problem.

FRIDAY SET UP, people. For the love of tiny ponies, as my chainmailer friend would say. Yanno what though, not even. I set up at 6 am on the Saturday morning of my first show this year along with 100 other vendors and we managed not to completely jack each other up. Probably because management had the presence of mind to get the stages, rentals and food trucks set up the night before, leaving only vendors to set up the day of. But yeah, save one snarky potter, nobody got in anybody else’s way at that one.

All of this is why I made sure to be parked a block from my spot for load out, and have an extra monkey coming in, so we could just hand cart everything to the car and not have to deal with trying to get my vehicle in there. Because as expected, load out was just as big a nightmare. One fence rental company was a special culprit because they absolutely HAD to get their fences RIGHT NOW. While 120 tents were slightly in the way. Oy.

Volunteers at this event weren’t as proactive as at others about going around and making themselves generally available, but they were there and wearing obvious clothing, so not a complaint so much as a caution to anyone contemplating working this show alone. You will have to go fetch a volunteer monkey, for they do not come to you.

WTFs: Usually after a show, especially one where so many business cards went away, I get a decent uptick in Facebook likes. But this one, not so much. It only increased by three or four, and at least two of those were people re-liking the page, thanks to FBs tendency to arbitrarily un-like/un-friend pages for you (Didn’t know they did that? Yeah. So if you haven’t seen someone in your feed for awhile, you might want to check if they’re even still liked/friended by you.). Edgewater must not be a big Facebooking neighborhood? Social media being a major marketing tool, this is actually pretty relevant.

Hilarious realization that I’m channeling the daddy of assemblage. I get a lot of “Oh, Joseph Cornell” comments, because he’s the guy who made assemblage a Thing. A couple of ladies were talking about him with my monkey and I. One of them wasn’t terribly familiar with him, the other was educating her and giving us tidbits about the guy behind the boxes. She says “He was this like, weird recluse who lived with his mother.” Whereupon Matt and I looked at each other and burst out laughing, for I too am a weird recluse who lives with her mother. The lady backpedaled a bit till she realized that I was amused rather than butt hurt. Hey man, I own my weird reclusiveness. Some of the best people in history were weird recluses. I am so carrying on a tradition of awesomeness. That only I know about. Because I don’t leave the house.

Next up, Prairie Moon!