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the fine art of crafting a living as a self-employed arts entrepreneur


"To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art." -- Chinese Proverb

Can you make a living as a crafter on Etsy?  Yesterday there was some flurry on Facebook over the broadcast of this story on WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. What struck a real chord with me was a comment left on my FB page by a friend who is an amazing painter.  She's found a niche market for her pet portraits,  but is completely overwhelmed by the prospect of building a business from them.  Where does one even start?!  

Research.  A business becomes successful with a little planning and that starts with research. Over the years I've read a number of books pertaining specifically to an art career and I've read those that are broader in approach.  Hands down my favorite book for artists is How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul by Caroll Michels.   I own three different editions of it, starting with the first edition purchased just after I left college with my BFA.  It is full of information on everything from insurance to contracts.  

There is also the recent addition to my library of The Artist's Guide to Grant Writing by Gigi Rosenberg.  I've written grants, but what I loved is her constant affirmation that many foundations have the mission explicity to provide funding for artists to work. I have this blockheaded guilt complex about accepting grants.  Don't ask.  I don't understand it either, but according to Gigi, I'm not alone with this thought.  I love her clear suggestions for getting organized and staying motivated.

But what Jessica was asking about was the actual process of starting and building a business. She has a service (personalized pet portraits) and a product (paintings and drawings) to sell.  For some reason, this topic still isn't taught to artists in many colleges.  Why it isn't remains a mystery to me. Some artists are willing to live in a tree house, such as Dale Chihuly when he started Pilchuck, but every artist I know loves to eat.  Yes, I will do my art just because I love it, but I'm much happier when I can end the day with a great bowl of pasta, some veggies and a glass of wine.  A slice of chocolate cake doesn't hurt either.  

Well, a great place to start is The Boss of You: Everything a Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run and Maintain Her Own Business by Emira Mears and Lauren Bacon.  Written in a tone reminiscent of a good chick flick (sorry fellas), it is full of information.  How do you figure out a monthly budget? How do you price your work?  Do you want to set yourself up as a sole proprietor, an LLC, an S-corp or a C-corp?  I recommend it as a launching pad.  I found the exercises helpful even after having owned several businesses.  Bonus - Chicago's very own Cinnamon Cooper of Poise, co-founder of the DIY Trunk Show and author of Everything Cast Iron is quoted throughout it.  Yeah!

I also recommend reading the Business and Career sections of Chicago Artists' Resource. Read every link. It will take you a day to do, so instead of overwhelming yourself with information, spend an hour every morning (or evening) with your favorite beverage at hand reading and making notes. There are links informing one exactly how to go about legally setting up a business, what to consider and who to turn to for advice.  There is even information on how to find and obtain business loans! The blog Up and Running is inspirational while giving the occassional kick in the pants.  I also like the newsletter The Daily Worth.  It provides concise information on handling your personal finances, an important aspect of preparing to start and maintain a business. 

Other books in my library - 

I'd Rather Be in the Studio: The Artist's No Excuse Guide to Self-Promotion by Alyson Stanfield

The Artist's Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions by Lynn Basa

The Artist's Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love by Jackie Battenfield

Business and Legal Forms for Fine Artists by Ted Crawford

Graphic Arists Guild Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines by the Graphic Artists Guild

Guerilla Marketing: Easy and Inexpensive Strategies for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business by Jay Conrad Levinson (This one helped me a ton with my former yarn store.  11+ years later and I still love it.)

There have been other books I've read over the years, but these are the highlights.  I've found golden nuggets of information in each of them.  

Most of all, I think the hardest part is not to give up.  As I write this blog entry, I'm clocking in 13 hours now at the computer, most of the time spent in correspondance, updating websites, applying to shows / art festivals / competitions, and researching new opportunities.  Being self-employed is not for those who like to punch the time and check out for the day. 

Ladies Ring Shout: Part 1, the video


I'm so proud to have been a part of this production.   A big thank you to Felicia Holman, Abra Johnson and Meida McNeal for inviting me to work on costumes.  David Weathersby has done an amazing job of capturing the beauty and intensity of their performance.  The above features Breathe/Cry and The Question Still Remains (An Ode to Sojourner Truth).

Set design was by Jeanne Medina and Chris Nightengale.  

H is for Hope!

©2011 Lindsay_Obermeyer H is for Hope

When the world says, "Give up,"
Hope whispers, "Try it one more time."
 -- Author Unknown

I know more artists who are parents than not, yet very little art is made that reflects upon the subject of parenting, in particular the parent / child relationship.   At most there are the images and references to mother and infant (toddler), but parenting is so much more.

Curated by Gina Alvarez, artists in the recent exhibition "A is for...."  at COCA (Center of Creative Arts) explored this neglected theme.  Each participant selected a letter of the alphabet and created work based on that letter.  I chose H.  I thought of E for Emily and L for Love, but H seemed most appropriate.  H is for happy, hilarious,  and hellish, all which describe different moments of parenting.  But most of all, H is for Hope as  raising a child takes a giant measure of the stuff. Hope keeps you going when it is 4am, you smell like vomit because your child just spewed on you and you don't know what's wrong.  It helps you get through the day when your child first goes off to school. You love, pray, trust, let go and plain ol' hope that everything will be okay.    

I loved all the work exhibited, but here are a few of my favorites.  

From the exhibition "A is for..." at COCA in St. Louis, A_John_Early

A - by John Early

From the exhibition "A is for..." at COCA in St. Louis F_John_Sarra
F - by John Sarra

From the exhibition "A is for..." at COCA in St. Louis I_Jim_Ibur

I - by Jim Ibur

From the exhibition "A is for..." at COCA in St. Louis O_Gina_Alvarez
O - by Gina Alvarez

From the exhibition "A is for ..." at COCA in St. Louis X_Tom_Huck
X - by Tom Huck

The corresponding catalog is filled with quotes by the artists regarding their lives as parents, their relationship to their children and how this relationship impacts their art making and career.  It's an alphabet book, but more.  Frankly, I think it is a must read for every art student.  It might provide necessary perspective and  the needed encouragement to not let go of one's career when the demands of parenting and paying bills seem overwhelming.  

Are you an artist? Writer? Musician?

“I always thought I was a writer on the inside, but after a few years of not writing you can’t make that claim anymore.”  --  Amor Towles, from an interview with Jennifer Shuessler 

Amor's first novel was just published.  It is receiving crazy, wonderful amounts of attention.  Positive reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and People.  He's my cousin and I am super proud of him, but I was surprised to read that he considered himself to no longer be a writer when he was not actively pursuing his craft.  

Are you an artist if you aren't actively painting, photographing or sculpting?  A friend who was just in town is struggling with this very question.  With a full time position as a doctor, she is only able to pursue her photography on the weekends and even then that time is in limited supply as she balances the demands of parenting.  

In the eyes of the IRS, you are no longer considered a creative entrepreneur if you don't actively pursue your passion and turn a profit at it.  After 3 years of running a loss on your books, you increase your risk of an audit.  In other words, the government considers your passion to be just a hobby, not your life.

Every week I meet fellow artists who aren't earning their income from their art.  The ever increasing costs of living precludes solid, stable income. They work as teachers, police officers, contractors, webmasters, waitresses etc. - whatever will produce income.  But should they be demoted from artist to hobbyist by the IRS based on whether their career as an artist produces a profit, given that many artists cut even at best?

And if you followed your dream to write or sing or paint through high school and into college, but find afterward that bills and family require more of your attention, are you no longer an artist?  The painter Agnes Martin took a 7 year break in her career.   Is she to be considered an artist during that time or should she be known as Agnes Martin, The Artist Who Stopped Being An Artist For Seven Years But Eventually Came Back To The Fold?

Frankly, IRS or not, craft pursued or not, I think you are what your heart says you are.  It's that simple.  Bah humbug to the naysayers, especially Uncle Sam.

Window Shopping

Bodenusa"The odds of going to the store for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one."  --  Erma Bombeck

Have you ever noticed how catalogs magically appear in your mailbox when you are least able to purchase anything?  The Boden catalog arrived the other week and I'm still drooling over it.  I should just chuck it in the recycle bin, but I can't.  I want.

I want those Fun Skirts.  Boden is one of the few clothiers that actually designs FUN clothing.  I get so tired of prim and proper black, grey, black and black.   Really now.  Why do Chicagoans have such a passion for dark colors?  And look at those boots!  Purple suede with patent leather trim!  I could do some serious strutting through winter in them.  Oh, my!

But alas, I must content myself with window shopping.  Or must I?  I know how to knit.  I could make my own version of the sweater.  I'd nip it in at the waist for a bit more definition and remove the ruffles. Oooh, and I even have enough turquoise yarn in my stash!  And for a skirt, I have a perfectly boring black skirt that is begging for some needle felted embellishment.  Hmmmmm.  But what to do for the boots??  I have a basic black pair (How did all this black make it's way into my wardrobe?! I must have been desperate.)  Perhaps a little leather appliqué?  

Maybe this catalog was meant to arrive.  I can't wait to get started on my new fall wardrobe!

What's on your list?


"Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today."  -- James Dean

I love art with positive mojo.  Candy Chang's interactive public installation Before I Die: What's Important to You exudes it.  As she writes on her website:

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. With help from friends and neighbors, I turned the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood into a giant chalkboard to invite people to share what is important to them. Before I Die transforms a neglected space into a constructive one where we can learn the hopes and aspirations of the people around us.


Her installation reminds me of a BBC radio report I heard many years ago about a father who had recently died.  His son found a journal containing a list of 50 things his father wanted to accomplish before he died.  The list was marked with the dates of when each item was accomplished.  Every item was checked off.  Knowing that his father had lived the life he wanted gave the son a measure of comfort and helped assuage his grief. 

Soon after I heard that report, I made my own list.  It was harder than I thought it would be. When you give yourself the license to dream and dream big, well, the task can be daunting.  My list contains a mixture of personal and professional desires.  

On the top of my list is to be a mother.  That one seemed impossible as I had  received over 6 months of radiation to eradicate a childhood cancer.  The doctors told me I'd never be able to have children and if I did manage to become pregnant, the child was sure to die within a few months of birth.  Well, Sweet Pea walked (ran, skipped, twirled and danced) into my life at the age of 7.   When I wrote those words, it got me thinking about adoption.  When my godmother died and I was named as guardian, I didn't hesitate.  I said YES!


Next on my list is a desire to be bilingual.  My neighbors think I'm nuts as they see Spanish as the language of the future, perhaps they're right, but French was spoken by my mom.  Despite that early introduction and 12 years of formal lessons as a child, I lost much of it.  If you don't use it, you lose it, so I'm back to formal lessons.  I've been studying French for the past 5 years at the Alliance Française.  I can't say I'm bilingual, but I can once again carry on a basic conversation and read a magazine (skipping the colloquialisms that always trip me).

Art has the power to transform.  Candy Chang's installation has received such a positive response, that folks are clamoring to have her visit their city.  She's even creating a DIY kit!

So I ask you, what's on your list?  


A thank you to Joyce Owens for introducing me to Candy Chang's work.

Costumes, The Ladies Ring Shout

©2011 Lindsay Obermeyer,  The Ladies Ring Shout, costumes
"Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart." — Martha Graham

Getting ready for showtime! The world premiere of The Ladies Ring Shout is in just two days. Anticipation is already building within the local dance and theater community.  Whoop!  Whoop!  

Designing costumes for dance has some particular concerns.  The garments need to be graceful yet allow for athletic movement, be weighted appropriately for proper movement definition, designed for quick changes and easy to wash.  Above all, they need to empower the dancers.

The ladies look fantastic as they gave the costumes their first trial run last weekend.

©2011 Lindsay Obermeyer, The Ladies Ring Shout, costumes

©2011 Lindsay Obermeyer The Ladies Ring Shout

©2011 Lindsay Obermeyer, The Ladies Ring Shout, costumes