An Artistic Success Story

I’m often fascinated by life’s journeys. The twists, turns, and road bumps that direct and redirect us often lead us exactly where we need to go. I’m especially drawn to the journeys of artists. Unfortunately, many people today still question whether artists have viable paths to career success.

The SmitheryAnne Holman and Jen Townsend are two artistic success stories merged into one. Their individual winding paths are full of life’s hiccups and misdirection, but those paths led them to CCAD and each other. The serendipity of it all has built a friendship, a business partnership, and The Smithery a unique and welcoming retail store, artist’s studio, and workshop in Columbus, Ohio. Clearly, they’ve landed in the right place at the right time.

I was fortunate to meet Anne and Jen earlier this summer, and learn their story of how they got to here and now. Each had a passion for making art growing up. And they each pursued a creative college education, but neither in the medium of metalsmithing that they’ve come to love. Anne combined studies of printmaking and sculpture into her own jewelry major before CCAD had one. Jen’s path included transferring from a regional state university where she wasn’t being artistically challenged.

The two met when Anne was a guest lecturer in Jen’s Studio Professions course. Anne’s suggestions for the different ways artists could make a living after college – including working in industry or selling at art and craft fairs – were spoken from personal experience. And they struck a chord with Jen.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

Their paths crisscrossed a number of times again before they recognized a similar work ethic and began sharing studio space and a passion for creating a place where they could sell art, make art, and teach making. “We wanted it all in one space,” Jen explained. “To make stuff, teach, have our studio, sell, and support other people making things – all in one building.”

Timing is everything in life, and when Anne was trying to sell her handmade jewelry at an East Coast trade show in January of 2014 she turned her downtime into recruitment time, researching and networking with other artisans who could someday sell their handmade art at her dream store. With little personal business experience, the two found an out-of-town entrepreneurial business course for creatives, requiring weekly late night drives to Cincinnati. They wrote a savvy business plan and secured funding, then obtained a prime location for their creative endeavor, beating out other companies with solid reputations in competing for the same storefront.

The Smithery opened in October of 2014. “The idea all along was to open a place where we could showcase our own work and that of other artists,” Anne affirmed. And that’s just what they’ve done. Thanks to the relationships they’d built over time the store is filled with curated artwork representing artists at all different stages of their creative careers. The majority is jewelry, but it also includes textiles, ceramics, and hand-made prints. “A lot of these artists don’t sell in Ohio, many don’t sell in the Midwest, and some international artists don’t sell in the United States at all,” added Jen.

make artAnne explained that the part of making she enjoys most is having her “hands in the material.” Unfortunately, running a new business allows less time for that, although she and Jen do make time to design custom jewelry. Workshops seem to be the most fun because that’s when they can teach their craft to other burgeoning artists and get the next generation of designers excited about making.

Which brings things full circle. Art school taught them “the practicality of being in the studio every day and just making, making, making constantly; and realizing how much time goes into figuring things out,” explained Jen with excitement in her voice. That is where it came together for these two artists. I wonder where their paths will lead them next.

More information about The Smithery can be found on their website.

Artists #Making It Work: Liz Robb

Liz Robb

Liz Robb

It’s often said that artists cannot make a living from their artwork alone. Parents of aspiring fine artists stress about it in their souls.

Liz Robb is a young fiber artist who is beginning to prove that worry to be unnecessary, especially for her parents. I interviewed Liz in the fall of 2014 soon after she completed her MFA and moved to San Francisco. At the time she was just beginning; figuring out how to make it as a successful fiber artist. A short 18 months later she’s building quite a name for herself.

Since we’ve last connected, Liz has exhibited at numerous shows throughout the west as well as at the International Textile Art Biennial in Belgium. She completed a two-month artistic residency at the Icelandic Textile Center in Blönduós, Iceland, has received numerous awards, and has had her art published in several design magazines.

Liz' Rope Curvature on display

Liz’ Rope Curvature on display

Lucky me, I ran into Liz this past weekend where she was showcasing her textural wonders at the StARTup Art Fair in San Francisco. The setting was unique. 40-some contemporary, independent artists displayed their work in individual hotel rooms of a 1950’s motor lodge turned boutique “California beach house” style hotel. No kidding!

At the show and on her website I found Liz’ most recent body of work to be focused and distinctive, with an obvious influence of her time in Iceland.

Whether you’re an aspiring artist or the parent of someone who dreams of being one, make sure to read my interview with Liz. Her words offer clear insight into the creative process and what artists feel as they develop their career paths.

Clearly, Liz’ days of Lyft and Uber driving to supplement her art career are receding in her rear-view mirror.

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Meet Fiber Artist Liz Robb

Every once in a while I come across a young artist whose creativity, vision and talent elicit a compelling and audible “wow” from me. Liz Robb is one of those artists.

A friend of mine introduced me to her work and I was immediately intrigued. Clearly, I needed to learn her story first hand.

basket of yarn2

Tools of the Trade

A fiber artist, Liz began her career as a fashion designer, and is now charting a new path as a fine artist. She holds a BFA in Fashion Design from the University of Cincinnati (UC), and a MFA in Fibers from Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). In between the two she worked in fashion in New York and Wisconsin. Last fall I was in San Francisco, where she now lives and works, and had the opportunity to visit her studio. We talked about her chosen career path, her influences along the way, how she’s making it work as a fine artist, and suggestions she has for future artists. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

Art.College.Life.:        You were drawn to textiles at a young age. How did it all start?

Liz:           Sewing was always part of my childhood. My mom taught me, and in high school I made my own dresses for dances, which kind of sprung into going to school for fashion design. My ruling out criteria for colleges was I wanted someplace where I could take it from sketching to finish. That was important to me; a big part of my ethos was to actually make. Now, instead of just thinking and ideating and sketching I can actually execute a finished product.

ACL:         Tell me about your shift from clothing design to fine arts.

Liz:           I knew that I wanted to go back to school because I wanted to teach someday. I knew I had to get my masters if I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t think I’d need one in fashion design but I wanted to diversify. Since I was always knitting sweaters it kind of opened my eyes to building from the fiber up instead of just the fabric.

It was a personal challenge to move away from design into fine art. That was at the core of what I loved about making and creating, being more conceptual and art related instead of practical. Of course I got a lot of push back from my parents at first.

IMG_0492 studio wallACL:         Let’s change threads here (sorry!). You’ve got a wonderful indigo theme. What inspired you?

Liz:           While at SCAD I spent two months at their Lacoste, France campus. Denise Lambert, the master Woad (French indigo) dyer of France came to study with us. I was able to work intensely and it changed what I was working on and thinking about. I started dyeing linen and papers, and making impressions, which was a big shift for me. I made my first big weaving.

After returning from France I visited a friend in New Orleans. They have an art walk there every month, and I ended up doing a group show with five people. I dipped tassels, dipping and rewrapping, constructing and deconstructing, mostly working in indigo. Later on I tried plaster and then encaustic. I wanted to push it further. It was uncomfortable, and it was hard to put paint on something I had just woven.

ACL:         What have been some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to face?

Liz:            The scariest part for me was doing it; just starting. For applying for fashion design too, just thinking what do I want to do? Luckily, through the co-ops [at UC] I was able to rule out the things I didn’t want to do. The internships there helped me weed it down.

Choosing to go back to school was a big decision. I knew I had some dream schools, and I visited the ones I wanted to go to. It helped me a ton, visiting them and meeting the people and understanding the energy and culture there. That was a big influence for me.

ACL:          So now, looking to your future, what are your goals? And what type of marketing and networking tools are you employing to reach those goals?

Liz's studio

Liz’s studio

Liz:            I’m looking for gallery representation in three cities, and globally. My big cities I love are SF, NY, and Berlin or Tokyo. The Japanese market I think is really special.

I have a one-year business plan and a five-year plan. SCAD has a professional practice class – for undergrads too – where you work on your website, business cards, all your marketing materials, and business plan. I’d thought about it but didn’t know what it meant. Now I have it, and reference it often.

I’ve also got a few books that have helped me, from people who’ve done it themselves. Art, Inc., tells how to properly submit to galleries, what sort of paperwork you need, etc. I need to focus on the fact that I’m creating a body of work. I need to photograph it well. I’ve set up a website, and use social media to create multiple touch points where my audience can go to get to know me. I can be really shy and not want to market myself. I don’t like being in the spotlight, promoting myself so hard, but you have to. So I’m learning how to do that gracefully.

ACL:          How do you support yourself?

Liz:            I want to focus on my work. I know it doesn’t make enough money. I’ve saved a lot from working and have been supporting myself, kind of living like I was in school. To replenish it I’ve been thinking, do I want to work in an artistic field or completely unrelated? I’ve seen and heard both ways. I’ve looked at being a studio helper or installing shows, which is great for networking too. I actually just signed up to be a Lyft driver, which is part-time work that you can choose whenever you want to work. I figure if I do that Monday through Friday morning I can cover my rent and materials, and focus the rest of the day on me. It’s actually a great way to do it.

ACL:          If you could do it all over again what kind of advice would you have given yourself in high school?

Liz:            Everything I feel sounds like a cliché. I guess, just understand yourself. Write things down. What do you want to see happen for yourself next? Think outside of what you think is supposed to happen. For me, travel and especially volunteering helped me see outside myself, and my small world. I have friends who want to be the top if their field. Others want to move in different ways like philanthropy or work with non-profits. You need to be humbled; especially at that age, because everything has been so “you, you, me focused” It’s the nature of being a teenager, but you need to get outside yourself.

I respect people who can take a year off and find themselves, as opposed to forcing themselves into a program that they’re not interested in. Although I think you have to trust yourself; some people need that push to get to know what they want to do. It really depends on the person.

Liz (and Hank) in her studio

Liz (and Hank) in her studio

ACL:         Any other words of wisdom to younger aspiring artists?

Liz:            Stay authentic. Be authentic. That’s always what’s going to come through in the end.

You can see Liz’s fiber art at Art Works Downtown in San Rafael, CA, January 9 – February 27, and at the International Textile Biennial in Haacht, Belgium in February and March. In May she’ll debut a new line of fabrics for P&B Textiles at the Minneapolis Quilt Market.

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