Monday, 30 May 2011

Lost Art

As some of you will know, Ritzy Swish has been attending the Craft and Design Show for the last two days, at Castle Ashby Gardens. A beautiful show (apparently much improved since last year), three large marquees full of exhibitors, an exquisite Spanish horse show and music from a very talented and entertaining jazz group. Sunday was a glorious day of sunshine (albeit very bustery), attracting lots of families with young children running around and a very impressive variety of dog breeds! Monday...well not so good, a full day of rain, although it was quite busy in the marquees as the public sheltered from the rain!

I have to admit, on the first morning I had a wander (hiding my exhibitor's badge) purely to have a nosey at the other stalls - Textiles being my obvious interest. There were two exhibitions that really impressed me, and simultaneously made me feel insecure regarding my own offerings! One was an exhibition (I say exhibition because that's what had been presented, whereas my stall remained a 'stall') of elegant sculptural bags that any lady would be proud to have on her arm. The quality, attention to detail, the presentation and the 'uniqueness' was paramount. Rumour has it that grown women were fighting over bags at this stall in a previous year. The second exhibition was a Textiles Artist who had the most gorgeous compositions on canvases and framed (although they were very expensive so I did wonder if any would sell).

I also met two fellow Folksy people, whose work I recognised and subsequently said 'You're on Folksy aren't you?' and related conversations arose. My fellow Folksyers were 'Cottons and Dreams' and 'Little Eccentric'. The ironic thing is, I have included a product from Little Eccentric in my Ruby Folksy Friday, and I actually recognised the bag sat there looking pretty! It is quite bizarre (but lovely too) to meet people you have spoken to online and to realise....they're REAL!

Cottonsanddreams on Folksy

Little Eccentric on Folksy

Whilst studying my fellow exhibitors over the two days, and through a great deal of conversation and immensely valuable advice, I learnt the following about exhibiting at craft fairs (some of which I have read about, but it was beneficial to witness it in practise). I'm sure there is much more left to learn!
  1. When exhibiting, ensure your display has some height. This can be created by: fabric covered boxes, shelving units, suitcases/wicker picnic cases, lighting, custom built display units, or simple plinths. The benefit is the customer can see the full product rather than a small part or section (or having to move or touch it themselves which people seem reluctant to do).
  2. Regarding actual products for sale: have a theme. 'Cottons and Dreams' has hit upon a flower motif that has proved to be very popular and is now marketing that motif on a variety of products. Little Eccentric has focussed on the techniques of felting and embellishment, which then translates into art compositions, elegant bags and accessories.
  3. Number 2 in other words, know what you're about.
Exhibit A: My 'stall', quick description: looks like an Aladdin's Cave!

  1. No height!
  2. No clear theme!
  3. No definite product!
There is no excuse for lack of height to my stall, I can sort that.

There is a history to my other problems (as there always is to all problems!) A few years ago, I got back into my Textiles Art. I started taking photos and creating work. To be honest, I'd been looking for a way out of teaching and a way back into creating (aren't a lot of us creators trying to find the ultimate job? To do our own work every day, and have that pay the mortgage!). At the time I had never heard of Folksy or online handmade. Instead, I came across an advert for the rent of some shop space and thought that'll be a good idea and went for it! In hindsight, little consideration of what I would actually do, just a go for it attitude. I showed my work to the shop owner who enthused and loved it. So we entered into an agreement. I would pay rent, and get to put all my works into the shop. However, once the agreement began,  a few problems became clear. The shop was located in a well known shopping village in Northampton, where by which a 'non-competition' policy is abided. Suddenly I was told: you cannot put framed works into the shop because we have a gallery on-site; you cannot put cushions in the shop because we have an upholsterers on-site; you cannot put bags in the shop because we have several bag shops on site. It was not the shop owner's fault, she fought for me. However, even the fabric shop owner complained about my goods because 'they are handmade and I sell the fabric for it!' That complaint went to the owner of the site who flatly disagreed (thank goodness), on the premise that imported goods could also be handmade! So I was forced to make products that fitted the theme of the shop in which I rented space: bedroom and bathroom. I made: a variety of wash-bags, make-up brush rolls, foot spa bags, anything I could invent related to that theme.

After three months, business was bad, not just for me but the shop owner alike, and I ran out of monetary resources. I had to leave the shop. This left me with a wide stock range of products that I would not ordinarily choose to make. I did home parties before christmas, and an exhibition at my place of work. Products sold well at both venues. So I got confident and began to make more of the same, believing that the products were popular (not realising at the time that it was probably just the right time of year to sell that type of product).

'Back to Basics'
From the latest craft fair at Castle Ashby, it has become blindingly clear to me that I have been sidetracked by producing products for that shop last year. I lost my Art. I admit, I enjoy shopping for fabrics to make the products, but it's no good if they basically do not sell. I was diverted from my original Textiles Art work, which had a clear theme and was composed. This resulted in the production of items that are boring, not unusual enough and not unique. Loads of people commented on how pretty my products are, but coupled that with 'I could make that'. I quote a comment from a student of mine (bless her trying to give me advice): 'That's lovely, you could get that in Boots...Maybe that's the problem Miss, the fact that you could buy it in Boots.' You always get the truth from your students (if they trust you anyway!).

Plan of Action:
  1. Get back to my theme, it was there, and is evident in my gift boxes!
  2. Investigate artistic avenues in a sustained manner.
  3. Explore how to translate my artwork into products (so that the connection/theme is there).

Examples of my line of work before the shop last year:

Final Thought: If any of you creators and artists are struggling out there, there is one last thing I discovered:

People are willing to spend an absolute fortune on Cake!


  1. Very interesting and thought provoking blog. Lots of little pokes in the head for me here with ideas that I think about a lot. I fear I may waffle....

    I think a lot of us have suffered that cycle of compromising ourselves for the sake of sales.

    If you have a truly artistic bent then (in my experience at least) you'll often find yourself out there on your own with a whole heap of work that you've put your soul into but that isn't necessarily finding its niche in the consumer arena.

    I KNOW it can work out though. That individuality and what they call "cutting edge design" is what being an artist is about. We all do it in our own way and have amazing jewels of creativity hiding away in our body of work.

    What we all want is for someone to discover us and make us worth some money, giving us the validation and the cash we need to make our livings. Catering to the masses might be a short term fix, but our individuality is what we're about and we shouldn't compromise that, well, in a perfect world at least.

    It happens, the success. It's like an artist's lottery win. It happened to me once, but (to my permanent chagrin) I was unable to cling onto it and make my name. I kick myself regularly for that.

    So what do we do?

    I've struggled with this for years. Recent changes in my life have forced me to contemplate my position and make big decisions.

    My advice, for what it's worth - keep it pure. Don't do a job (or make a product) that sucks any of your creativity out of you in a direction you don't want it to go. If you have to do a paid job, as most of us must, take something that requires no brain power and that won't drain you. Keep as much energy as you can and make sure you retain your artistic focus. Better to be a dinner lady or a cleaner and lost in dreams of your next creation when you get home, than giving away your creativity to some humdrum process.

    Sure, it can look great when a job comes up that is "creative", but that will kill your soul just as hard and fast as being in a jail cell if it's not the art you are cut out to be making. I've tried, it's misery.

    As you describe here, making items for the purpose of increasing sales is a trap. It doesn't take very long of doing that before it's akin to piecework and BANG, we've moved a thousand miles away from our artistic integrity that was our goal. Might as well be in a sweatshop. Man, the amount of times I've berated myself for this sort of thing!

    I've got no magic formula. I scrabble about trying to earn money in whatever way I can whilst juggling to keep my mind free to allow myself to progress my personal work. It's a constant inner battle and I wonder, at 40+, when exactly I'm going to get the rewards I work so hard for. I guess it's about remaining true to yourself and assessing just exactly how much YOU as a person can do and how much you're prepared to compromise.

    Life as an artist is both exhilerating and depressing, in equal measure sometimes. Keep creating, keep growing. One day, something great will happen and you'll be what you want to be. There's nothing else for it but to hold onto that dream and learn to believe in yourself. Oh and eat a lot of beans, measure your washing liquid carefully and don't waste money lol.


  2. Followed a tweet from Jools. . . Great post and great comment. Lovely work, Emma. I agree that's what you 'should' be doing. Sod the bath bags, very nice as they are ;-) I'm struggling with similar issues in that I see something that sells and think "I could do that", but if I did something like it that did well but 'wasn't me', I'd be stuck in a very unsatisfying compromise and get pushed further away from my own original goals by good old financial necessity. But then artists all have to juggle that one.
    The other side of that coin is the inherent unreality of the expectation that one somehow 'should be able to' follow one's own path and have people like it enough to fork out for it. How many people have that experience in their creative life? i think a level of dissatisfaction is the undercurrent of even successful artist's careers. Perhaps the best sellers on Folksy or those who have found their niche in the gallery system are secretly wishing they had kept up their bassoon lessons. .
    I feel quite hypocritical for saying all this as I have until this last six months been making my living doing what I like and am good at (Children's books). I am one of the lucky ones. But when the market goes pear shaped you look to your skills and try to find other avenues. Sorry to ramble in an incoherent fashion but it is a subject that excersizes me somewhat. . . ;-)
    My issue with craft fairs is that they charge admission! I am expected to pay a fiver for the privilege of spending my own money at their event. Sod that, says I!
    Jon x

  3. Gosh! A very interesting read and actually one that has made me think about my own situation. I think coming to the realisation that crafting to sell rather than crafting for the love of can be a very depressing situation (even that I dont do well lol) I think it opens up a can of worms with how one sees their future. I certainly didnt see myself making shabby chic lavender bags when studying at college. You obviously have talent and its almost criminal not to use it. I often and sit and wonder what I should be doing or even if I should be doing it at all. I'm sure ive lulled myself into the idea that I have a morsel of talent. Anyhoo...

    I watched an interesting docu on Tracy Emin last night and she said she always creates for love not for money and the sales have come from there. Maybe we should all take her advice and have faith in our own abilities.

  4. Great to meet you Emma at the weekend. It was certainly your first learning curve and like i said to you, you will have new things to learn at every fair you attend. Great blog post, a really interesting read. Thanks for including cottonsanddreams link, hope to meet up with you at future fairs.