Voice, Work, Dirt, and Loyalty.
It's been almost two weeks since my last show.
It's been a haul.
The amount of ass-busting over the last six weeks has been astounding,
and I am proud to say I'm halfway down this path of summer goal-crushing
and in that pile are some pretty serious financial hurdles.
I'm in the process of slaying my past credit card debt.
I mean. Like. Revolving debt that would make your mama's head spin.
Debt that pretty much any financial website or blog warns against,
Debt from a past life and person I don't even really know anymore.
I am vanquishing that shit,
that horrible monster of debt I've created.
It feels like standing over a demon-ey dragon,
with his head in your hand,
and your foot neatly resting on the place where it once was attached.
This summer has felt good.
I am, daresay,
trying to grow up a little,
and trying to cultivate a more responsible and less frantic financial world.
I have busted major butt to climb out of a huge hole,
but I'm not there yet.
I NEED to be there so I can grow this lil' business.
I need to be there so I can move around in my world,
Between trips I thought I needed to take 10 years ago,
and college courses back when that weren't covered by Financial Aid,
between winter tires, unexpected surgery, appliances,
that super-cute sweater at a boutique in San Fran I couldn't live without,
gas and groceries and (eek!) phone bills when I was at my lowest and most unstable,
I managed to create a pretty massive pile of debt.
NOT including student loans looming in the background.
And, welp, for a self-employed artist who owns nothing but her own business,
a subaru with nearly 200,000 miles on it,
and a computer,
that's some serious shit.
I've been blessed with a great man,
and a home I wish I could contribute more to.
And besides this debt I've been able to concentrate on,
Rag and Stone is killing it this year.
I am so proud to see this fledgling business finally take flight in a way
that makes me both excited and nervous.
I'm blessed with customers who seek me out on a regular basis,
new customers who become repeat customers,
and customers who are so stoked on their own R&S treasures,
their friends can't help but join in.
I've had an amazing summer of sales, contracts, clients,
and continued opportunity to build strong and lasting relationships.
Both at shows and galleries and Etsy and elsewhere.
There really is nothing like your own cheering squad when you're battling historically nasty monsters who are used to winning.
So I have a story to tell.
This is the back-end of it.
I recieved a visit from *Beth today. (We'll use the asterisk her because her name is not Beth) and she brought with her one of my old silk bracelets I first made when I started this whole business. In fact, this particular project was a culmination of lots of old skills as a beading fool in college, with leftover bits and baubles from THAT phase of creativity (no doubt purchased on one of many credit cards of college past) with some beautiful and new-to-me-then hand-dyed silk cord that I immediately fell in love with. It conjured memories of firsts. My first soldering project. My first bezel setting. My first studio. My first sale. My first repair. The origination of the name for my business. Rag. And. Stone.
I am sure I sold this to her just after I openend my Etsy shop back in 2009 when I still was in school, not nearly ready enough to start my own business, LET ALONE ready to build a body of work that made any sense. I had never even heard of Etsy until a longtime friend from a much hipper part of the country was kind enough to mention why my work wasn't there yet, and I fumbled around with my words like, "duh, of course I know about it, and I'm on it"....and then 24 hours later, BAAAM. Etsy Shop Opened. Because there's nothing more embarrasing than realizing how far, TRULY, you are out of the pulse of hip-ness going into a Montana winter and also realizing your financial struggles could potentially be beaten off with an internet-based insta-business. I had NO IDEA, no business plan, no goals as to where Etsy would lead me, but I was willing to set out and try that shit on for size. I felt like I had nothing to loose then, and standing here now, staring at this sad and dirty bracelet from the past, obviously tattered from love and dirt from a hard-working hard-playing Montana woman, I stand by my decision. And I stand by my earliest work, unpolished and all-over-the-place (and probably built from some seriously questionable credit card purchases all ensuring my "investment" in this business. But I digress.)
I am sure I sold *Beth this bracelet well before I really knew that this piece inevitably would come back to me. Twice. Once as a repair for when the clasp broke and I had to replace it with scrap-pile things from my bench because I was too broke to buy new material, so I learned to improvise with what very basic skills I had acquired the semester before. The clasp that inevitably ended up back in my hands today, now that I can be honest about it, was more a scrounge-and-pray-that-it-doesn't-come-back-again type of fix. No design element. No concept to construction. Just survival. And scrounging around in the bottom of my sweeps drawer for what became her very-improvised but totally functional bracelet clasp. That bracelet was worn every day for a year, and survived a season of landscaping in the valley.
I am sure she didn't know, and I feel a little guilty saying now, that as I shortened the piece for her very tiny wrist as requested.... that I was....without a doubt.....cursing her. A little. Because dammit, why would something totally finished and totally SOLD come back to me with expectations and fixes and problems and potential "it-ain't-gonna-work-that-way-hunny" attitude. Why would something so utterly "finished" become MY PROBLEM? Little did I know, this is the way of business. Any entrepreneurial guru will tell you that loyalty and customer satisfaction are woven together, much like this bracelet.
I smashed and clomped through the first years of Etsy, without grace or intention, but the basic notion that, dammit I should sell stuff. And I did. Looking back, It probably wasn't great stuff. Don't get me wrong, I still stand by all my work sold, both before it was a congruent thought process and style all the way to now, but I don't want you thinking I made graceful collections with strong voice right away. It's hard to believe that young artists do right away, but I guess that can happen to a lucky few.
The pictures were bad. The prices were off. It probably wasn't well-conceptualized, and it may have come back to me in the mail after it was sized wrong. Or the piece fell out of the box in the mail, never to be seen again (no shit that actually happened). Or I gave the wrong size in the listing to begin with. Or the description sucked. Or the stone was loose, or it fell out, or it wasn't quite as described. And that SHIT STILL HAPPENS. (hoping for the rare occasion anymore, but still...)
My heart was in it, though, that's for sure. My heart leapt at the newest American Craft and Ornament and Metalsmith subscriptions (probably purchased with credit cards) and I couldn't wait for my next semester of courses. I poured over Etsy artists, both in metal and lots of other mediums.
I smashed and clomped through the first years as a hungry beginner metalsmith, because, honestly, there's no other way to do it besides smash and clomp. You can't just WAIT for your shit to gel all together, or at least, I couldn't. Some people painstakingly execute business plans and collections, but me, Nope. At least not in the beginning. I was all in, all in love with this medium, all about newness and testing the waters. And ya know what? It worked. It wasn't polished. It wasn't pretty. It most certainly was considered premature by artists and colleagues alike. But I felt like the PILE of all the work I made became big enough that it would be silly to sit on forever, and plus, with looming credit card payments, I really didn't have a choice. You can't just marinate and marinate and not get out there and clomp around. Etsy was my first store. My first sale. My first attempt at entrepreneurial anything.
But as the first year's sales dwindled, and I was enrolled full-time at the college, I began to see the misfirings of Etsy. And my sales crawled along. I wanted success. I wanted immediate wealth. I wanted to stick out and be seen and all that other hopeful bullshit when you think you're the only talented kid out there. But I kept clomping around.
And I forgot. That's just not how it works.
The time involved is immense.
The pretending you know more than your skillset.
The actually DOING of things well beyond your skillset.
The trying to make it look like you know what you are doing.
Polishing and perfecting and getting the hang of your medium,
all the while, trying desperately to learn (by example) what you want your business to be.
I started to dissect my own work,
both in class and at the bench at home.
I started the process of clomping around with my peers,
watching professional metalsmiths thrive,
selling a non-essential as essential,
both in academia, Etsy, and the broader world wide web.
Filtering became necessary,
because not everything is good,
and not everything I made was good.
But I am a firm believer in time.
And putting in the work.
I understand that now more than ever.
That filter process is not just magically acquired.
You are not BORN with a unique voice right out of the womb.
You have to learn how to TALK first.
You have to think of your work,
and you have to think of others work too.
What designs are good.
What designs suck.
What designs you THINK are good and then build and find out they SUCK.
What designs are weak, but could be beefed up to be better and therefore kept,
Which ones you revisit every once in awhile,
and the ones you wished you never ever ever made in the first place,
because now you....ahem....have to repeat it?! or repair it?! SHIT.
The filter is not built without watching, too,
and this is where some artists get, in my opinion,
The possibility of copying work, and of being copied.
To me, that's just part of building your voice.
This is a touchy subject MANY artists have hearty opinions about, so I digress here, but it is worth mentioning that ALL ART COMES FROM ART. Either respectfully, or not.
Nothing is more repulsive than half-hearted art (sold at a fraction of the price, stealing the customer base artists painstakingly cultivate, without reservation)
and is a despicable act to steal from artists.
But stealing is not copying.
Copying is learning.
I'm not condoning artists who steal designs and cough them up as their own,
and then sell them as original and false heartfelt work.
That's just stupid. and a waste of artistic integrity.
but I do believe that having a watchful and discerning eye,
(and a bag full of the same damn metalsmithing tools)
can create damn fine metalsmiths with skills they will build and bloom from.
Sometimes watching that happen from your own work,
and seeing the copying, (or the copy-ee)
But doesn't all growth?
(Again, I digress on the cheating copying thing...)
You HAVE to put in the time.
You HAVE to watch.
You HAVE to gracelessly clomp around, sometimes on other people's toes and time and money (but hopefully with a little humility and honesty and heart) to cultivate your own voice as an artist. You are loud and awkward and funny looking, but ultimately, everyone else is clomping around too.
So *Beth. Sorry for this bracelet's historical faults, although I know now you could care less about them, and probably never would have known any different love for this bracelet if I DID tell you that it was a ill-conceived and totally scrounged project so I could put gas in my truck to drive to community college classes back in 2009 and make ridiculously insignificant credit-card payments to beat off the beast while still focusing on the prospect of Rag and Stone. You fueled my fire, girl. And the fact that you loved this thing, literally, to pieces, is and always will be, an honor.
This tattered bit of memory brought to me today is more than a bracelet.
It's more than a bunch of catalog-ordered components, scrounged loops,
entry-level beading skills, and a few knotted bits of once-vibrant silk.
It's a sloppy beginning I hope I never forget.
Because there's something so utterly RAW about it.
There's something so humbling about beginnings never meant for hi-res glossy photos
or beautiful web pages or well-combed instagram feeds or facebook likes.
There's something riveting about the capacity for old work to enstill sense-of-place,
even if its not exactly something you're going to send away to a gallery anytime soon.
That bracelet is so much more than a window into what I could have done,
should have done,
would have done,
If I had known what I know now.
(And believe me, I don't know a hellova lot!)
That bracelet is a culmination of debts owed and paid, work done and sold,
solid constructions, and constructions I thought were solid,
but in the end ended up back on my bench,
for another go-round.
That bracelet is thousands of hours in the studio.
Thousands of hours online.
Millions of mistakes.
Hundreds of sales, and returns, and repairs.
Hundreds of happy customers, and hopefully only a few slightly off from that.
That bracelet is Loyalty.
And the bedrock of my business.
That bracelet is the ultimate in repeat business,
and hopefully a good omen for the future.
That bracelet, that tattered silk and stone,
is the story of my business.
That bracelet was R&S before I knew what R&S was.