When an Artist Starts a Business...
written by Gina Keesling, January 2004
For as long as I can remember I drew horses. I love horses, and I had a knack for drawing, so that's what I drew. All through school I drew horses, when I went to college I drew horses - until I was made to feel that drawing horses wasn't "real" art. I tried to weave the horse subject into the parameters of the assignments, but after being embarrassed a few times I gave up and turned to the weird subject matter that I thought they were asking for. Looking back I realize that had I had more confidence, I could have pulled it off, but I needed to do well so I was willing to draw whatever they told me to in order to fit in.
Thinking that it was probably the only way I could make a living doing art, I focused my studies on graphics and advertising design. Most of our work centered around the use of text with graphics, and we often did pretend ads for fictitious businesses. As a final project, I put together a campaign for an advertising agency that specialized in equine related promotions. I was self-concious about the whole thing; our class critique was so awkward, and the professors comments were lukewarm and unencouraging - I was humiliated and I gave up on the whole idea that drawing horses could be useful for anything but childish self-gratification.
After college I worked at RAM Graphics, a T-shirt screenprinting company. I couldn't cartoon very well, so I worked on the projects that required the use of type and clip art, with the occasional re-drawing of sketches that customers had sent in. Eventually I moved up to designing the promotional literature for the company's various mail order divisions.
I met my husband Rob when I called him to shoe my horse. I immediately plunged into creating all sorts of things to help him promote his farrier business. At last - a legitmate equine related business that needed my art! I did business cards, hats, magnetic signs, informational handouts for clients, display ads for horse show programs - enough promotional material for several farriers!
At the end of the first year we were married, shoeing business was slowing down and I still had great momentum for all the possibilities of the farrier promotion art. On a whim, I did a silly-looking drawing of my husband holding up the hind leg of a reindeer. Snow was falling all around, and he had accumulated snow on his back and hat, and icicles hanging from his arms. It was pretty awkward (remember, I don't cartoon well) a realistic drawing of a guy holding the back leg of a deer who's body structure strangely resembled that of a horse. I was pretty proud of myself - I had a few printed at a local printer with "thank you for your business this year" inside for him to send to his clients. I secretly sent a copy to a farrier trade journal, "The Anvil" magazine. Imagine my surprise when the December issue arrived with Rob's reindeer-shoeing likeness there on the cover!
I got a few calls from other farriers asking where they could buy some of the farrier greeting cards. The next year I was prepared, with extra cards on hand and a small ad in the magazine advertising the Christmas cards for sale. The business grew from there; I kept working at RAM Graphics in order to keep the health insurance that we needed. Each year I added one new card design, then some T-shirts, note pads and mugs. I found some farrier art prints at a company called HoofPrints, and I added those to the catalog, too.
All the while I continued to work full time at my "day job". It was fast paced, and I learned to produce creative solutions to the various projects put before me. Quickly. Several per day. Every day. I could do it well, because it was what I was being paid to do. But when it came time to do my own art, the stuff that I was in control of, the stuff I loved, I couldn't do anything that I was happy with. I couldn't get motivated, and what I did felt dumb and awkward. I was burned out on one thing (the screenprinting job) but for some weird reason I could still do that and not what I really wanted to do well (the horse art). I resorted to taking my own projects in to RAM and working on them at my desk there in hopes that I could "trick" myself into getting back on track. My boss and co-workers thought I was nuts.
After a few years of struggling this way, I finally gave up and resorted to looking for outside sources for the artwork. It was such a relief to not have the pressure of creating every single piece of art for every product. I still felt guilty - spending hours online or looking for artists work in magazines, when I was technically capable of doing it myself.
Even after I left the job at RAM Graphics, I was unable to rekindle that "artist's spark". I sulked along like that for quite a while before I finally was able to appreciate how wonderful it was to be able to share the work of these other artists with folks who really appreciated it.
All this time I had focused on my frustration, and I was missing out on enjoying some of the good things my company was doing. Now, it makes my day to find a piece of art that I want to use in my catalog. Most creators of farrier artwork don't know to promote it to the farrier industry, so I happen upon it in the most unlikely places. I get a great thrill in working a deal with an artist to get their art in front of those who can appreciate it most. This is a very small business, and we are not talking about a great deal of money, but to me there is value beyond the monetary in facilitating these connections between the "creators" and the "appreciators" of this wonderful art.
Now that I have shifted my focus off of the negative and on to the positive, some wonderful things have been happening. It's like a momentum is developing - I'm finding more great art, and now some poetry too, in the most unexpected ways. For me it is very spiritual - like the project has taken on a life of it's own. I can't really describe it - but there is something about all the feedback that we get from customers - "I love this stuff! - where did you find it all?" "I've never seen a catalog with this kind of products before -please keep me on your mailing list." "I bought that picture because it makes me think of..." "The words on that card describe exactly how I feel about horses." combined with how wonderful it is to call up a self-publishing artist and tell him or her that I need a bunch more prints shipped to me right away, or to send a royalty check to an artist for art used on a greeting card that sold so well it needs reprinting... It all just seems "bigger" than a mail order business buying or producing products to re-sell and make money.
I try to follow my heart and guide the business the best I can - being mindful of the doors that seem to open before me. When things happen that don't seem to "fit with the program" I don't brush them off like I used to - I wonder what God is wanting me to do - and I try to figure out how to do it!