One of the many people I interviewed for the Handmade 2.0 story a while back, but was not able to include in the article itself, was a young artist known as AshleyG. Based in St. Louis, she’s sold thousands of prints through her Etsy shop, and her work is now finding its way into both gallery and retail settings. The Q&A that follows is a revised and condensed version of my original interview with her, with some updates and follow-ups built in.
We talked about her career, about discovering blogs and Etsy on the same night, about digital elements of her work and the “handmade” idea, about online selling as an antidote to the fear of rejection, and about what she hopes might happen next.
So what are the basics? I think you’re making a living from your art now, but at what point did that happen?
Yes, I do this full time, along withy my boyfriend, Drew Bell. He is kind of the less-visible part, but our LLC is actually AshleyG and Drew. I do all the drawing, and he’s the computer genius. He scans everything, and I make the color decisions but he’s usually the one physically doing the PhotoShopping, and the actual printing.
Etsy for me was definitely a turning point. I hadn’t gone to a lot of college; I’d taken some art classes, but I’d been waitressing and bar-tending forever. I met Drew met at a restaurant where I was bar-tending and he was waiting tables. We both had a common passion for art, but really no outlet for it. We’re in St. Louis where, maybe there’s a growing community now, but even four years ago when we met, there really wasn’t. So we started working on some collaborations, my drawings and digital stuff – but I was kind of putting drawings in drawers and just forgetting about them, and going back to hating my job.
When I was little it was drawing drawing drawing, that’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really even know that was a possibility for me. And I don’t know, if Etsy hadn’t come to be, if it would have been a possibility for me. I had sort of thought: “Okay, now from age 16 on I’ll work in the restaurant industry, and maybe slowly go to school and things can happen. But I don’t know when I’m gonna get a career, or what career.” So this came as a total surprise, and I just feel exceptionally lucky.
So how did Etsy come onto your radar then?
I discovered Etsy and blogs on the same night. Drew is always surprised about my computer ignorance, so we were talking about that, and how I didn’t get blogs – like, “What is it? It’s an online diary?” And I said something about arts and crafts and he said, “Yeah, you should search for that.” So I found somebody’s blog, and went through and looked at all the blogs in her contacts, and someone mentioned Etsy, and I looked at that and it was like, “This is a world I never knew existed.”
I was making some jewelry at the time, so I listed that on Etsy, and some stuffed animals. That stuff didn’t really sell. So I held off for a long time. I didn’t list a print until the end of March 2006. And somebody bought one. Then somebody bought another one, and I was making new ones, and selling a couple more, a couple more – after a few months my manager let me take two months off, to kind of test the waters. Turned out I could support myself. So that’s when we turned it into a business.
You know, I’m a person like anybody else who’s kind of scared of being rejected, and it seemed like such a great kind of passive way to – if they like it they might buy it, but if they think it’s the worst thing ever, you won’t ever know. So fantastic!
And now you’ve had a couple of gallery shows as well?
I had a solo show in LA., and I was part of a show at Artstream in New Hampshire. I would never have known how to go about that, but within the first month of selling prints — I know I had less than ten prints sold — Leora Lutz from Gallery Revisited in Los Angeles sent me a message through Etsy that just said: “Your work at my gallery?”
Yeah. You know, people complain about the 20-cent listing fee or whatever, but I always say, “You never know who’s out there looking at your work.” And also: Be nice to everyone you come into contact with on Etsy – because you never know. I joke that selling on Etsy is actually a lot like waiting tables, you have a lot of brief, personal interactions with people, and I think that that was a helpful skill to have.
Do you sell originals on Etsy?
Not so much. I sell some at Velocity Art and Design.com. Because people seem to really like affordable art on Etsy, the prints make more sense there.
The Los Angeles show ended up being a lot of limited-edition prints, and some originals, and through mentions in blogs, a lot of the little prints of bearded guys ended up pre-selling, and almost selling out. A lot of the original work sold, too.
I tend to like my art if it’s one step removed from me. Going to digital makes it seem like I’m a little less involved. So I do a lot with tea-stain background, and what we did with the big archival printer that we have is print tea-stain background onto canvas, and then I had drew on top of that. So it’s like a mix of the digital with the hand stuff. And people seemed open to that, I wasn’t sure if they’d be put off.
You mentioned blog attention – I guess you’ve got the hang of what blogs are now.
Yes, blogs, like Design*Sponge have been super good to me. If she mentions something, a lot of times sales go way up for the next couple of days. So really the blog world has been more of our press than anything. We just did something with Urban Outfitters that came up because of a mention on Design*Sponge. (More on that here.)
So here’s a question you may have heard before: If you’re selling open-edition digital prints, how is that “hand made”? Why is it different from just buying something at Target (or whatever)?
I think this question is really important. It has and I’m sure will continue to be hotly debated in places like the Etsy Forums. But, really, almost everything that is “handmade” has some prefab component to it. Beads for a necklace, store-bought yarn for a scarf, the list goes on and on.
The nature of my art is digital. That is the medium I prefer, and there is no other output option for it, except a printer. That said, I am not really looking to defend my work, or prove that I belong in “the handmade community.” I am far more concerned that people enjoy it, that hopefully other artists consider it “art,” and that it comes across as original or moving. And I want it to be affordable and still make a living from it. Creating the work the way I do allows that to happen.
Do I believe digital artists have a place in “the handmade community”? Absolutely. I can’t speak for the creators of Etsy, but I like to believe that when they created the slogan “Your place to buy and sell all things handmade,” handmade was not intended to be defined simply as a means of production, but as movement. You hear again and again about “the handmade movement.” It’s not just about the what, but about the who. I am a person, not a corporation or a chain store. I am an individual making personal contact with other individuals on a daily basis.
And lastly, digitally printing is not pressing a magic print button. I can’t even count the numbers of times I have cried over the frustration of something going wrong. Colors, images, cutting, quality. If part of “handmade” is suffering for your art, I certainly have.
I think our goal now is to make it so that our money isn’t so directionally proportional to our time. Etsy definitely is the vast majority of the income. It’s what pays the rent and the bills.
So we’re thinking about things like licensing. So far the only things like that we’ve done are with other Etsy sellers – Tinymeat and My Favorite Mirror. I would love to break into vinyl toys. And I’m working on a children’s book. Little Brown contacted me from Etsy as well, someone there who works with a lot of first-time writers.
Drew is dealing with the wholesale thing, we’re doing more of that – Little Paper Planes, Art Star in Philadelphia, a lot of other small places. And we just got on a Japanese web site called NextBigThing.jp.
It’s a whole new world. We didn’t know anything. We’ve just had to learn it all as we’ve gone along – like the LLC, and having an accountant, and getting health insurance for ourselves, and feeling kind of legitimate. And licensing, do you need an agent? How do you go about it? We still want to do the prints, but we just want to get a little more to where we’re not personally doing everything. We don’t want all our eggs in one basket.