A realization

There has been a bit of upheaval, of late.
With the invitation to outside investors, Etsy invited a lot of scrutiny, which led to some of those same investors realizing, rather late in the game, that Etsy hosts a rather large number of sellers who vend items that infringe upon the copyrights of well-known companies, like Disney, and Sanrio.
I’m talking about that Hello Kitty necklace and that baby blanket featuring Elsa from “Frozen.”

Elsa-Inspired Hat

Elsa-Inspired Crocheted Hat, from Etsy

Yup, unless the vendor paid to license those characters from their parent companies, they’re likely infringing on a copyright/trademark by utilizing that imagery on their items (with some exceptions).
And once some of the investors who purchased Etsy stock at $30/share and watched it tumble to $16/share shortly after “discovered” these items in the Etsy marketplace, suddenly they became a problem.
Of course, you can purchase the same infringing items on Ebay, on Alibaba (where many vendors openly rip-off reputable Etsy artisans and imitate their items/infringe upon their copyrights), and a million other sites, but the rip-offs are a bit less visible when they’re being pumped out by the thousands by large overseas manufacturers tacking-on fake designer labels than an independent artist illustrating an homage to a character they love from a film.  And then, there’s also not a share price drop to think of with those other companies, either.
The lawsuit is a loser, as a basic Etsy search would’ve given these investors all the info they needed, and no one can make up for your unwillingness to do your homework.
But the kerfuffle did bring into focus this whole issue of manufacturing, and the role it plays in the business of art-making.

Etsy manufacturing summit

Etsy holds a summit on manufacturing in the marketplace

Many of us, who hand-make our art, whether we’re willing to vocalize it or not, envision these massive, overseas sweatshop-style businesses, that have zero interest in quality, running ginormous machines day and night, spitting out replica after replica of meaningless, rip-off junk, paying dozens of workers pennies to put sloppy finishing touches on before the onslaught of under-priced garbage floods our marketplace.    And then our work, that we slave over, that takes us forever to complete, that we actually care about, that we’re already under-pricing because if we priced it correctly it’d never sell, gets buried in that market, because these manufacturers are getting better and better at faking it.

But the reality is a bit different.  I’ve done the math, many of us have.  I know, to make a living at what I do, to sell my pieces at the prices I do, to make enough pieces to sell, to achieve any of the goals I have for my life, to buy a home, to travel, it is simply unrealistic to continue hand-making art, one-by-one, and selling at affordable prices.  There are some artists who are exceptions, I imagine, who transition seamlessly from doing crappy art-school paintings to selling individual pieces regularly for $500,000 apiece, with no selling-out in between.  I know a guy.  But they’re exceptions.  And they also bypass the mass-marketplace and go straight to high-end; their work is reserved for the rarefied few who can afford “aaahhht.”
Any artist who starts to achieve some success at their chosen medium has to figure out how to do what Etsy calls “scaling up.”  I will define it as, “making/selling your stuff in a way that allows you to make enough money to live, but not to go insane/die of exhaustion, but also, achieve your goals.”  And it looks different for every artist.
I recently heard an interview with Jonathan Adler, of ceramic vase fame, on NPR, and he was talking about how he made it as an artist.  It was a good story, of landing his pots in Barney’s early in his career and taking off from there.

Jonathan Adler on Martha Stewart

Jonathan Adler making a pot on Martha Stewart

I literally watched Jonathan Adler “become.”  I used to watch him on Martha Stewart’s show, showing off his vases, how he made them, etc.  And now he’s an industry, with stores everywhere, and his name is synonymous with “style.”
But his interview was bullshit.  Because Jonathan Adler probably hasn’t made a freakin’ vase in years.  He probably hasn’t touched a single object in any of his stores in years, he probably doesn’t even know what they sell.  He has a “design brand,” now.  He’s not a famous artist, though he sold himself as one, in this interview.  He’s rich, he’s famous, he has indeed succeeded, but is he a successful artist, if he doesn’t actually MAKE any art any more?  If his success hasn’t come from his art, but from his merchandising, his branding, his expansion into other arenas?
And that difference struck me like a brick.  Because I went into an online artists’ group recently, during a period where I was working through a ton of online orders I’d received on the same day, many of them for the same item, and so I was making almost the same item over and over, my hands were cramping and I was sick of seeing this piece I once loved the design-of.  I wanted to smash it and refuse to make it again.  I was just weary of making things for other people, that felt like they had nothing of me in them any more.  I was satisfying my customers, but not myself.

miniature pig by Hieropice

Me sculpting a miniature pig for a pendant

And I asked if these other artists in this group ever felt like they were one-person-sweatshops, and just didn’t want to do it any more sometimes.  And several of them totally could relate, but several said, “oh come on, that’s a great problem to have!”
I literally made ‘sad-face’ upon reading that.
A great problem to have?!  I knew what they must be thinking, that to have people wanting the things you’ve created, to be willing to spend money on them, and to have steady business is indeed a good thing for an artist.  It’s often the goal when you’re in art school, to “make a living as an artist.”  Huzzah!  Success!
But I also realized, a person who could see this as a “good problem” is not an artist.
I hadn’t realized until that moment, that perhaps not all of us who are making things and selling them are, in fact, artists.  Or would even call ourselves such.  Our motivations may not be the same.  Some are creating because they enjoy the act of it, and are selling as a bonus.  It’s a pass-time, or a hobby.
Some are creating because they’re simply able to, they may not always enjoy it, but it brings in income.  They could stop tomorrow and move on to something else they find more interesting.
Some are creating specifically to make revenue, and will, whenever possible, remove themselves from the creative process.  Making is a means to an end, and they are looking for the best possible way to monetize it.
I’m creating because I feel I’m an artist, it’s my identity, not my hobby or my job.  The urge was there before I sold a thing, before Etsy or craft shows.  I don’t really have a choice whether to create; in fact, I tried majoring in Psycho-Pharmacology in college, but ended up spending all of my time doing artwork instead of reading my textbooks.  Because creating is my passion and the thing that drives me.  I don’t really care whether I sell things, I very much care about the integrity of what I create, its originality and quality, and I also very much care about whether I enjoy doing it.  So when it feels rote, repetitive, and divorced of my creativity any more, I don’t want to do it.
So if I’m honest, I’m fearful of reaching that Jonathan Adler moment.  When I realize I’m not going to achieve the success I want if I insist on my own hands touching each piece of artwork that is sold with my name on it.  It’s very well-accepted in the fashion industry; you know Versace didn’t sew a stitch on that dress you bought, but it still commands the price.  But I still despise the idea of not creating my work with my hands, and I don’t see the manufacturing process as a part of Hieropice‘s future.

maasai beaded coasters

Maasai beaded coasters, that I photographed in Tanzania.

When I began, I envisioned working with Maasai women in Tanzania in creating the Maasai-beaded line, and I hope to still see that come to fruition, one day.  I wanted to improve upon the technique, build up the visibility of my Maasai-inspired pieces here in the West, and head back to TZ to train a small cooperative to create the pieces with me, using fine materials and my designs.  No machines, just women, hand-beading with a (modified) technique that originated in their own community, bringing revenue back into that same community.  That’s about as far away from my own hands as I’m ever willing to go, I think.  Not far.

*Disclaimer – I actually love Jonathan Adler’s stuff, no hating here!  Props to you, Jonathan Adler.