Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thougths about Beading, Money and Self-esteem

Today was the second day of a little holiday market here on San Juan Island. My neighbor hosts this two-day event in her studio in December every year and for the past 5 years I've joined her to sell my beaded jewelry... earrings, fibula pins, bracelets, necklaces, key chains and zipper pulls. Here's one of my recent fibula pins.

fibula pin by Robin Atkins
Business wasn't good this year. Not many people came and only a few bought. I know... it's probably the economy...

Despite understanding the situation, I still feel a little rejected and hurt, stood-up by my friends and the community. It's gotten me to thinking about the past and what I'm doing... also about a selling-our-art conversation I had with my brother, Thom Atkins, a couple of days ago. Rather than mope around this evening, it occurs to me that I could blog about it... so here you go... some thoughts about beading, money and self-esteem....

Over 20 years ago, I quit my day job and began beading and bead-related pursuits to make a living. I named my mini-micro-business Beads Indeed in the spring of 1988. Like many people into beads, I began with stringing... making multiple-strand and knotted, single-strand necklaces. Here's an example showing the center part of a multiple-strand necklace.

beaded necklace by Robin Atkins, detail
Earlier, in the mid-70's, I pounded, sawed and soldered sterling silver and gold sheet and wire to make rings and other precious metal jewelry. Below are a couple of scanned photos of my work during that time. My best friend, Liz, and I had a shop together. We sold our work at home shows and a few craft shows. Although we did pretty well, I hated and dreaded the selling part of it.

Silver ring with cabochon by Robin Atkins
Gold necklace with picture jasper by Robin Atkins
Thick-skinned, like an actor always auditioning for the next part... that's what one has to be to sell and promote one's art. It didn't come naturally to me. I could organize selling events and felt OK about promoting the events. But, when it came to tooting the horn about my own jewelry, I became tongue-tied and stupid-seeming.

So, when I started my bead business, I looked around for other ways to make money... I taught workshops, sold beads, gave slide lectures and eventually began writing books. All the while, my creative needs were largely met by making beady things as examples for my workshops and books, gifts and just for fun. Other than accepting a few commissions, I didn't try to sell my beadwork, which was just great for my personality.

Then, after I moved to San Juan Island, someone asked me to be a guest artist in the Annual Artist Studio Tour, to share her studio and sell my beaded jewelry. I had been cutting back on teaching and felt the need of a bit more income, so I agreed. For a month I produced beaded jewelry like a mad woman to accumulate a sufficient inventory for the event.

It went reasonably well. Yes, I was still tongue-tied, but people bought my work anyway, bless them. After calculating the proceeds, my self-esteem level was pretty high and I readily agreed to do it again the next year... and the next... and the next. Plus a friend in Seattle hosted a show, which I also enjoyed doing.

However, the only way I can see to fully support myself by making jewelry is to sell through galleries and shops. And that, for the most part, only works if one gets into mass production, giving up the luxury and fun of one-of-a-kind pieces. Not for me... the designing part is the most fun... take that away and it would get boring pretty fast.

So I continue to teach and write books, keeping my jewelry production minimal and one-of-a-kind. My studio tour hostess moved off-island, which ended that opportunity. So now I only do this weekend's Christmas-season show and next weekend a studio show in Seattle.

Which brings us to the present again...

One day during the past two weeks, while I was happily creating more beaded jewelry for these two events, I happened to get a phone call from my brother, Thom. He's a beader too... and a quilter... and, in my eyes, quite an accomplished artist. He had just completed a 3-in-a-row-weekends Artist Studio Tour in Santa Cruz, CA where he lives. So we were talking about the good, bad and ugly of selling our work.

He was explaining to me how he needs to sell his work, that it gives him a sense of completion. Anything he makes that is not sold is incomplete. When people buy only the least expensive things and want to bargain with him for a lower price, he feels they don't appreciate his art. His sense of self-esteem is tied up with selling his work and its value is tied to people buying it at a fair price.

While I understand his feelings and have felt this way at times in the past, on that particular day I tried to convince Thom that the journey is the destination... that the payoff for making beaded jewelery is the pleasure of creating it. It doesn't matter, I said, if we sell it or not, if we keep it in boxes or give it away, if everyone buys it or if nobody buys it... none of it matters at all... because we've already received the big payoff!

I felt very noble talking like that. Yes, I thought, it is conceivable that nobody will come to our week-end show and that I will not sell any of these new pieces I am creating. But it doesn't matter... I am having a blast making them and therefore earning the payoff right now!!!! Did you notice my halo?

Well, tonight I am here to confess... the above is a hard position to maintain in the face of very few sales... Somewhere, on the intellectual side of my brain, I still think it's true. But the emotional side wonders why some of my friends didn't come, and why some who did didn't buy anything. The emotional side wants to climb under the covers and never make jewelry again...

I don't know how it will go next Saturday for the studio show in Seattle... I'm a bit scared of another let down... Yet I made a commitment... I will show up and try to remember the golden rule of beadwork... the journey is the destination.

What do you think? Is the real payoff the creative process? How do you deal emotionally with a disappointing sales experience or being rejected by a gallery or for a show? Maybe a few of you could post about this... If/when you do, will you leave a comment here with a link to your post?

* * * * * * * * *

PS. If you're in the Seattle area and would like to come to a fun studio show, with several well-known artists, it's next Saturday, December 13th from 3 to 8 pm in the Lake City Way area. Email me for the exact location.


  1. I read your latest with interest and a little guilt. Not because I didn't show up, I live in Mass but I follow your blog. If you read/watched the news lately you know a lot of people are getting laid off, 1/2 a million on Friday alone! We have 3 US car manufacturer's that may or may not fail. Huge companies are announcing lay-offs, cut-backs or closings almost daily. A president who seemingly is on vacation already, doing essentially nothing about the situation and a president-elect who is making plans but has no real power. All of this adds up to a very nervous, down hearted consumer base! That is just about everybody for everything. Your creations are beautiful, I am unfamiliar with your brother's work but I bet his work is beautiful too, but in this environment...nothing is selling. So please know that it is not you or your work...

  2. This is a great topic, one to which I can relate. Yes, its the economy now --- BUT I've also done shows during good economic times and not sold (or not sold enough to make me happy) and it can hurt. I definitely feel that the 'work' is my payoff. I wouldn't bead or make book art if selling was my prime goal -- I could never make enough to justify the time. Because we put so much of ourselves and our hearts into our work it seems like a rejection when people don't flock in to buy. Each item I make takes so long I really can't do production-line work. Selling is a big bonus -- but not my prime reason for working. Do you think because we tie selling into success that we get bogged down with the feelings of rejection and/or self doubt? When success should be a beautiful end product. Self-doubt is the very worst thing you can do to yourself and your art. When this has happened to me in the past I have dealt with the 'rejection' by pushing myself even further, doing better work and harder work - don't know why it affects me that way but it ends up as a good thing for me. Best of luck with your upcoming show - and perhaps thinking of it as a game of 'luck' might help to take away the rejection feeling.

  3. Robin-Thanks for the honest examination and sharing of your experience on this touchy subject. I am a "process" artist. Everything for me comes down to the experiences and insights and joys and sadnesses that pass through me during my creative process. I, personally, don't feel that my work would be authentic if I created it with the intention of "sales." This doesn't mean that I don't wish that I could do make some type of dolls or paintings for that desire dissolves quickly when I return to my true work. I will write a blog about this topic. It is so important. I think that we need to share with each other and examine the ups and downs of it all on a regular basis.

  4. Wow. What a post. When I made the transition from beading for me to beading for others about 2 years ago, I never expected anyone to buy my pieces. My first sale came quickly and surprisingly I was sad. It was a great piece and the thought of never seeing it again and wondering if the buyer would get tired of it and it would end up at a yard sale or worse, just upset me. On the other hand I was thrilled to think someone would pay for my work. But for the measly sum I received in comparison to the time and effort spent on creating it, not to mention the emotional attachment, I really wondered if selling was for me.

    I decided to apply to two local juried shows. I was accepted into both, which was ego-boosting and terrifying at the same time. To prepare for the first show in early June, I literally beaded at every opportunity. I was obsessed with getting as much product together as possible and having many different items available from passport holders, wallets, picture frames etc. I gave up my life for the projects. And then my focus shifted to marketing the fact I was going to be at the show and creating my display. I was a wreck, my garden, family, friends all neglected because I was preparing for the show. Good God Woman! Get a grip. But I couldn't. I was so focused on 'making it big' at this show. Well, the day of the show came and I did all right thanks to my family, friends and a few kind strangers who bought my pieces. My display was beautiful and I was proud to sit behind my table surrounded by my beaded treasures.

    Afterward I reflected on the sacrifices I had made to prepare for the show and was literally sick about it. I realized my joy and excitement of beading was gone and I was overwhelmed with guilt in 'losing' 6 months of time all for a few hundred dollars. Plus I had committed myself to another show in October. I had already lost the entire Spring to beading and I didn't want to lose my Summer too (living in WNY, these seasons are precious!). I continued to make items for the Oct Show, but I wouldn't allow myself to let it consume my life. Thank God for that. As soon as I walked into the show and saw what the other artists were selling, I knew this was not the right venue for my work. And sure enough - didn't sell a thing.

    I continue to this day to have my work in the same gallery and my rent payments far exceed the income I make from sales, and yet I still feel the need to sell. Now I'm on Etsy too, but I am back to the beading for me mindset. I bead what and when I want and if it sells fine, if not I'm still happy because, like you said, the joy came from the process.

    I've had requests to teach classes too, and I did teach a basic edging class and enjoyed it, but I still haven't followed through with pursuing that further. My soul just wants to bead happy. And so I 'kept my day job' and bead for me.

  5. Robin, thank you for a straight forward post. Many of us look up to you and admire you so much, its forgotten that you might have the same self-doubt that many of us experieance about our own work. Though I have never relied on my "craft" work to be my sole income, I made my first sale at 13. Off and on my entire life (I am 57) I have realized some income from sales. However, in the 90's I found myself creating what customers would buy. The creative process became a chore.

    So here I am. Glad that I don't depend on by "craft sales" for income. I create for my satisfaction. Pieces are given as presents, and given to certain organizations to sell in fund raising events. I am lucky to be able to consider by work a part of my legacy.

  6. You have an international reputation as one of the finest bead artists and are well loved by hundreds of students who have benefited from your produce high quality books to spread your work and approach farther still...and now you create your blog as well, which reaches so couldn't begin to buy the high esteem in which you are held.
    We are so lucky to have you in our midst! for Thom, I have seen some of his beaded quilts and they are absolutely extraordinary. Still, labor intensive art quilts are not properly valued, monetarily. So he is in a bind....he had just better keep making them!

  7. What a thought provoking post! I love doing beadwork, but like you, I find it difficult to promote my work for sale. I participate in swaps with fellow artists and give much of my work away as gifts. I also enjoy making contibutions to raise money for worthy causes. I dislike "having" to make something. It ruins the enjoyment I receive from the process itself. Fortunately, I don't have to supplement my income that way. So, I bead for myself and teach others to enjoy beading. There is no bigger kick for me than to see a new student "get it" for the first time. I also thoroughly enjoy the cameraderie I find among beaders. Participating in projects like the BJP challenges me and encourages me to go in many new directions. It has also allowed me to get to know many beaders from all over the world. What more could you ask?

  8. Emotional subject.

    But is it just our ego's that are fed when someone buys something? Does it make us better than another if something sells? Just questions, I have no answers.

    For me, I can't let a day go by without beading, it is the thing that grounds me, and at the same time it connects me to the divine, to my creator.

    Good luck on Saturday!

  9. This must have been tough post to publish! I know how you feel. Some of my friends have told me they would come to a show before, and never showed up! But, it really doesn't bother me. People are busy!

    And, about selling, I just opened an Etsy shop 2 months ago. Lots of views, but no sales yet..That is more of an experiment for me, though... Right now, it most certainly IS the economy that is putting a damper on sales. Arts & entertainment are the first things that are cut from the budget! Hell, I don't even buy anything nowadays!

    Besides, I have found that it is painful for me to sell! Maybe because I am the only one who knows how much pain went into each piece! But, I decided to try selling, since people are asking me for prices now, and it would be nice to earn some money for travel and more beads... :)

    And, as far as entering juried shows, etc... I have entered my share of them. Half have been accepted and half have not. I really don't care if I don't get accepted. I know that it is not the same as being rejected...

    For me, the real payoff is the creative process, and finishing a piece is quite an accomplishment. Then, I can hang it on my wall! That really makes me happy!! :D

  10. Anonymous10:33 PM

    I enjoyed reading your blog posting, people are simply not taking out as much money as they used to in fear of more crisis and job cuts. Business is a tricky world sometimes you have your ups and downs but never give up as one thing I have learned over the years is that if you are have a passion for the line of work you are in , it really can never fail!
    I am sure this Saturday will go a lot better for you.

  11. Thanks, everyone for sharing your opinions on this topic... We seem to be in agreement that the current economic situation is a large part of not selling right now. We're also in agreement that an important (if not THE most important) payoff for art is the process of doing it. Your comments will help me keep that perspective if it doesn't go well next Saturday. I'll let you know ;>}

    Robin A.

  12. Don't ever give up your beading. WE would be the poorer for it, because you are an inspiration. The economy is definitely the problem. I'm lucky enough not to have to support myself, but when things don't sell, it is an ego blow, but how can I not create? Good luck next weekend.

  13. Many years ago I tried a craft fair. I spent a lot of time trying to make multiples of things (and I hate making multiples). It was mostly folk art painting items at that time for me. The economy wasn't good and I was in a small town in Minnesota where the farmers were not having such a great year. I didn't sell anything but got one commission to paint a tray. What topped off my unhappiness about the day was to see someone drawing my objects to make at home herself! I should have said something as she dared to draw my own idea (which I understood to be copyrighted) right in front of me and the object but I was too timid. It left a really bad feeling though as I definitely felt valueless and kind of invisible. I had pretty inexpensive items too - cheaper than the plastic stuff found at Hallmark!

    I sure hope you do better at the next show but it is not the lack of quality that keeps your items from selling. I now make things for gifts or myself but might consider something like an Etsy shop at some time.

    My daughter goes to her church's craft fair and finds several things to buy every year including this one but then, her income is a little better than many people. I don't know how the vendors felt at the end of the fair.

  14. Anonymous9:48 AM

    What a great post... thank you for sharing!

    A funny thing happens to me in regards to selling my work. I get ready for a show, in my mind thinking I'm going to sell every last piece and make x amount of money. Of course that never happens, but I often feel a little let down by the actual numbers. Even when they are good.

    I am excited about selling the pieces I do sell though, but then find I miss them when they are gone.

    I guess what I really want is people to rave about my work, pay me handsomely and then let me keep it as a reminder of all my hard work! ;-)

  15. Oh Cindy! Your comment makes me laugh out loud... and cry a bit too...

    I'm so like you... especially when I did my first shows with the sterling and gold jewelry back in the 70's. I'd do just what you said... add it all up and think about my potential profits as a near reality. Then I'd be disappointed in the meager results (even if they were good to great) and miss my pieces. What I really wanted was just what you said in your comment... my cake and to eat it too :>} Thanks so much! Robin

  16. I think if you aren't getting your payoff or your cookies or whatever from doing the work, why bother doing it. The selling is difficult for many to do and I think it is about putting oneself out there. I love doing the work, I love singing and practicing for a presentation and hate doing it. To me it is in the doing. The rest is gravy. But, I'm very lucky as I haven't had to make my living at it. I'm still amazed when someone tells me I've done something really well. I may think I've done it the best I can, but I know it has flaws, so I get to enjoy (if only I learn how!) when I hear something is good to someone else's eye. Still, I can see very easily when someone gives a genuine critique that spotlights my glaring mistakes. It makes perfect sense and I'll some day make it work. That never hurts me. It feels like, "Yep, that is what is the matter with it. Rats, wish I could have seen it done something about it instead of trying to make a deadline. . ." and I usually add an expletive that puts me in a bad light which isn't helpful. But, if the critique is right on and that doesn't hurt me.

    Perhaps you are mistaking a sense of disappointment with hurt. A feeling of being let down by those you've trusted. Having been on both sides of having plenty and not having enough money, I know if I don't have the money to spend, I wouldn't show up because it would hurt us both and if I stay away, I don't have to be hurt or see yours. Heavens yes, I'm that cowardly. But, you don't have to see mine either.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

  17. Robin...I posted my reply to this wonderful subject on my blog...

  18. The problem, as I see it, is that the crafting process really is an end unto itself, but the sale is validation that we are doing something of significance.

    People are hurting financially right now. I would choose to think of the lack-of-attendance at your last show as perhaps a different kind of validation. When your friends and clients come and see your work, they want to buy it. If they can't afford it, they will feel bad. It's easier to just not be exposed to something that you want but can't afford than to see it and left wanting.

    Please don't stop doing what you're doing. I personally can say that your class had a profound impact on my whole life. If I lived anywhere within driving distance of you, I definitely would have shown up. And probably would have purchased too, even though I cannot afford to do so right now.

  19. Well, I have never sold any of my stuff, but I have worked in sales in a different business for a few years. So I can relate to your disappointment.

    I think maybe this feeling of disappointment could be put to use to fuel your creativity in making new, different jewels. As the economy is low, in my opinion, people who buy would do it either because they fall madly in love with something really special or they would buy something really cheap.

    With love.

  20. Well, this is my first attempt at blogging, so be patient! I stumbled on Robin's site and saw her blog. Really hit home. I am a gourd artist (use beads in my gourds-am NOT what anyone would call a beader). Our shows have been going exactly like what you have been talking about. I live in Ohio in the middle of auto country, so you know the economy is not good. Several of our shows went decent, the last one, over the weekend was horrible. It was a Sat show and the day before someone had laid off 2000 workers in the town where the show was.

    I have been reading with interest how you "feel" about your craft. I love to spend the time and do the detail (of course I never can get my money for my time), the other two friends think I am being silly, don't put the time in it, it won't get you any more money for it. (I am in a position where I can use the money) I can't get it in their heads, I am putting the details in for me. It is helping me to grow as an artist (at least I hope so).

    I had to put my two cents in here. Robin, I had tried to e-mail you about this because I hadn't blogged-see I am learning something new.

    Good luck at the coming show.

  21. Hi Robin! I wrote a post in reponse to your post today!

  22. to Linda D ~ Thanks for taking the time to set up your blogger profile and make your first-ever comment on a blog! I'm flattered that your new beginning is on my blog ;>} Now, we'll look forward to seeing you develop your own blog!!! I'd love to see how you use beads on your gourds. Beady blessings, Robin A.

  23. Robin - My response was far too long to post here, so it's over on my blog - but I wanted to thank you for this thought-provoking post. During this time of a southbound economy, it's important to remember why we do what we do.

  24. I feel your pain Robin. I have been beading since 2001 (started with the little seed bead flag pins after 9-11) I do mostly peyote stitched items. Not one single person in my family has ever wanted anything made by me! I have listed many things on ebay and sold quite a few too. This year I have seen quite a downturn in not only interest but sales for the first time. I have had insulting offers on peyote pins like I show on my blog I have had people offer me as little as $8 for a piece that takes 4 hours just to bead, not to mention the hours of making the patterns, picking colors, research etc. I feel part of it is they have no idea what it takes to create beaded items, nor the whole creative process involved. I dont know what I will do, whether I will continue to sell on ebay or not. I think this economy is killing what little money people have left for purchasing non neccessary items, which include our creations. Its too bad.

  25. Your post really caught my eye. I have never created for the purpose of selling. In fact, I am more likely to give an admirer the piece than to set a price. For me, it really is the journey. However, not too long ago I really struggled with the emotional issue. I was caught in the hole of wondering if anyone really cared what I make. Feeling it doesn't matter whether I do a good job - or no job! That was a VERY bad time. It took a number of counseling sessions (and a little bit of drugs!) for me to realize that it matters to ME. I am happiest when I am creating. If I win a challenge or sell a piece, that is wonderful and I love the 'validation' it affords. But I will continue to create because it is what makes me whole.

    As for the economy . . . it is being felt all over and no one is very happy about it. But I've lived long enough to recognize that these times come and go. We don't seem to remember how bad it was once it gets good again. That makes me sound like someone Granny, doesn't it?

  26. Robin, thank you so much for your post. I've blogged a bit on the subject. It isn't a great deal different than what I've been reading here, but actually getting it into words did make me feel better. Mostly knowing I'm not alone in this situation is a BIG help.
    Thanks again -- you really helped!

  27. Anonymous5:04 PM

    Robin, your sharing is always spot-on and timely. I have a full-time day job which I've kept because it pays my bills and health insurance and other essentials. If I thought I could make a living selling my art, I'd probably try. I've run into too many people who "adore" my work, but simply aren't willing to pay even minimal wages for 20-50 hours of work on a piece, much less the cost of the beads.They want to buy it, but not at a price I can afford to work for. The times I have sold pieces, I've been happy and honored that someone liked them enough to buy them, or order something custom-made. The other times, I'm really creating for myself, and when I don't, I'm blue.

  28. Anonymous12:11 AM

    I was reading pretty much my own thoughts on this blog posting of yours!Well written!
    It all reminded me that WE are not alone with our thought about beading, selling and self-esteem.
    Thank you for sharing.
    <3 <3 <3 <3

  29. Robin...I hope you aren't tired to death of reading replies. This was, if you'll excuse the pun, "on the money."
    I find that people admire my jewelry - I've been stopped on the street, literally, by strangers asking where I got that bracelet, necklace etc.
    But the few who are willing to pay a more than fair price for the hours of work and the expense of materials I could count on one hand.
    One theory would be that "women's work" (even when done brilliantly by a man)has always been undervalued and filed under "hobby."
    Another theory - and pretty valid - as put forward by others here is that most of us are facing hard times to small and large degrees.
    And last, there is a flood of cheaply made but very pretty jewelry flowing in from countries where a living wage is the change in your pocket.
    Like many of us, I've sold some - and taught and sold patterns etc.
    When I get discouraged - and my studio is chock-full of pieces that haven't sold, I chuck the idea of selling (for the time)and remember exactly what you say - the joy is in the process.
    The very minute I stop caring about sales, my creativity spikes up and I start feeling happy and excited about my work. The work gets so much better.
    Lately, I've been thinking of raffling off some of this huge stock of painstakingly made work
    to raise money for the food bank.
    I'd love, love, love to work in craft full-time - but I can't see it coming.
    Meanwhile, I feel blessed to be able to lose myself for hours, days, in the execution of a new design - in colors and patterns and seeing what glows in my imagination come to life in my hands.
    It sucks that there seems to be so little hope for a decent living...
    and it was kind of you to talk about the problems involved. To a lot of us, you are the success story - one of the people who have reached master level and can do this full time. While it's shocking to know that even you go through this, at least it lets us know we aren't alone with the struggle of art vs sales.
    Thank you.

  30. Robin:

    Thank you for a wonderful expression of what it means to be creative in a commercial society.

    Over the nearly twenty years I've been beading (stone, pearls, glass), I've experimented with various commerical ventures, but at the end of the day, for me, it's never worth creating an item on "spec," hoping it will sell. I'm much happier making a piece that I want, then using it as an example of something I would make as "custom."

    Maybe it's because I am fortunate that this is truly a mind-saving hobby, and I have a busy career that pays for my obsession, so I don't feel the need to sell my work. However, I will say, when I am commissioned for a project, it is extremely rewarding and gives me a nice emotional high. The problems start when I begin chasing that high, and the hobby becomes a chore.



  31. Anonymous6:42 AM

    I have tried (successfully and unsuccessfully) to explain this very same thing to many people in the past. You wrote my thoughts very clearly, thank you. I still get grief from my family when I "waste" my talents doing other things.

    But sometimes it is hard to put yourself out there, for me the journey is 90% of the fun. Seeing my imagination come to life in a piece of beaded jewelry, a painting or even a story is wonderful - but the remaining 10% the sometimes utter lack of response from the wider world can be crushing removing all the joy I felt in the creation process.

    I have been known to spend weeks or months lovingly creating true art only to hide it away, never even giving people the chance to reject it because I want to continue to love it...and I find myself hawking (and often having better luck selling) the cheap mass produced junk that I did while watching TV. It can be discouraging that something sells which I did not even have to give my full attention to while the piece which contains part of my soul sits and waits.

    Price is a big part of this conversation of course, without love or time attached I can let it go for very little, but I never understand why people buy those things.

    In the end I learned what I could and could not handle putting out there. And I learned that passive sales, like simply placing a picture on my blog, doesn't trigger the same feeling of rejection for me if no one is interested. So now I only actively try and sell what I don't love and consider the rest a hobby. One style is work and one style is fun - and never the two shall meet.

    BTW - I think you do wonderful work and will be moving into the Baltimore area in the next few might have acquired another workshop student if you are still going when I get there. Keep it up!


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!