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Defining Success as an Artist

Heidi Shenk

Defining Success as an Artist

This past fall, I was presented with an incredible opportunity for my business. The opportunity, a nationally recognized trade show, could potentially mean expanding my business as a national brand, becoming something even bigger than my own website and what I represent on Etsy. It seemed like the natural progression for what I have been doing, for what paper people are supposed to do, for what was expected of me, for me to grow my business.

I spent several days having phone conversations with various people to think about preparing for such an opportunity. Andrew began working out the booth logistics with me, determined to design something fantastic, as any architect would want to. I started thinking about the implications in terms of how I produced my cards, and started looking at ways to outsource my printing, pouring over paper samples upon paper samples, and even ordering a large batch of my most popular cards from a printer.

I thought about how to better my wholesale process. How to make my products seem more professional. How to streamline my inventory and shipping processes. How to hire additional help I might need when the preparation of it was was too overwhelming. How I would continue to do all of this in a 130 square foot bedroom that I call my studio.

And then it hit me, mid-sentence while brainstorming, the night before I was to officially commit to this opportunity. "Why am I doing this?" Andrew looked up from his computer screen, from which he'd been diligently sketching a trade show booth model for me in some architectural software of his, eyebrow raised. I asked the question again, "You know? WHY am I doing this?"

Was I doing it because I was "supposed" to or because it was the right thing for my business, the right thing for me? Here I had spent the last four years desperately trying to build a base in Baltimore, connecting with local artists, building my identity as a maker, as a new printmaking artist, delving into ideas of how I wanted to connect locally with a possible storefront in my own neighborhood. And I was contemplating being something completely opposite-- a national brand.

When I finally made the decision not to move forward with this opportunity, I knew I had made the right one. I felt as though I had learned something about myself and how I identity as an artist as well. I grew up as the daughter of two artists in their own right. Art was always about community, about connecting with others. Sure, my art has turned into a business, but it is also my identity as a maker that I connect to most, not as a brand.

We are bombarded on a daily basis about becoming successful within your own passions, and that success always seems to somehow be connected to bigger and better happenings for small businesses. How to turn your art into a business. How we must stop thinking like artists and start thinking like entrepreneurs.

In the coming days, more signs that I made the right choice began streaming in. The cards that I had ordered from the printer were terrible. The print quality was something I just couldn't feel good about offering to my customers. I made huge headway in making some local connections in one short weekend, and those connections led to other goals I've had on my list for years. And as I discussed the scenario with a family member over the holidays, he posed a question that still sticks with me weeks later-- "I guess the big question is, how motivated are you by monetary gain?" My answer, without hesitation? "Not very."

Sometimes doing what you're "supposed" to do isn't the right thing. Sometimes it needs to be put on the back burner while you evaluate what is truly important to you. And sometimes that means passing up an opportunity for potential overnight success because their definition of success is not the same as yours.

How do you define your success? Have you ever gone against the grain because it felt like the right thing to do?


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