Art, life, design, and stuff…

You may have noticed that things have gotten a little quiet around here lately, or that my tone over on Twitter has been a bit glum. I gotta admit that I have been a bit down lately. I did one post about the economics of being a fabric designer a little while back, but that really only scratches the surface of what is going around in my head right now…

This fabric thing that started eighteen months ago has rapidly skipped from whim, to reality, to business. Obviously I am excited about the opportunity, but it certainly changes a lot of things. You see, I never wanted to be a full-time working artist. Ever. The only thing I wanted to be was a professor. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the primary one was that what I made (whether it be writing or art) did not have to sell. It had to be good; it had to stand up to rigorous scrutiny, but it held no direct relationship with economics. Of course it was vital to maintaining my standing in academia and retaining my job, but my livelihood was not tied directly to the profitability of the scholarly work itself. And that is a big difference.

Up until recently I my fabric work was focused on the same set of questions as my academic work, colors were developed as indicator of subtle conceptual cues, buried narratives, and oblique reference sets. I was judging the decisions relative to a complex, multilayered framework meant to evoke specific sensations and histories. But now that I get sales reports, periodic reminders linking my work directly and immediately to the family’s financial security there is a whole new criterion: the Market.

Please, don’t get me wrong, I think I have a whole lot to learn about fabric design; the list of problems with my first three collections could fill a book. I am getting better at this and will continue to do so with each collection, and the Market actually provides useful critical information, let’s me see what people are responding to and what they aren’t, and that is important to me, and doesn’t bother me at all…

In fact, the biggest lesson I have learned through this is that fabric as I design it is only an intermediary. It is not the finished product by any means; it provides the starting point for what it will become. Learning that has changed the way I look at color, at the density of my prints, at how I connect prints together (or sometimes don’t). In many ways the Market is like crowd-sourcing feedback (another thing I love doing). While I do listen to all the individual voices, what I am really after is a sensibility, an overarching impression. I don’t design for that majority, or plurality, voice that appears, and I often go opposite direction (I really and truly trust the instincts I have developed over nearly 25 years of art education and practice). But…

This direct relationship of my work to the Market changes things. I worry about things selling. I can’t see myself ever making stuff just because it will sell, but every decision gets caught up into that whole matrix of sales, income, medical bills, Bee’s future, ballet classes, etc. etc…

It weighs on me, makes me doubt myself in ways I never previously have, sets me squarely in the center of a circle I cannot control. Back in academia I could solve any problem with a piece because the criteria stemmed from the internal logic of the project and the coherence of its resolution. I cannot control the Market; I can intuit it and make work fits within it even as it satisfies my investigations, but in the end I am subject to its vicissitudes, unknown circumstances, and a million things beyond my reach.

Yes, this is the nature of life. The world is complex. Things are hard. I am not blind to reality, but this specific difference is difficult for me. Not because I have any particular faith in being an artist (you don’t want to start me on my rant about art), but because I am an academic. All this doubt is not about whether people will like my work (though that is an implied step in the process). It is the recognition that I have to worry about sales, that for a plethora of reasons I need this to work, to become a living, that failure has real and serious implications. I have avoided having my creative/scholarly work tied directly to these considerations for the past twenty years because I know my brain, but here I am…

And I’m struggling with it.


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10 Responses to Art, life, design, and stuff…

  1. 1
    Jan says:

    I hear you, Thomas! Amplified tenfold from a different perspective. I think you can imagine what it’s like being on this side just as easily as I can imagine the struggles & frustrations on your side. One of my go-to songs when I’m feeling nutso over my position is Lose Yourself by Eminem. Never thought I would listen to a song like that, but it taps into a part of me that makes me feel all ‘Eye of the Tiger’ kinda. Fave line: “Success is my only mothaf****n option. Failure’s not.”

    Thinking about you as I know these roles we find ourselves in can be quite suffocating – in addition to making one feel maniacal at times. Hold on tight, T!

  2. 2
    Jamie Cooley says:

    That was hard to read…I am amazed by the work fabric designers do for what seems like little return. I do like buying fabric collections if not for the higher quality fabric and print, but for supporting designers. Best of luck at Market!!! You have made it to the top!

  3. 3
    Rebecca says:

    The balance of being true-to-yourself but not turning into a struggling artist. I really admire the work that goes into fabric design, and wish you the best with your career!

  4. 4

    The sincerity of your posts continually astounds me. I think this sentence: “It weighs on me, makes me doubt myself in ways I never previously have, sets me squarely in the center of a circle I cannot control.” is the crux of most artist’s worst days, darkest thoughts. In the end, all we can do is create because if we don’t a part of us will die. Stay true to your instincts, don’t try to imitate anyone else (even if they are more “marketable”, yadda, yadda.
    You’ve got this. Truly.
    PS One of the best things my parents did for me was let me work my way through college. Just saying.

  5. 5

    I”m not sure what to say…just stay true to yourself. When you started out in fabric design you boarded a really fast train and it hasn’t stopped yet. That would make anyone feel anxious and unsettled at some point. (I know that would happen to me) At least the whole experience made clear what you don’t enjoy doing…Maybe it’s time to switch trains? 😉

  6. 6
    betz White says:

    After the pure creative life that is design school, I spent the 1st 20 yrs of my career designing for the kids apparel industry. It was all about pleasing the customer, the boss, marketing, always having my work judged by how it sold. It wasn’t until I started MY own thing…making things to sell, blogging, teaching and designing patterns that I was truly able to be creative again for me. Being true to yourself resonates with your people. Thomas, you will find you and your people will find you. It’s not without bumps (and craters that feel like bottomless pits), you can be sure. We all learn along the way, what works for us and what works for the people we find ourselves working for, whether it’s companies we partner with or consumers that buy our stuff. Having multiple streams of income helps too…some will trickle, some will flow and hopefully everything will come together to create meaningful productive and yes, profitable work! You KNOW I feel your pain. WE can do this…we can!

  7. 7
    Peggy in KY says:

    I fully understand you thoughts and feelings. The design world be it patterns, fabric, clothing etc is so dependant on the economy, whim of others and how the companies you are working for sell your ideas.

    I thought last fall when I acquired a full time job it would take us over the hump and security would be back in our life. I worked for a little over 2 months and was laid off. It was then a scramble to make sure we had enough money to make ends meet.

    Even academia today has it’s short comings. Being in art even at the college level it is subject to cut backs etc. I have noticed that the Art Institutes are advertising classes, open houses etc. so it makes me think the art world is a bit shakey now. Public schools are not teaching the arts the way they have in the past. I think it is sad, because so many of our great works in this world were created by artist or inspired by artist.

    Hang in there Thomas. Yes market is important, self promotion is important. Your work stands out and is beautiful. It is healthy and good for you to express your feelings and fears. If it helps many are feeling the same way you are about how they are making a living. It is not us, it is the economy.


  8. 8
    A says:

    Do you think the market is related to your blog? Like “Oh I read his blog – let me buy his fabric?”
    If that is part of the equation – do you think that blog comments deserve a reply? Or do you that by not replying you might be getting the “He didn’t reply to my comment so I am not going to buy his fabric.”
    I only ask because you appear to generate a manageable number of comments.

    • 8.1
      McLisa Sipes says:

      Replying to comments is a blog nicety that is sometimes over rated. Sometimes there is just no way to respond other than to say thank you for commenting or otherwise acknowledging the comment which seems silly to me.
      I know that I rarely have time to even write blogs, much less to reply to all of the comments. I try but sometimes it can take me a week or even two to get back to the comments. By then, most have forgotten what the blog was even about. And half the time so have I.
      I look at it this way: sometimes the topics that are blogged about aren’t necessarily to generate opinions or feedback. They’re a way of expressing something that you really have no other outlet to express. It’s like telling your friend about your relationship problems. You don’t necessarily want advice, you just want someone to listen that will perhaps understand.
      I value every one of my readers and even more the ones that take the time to comment and let me know that someone is actually reading my drivel and I’m not just doing it for nothing. However it remains that sometimes there just isn’t a whole lot to say in reply.
      I would also like to think that we are are mature and adult enough to not base our purchases on blog comment replies because again, that is just silly.
      As far as the actual *point* of this blog, all I have to say is keep doing your thing Thomas. You have a number of people cheering you on in this venture and wish you nothing but success. Some things are beyond our control but as others have said, being true to yourself if most important. Compromise is important in this business (any business) as long as one of the things you don’t compromise is your integrity.
      Giant hugs to you Mr. Awesomepants.

  9. 9

    Follow your heart and you will settle into your niche. Of course you will have to adjust to feedback – but hopefully just in the smaller things such as scale or number of sku’s etc. and not the larger things like your vision! The longer you are in this business, the less any individual design or sku or item will matter – it will all become part of a larger picture. Also, the longer you do this, the more confident you will become that your voice is one that should be heard. Art vs commercial can sometimes be the same thing, sometimes not – either way you’ll find a way to do both.

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