We Chicks Aren’t Born With a Tool at the Ends of Our Noses; Sometimes We Need a Little Help Breaking Out of Our Shells: Interview with Dawn Blair
I met Dawn when she took one of my Craftcast.com online classes with Alison Lee! We admire each other’s work and style and have grown our friendship through Facebook! She has since visited a Milwaukee friend and flew here, offering us the opportunity for lunch at City Market and a little jaunt to Magpie in the Village of Wauwatosa—where she is now represented.
See how this all works? 😉 Put it out there and watch it develop!
(Note: This interview is quite lengthy, but chock-full of great Dawn Blair intelligencia!)
B: What is your name? Where do you live?
D: My name is Dawn Blair; I live in Topeka, Kansas.
B: What’s your medium? Are you a full-time artist?
D: I work full-time at our local library and practice my wire- (and now lapidary) work after hours. I’m also a concert cellist.
B: How did you start?
D: The way I got my first local break was to wear my work all the time. I put myself in places where I could be seen by people who I wanted to wear and sell my work: at gallery openings, and events such as the Topeka Art Walk. I would wear clothes that provided a black (and blank) canvas from which to show off work. I’m 6 feet tall—I really never had to approach anyone! People who were interested came to me.
Invitations to sell my work have come by my wearing my pieces and being proud of them. But, I had to be willing to say “this is for sale if you’re interested” or “this is made of …”, or “here’s my business card, I do some things on consignment.” How much you really love your work—and stand behind what you’ve made—shows by how you represent it to others. I truly love my designs (although my personal style is a lot more modern); what my hands like to make is different (where wire is concerned anyway).
I also cut my teeth on earring sales at the library gift shop. I would wholesale to them and each time I went in the shop manager would buy 150 pair!
But the work has to be good, and by good I mean high craftsmanship. I can’t have gouges in my wire or work that could snag clothing. Early on, I would test drive pieces by wearing them to make sure they worked as I expected them to.
B: Do you sell your work? What means do you use to sell?
D: Honestly, I can’t keep up with the demand for my commissioned pendants. Primarily, I sell by word of mouth and social media; I’m not sure how I would manage sales from an online presence like Etsy.
B: What advice do you have for designers who are just starting to sell?
D: Artists and designers need to ask themselves, “What sets your work apart from others’?” I didn’t start selling my work until people starting asking for it off my body. I knew I was ready then.
Until you can see your work with a critical eye, ask others for their feedback. The library gift shop manager I mentioned gave me great feedback. That made it easy on me at the beginning; I could take her advice a little less personally than comments direct from shoppers. She would tell me what was or wasn’t selling, and what would work for her customers.
Consider who you want your audience to be. When I do shows, there’s a huge difference in clientele between online, gallery, and gift shop buyers. You need to be in your public’s eye. If you’re targeting young mothers, find Facebook groups where those women gather. My average client is between 45 and 65 with a mid- to upper income. That’s who I market to and who I’m involved with online.
If you would like to sell at work—in hair salons and places like that—it’s is just a matter of asking for permission to do so. Women are very likely to spend if they can buy while at work. It’s crazy how much money I used to make selling $5 earrings to the women I work with. Ask and get permission. And trust. Be willing to leave your stuff and not hoover. I kept track of everything, but for work under $20, there would usually be one person in the group who would be willing to be in charge of the inventory and selling it.
If you want to sell at shows, then sell at shows. A lot of us are self-taught. I worked on getting to the point where I could exhibit at selling shows until I got into my first one. It was a huge disaster, but I did it! I had a tent without walls. It rained and poured; the river behind me started to roar; and the wind took all my earring cards. I had hung up bamboo shades, but continually dealt with them flipping around. There were only a few people dumb enough to stay-put, and I was one of them! We were all just freezing! I’m a researcher, but there were no how-to’s regarding booth display at the time. My entire display was ruined and the shades were beat to a pulp.
But chose the right type of show for your work! The other thing (a big thing) about shows is the show type. Certain work sells better at certain shows. I actually adjust the type of work I do for different shows. Do you want to enter a juried show? If you’re exhibiting at artsy shows, can do a “little bit of weird” and add-in your lower-priced items. When I do Art in the Park (a juried show) in spring, I can expect to sell a lot of higher end pieces. There are certain customers at that show, some that expect to see me from year-to-year. Even if I don’t sell at these shows, I get commissions.
When you know you have a show coming, set a production schedule. Work two to three months out. I work to accomplish a certain amount of things on my list by each deadline. That way I don’t burn-out or risk compromising quality.
Set up everything you can ahead of time. Being a night person, I get as much done and packed as possible the night before, and load my car. The next morning I have only to get myself ready and eat a little something. I even price everything at home and preload my earring spinners. I wrap them in Saran for the ride and when I’m done setting up, I cut off the plastic. I can set up a whole show in half an hour!
If you’re not confident selling your stuff, find someone who is. Find someone who loves your work. My mother is incredible! She’s the age of a lot of my wealthier customers and they relate to her—they love her! She has a voice that is not intimating, like mine. It also helps customers feel more comfortable if I’m not behind the table. Since I’m tall, I need to be on the side or in front of the table, and the difference overall is amazing! I have found that when I’m behind my booth, people walk away; I end up scaring people. You have to be acutely aware of how people are relating to you.
Keep your display clean and minimal. I prefer not to look hodgepodge-y. I have a box system. After doing a few art shows where you may park blocks from your exhibit space, you realize you’ve got to get the schlepping down to as few trips as possible, especially if you’re setting up alone. I have a nestling box system—it enables me to utilize a small amount of space for travel, but also stacks and offers levels (lifting your work to eye level is an excellent tip I learned from Bruce Baker, the craft person’s guru).
The more streamlined you keep your look, the better. Don’t use print fabric. My boxes, busts, and spinners are all one color: black. My table covering is chocolate brown. There’s nothing to look at on my table except for the jewelry; anything that catches the shopper’s eye takes the focus away from your jewelry. Your display should be a blank canvas while you are there to facilitate their buying.
Pay attention to the details. Dust off your pieces before taking pictures; use a lint roller to remove cat hair from your display throws; wear your jewelry over unwrinkled clothing. It’s not just about the actual things you’ve made, but all the trappings surrounding it—all the right conditions.
You want to make your pieces inviting to touch. Shoppers are more likely to buy when they interact with your things; and unless you’re selling gold, don’t create barriers between your work and the customer. Glass cases are no-no’s!
Make your merchandise accessible! I once was next to an artist with beautiful fine jewelry, but I out-sold her hand-over-fist. All her pieces were priced on the back. Too many people walk away if they have to ask for prices.
Stay away from entrance and exit placements if you can. Shoppers don’t want to spend when they just get there; and are done by the time they leave. It’s disappointing when you work that hard to ready everything and the only thing hampering your sales is your location.
Create streamlined pricing. All my earrings are same price. All my pendants are the same too. I have maybe four or five prices total. That strategy takes price out of the equation and people can make decisions on design alone. When customers ask how I can do this, I tell them the truth: I lose money on some things and make money on others, but the method allows for freer shopping. They get it and agree. Truthfully, it’s the same labor; the same amount of time to add three beads or five. I just went with an average price. The cost difference was nominal in comparison to the sales it created.
And offer different price points, but don’t mix them together. Never mix price-points and never mix item-types. Put your earrings on one end. In floral school, I learned that you make the strongest display when you group like items.
Never apologize for your work or your display! When you apologize for yourself, your display, or your work, you cast a questionable light on everything you’ve worked so hard to assemble. People are just sort of iffy, if you’re not confident about your work, they doubt whether they should buy.
B: I notice you post on Facebook quite frequently—how does social networking work for you?
D: I wouldn’t be where I am without my online presence. I post things and identify them for sale, then “friends” just contact me, pay via Paypal, and I ship it out. It’s so easy, I can’t even believe it.
I just joined Facebook 14 months ago. It’s incredible how effortless it is. All I have to do is put the pix up there and people find me.
But, Flicker was my foray into social media. It is photo sharing site. By using and perusing it, I learned to take good pictures because the more time I spent there looking at others’ work, I started to see what worked for them. I met my (now) friends, Ralph and Marianne. I asked them questions. We started bartering stones for wire settings they could display, and they showed my work at Quartzite and Tucson—all the places they did shows. Through them, I connected with my very best customer. He collected Victoria Stone and bought pieces I made with it. Now, I’ll bet he’s bought 25 pieces he’s given to a lady friend of his. It’s great to have a client like this who really, really loves what you do. And that’s how it all started.
That’s the bottom line: be everywhere you can be; take good photos; and put ‘em up. Use Crafthaus, Flicker, Facebook, and JewelryLessons.com. When I first started, I love being involved with that community—we learned from each other.
B: What are your favorite resources?
D: Bruce Baker CD’s are worth their weight in gold. They’re $45 for a set of three. Order them now. They are awesome. When I had an apprentice, I would ask her to listen to the one about selling before each show. It really helped her confidence level. His booth design and merchandising and slides and jury CD’s are really valuable. It made me pay attention to so much more when I photographed my work at different angles and different backgrounds. You want everything to be visually pleasing. They’re a must for anyone putting together their show booths.
Send everyone to www.Craftcast.com. Alison Lee’s podcasts will change their worlds. Once I started listening to these audio interviews—to jewelry, fiber, quilting artists, whomever—I realized that they (and we) are all makers. I could relate to every single thing. As makers, we do what we do because we love it; the artists interviewed aren’t all that different from me. I realize that they are just people—people that make things and love what they do.
Here’s a list of some other resources (I’m the researching type, remember?):