The art of reconciling creativity and business

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Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist specializing in lead generation and content marketing.

OPINION: Earlier there was a choice. Be creative and poor or choose something else. (Except, of course, for the chosen few who miraculously managed to make money). I’m incredibly grateful that we now live in a world where making a living as an artist or creative and still supporting yourself is now a totally viable idea.

I think you still need to really believe in the importance of giving space to your creative and artistic life if you want to have a successful career, but that’s not enough. While in some ways making a name for yourself and working in front of your perfect audience has never been easier, in other ways there’s so much marketing and brand building to do, plus all that boring business stuff

Earlier this year I worked with artist Greg Straight and his wife Hannah on his marketing strategy. It’s always nice working with a small business owner who works in a company that focuses on their creative talents. One of the things I really enjoyed about working with Straight was watching how he managed to build a company that combines his passion for fine arts with his work in the commercial space and the accessible (i.e. lower cost) art space for prints connects. I was thrilled when he agreed to be on the MAP IT Marketing Podcast

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Even if you don’t know his name, his art probably is. In addition to the fine art prints he sells online and from his studio in Birkenhead, Auckland, Straight is an in-demand commercial artist who has created artwork for a variety of well-known brands and international companies. You may have seen his work on tote bags, reusable coffee mugs, beverage labels, billboards and magazine covers. I was delighted to have my two favorite coffee mugs in our kitchen sporting his designs. (They have always been my favourites).

Straight began his career as a graphic designer, which provided him with an income but was not a career he particularly enjoyed. “I always thought I wouldn’t go into graphic design. I wanted to be a painter but became a graphic designer because I needed a job. And then it turned into an odd 20 years of graphic design. Only in the last eight years have I been able to focus more on creating graphics and commercial illustrations.”

Straight’s step into self-employment and work on his art began with some works created at moments when his daughter was young. “I decided to create an artwork and started drawing while she was sleeping. I was trying to do something more creative for myself, like a personal project. I’ve made some fine art prints, sold some to friends and worked on framing them. And then a few galleries got interested in it, and it grew from there, kind of organically.”

Part of his success is balancing his need to explore his artistic curiosity and work pragmatically on projects that pay the bills. In the beginning, this often meant taking on whatever paid off, but as he built a solid reputation and an enviable catalog of work in campaigns, installations and corporate design, Straight was able to work on larger projects that particularly suited his style.

With all of the artists I’ve either worked with or interviewed over the years, a pragmatic view of their work has been key to growth. Sometimes it means they have a heavy focus on low-cost prints, or others spend much of their week working on commercial projects. If you’re an artist, focusing on commercial work can sometimes feel like stepping away from your own art, a sentiment Straight can identify with. He explains: “I used to think of the word commercial, commercial art or commercial music, like things on the radio that you hear that you really don’t like. I like alternative music and punk rock. I didn’t want to be tasked and just wanted to do what everyone else was doing. But people say my work is commercial. And I find that positive now because I have a product that I can sell. I don’t want to be an artist who has canvas after canvas in his garage that nobody sees or really enjoys.”

Part of this change was Straight trying to find a balance between his art and the support of his family. “If you want to make a living and support your family, you have to commercialize what you do. This can be different products or cooperation with different people. If you want to make it and sell it, you have to think about whether it will make money. And being a commercial artist has turned out to be a good thing because I either do that or I’m trying to get a job with something else, but I’m not good at anything else.”

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“I’m incredibly grateful that we now live in a world where it’s a perfectly viable idea to have a life as an artist or creative and still support yourself,” says marketing strategist Rachel Klaver.

Straight has just collaborated with Blunt to create an umbrella, a collaboration he particularly enjoyed.

“It was one of my favorite projects to work on because the team allowed me to create something myself and only wanted small modifications to the completed work. It’s fun to take on projects that allow me to work with my own style instead of having to follow a strict briefing, I’m more established now,” he explained.

In addition to commercial work, Straight sells prints which has enabled him to create a source of income not as dependent on commissioned work. “If you have a product that you are proud of and enjoy making then sell it, you can sell some artwork while you sleep. I’ve been able to send my work abroad and some people come back for more. Having both income streams has been really good for us and for the business.”

It was a great pleasure for Straight to share his take on kiwi summers, beaches, birds and life. “When we were kids, we had a campervan that we opened up and we took it everywhere to Shipwreck Bay near Ahipara or down to New Plymouth. My art draws from my childhood memories of New Zealand. All these simple things are part of a simpler life. I try to capture that in my work.”

Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist specializing in lead generation and content marketing. She owns Identify Marketing, which works with companies to develop the strategy they need to better tell their story to the right people. Tune in to her weekly podcast, MAP IT Marketing – created to help small business owners learn more about marketing.

Identify Marketing is Stuff’s content partner for specialized small business information. Find Rachel’s events here.

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