Saturday, December 19, 2009

In Stitches

I have always had a lot of hobbies. I blame it on my mother. I grew up with a mother who could paint, sew, knit, crochet, and take amazing photographs. She has always been an incredibly creative person, and when you grow up in that environment it's hard not to pick up a few things. I alternate between being easily distracted (ooh, shiny!) and then becoming intensely focused on a single thing. If I try to juggle too many interests at once I end up with dozens of half finished projects and an endless pursuit of new things to do.

That's why I tend to let certain things fall by the wayside for a while. One of those things was sewing. As a kid, I had access to plenty of fabric scraps, needles, and thread. I'd make clothes for my barbie dolls, stitch together little pocket sized dolls, sachets, and other random projects (such as a patchwork cat with a zipper in its back). I taught my best friend how to sew, and we'd sit together and make things. I think she still has the lap quilt we made when we were about ten years old.

As I got older, sewing became one of those hobbies that got lost in favor of all the other things I liked to do. I was never great at it, but good enough for my little projects, so it wasn't a major skill I was neglecting.

I recently decided to dust off my sewing needles and give it another go. Partially through necessity, since my fiance seems to rip holes in nearly every article of clothing he owns, but also just for the fun of it. I know I will never be great at it. I don't have the time to devote to learning how to do anything beyond simple things, and frankly I probably should not be allowed near sewing machines. A big needle that moves rapidly up and down in close proximity to my fingers is a bad idea all around. If you doubt me on this, ask me how many times I've been to the hospital for stitches, or how many times I came awfully close to needing them. The answer would be "many", in case you were wondering.

I'm not overly ambitious with it. I know my limitations and am quite happy cobbling together the odd project here and there for my own amusement. I bought a bunch of felt and have been stitching up little christmas ornaments. I'm hardly turning out things that would land me on Project Runway, but something about making cheery little snowmen and mice is very satisfying. It reminds me of being a kid again, and my mom teaching me how to make my first crooked, overly large stitches while she was working on some project or another. My fiance just might come home and find all of his clothes patched with snowmen shaped patches.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Cost of Art

Price is often a hotly debated subject in the art community. People often have their own ideas about how things should be priced. Some people price too low. Others price too high. Then there are those who constantly worry about how to price their work, always fearing that they're either too high or too low. They don't want to scare away customers with high prices, but don't want to undersell themselves, either.

Then there are the customers (or potential customers) themselves. There are people who are willing to pay the asking price because they feel that hand made goods are well worth it. Then there are those who think that hand made goods are no better than the mass produced things they can pick up at any store. Worse are those who think that hand made things are worth even less than that.

The thing is, it's hard to know how to price your work. Especially when you're just starting out. Selling your work can be an intimidating process, especially with so many conflicting opinions on how it should be priced.

My take on it is this. It takes a lot of work to make many hand made things. Hours of work in many cases. Also, very few artists spring forth with full knowledge and perfect technique. For jewelry specifically, there's a lot that has to be learned and practiced. Some people take classes, which are expensive. Others buy magazines, or books, like I did. Then you have the supplies. All of those lovely sparkling little beads cost money. The tools cost money. Good tools are expensive. A single pair of Lindstrom pliers can cost over $40. That's for one tool. One single tool in a craft that uses dozens.

Now, if you were paying me for the cost of my supplies alone, for those things I specifically turn into jewelry, you would not be paying me very much at all. A12"x6" sheet of solid copper costs around $13 from most places. I can get over a dozen pendants and dangles from one sheet of copper. Leather cord costs me $8 for several yards, from which I can produce about 10 necklaces. Then you get into the etching supplies. $9 for a bottle of etchant. $5 for a bottle of stop-out resist. I can etch several things from one bottle of etchant, and a bottle of resist can yield hundreds. Beads vary in price, but typically a necklace will use only two or three beads from a single 15" strand that usually has at least a dozen beads on it.

So why do I charge what I do for a single necklace that doesn't cost me that much to make? It's because you are not paying me just for my supplies. You are paying me $50+ for a necklace because of the time it took me to prepare everything. I hand cut those copper sheets into smaller pieces. I file their edges, polish them, and then draw the pictures I want to etch onto them and then paint over those pictures with resist. It takes me about half an hour to prepare one small piece of copper to be etched. The etching process takes at least an hour, sometimes longer as the etchant gets older and is used more.

Cleaning the etched piece takes time, and is a hazard to myself. Etchant and resist are both toxic substances. Breathing in copper dust while filing the edges can be dangerous as well.

The etched pieces have to be polished and drilled and polished again. Then if I want to oxidize them, that's more time and another toxic substance. They get polished another time, then put into a rock tumbler (which costs around $80 for a decent quality one, and then another $20 for the stainless steel shot that goes in it, and $5 for a bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid that is also used for tumbling) for an hour or two. That is for one etched piece. One single etched piece of copper takes hours to make when you add it all together. We haven't even gotten into the rest of the necklace, yet.

The frame of the focal for the necklace has to be built. Copper wire ($13 for a 1lb roll of it) has to be cut, shaped, and then hammered (hammer and anvil, $23 for a good quality hammer and $15 for a small bench block anvil). The stones are wired into place. Individual pieces are wired together. I have to make sure the wrapping is smooth, tight, and even. Then comes the process of polishing and oxidizing and tumbling. I have to make the clasps. Then, when everything is ready, I cut the leather cord to length, put on the clasp, and wire the focal to the cord. One completed necklace.

Oh, but we're not done just yet. I have to photograph the necklace from multiple angles (with my $250 camera that eats batteries like candy, so I bought the more expensive rechargeable batteries and a charger for them). The pictures are saved to the large SD card ($30), and then uploaded to my computer. I have to crop the photos and re-size them. Then comes to the process of listing, in which I have to describe the piece, upload the photos, and then pay the listing fee.

Most of all, you're paying for my skill. It took me years of work, of practicing, of wear and tear on my hands and my tools to get to where I am today. It took buying books and doing research. My skill as a painter comes into play when I draw and then paint those little pictures on the copper. Have you ever taken a really good look at an artist's hands? Mine are often stained, the skin cracked and rough, my nails kept short as possible. There are lots of tiny scars on my fingertips. I always have some fresh cut or scab. I also have a hell of a grip thanks to handling the heavier gauges of wire. This is because I can do what you cannot, and that's take those toxic substances and copper sheet and pieces of wire and leather and strands of beads and turn them into something wearable, something that will last a lifetime or longer.

After it's all said and done, when someone buys one of my necklaces, they're buying something utterly unique. Even if I replicate a design I've done before (which I do not often do), it will not be exactly like the previous piece. The wire never bends the same way twice. Stones vary in pattern and color. An etched picture won't ever turn out the same if I do another one in that style.

If someone doesn't want to pay that much for a single necklace, that's fine. I can understand that. Everyone has priorities and what they'll spend money on and what they won't. It's just that so many artists hear the dreaded words "I can buy that from Wal-Mart for $10!" that it tends to become a sore spot in the community. No one likes having the work of their heart compared to something you could buy off of any store shelf for a low, low price. That is what the art community wants people to understand. It's not just the parts. It's the labor...and since art is often a labor of love, hearing your work declared to be worth so very little hurts so very much.

I will leave you all on that note, because I feel the need to go play a round of Dragon Age ($50) before retiring for the evening to cuddle with my fiance (priceless).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Origin of Art

When people find out I make jewelry, or see something I've made, they invariably end up asking me how I learned to do it, or what got me into it. Honestly, I have my mother to thank and to blame for my obsession with jewelry making. I remember always having beads when I was growing up. From the time I could put them on a string, I was making jewelry or sewing beads onto things.

It was always more of a hobby than anything, nothing I was especially serious about, but enjoyed doing. One day my mother came home with an issue of Bead and Button, handed it to me, and asked "Why don't you learn how to do that?" while indicating the beadwoven piece on the cover.

I had never tried my hand at beadweaving, and always considered it to be something beyond my abilities. I told her that I couldn't possibly do such a thing. My mother, never one to let me get away with saying "I can't", asked me why I couldn't.

Really, I had no answer. Obviously I did not know how to do intricate beadwork, but she'd just provided me with a magazine that had instructions on the basics. So what excuse did I have, except to try it? So I bought myself a pack of beading needles and some cheap seed beads from wal-mart. My first beadwoven piece was made with sewing thread. I didn't know how to weave the ends in, so little knots stuck out everywhere. It was too tightly woven in some places, and far too loose in others. The beads themselves were somewhat misshapen, so even where my tension was good, the beads made the piece ripple and pucker. It was an ugly thing, the little peyote purse I made, but I was so ridiculously proud of it.

I learned the basics, and then the more advanced techniques, and soon enough I could make any number of things. Then one day after flipping through an issue of Art Jewelry and wishing I could do the intricate wirework, I remembered that day when my mother brought home Bead and Button, and asked myself "Well, why not?"

I taught myself wirework through books and magazines, until eventually I knew enough to make things people would actually want to wear. Much as I loved beadwork with its hundreds of teensy sparkling beads and time consuming needlework, wirework called to me in a way that no other technique had. I was simply fascinated by the art of shaping the wire and hammering it flat, of joining pieces together and wrapping stones. I can't say that I'd have gone down this path were it not for the fact that my mother simply didn't let me shrug and say I couldn't do such a thing. Now every time I find myself wanting to learn something new, I don't hold back for fear that I won't be able to. Mom's voice is a constant in those situations, nudging me towards trying my hand at the various things that take my fancy. I'll admit that some didn't make it. Knitting, for example. I'll leave the knitting to other people, for I fear my talent does not stretch to that. But at least I tried it before I decided that it wasn't for me.

My mother gets a piece of jewelry every year for Christmas. I figure it's the least I can do, considering all that she has done for me. It's my modern day version of the crayon drawing hung carefully on the fridge, a tribute to my mommy, without whom I couldn't do half of the things I've learned.