How I Got from Art Major to Business Owner
“Luck is the residue of design.”
These remarks were delivered to UW class Art 508 "Art Colloquium" at Granger Hall in Madison April 11, 2006. Course website: www.art.wisc.edu/Art508/Art508.htm
Good afternoon. The university has asked me to speak to you today on how I use aesthetics in my business and my life, because, like so many graduates, especially in the fine arts, I chose a career other than my major. When asked to title my talk many things sprang to mind: "Art and business in bed together," "Ignorance can be your ally," "Start by being laughed at, and then have the last laugh all the rest of your life," "Sculpt a business just like clay" because I really do wonder what happened to me. I still make art regularly (still feel like an art student, in fact), yet I own and operate The Soap Opera (www.thesoapopera.com) a retail store in downtown Madison selling all kinds of natural body care products which my partner and I founded in 1972.
It all started with the supernatural. I remember I was 12 years old.
I attended a birthday party where I met a fortune teller. She asked me, "Well what will it be for you, business or profession?" I was an army brat from a military family, somewhat sheltered, and I had no idea what she meant, so I reached for what sounded sophisticated and blurted out, "Profession." She laid out the cards and pronounced, "Nope. Business for you." End of reading. I filed that away.
Jumping ahead six years, on the first day of undergraduate school at Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, OH, as I aimlessly wandered from departmental table to departmental table wondering whether I should major in Drama or Fine Arts (the only two possibilities I considered), I heard, with great clarity, a voice in my head saying, "Choose Fine Arts."
Hearing voices in my head at this time in my life was not too hard to believe since I was, as so many are from time to time, in an acute state of adolescent panic, and, in fact, upon reflection, the word despair seems to fit. To begin with, I was gay and closeted in rural Ohio, and in 1965, pre-Stonewall, pre-diversity, pre-alternative lifestyles, etc. this was not a good place to be and I was, frankly, a lot more than miserable. I was scared. Fear arose from another place too. Failure in college meant certain drafting into the military, and though I had grown up in a military environment, being drafted at the time of Viet Nam, was the last thing I wanted. Somehow I had gotten the idea that college was so difficult that flunking out was easy, so I was certain I was in danger of being sent to war. Carrying this load of double panic ("all's fair in love and war"), the arts suddenly felt safe, they felt easy, separate somehow, and they felt like a place to hide out from everyone, including myself.
So I became an art major, did what I was told, kept my head down, and instantly fell in love with a whole bunch of things that have made me feel good ever since: the sheer joy of making things, the rich physicality of the tools of art making, paints, brushes, exotic chemicals and mysterious potions, and all the other paraphernalia of studio art. Imagine seeing a humble pencil create an image! Then I made the miraculous and happy discovery of art history, art talk, art's seemingly open-ended vistas, its liberation for the intellect as one seeks precision of expression and comes to grips with the visual and the verbal all at once.
Perhaps most importantly I found dedicated, gifted, heroic, and inspirational teachers, worshiped them, in fact, and since they were all practicing artists first, instructors second, I developed no other goal than to be just like them. Soon, with their help, I spent a year in New York City at the Whitney Museum of American Art, painting and exploring, and dabbling in the fast track of the art world. By this time I was making minimal art - paintings which were huge, empty, expansive, impressive, but largely lacking of feeling, and certainly devoid of any subject matter. No one was buying. Finally, I landed in Madison for my masters degree.
Madison was like arriving in paradise. The university gave me everything: scholarships, a studio, art, an art history department inspiring in scope, atmosphere, scholarship, and place to come out safely (the world was changing, at least in Madison), followed shortly by a fated meeting with Chuck Beckwith (an art history major who became and remains my life partner), and finally my M.A. It was 1970. Then the boom came down: Now what?
Oscar Wilde's famous quotation, "When bankers get together they discuss Art, but when artists get together, they discuss Money" may be true in some circles, but it certainly had not been true in academia.
I had been in school five or six years (including summers) and money or "How do you make a living at this stuff?" was never discussed.
There was always an unspoken undercurrent that such a topic would be too gauche for the idealism of youth, and ART writ large in golden letters, dominated my peers and me.
Well, yes, there was teaching, but how do you do that and where do you start? I was reluctant to ask anyone. It all seemed unseemly somehow for, after all, I had not graduated from a trade school. One possibility (which makes the news magazines we all see) was to somehow make huge fast paintings and then charge $50,000 a crack. How does that happen? To whom? How do you pull that string?
So disillusionment descended as I stared at my diploma. Had my education been a fraud? What did I have that anyone might want? What did I have to offer? What could I do? Was I a fraud, too?
In the recent book "Why Art Cannot be Taught" by James Elkins we read:
"Many art schools (and even university art departments) brag about their former graduates. For example, where I teach (University of Illinois Press) we list Georgia O'Keefe, Thomas Hart Benton, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Estes, and Joan Mitchell, though most of them dropped out. It might be more honest and thought provoking to go ahead and list famous graduates in the college brochure, but to preface the list with a disclaimer:
"Disclaimer: Although these artists did study at our school, we deny any responsibility for their success. We have no idea what they learned while they were here, what they thought was important, and what wasn't, or whether they would have been better off in jail. We consider it luck that these artists were at our school. In general, we disclaim the ability to teach art at this level. We offer knowledge of the art community, the facilities to teach a variety of techniques, and faculty who can teach many ways of talking about art.
But any relation between what we teach and truly interesting art is purely coincidental.
"And the flyer might add, in the interests of full disclosure: "We will not discuss this disclaimer on school time because our courses are set up on the assumption that it is false."
Now I'll confess to a scandalous false start, my first experiment with free enterprise. As I took stock I realized that as a youthful esthete, and among my esoteric and rarefied skills, one was being able to write good art history papers. The university was often in turmoil due to the war, and there arose out of the chaos an underground business which purchased term papers written to order. These papers were then resold to lazy students not willing to write their own. I became the art history paper writer at $1.00 a page. My work was re-sold by others for $2.00 a page to cheating students I never met. Of course eventually the ring was busted. I had to make confessional visits to beloved instructors, and regret this lapse in ethics even now, but isn't everyone allowed one youthful mis-step?
Anyway, I had blundered into my first experience with business, but clearly I needed another plan. However, the timeless game of "buy it for one dollar and sell it for two" did get my attention. On a whim, then, we started making crafts and selling them on the Library Mall. Artists make stuff, after all, and the regulated sales carts we see today were not required then. We simply spread out a blanket. Selling crafts was fun and an adventure, but winter came and so, again like so many others who'd hit a wall what did I do? Well, of course, I went to California, the place D.H. Lawrence described so aptly: "California is filled with sunbaked people and half baked ideas."
Soon Chuck Beckwith followed me. He had discovered a small startup company in Berkeley, CA making natural soaps, body care, and perfumes that were very alternative, but professionally formulated and manufactured yet designed for people like us to repackage and re-label for retail sale allowing our sweat equity and rudimentary graphic arts ability to work for us.
In those days products for personal care were available only in drug stores and mass markets such as supermarkets, etc., but what we had discovered was in the European tradition, a specialty item, a kind of personal parfumerie needing only a tiny space for tiny items, and no competition in sight. I had grown up in Europe, so I knew what I was looking at and we saw that this kind of thing had never been available in the US, yet here it was ready for us to exploit.
Above all, though, we were seeking independence, not wanting to do anything ordinary for after all, we were outcasts of a sort anyway, unconventional in the extreme, and what we saw resonated with us, so on a whim we took $600 and ordered soaps, lotions, and perfumes from California even though we had no place to store or to sell them, aside from a blanket on the street in warm weather.
Then by accident we discovered and rented a hole in the wall just on the edge of campus at 515 North Lake Street one half block from State Street in and old Victorian rooming house, now torn down. At city hall we got a building permit by accident, too. We had thumbnail plans, everyone was out to lunch when we arrived, but then we heard shouted from the back "Oh give the hippies the stamp. That building's going to be torn down anyway."
We built a tiny store ourselves since artists build things, after all. It was about 10' by 15' Our rent was $30 a month. At a dollar a day (Civil War wages) we felt safe. Now we were in business, and we stayed in that spot for 18 months, using a cart on the library mall all summer. It wasn't like the carts today - it was a child's wagon at first, and then later an old wooden dresser turned upside down with roller skates attached to the bottom. Drawers became shelves.
Artists make crazy things and in this case we had made something so noisy that rolling it along the sidewalk alarmed pedestrians and noise pollution became advertising.
By the next winter, and also by accident, we discovered and rented the storefront at 312 State Street which was much larger and had a basement. Again we built everything, counter, shelves, etc. using limited skills, but abundant drive. Now we were not just "playing store" but were really in business. It was 1974, and we were 27 years old. (Eight years later we moved to our present location across the street at 319 State Street.)
This start-up five year tale of school to business seems logical now, but it felt nothing like that. It felt very accidental, weirdly playful, entirely experimental, fun, crazy, and demanding all at once: perhaps not unlike some kind of work-study program for artists who needed a dose of the real world. Then, too, the molding and shaping of a business, or the embryo of a business, was just like making a piece of art. One proceeds from the general to the specific with some kind of vision or inspiration gluing things together. And just like making good art we tried to do the most with the least. The essence of drawing, for example, is doing the most with the least:
utilizing lost edges, what's left out, negative spaces, implication by restraint, getting five things right so a hundred will fall into place, and finally, how much can you get away with.
We were perfectly prepared to do the most with the least. We had no preconception of what business was, or any preparation for business, or anything remotely related to business at all. We had zero training, practically zero capital, zero connections, but we thought like this (just as you do when you face a blank canvas): Well, how hard can it be? We'll just do all the work ourselves, make a plan, pick up a hammer. We felt like outsiders anyway and our ignorance was an advantage.
In drawing or painting lucky accidents often carry you to success. In all art happy accidents are a common occurrence. John Ruskin says these gifts occur in exact proportion to how much training and skill you have mastered. In other words, they happen when you are ready for them to happen, when you are open to opportunity, when your awareness is acute enough to perceive them. The crafts we made, the soap discoveries in California, the rented hole in the wall were all accidents, and simultaneously attractive ways of preserving independence, avoiding "real jobs," cutting hair, submitting to dress codes, accepting preconceived expectations, and all the rest. Since we were wide open things got through.
Any art student or visual artist absorbs endless hours of visual training, both in the studio and studying art history. This training demands at least a rudimentary mastery of art talk, explaining in words something that is in another language, a visual language, making a kind of reverse translation. At its best this exercise becomes a highly rarified skill otherwise known as "the gift of gab" which, interestingly enough, is perfect training for selling anything to anyone. It is part conviction and part hypnosis, something exchanged between speaker and listener.
In a recent New Yorker Magazine biography of an international auctioneer at Sotheby's Auction House, where millions of dollars hang in the balance each moment during numerous auctions year round, a well known auctioneer summed up his life's work with perfect understanding saying, "My job is to make art expensive." It's all about the buzz, the words, and this is perfect preparation for business, too for selling delicate, personal, precious body-care items is no different.
Trust, sensitivity, an instinctual feel for rhythm and touch all lubricate the exchange.
As experienced art folk we felt at home, skilled, and comfortable designing logos, labels, store displays, product packaging, window displays, print materials, ads, bringing a whole environment with a specific and unified atmosphere into focus. One person wrote of this process: "Like every artist, he has created a territory that is distinctively his, and under anyone else's supervision it would not cohere."
An artist learns to have a thick skin, and that too is indispensable in business, especially early on. As an art student half the time or maybe most of the time you don't really know what you're doing. One begins to get comfortable with discomfort, or one gets out. Then one hears all the well meaning remarks, "Art Major?" "What are you going to do with that?" "What is that good for?" "Is there any money in that?"
I heard it from afar, like all of us, but I never once heard anything remotely close to these hard words from my parents. That was a great gift.
Others were not so nice. In our first tiny store some visiting bankers (remember Wilde's comment on bankers and Art?) dropped in one day. Shortly they went away laughing at us, and at our tiny store.
Little did they know we could have discussed art with them, or that we were going to have the last laugh!
As we have seen, art at a certain level cannot be taught anyway, but observation teaches many things and art school is filled with behavior that becomes pivotal to running a business. Number one is enthusiasm, the engine that drives everything in life. Nothing happens without it. An art major is steeped in it, at least I was, because artists are largely self motivated, and a creative atmosphere is an enthusiastic one. In business using enthusiasm, being a cheerleader, influencing people to do what you want, these alone can build a soap store or an empire.
Next, the dedication that one sees in faculty and fellow art students has an enduring effect. Making stuff is hard, art takes time, and no matter how much determination one brings to bear a favorable outcome is never guaranteed. Winston Churchill said it best, "Nothing will make one observe more quickly or more thoroughly than having to face the difficulty of representing the thing observed." The most basic drawing class presents enough problems to last a lifetime. Business is no different because the simplest challenges are often much more complex than they appear.
Art majors and their world as I experienced it overflowed with sincerity and integrity, and a belief in something higher and better than ourselves. We brought that same passion to our business.
Art making demands an immersion in materials, but ironically for the sake of a non-material end. What a puzzle. And it's the same in business because if you just want the money forget it, but if you want the satisfaction of doing something well then the money will take care of itself. The pursuit of creativity for its own sake is no different from the fascination one feels for creating systems and techniques of organization that all business enterprise demands. In a way these material paradoxes reflect the spiritual paradoxes that we all sense from time to time: that only by living for others can we find ourselves, and that we are spiritual beings occasionally having fleeting material experiences, not the reverse, the conventional view.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of being an art major is acquiring an above average degree of visual acuity, which, at its best, leads to acute visual insight, razor sharp visual memory, a 20/20 mind's eye, and an ability to think in pictures far more fluidly than many people. Since artists spend so much time in their right brain one soon realizes that one often sees what others miss, or just simply sees in a very different way, and this too allows, strangely perhaps, one to see trends and threads in the world of commerce just as clearly as one might see rhythms and tones on a canvas.
So don't worry, art majors can't be taught anything anyway, and the less you know what you're doing the better off you are. You learn about art by doing it. Just make as much art and study as much art as you can, practice deliberate, mindful, and constant observation, nurture passionate interests, endless patience, remain trusting, and welcoming to luck, chance, happenstance, chaos. Then get ready for fortune tellers, voices in your head, happy accidents, chance meetings, anything that comes along.
Currently the world seems to be offering us a great deal of opportunity and hope, yet we find fear in equal measure, and one senses increasing polarization everywhere. So I think it becomes more important than ever for artists "to allow the grey," and to let the black and white care of itself.
Art is exactly like life: The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. We can all recognize a lazy line in a contour drawing.
Paying attention is all that's required. Art shows us how everything can be recorded for all to see. It offers instant feedback and an indispensable tool for living and celebrating existence.
Do you have to "suffer to be beautiful"? Not really, but think about it anyway. The paradox of giving up the self to find the self is always in play. And remember that youth opens doors, so take advantage of it. When I was 21, and painting in NYC, Andy Warhol's Factory was just a few blocks away. I could have walked right in, and I thought about it, but was much too shy. Those few steps might have changed everything. Perhaps it's for the best I didn't take them, but you never know. So remember, there is nothing you can have when you are old that can replace being young and having nothing.
Finally, I want to leave you with my favorite Japanese Gateway for A Happy Life. In this gateway art is the keystone at the top:
GET ENOUGH REST.
KEEP YOUR NOSE CLEAN.
DON'T FEEL GUILTY.