Things are Looking Up
In the last throes of preparations for a career development I hadn't expected to happen so quickly, I think I'll take a break, and tell you what's been cooking lately. As well, how I got into this profession full-time via a leap of faith, a deeply supportive (and fellow creative) partner, and an improved sense of self-belief. Like most artists, I wasn't always so fortunate to be able to focus on this career exclusively - in fact, I worked in fits and starts sporadically over the years, taking a random freelance job here and there. I've worked in countless professions - milliner, caricaturist, bookseller, showroom display grunt, vintage clothing restorer and salesperson, occasional seamstress and so forth. Though my illustration style has developed over the last twenty years, and I've had some truly knockout commissions ("The Giddies" ornament collection for Waterford Crystal being a highlight), I was fearful of making the jump to taking my work seriously, and providing it the respect and love that it's shown me since my childhood.
Now, I admit that I've enjoyed many of my jobs, the last being a true delight. From 2014-2017 I happily flitted from stem to stern at Vintage Martini, a fantastic consignment shop in Dallas. My specialty was the vintage clothing department, particularly the Museum Room, where pieces from 1940 and earlier lived. I ran it like a protective den mother, and did a good deal of mending and complex restoration on many articles. I think you can see my joy in these photos...
I truly had a swell time there. But in the back of my head, I knew that I needed to start pushing forward with my illustration. I'd been selling work at a couple of local events, starting off with the Jazz Age Sunday Social, the 1920s-themed outdoor picnic that Matt and I host every spring. I bought an inexpensive EZ-UP tent at Academy, customized it with corner drapes made with thrift shop yardage, and made velveteen cloths to cover my folding tables. I signed and numbered prints of my favorite pieces, and used wire easels to present them to all comers... I was in business! A tiny, infinitesimal business, but a business, nonetheless.
This arrangement served me well for a time - at least while I was only setting up a few times each year at the most. But 2017 brought a sense of determination to Really Do This Thing, and I knew that I was in for some growing pains.
It's worth mentioning what brought me to this sense of resolve. Firstly, to be blunt, the political climate played a role. The lead up and fallout of the 2016 election brought out so much frustration and divide on both sides that I wanted to do something to bring happiness to the world. It might smack of Pollyanna naivete, but I'd seen the joy that perfect strangers had registered upon seeing my work, and ran with it. This is also my greatest skill, to be frank. As a self-taught illustrator without a college degree, my career is most likely best taken into my own hands, rather than in those of anyone else's. My aforementioned late father, Tom Bennignus, is never far from my mind either - wherever he is, I know he's pulling for me like a manic draft horse. Finally, in June of 2017 a dear friend of mine died very suddenly, at 44 years of age, due to a brain aneurysm. Craig Duffy wasn't merely a friend - he was my muse, and the inspiration behind my illustration style, and the reason why I ended up becoming an illustrator in the first place. His death propelled me solidly in this direction, and within months I had left Vintage Martini, commissions began to arrive on my doorstep, and I began doing more outdoor markets.
Back to my outdoor tent arrangement, now that we have my career track covered. My customized Academy pop-up held up well enough for a time, but there were some hairy moments. Without side walls, my tent, and the merchandise inside of it, were vulnerable to rain and wind. The canopy top was opaque - great for shade, but not for allowing light to illuminate my work. The easels holding my prints were always at risk of toppling in a sudden breeze, a regular occurence in Dallas. Breakage occurred periodically, and nobody needs glass on the ground. I always wanted more display space, and tried to create hanging surfaces with heavy gridwall - this fatigued my tent frame and pinched my fingers, and I finally threw in the towel. It was time for...
A Flourish Trimline canopy, specifically designed and engineered for the outdoor art fair circuit. My decision to invest in this marvel was twofold: 1) I knew it was time for a better shelter, and 2) I have been gaining invitations to national art fairs. Let's address these elements one at a time...
The jump from an EZ-UP tent to a canopy of this quality was no small decision. I had been researching my options for several months, admittedly strongly considering a higher-level EZ-UP style tent with side walls and a stronger frame. This would have run me a few hundred dollars... but there would still be a solid risk of failure in case of inclement weather, as I learned from countless blogs written by traveling artists with personal experience (and photos to demonstrate). By comparison, the Flourish Trimline is steel-based, with water- and wind-proof construction for safety and security in nearly all weather. It also happens to run well past the thousand dollar mark, if outfitted with mesh hanging walls, stability bars, extension canopy and lighting bars for illumination.
So, what's a starting-level self-promoting illustrator with a small budget to do? Haunt Craigslist, of course! I managed to hunt down two listings in one day - one for the canopy, side walls, stability bars and lighting bar, the other for interior mesh hanging walls and front extension canopy. After a small order placed with Flourish for several accessories, my secondhand setup is ready to go, and for about half the price if purchased new.
And now on to the second factor in this purchase - national art fairs. Along with the Jazz Age Sunday Social, I've spent the last couple of market seasons selling at far more venues than before - Bastille on Bishop, the Swiss Avenue Mothers Day Home Tour, Little D Markets, Trinity Groves, Good Local Markets, Plano Art & Wine Walks, to name a few. As such, I've earned a solid set of legs (and arms) through these events, and felt it was time to forge ahead, with my sights set on the art business proper. These are multiple-day events that demand a level of professionalism in terms of their rules, as well as their costs. They are juried, and a photograph of your booth display is necessary. A strong canopy tent is a requirement for the best fairs, and I wanted to be ready. So far this year, I'm committed to two national shows: Art in Speed Park in Sellersburg, Indiana, and Summerfair in Cincinnati, which I'll be heading out for in a matter of days. Knowing that my work will look its best means the world to me - I'm finally showing it the love it deserves, and sharing it properly with those who step inside to see it.
I couldn't be happier - not just about how quickly things have fallen into place with commissions and the coming shows, but with the sense of heading into the right direction, and allowing my passion to lead my way. Is it daunting at times? Oh, absolutely - I still have occasional nightmares about losing my way, running from the proverbial wolf at the door. But so many have stepped up to back my endeavors with verbal support, commissions and purchases of reproductions - and I'm thrilled that they find joy in what I create. After all, this is centered strongly on human happiness, and paying tribute to a lost loved one who brought so much of it to me. Here's to a remarkable season of travel, growth and business for all the right reasons!