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Artist gets crafty to make art make money

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 26, 2012 - Cbabi Bayoc’s “365 Days with Dad”  painting marathon is perhaps the most unconventional marketing tool of any struggling local artist. But it’s never been easy to make money making art, and others are “going Cbabi,” inventing their own new ways to make creativity pay.

One is ceramics and fabrics artist Gina Alvarez, who recently left her education-related job at the St. Louis Artists’ Guild, citing clashing goals. Now, Alvarez, who has exhibited in such galleries as the Contemporary Art Museum, Hoffman-LaChance, COCA and Des Lee, has become an eclectic entrepreneur: teaching, working on commissions, writing a book and creating less expensive, wearable art sold at Etsy.com and other websites.

“It might be the perfect storm for me to segue-way into something more of my making, and also still have time to make my own artwork,” Alvarez said.

‘Can’t afford my own artwork’

Alvarez originals selling for $200 to $2,000 are displayed in homes throughout St. Louis. But even the lower end of that price range is out of reach for Alvarez and her high-school Spanish teacher husband, Anthony Alvarez.

“I can’t afford my own artwork; that fact cracks me up,” Alvarez said.

In trying to afford just the basics, Alvarez is trying a diverse array of projects, including a public art display in Kansas City made out of billboard parts. Another venture has a title that exceeds “365 Days with Dad” by one number.

“366 Skies” is the name of a book on which she and two others are collaborating. Every day during the 2012 leap year, Alvarez takes a picture of the sky, and one of her partners writes a short poem related to it.

The Racine, Wisc., native figures she’ll make only between $5,000 and $7,000 this year in sales. A good bit of that will come from the jewelry she posts on Etsy, a website for crafts and other handmade items. She also has the possibility of income from the "366 Skies" project and printmaking classes she’s setting up at Pele Prints and Paper Boat studios.

Alvarez, who earned an MFA from Washington University in 2002, has noticed a lot of other artists also creating and selling more crafts. Figures from Etsy show that total merchandise sales skyrocketed from $26 million in 2007 to more than $525 million in 2011. Sales for February 2012, alone, were $58 million.

Alvarez ramped up making her jewelry that goes for between $20 and $40 after discovering the power of sheer volume. “If you make a lot of little things that are affordable, it equals a profit,” Alvarez said.

Handing down thriftiness

Even with new endeavors in place, things are tight in the Alvarez household. The Dogtown family can only afford to extend Anthony Alvarez’s Kirkwood High School health insurance to their 5-year-old son, Oscar; it would cost them as much as $600 to add her to the plan.

Straining to pay bills including their combined $100,000 in graduate school student loans, the family doesn’t vacation, go to the movies or watch cable TV. They eat out only once a week, usually at an inexpensive pizza place.

Their thrifty ways not only let them squeeze the most out of every dollar, they also provide many teachable moments for Oscar. When Oscar wanted a skateboard, he first suggested that they make one. When that didn’t prove feasible, Alvarez found him a $20 model for which Oscar is paying her back.

“He’s working off his debt; if he does yard chores, we take off $1,” Alvarez said.

Different strokes

Over the past 30 years, local painter Billyo O’Donnell and his wife raised three children using the fruits of his artistic labors. Now 55, and well established, O’Donnell doesn’t believe in what he calls sales “gimmicks.”

“A lot of artists get scared, and they try to become marketing people to sell their work, as opposed to just focusing on the work,” O’Donnell said. “When you create the work, then opportunities come along.”

That mindset worked well for O’Donnell, who started out in the recession of the early 1980s. Today, the winner of the Missouri Arts Council 2012 Individual Artist Award gets most of his customers through galleries and “people who come to me.”

Despite a dull economy, O’Donnell hasn’t seen a drop-off in local buyers. But it’s a different story in Hawaii and Charleston, places he once counted on for out-of-town sales.

“Those markets were doing really well but when the tourism economy went bad, they took a hit,” O’Donnell said.

Even so, O’Donnell still makes a good living just concentrating on the canvas, without canvassing for sales. It was starting to turn out that way for St. Louis photographer Jamie Kreher, too. Less than a decade ago, she was just beginning to make decent money selling her work. But then came the 2008 recession.

“The economy tanking just killed so many opportunities for artists,” Kreher said.

Taking a job teaching photography at St. Louis Community College in Forest Park has had a silver lining: freeing up Kreher, 37, to make art for art’s sake rather than for profit.

“Now, I don’t feel like I have to sell it; now it’s like, ‘Here’s an idea I have and I want to experiment,’” Kreher said.

St. Louis is rife with opportunities for experimentation, according to Alvarez, who sees a bright future for the local arts scene, despite the economy. The reason? A new sense of community among artists and other local creatives. Now spending her 13th year in St. Louis, Alvarez has never before witnessed the kind of momentum that’s moving forward both art and city revitalization.

Between the Cherokee Street revival, the Contemporary Art Museum’s “Good Ideas for Cities” and the Regional Arts Commission’s upcoming “Rustbelt to Artist Belt” conference, Alvarez feels there’s a new buzz in town.

“I find it really exciting,” Alvarez said. “There is a lot of grassroots activity that is helping redefine what it means to work in the arts and be an artist.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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