…and their creative approaches to business
I have the good fortune of knowing a number of creative women. And while the professions of these women vary, some have managed to carve out unique career paths by owning or starting their own small business.
They won’t be afraid to tell you: It’s a lot of work. But it’s rewarding, too. I know because one of the women on the list is my wife, Ellie, and another is her mother, Ona. Both of Ona’s parents were creative, too. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” one was a successful artist, the other a dancer.
Somehow, in 1984, Ona stumbled upon a relatively inexpensive slice of property in midcoast Maine. There just so happened to be a 19th-century inn on the land. Ona took over and she’s run the place ever since.
She also managed to meld the hospitality and creative worlds by hosting artist retreats and workshops at the inn for decades. (I used to serve them their lunches.) There are well-known members of the Maine arts community in the dining room, while at the same time multiple families make the return trip for vacation year after year.
For Ona, however, it’s a constant undertaking. As a seasonal business that depends on summer dollars, it comes with its own set of obstacles: seasonal staffing, year-round building and property maintenance, advertising. One look at the inn’s duct-taped lawn mower puts it in perspective.
But despite what she described as some blatant sexism from a few male employees during her early years as boss (who scoffed at taking orders from a woman), she said it’s never seemed unique to be a female business owner. It’s the job itself that’s extraordinary.
But the term “small business” has many meanings.
Surrounded by the inescapable art (and lawn mowers) at her mother’s inn, it’s no wonder why my wife chose painting as a profession. It certainly wasn’t for the money. The artist’s life has its own hardships. The same goes for my musician friends. You have to be talented (she is), you have to be a shameless self-promoter (she’s not), and for some women it means juggling ambition, finances and motherhood.
Artists especially, with no employees (unless you’re name is Chuck Close), must keep the ship afloat. The pressure of being truly creative when your livelihood depends on it can be paralyzing. But many women thrive on it. Ellie is currently finishing a new series of paintings while also working at the inn and being a full-time mom. I tell her she should drink more coffee. (She doesn’t, but I do just thinking about it.)
My friend Nell Ballard, whose jewelry I’ve purchased for my wife on several occasions, is currently doing the same. Her work is sold in a few local jewelry stores, and she also has an Etsy store (etsy.com/shop/BellebyNell).
She’s also juggling motherhood and running a business. She told me recently that she sets aside time for working, but that her young son gets the majority of her time. And while her work has done well on Etsy, she said sometimes she feels “lost in the shuffle.” (According to its website, Etsy has 1.7 million active sellers.)
“There is so, so much on (Etsy) and so many goods that are not priced appropriately that I get discouraged,” she says.
Etsy, like many other websites directed at selling “unique goods,” doesn’t draw distinctions between amateur crafters and professional artists. These types of small businesses are a different brand—and it’s up to the artist to stand out above the rest.
For the women I know, that doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Andrew Rice is a reporter for Current Publishing. He, his wife and daughter live in Portland.