Hello! I'm excited to launch a new series today: Art Brand Stories. I've lined up a selection of artists who are building and managing their own art-based businesses and over the next several weeks I'll be sharing their stories and their art with you through interviews. I'm especially proud of the range these artists represent—each at a very different stage of business development and each with his or her unique approach to building an art brand. I hope these interviews will inspire you to think about the story you want to tell through your own art brand and help you see the many possibilities for your art business.
My very first interview is especially meaningful for me because it’s with someone I’ve known for a very long time—since our days together at Ukiah High School in Northern California—long before either one of us had any idea that our paths would re-intersect one day thanks to art careers that each of us took up later in life.
I’m happy to introduce you to my friend, Annette Makino, an artist and writer who combines both talents in her beautiful watercolor and sumi ink paintings. Annette is inspired by the Japanese tradition of haiga, artwork combined with haiku so the image and words deepen each other. Annette has always had a quiet, sly, Zen sense of humor and I especially love seeing that side of her pop into her artwork.
One thing I most admire about Annette’s story is her process of slowly switching from a career in international relations to one based on her artwork. In 2010, she began deliberately building her art brand while keeping one foot in her international relations work (as a consultant) and developing some passive income streams. Making a transition to self-employment—especially as an artist—takes a lot of discipline. It’s not uncommon to hear from folks who just want to dive straight in: devil take the hindmost, an artist’s life for me! Annette is doing it in small, thoughtful steps—an approach that I suspect will ensure a long life for her art-based business.
So, without further ado, our first Art Brand Story… Annette Makino!
Betsy: You come from a very creative and intellectually engaged family. I’ve always admired that in your home (both your childhood home and the home you’ve made with your husband and kids): that artmaking is celebrated and encouraged as much as academic pursuits. But you didn’t initially pursue college studies or a career in art, did you? How and when did your artmaking begin to play a bigger role in your adult life?
Annette: Art was always strongly encouraged in my family. Whenever my two sisters and I asked our mother what she wanted for her birthday, she suggested a drawing, painting or poem. For years up through high school, we kids created a calendar of our art that we photocopied and gave to relatives and close family friends. But other than a year of art classes in my early twenties, I didn’t do art seriously until I left the nonprofit executive world.
Five years ago, for my birthday, my artist friend Amy Uyeki gave me a book she had self-published consisting of senryu by her Japanese grandmother. Senryu are Japanese poems very similar to haiku, but usually funny and focused on human nature. The poems were accompanied by Amy’s art, and she explained to me the Japanese tradition of combining haiku with images, called haiga.
I began writing senryu and started experimenting with painting haiga using a bottle of calligraphy ink. My early efforts were pretty rough, but with encouragement from friends and family, I kept experimenting and improving.
I now paint with sumi ink that I grind in an ink stone, plus Japanese watercolors. I use bamboo brushes, but have moved away from the traditional rice paper in favor of heavier watercolor paper that can hold more color. I have gradually adapted traditional Japanese techniques and formats to my own purposes. My work is still evolving; who knows what comes next?
You’ve transitioned from a long and satisfying career working for others, to being the owner of a small business based on your art. And the transition is ongoing. What does that evolution look like?
As people responded positively to my art, in 2011 I launched a web site and had a few of my designs printed as greeting cards. Many of my early pieces were humorous pieces about dogs, and these did well enough at fairs and in local stores to encourage me to continue and to branch out thematically.
I currently have cards in 40 stores in four states and also sell at local fairs and online via Etsy. One of my very first stores, the Northcoast Co-op in Arcata, now sells 80-100 of my cards each month. And half a dozen stores have found my cards sell so well they have each gradually increased me to 35 slots.
I'm also on my third year of producing a wall calendar. And I do art shows and the occasional custom painting.
Along the way, I’ve experimented with selling t-shirts with my designs and hand-binding limited edition books of my haiga (both popular with customers, but not really profitable).
I’ve tried working with greeting card reps, with mixed success, and at the moment I just market directly to stores when I’m in a new town.
It’s not easy running your own business (see my blog post, "When you work for an idiot”), but I love the freedom to try new things and just see what happens.
Your brand is about your original writing as much as your art, and the power of the two connected. Tell us more about how it all started.
After writing senryu for a few months, I began writing haiku. In school, we all learned that haiku in English need to follow the syllable format of 5-7-5. I soon learned serious haiku poets believe this is based on a limited understanding of the Japanese language, and it usually makes for overly long and clunky poems.
I kept reading and writing haiku, and eventually got to the point where my work started getting published in the leading journals of haiku in English. For the past couple years, I’ve also been honored to have haiku included in the highly respected Red Moon Anthology of the best haiku of the year. Here’s one:
some part of me
As my work has evolved, I’ve found that haiku aren’t always the best words for a card, but they can work well for a calendar image. So I often create two or three versions of a painting, digitally: the original may have no words, the calendar version may include a haiku, and the greeting card version may have words more suited to the “me-to-you” purpose of the medium.
On the prose side, I write a monthly blog post/e-newsletter about my creative process, very broadly speaking. I usually interweave haiku and always include my art. It’s a unique, personal way to keep in touch with my customers, stores and supporters, and it’s also a useful vehicle to reflect on my process.
I was really excited to read this in an email you sent to me recently: "[Developing alternative and more passive income streams] has taken the (self-induced) pressure off me to make my art pay better, and as a result, I’ve been painting more, and I think my work is becoming stronger than ever!"
Then I read a recent blog post, where you explore your growing command of your chosen media—the struggles and the breakthroughs and the satisfaction that comes from continued patience and practice. What did you notice about your artmaking when you felt pressure to “make [it] pay better”?
In the greeting card business, there’s pressure to keep coming up with new designs. So I would get a few ideas and churn them out, even if they weren’t as strong as I would like. Those tended to be the cards that I ended up selling on clearance at fairs!
Having to come up with holiday designs in the spring to meet store buying schedules, when snowflakes and holly berries are the last things on my mind… that feels forced and takes the fun out of it. And since making art is a tough way to make money, it’s got to at least be fun!
What can you tell us about cultivating and maintaining patience through those pressure periods?
Very little! I’m still working on that one. One of my best-selling early designs is really a message I wrote to myself:
and here is another:
You’ve built your brand by producing and selling your own line of products, learning the ins and outs of wholesale and retail business as you’ve gone along. You sell on Etsy as well as at craft fairs, you do shows, your cards are carried in a number of stores across the country. Which venues have been most successful for you financially?
I have several big local stores that now trust me to just come in and restock them every month with whatever designs I decide. That’s easy and quick, and gives me great immediate feedback on my new designs and what sells best. I consider them my laboratories, and I check those accounts frequently.
Which venues have been the best in terms of building brand recognition? Which give you the most satisfying interactions and/or feedback from customers?
The fairs and other live events, like an annual Open Studios weekend, are great for building my brand, understanding who buys my work and why, and getting customer feedback. However, this only works locally, as I’ve found it’s not worth it financially for me to travel to events.
I love hearing directly from customers how my work has helped them connect with the people they care about, or provided just the right message for them at a key time. For instance, at the last fair I did, a woman chose a dog card reading “I’m here for you,” one of several designs she has bought for her mother over the years. “My mom and I have a rocky relationship,” she confided, “and your cards are helping.” (See also my blog post, "Stories you told me.”)
So far, licensing has only played a limited a role in your art business. You also mentioned that some of our recent blog posts on F13 have helped you understand the tradeoffs that can happen when you license your art. Can you talk a little more about that? Maybe give us an example of a dream licensing partner and/or what kinds of products you’d love to see with your art.
Until I read your blog posts on the artistic tradeoffs that licensing can involve, I was planning to focus on pursuing licensing deals as my next big experiment. But creating the art and words is a labor of love for me. It needs to feel meaningful and authentic, or there is no point in doing it.
I dream of a licensing partner that truly respects the artist and the integrity of their vision. I only know the company from its cards and website, but Artists to Watch seems like it could be a good licensing partner in that way. My only current licensing contract is with a realtor friend who uses my haiga in his monthly e-newsletter. It works well for me because the work is presented just as I created it.
Since the art and words go together in my art, it may limit the kinds of products that would work for licensing, other than cards, calendars and prints. I may self-publish a book of my haiga and essays someday, but I have no illusions that that will make me rich. Except rich in spirit!
Thanks so much, Annette, for taking the time to do this interview. I know your story is going to be inspiring to our readers, especially for those who hope to make a transition from full time employment to an entrepreneurial, self-owned business model.
I hope you’ll all check out Annette’s website. And consider signing up for her newsletter! I always appreciate her thoughtful observations and good sense of humor around building an art-based business.
If you Pin or otherwise share these images, please attribute Annette Makino and link back to this post or Annette's website. Thank you!