What It Actually Takes to Make a Living Making Jewelry
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When I got my ears pierced — 5th grade, in the doctor’s office — they almost immediately became infected. For years, wearing earrings meant dealing with crusty ears the next morning, and at some point after college, one of the piercings gave up the ghost and closed up entirely. For a few years, I wore my Grandma’s old clip-ons and a handful of others I’d found on Etsy. My friends gently teased me, and even promised to get my ears pierced for my 30th birthday. That day came and went, but I did eventually get my ears re-pierced (at U-Village, in Seattle, with only a subdued squeal). Not because I was 30. Not because my friends forced me. I got my ears pierced because I really wanted to wear Irene’s earrings.
If you’ve read this newsletter for longer than a few times, you’ve almost certainly seen me link to Irene’s jewelry. Her work is at once elegant and bold, distinctive but somehow goes with everything. It is a compliment magnet. And because I went to college with Irene, I feel like I got in on the ground floor of what’s become a flourishing business that operates alongside (and as a part of!) the rest of her artistic practice.
The catchphrase for this newsletter is to think more about the culture that surrounds you, so for today, I wanted to think more about the labor and balance and consideration that goes into the creation of her art — the business-of-Instagram side, the integration-with-the-rest-of-her-life side, the compulsion-to-keep-creating side. I could read this stuff for days, and even if you don’t think you’re interested in jewelry or painting, start reading these answers and you’ll find yourself more interested than you thought. Everyone I know who knows Irene agrees: she fucking rules, and so does her art. She’s just one of those top notch humans, an honor to know and be known by in return. Read on and you’ll see why.
How do you describe the art you do now? And, the more complicated question, how do you describe the work that you do now to make a living off of that art? Please be as detailed as you’d like, down to the packaging and the printing and the mailing and the Instagram posting.
The artwork I produce today involves two practices, jewelry making and painting. The differences in the process and medium create a lovely variety and complement to each other: jewelry is satisfyingly quick, tactile, decisive, controllable, functional; my painting process is slow, explorative, unpredictable and exists in a totally different space of functionality the way a poem might. Though so different, they both allow me to traverse through color, form and material to create objects to interact with.
My jewelry brand History + Industry was originally born from a desire to utilize the plethora of beads and materials I’d collected since childhood. My dad is a history professor and taught on Semester at Sea twice when I was a kid. I picked up beads from Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Turkey, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and more. It wasn’t until around 2010 that the enormity of my bead collection started to haunt me and, as timing had it, statement necklaces were having a spotlight moment. I started constructing massive multi-strand necklaces and statement earrings. I buttoned up the idea as a contemporary synthesis of the timeless and universal tradition of beadwork as adornment. The aesthetics of the pieces have changed over time yet the heart of my jewelry practice remains the same: building beautiful objects from collected and re-used materials to accentuate a person’s strength, brightness, joy and creativity.
My paintings are harder to describe and maybe I like it that way. Part of why I love to paint is because it exists in a space where I don’t think words can go. But I love to try! The act of painting feels like a method for me to cultivate my mind and body. It’s a process that mirrors my attitude to life: settling into the tension of control and release, grounding the floating sense of belonging back to this earthly place.
I’ve been most profoundly influenced by ancient Chinese brush painters. Maybe it’s because I was surrounded by Chinese landscape scrolls in my childhood home. Or maybe it’s because I had to practice Chinese calligraphy with my mom so many Saturday mornings of my adolescence. Regardless, the process of working with ink feels innate at this point yet full of wonder and surprise.
The expressiveness of a single brush stroke never gets old — the movement and compositional momentum of it, the gradient of black to gray as the stroke runs out of liquid. Ink is usually my starting point. I bring in color in the form of acrylic, powder pigment, watercolor, along with unconventional mediums (tar, dirt, sand, coffee, wine) and I seal everything in polyurethane to finish. The pieces start freeform until images start presenting themselves to me. After many layers, the paintings begin to imbue geologic formations layered in sediment, water, and atmosphere.
So these are my practices, but you also asked about the work part. There are many hats to wear and many eggs to put in many baskets. I have my jewelry studio in the house (a loft upstairs) and a painting studio about a 10-minute drive from my house. Every day looks a little different depending on what my orders are. Behind the scenes, what I can expect to cover in one month, for example, would be at least one painting commission, wholesale jewelry orders, online orders, updating the website, shipping (and shipping and shipping!), sourcing vintage materials, photographing new work, sometimes working with other models, photographers or filmmakers for projects, painting for my own practice with no purpose for use, Instagram and other outreach, craft shows and trade shows, invoicing/accounting, doing interviews like this one.
Instagram gets its own paragraph. The outreach potential is grand on this platform. It is a great sales engine for small businesses (less so than before and I’ll explain why that’s ok with me) however — there is a fine line I walk here. It’s beast I have to check with my own ethos on a regular basis: like, I gotta tell Instagram who I am before Instagram tells me, and I can’t let it rope me into its algorithmic game for the sake of my poor eyeballs.
A key to my involvement in a public forum like Instagram is understanding I am not here to persuade anyone to buy my work. I am here to make it available if my work speaks to you. My goal is to create a visually exciting portfolio/image journal of the fun things I make on my grid…..and offer just enough sales so that my work can be accessible to a larger public. The reason I’m ok with the Instagram sales engine sputtering is because theoretically, I don’t want to *depend* on it. I want to depend on real life interactions and let the internet play a supporting role. I am an old millennial and gripping on to the remnants of analog.
We both went to a small liberal arts college where there was a common understanding that you should major in whatever you’re passionate about, and figure out the rest later, because what the school really was supposed to do was push and teach you to think (and create)....and those skills would serve you in whatever your next step would be, even if it wasn’t, say, in the field of Art History. We could talk a lot about the merits of that philosophy, but you’re one of a handful of people I know whose current employment is really directly connected to your undergraduate major.
I have this vivid memory of one of your paintings being hung in one of the very few very fancy restaurants in our college town, and thinking: Irene is the real fucking deal. When did you realize that doing your art could be….a career? And how has your thinking about the sustainability of it as a career changed over time?
It makes me smile you thought I was the real fucking deal!! Well, let’s see. I fully planned to go to graduate school. My choice to be an art major in college was a kneejerk reaction during an existential crisis in response to the death of a friend when I was 20. I didn’t know that what I was feeling at that time was CLARITY and not RECKLESS IMPULSIVITY. There was a thing that happened when I Found The Thing I Loved To Do With My Time. I made more sense to myself, my environment became more coherent, my dreams became more vivid. It was like I’d stepped out of Plato’s Cave for the first time and saw beyond the shadow of my existence!
But yeah, it took a long while to unlearn the ideology that pursuing art was reckless. After college, I continued to work on my portfolio in preparation for something more “practical” like architecture, industrial design, etc. I took a job with an Interior Architect who was pregnant at the time. After a few months of working with her, she went on maternity leave, so I was without work for a short time. I was able to focus on my own work and produced a series of paintings for an informal show at a local boutique in Seattle. By the time she contacted me about my return to work, I sold almost all the paintings in the show and decided to continue selling my paintings. Let’s just see what will happen, I thought, skeptically. That was 17 years ago!
This was the “event” that changed my course, but there are always factors behind the scenes. I do not take lightly the privilege I had to fall back on graduate school as an option. Or to fall back on my family that would (begrudgingly and with lectures) financially support me if I really (really really) needed it (I did once, got the lecture, then never again). I was young, sheltered, naïve, stubborn, blissfully not knowing enough to talk myself out of “unpractical choices” and an unconventional life. It was a gift.
Also important — I love what I do so much that I don’t want to ever do anything else pretty much from the moment I open my eyes in the morning until I go to bed at night. One might think that looks like focus or work ethic but it very well might be compulsion. Call it whatever you want. I have an inner drive and I need to follow through. And I feel alive in all the parts of the process. The alone parts, the social and cultural parts, the organization and long daily to do lists.
So yes, it has become sustainable in the long run, but that doesn’t mean I don’t cycle through many moments of doubt within a year. It’s a hustle to generate my own income, some times more than other times. Planning is the best way to diffuse the stress. I chart the many routes I can expect income at the beginning of every year for long term goals and also every month for relevant achievable goals. This is usually an exciting process because I enjoy the variety of experience my work allows. Online stuff, in person stuff, alone working time, buying stuff.
How do you think through balancing what you need in order to be creative (time, space, quiet, etc.) and the needs of those (like your kids, and partner, and parents) who depend on you?
Balance is a tricky concept right now. We strive for balance but I’m not sure it is ever achieved. I have to change my perspective, with all the grace in my being, to transcend the day to day and decide if a week or month or year feels fine/okay/ pretty good and if the hustle is worth it for me. And it always is, even without the balance. That’s the season we’re in right now.
My husband is also a creative — he’s a musician. His studio is downstairs so he can be as flexible as me. I thank my 24 year old self for identifying this quality human. We are pretty damn good at sharing the parental load. My first grader is in school and my 2.5 year old is in daycare for part of the week. We end up driving around a lot, and there’s always a snack or meal to be had and a question to answer, snot to wipe. We have many interruptions in our day but we also get relatively good chunks of time for focused work.
There’s a constant give and take with work that’s this flexible. Every day is different and it doesn’t always feel good. There’s a repeated feeling of wishing I could work more, then wishing I had more time with my kids, and always wishing for time with my husband. It’s such a challenge, but gratitude wins at the end of the day. We cultivated a life that we can fulfill our creative compulsions! We didn’t choose the big money life (it didn’t choose us?) but we have enough and what we need and we can have the flexibility to be available for our kids.
To get a little wonky and detailed, I really want to know about how you think about supplies, labor, and price point. How did you figure out the sweet spot? And how has that sweet spot shifted with time?
Trickiest question of all time! This is a real dilemma for me as it pertains to artwork. I constantly feel tension between the money and the work. What is this system of value that I must participate in when my utopian pursuit exists outside of a capitalist framework? I have no good answer.
Again, I try anyway. In my early days, galleries and stores would help price my work. That was a good jumping off point for me to understand my work in relationship to the market. Nowadays I price my paintings per size, for the most part. Commissions are always a set price based on size and not time. One commission could take 3x the time as another. And I may spend way more time on a smaller painting than a larger one. It’s an imperfect system. But over time it feels like it evens out and I have come to feel good about it.
Jewelry is easier to price because time, labor and materials are clear and predictable. Since I sell wholesale, my early stockists helped me find a good pricepoint since they understood the market so well.
Access is also important to me. I offer jewelry sales regularly and offer lower price points for small batch styles. I occasionally offer my paintings for sale especially if I have a surplus of work taking up space in the studio. In a more perfect economic system, I’d offer paintings at lower pricepoints but that’s not a stage I can afford to be in this season of my life.
In thinking about the sweet spot, I feel like my attitude towards sales and money has found a sweet little spot too. One that is not attached to the topic of value and art, that is. The act of selling any of my work started out so so so so so awkward for me. 15ish years ago, I sold my jewelry at a flea market and I’d sit in the back of my booth with my head down, working on new creations. If someone wanted to buy something, they’d have to approach me for the transaction. I don’t know why I was so mortified to sell stuff!
Now I love to connect with my people and have found that comfortable spot where it’s like, Hey! I totally won’t try and sell you this thing but it’s here and if you like it, you can buy it for this price that has evolved over time and has been dictated by the changing market- thank you! This perspective keeps me feeling the joy and gratitude I have for this being a business. Our exchange functions within a capitalist construct but I like to think of it as participating within a love labor economy. I crave the opportunity for this connection both as a maker and a consumer. And as a general living being on this earth in non commodity oriented situations.
Sometimes the place I am now in my life feels like I never could’ve predicted it, looking at, oh, my 5th grade self. But then I realize that yes I was shy and yes I was a Mathlete but I was *also* deeply, deeply obsessed with reading every single word of Entertainment Weekly as soon it arrived in our mailbox, and would steal the copies of People at the houses where I was babysitting. Like, the seeds were there. What seeds of your current work and obsessions can you see from your younger self?
My younger self was literally doing exactly the same thing that I’m doing now, ha! There was a birthday party, 30 years ago, in the third grade where I was introduced to making beaded jewelry. I was so completely hooked. I remember a specific plastic blue and purple spotted heart bead I wire-wrapped for the first time at that party.
Widening the lens a bit, I recall always loving the challenge of creating something out of what looks like nothing. Even in high school, I think the synapses in my brain would make a fucking bonfire if I got the chance to look at someone’s fridge contents and make a magnificent meal out of random ingredients. My greatest weird fantasies were (are?) always surrounding around making cool stuff out of what other people think of as garbage (uh oh hoarder alert). Mix in a life-long fixation with color, scraps of pretty paper (uh oh again) so many truly random self-driven craft projects (picture frames made out of discarded boxes of cous cous for example). Crafting just about anything was (is) my love language. If you were my friend in grade school, you had at least one of my collaged mixtapes from Debbie Gibson era to Bikini Kill.
My hobby life was so rich. My passions were allowed but they weren’t really cultivated by my parents or teachers. I went to pretty rigorous schools (hence the idea in my head that a career as an artist is reckless) and loved playing sports and was a total academic perfectionist so I never really had a chance to discover my artistic potential. So these seeds really didn’t sprout until I crawled out of my warm and comfy Platonic cave. No regrets, though sometimes some fleeting resentment, as I appreciate the roundedness of my education as a foundation for this creative pursuit.
What art/artists are generative, inspiring — whatever word we want to use for being really into it — for you, right now?
Bernice Bing, CC Wang, Leslie Shows, Renate Graf, and Anselm Keifer!
You can find Irene’s jewelry and painting here, and get 20% off with the code NEW at checkout. You can follow her on Instagram here.
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Thank you for this! It’s so important to have more open and honest conversations about what it looks like to be a working artist and grateful to you for creating the space to do just that.
I cannot with how gorgeous these earrings are. They're simultaneously contemporary and rooted in fundamental shapes and ideas. I know what I want for my birthday (in two months, lol) now.