PROfile is a series of interviews with artists and creative souls who have built businesses around their craft and passion. We'll dig deeper to try and find out everything you could want to know from seasoned pros who have experienced the full gamut of highs and lows that come from running a creative business.
This week we are interviewing Chicago-based artist Mari Orr, whose gorgeous watercolour paintings have charmed thousands on Instagram. Here at HLH we've been long-time fans of Mari's work, and you might have downloaded some of the wallpapers she's designed for our Quote of the Week series. We're so excited to hear about her journey of setting up her own store.
What was your first ‘proper’ job and how did you land it? Was it what you intended to do as a career?
My first proper job was a chemist! I went to school for chemistry/physics and had always planned on working as a forensic chemist. I still find chemistry fascinating.
Has art always been in your blood?
Yes! I have always been very imaginative. Mediums may change, but I’m nearly always creating something. I can see that quality in my oldest son now, and am curious to see if he turns into the moody artist I imagine him becoming.
You create in many different formats, from oil paintings to calligraphy, can you talk us through all the different things you do?
Haha, yes! I do a little bit of everything. As you mentioned, I oil paint – but I also love watercolour painting. I’m a huge fan of pastels as well. I love lettering, and I lean towards a modern style of calligraphy. Photography is fun for me, especially macro photography. I love seeing what everyday objects look like zoomed in close. In addition, I have fun weaving wall tapestries on a loom. I’ve dabbled in sculpting, embroider, and felting – though I won’t claim to be good at any of them! I think that’s everything. Probably not, though. :)
How did you know you were ready to have your own business?
A few months after having my second son, I finally had everyone on a reliable schedule and I was able to carve out time to create something nearly everyday. I posted photos of what I was up to on Instagram and I got such positive feedback – and quite a few inquiries about where my creations could be purchased. I held off for a few months, but once the seed was planted, I couldn’t stop thinking about selling my art.
How did you go about starting your own store?
It was so much more complicated than I realised! The gist of it was buying my domain name, creating art, and listing it. However, there was the matter of finding a printing service I was comfortable with, setting up the online shop, taking photos of my art to post in the shop, writing descriptions, keeping inventory, keeping track of costs, assembling shipping supplies, designing a logo, ordering business cards. However, I don’t want to discourage anyone from selling their art – I probably made it way more complicated than it needed to be!
How did you secure your first clients?
My main mode of advertising is to my followers on Instagram. I post my works-in-progress as well as items that become available in my shop and buyers are able to click through right from my profile. I also set up a Facebook page, but My People (creatives and people who appreciate and are more likely to purchase art) are on Instagram.
What is your typical daily routine like?
My life is like Groundhog Day. My oldest wakes me up around 7:30am. I tend to the baby, get breakfast ready, get all of us dressed for the day, then take my oldest to preschool. When I get back home, I put the baby down for his first nap and I have a solid two hours of solo time – I should be washing dishes or doing laundry, but I almost always use this time to create. Around 11, I wake the baby and we go pick up his brother from school. I run errands with them, if I have any, then we eat lunch and play. The baby goes down for another nap at 2p while my oldest and I usually create together – he loves watercolour painting with me! Or we’ll do a craft. Or he’ll help me fold the laundry. :) We wake the baby up at 4p and the two boys play together while I do chores, figure out dinner, etc. We eat at 5p then wind down: baths, books, etc before bedtime. After both kids are in bed by 7p, I usually either work on the computer (getting art ready for the printer, listing new items in the shop, writing a blogpost, etc) or weave. Around 11p or so, I crawl into bed and read myself to sleep. (Side note: my husband works a lot of hours. It’s fabulous when he’s home with us, but I definitely have a set schedule that doesn’t depend on him being home.)
What traits do artists have that help with running a business?
Tap into your creativity! It helps with logo design, shop set-up, problem-solving. Use your imagination to foresee where you want to be in five years and plan how to get there.
How do you decide which medium to work in, and do you have a favourite?
They are all my favourite, honestly. I love how watercolour ebbs and flows and settles and swirls. I love the heaviness of oil, the textures and the saturated colours. I love feeling the softness of various yarns when I’m weaving – and figuring out patterns and colour combinations. I love the looping gracefulness of calligraphy.
As for deciding what medium to work in… it’s mostly about time. I wasn’t able to oil paint for a long time because it’s a lot of setup and cleanup. My husband finally dragged my easel upstairs so I can leave all my additives and solutions out without worrying about curious boys. But even now, I don’t oil paint unless I have at least an hour of free time. Watercolour painting and lettering I do anytime and all the time. I can do those on the floor while my oldest builds a Lego kit next to me. I tend to weave only at night, usually while watching TV.
What’s been the most beneficial business decision you’ve made?
My shop is still very young, but I think my best decision so far is offering a free printable every month. It’s something I make anyway – and truly enjoy making! – and it brings people to my shop.
Artists and writers often describe the compulsion to work – do you experience an overwhelming desire to create something new?
YES. Oh gosh, yes. I didn’t realise that was a thing! I’m normal! :) I don’t think I’m ever just sitting, doing nothing. I always have a notebook nearby because at the very least, I’m jotting down ideas. I’m always starting new pieces, new projects – of course, that means I have about 20 works in progress at any one time. But, I don’t like to force myself to finish something. I want to enjoy the process – I want pieces to be done when it feels natural for me to finish them.
Do you ever feel alone in your work?
My days are very lonely and Groundhog Day-ish, as I mentioned above. But, I’m okay with being alone or with my kids. Honestly, when we have playdates or lunch dates, I get a bit anxious to get back home and continue painting!
How do you relax?
Getting lost in a painting is the best relaxation for me. So many times, I look up and time passed in the blink of an eye. It’s like coming back into reality. (I have a LOT of alarms set in my phone so I’m never late bringing my oldest to school or picking him up or waking the baby from his nap.)
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere, oh gosh, everywhere. I have so many photos in my phone – usually of colour combinations I love – at the library, the grocery store, on a walk with my kids. I’m inspired by my creative pals and artist friends on Instagram. I flip through junk mail catalogs and snap photos. I’m the person that runs across the street to get a picture of my neighbor’s flowers. They’re all used to me by now, I think. :)
What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
Be more responsible. Own who you are. Go after your dreams now, not later.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for making people smile. For making people feel important and like they matter.
What’s been the best moment of your career so far?
My first order. Total validation that I’m an Artist.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Giving away hand-drawn Kind Notes on Instagram. They simply say ‘I love your laugh' or ‘You’re beautiful' etc – I post them and the first people to comment get to tell me a friend or family member that would benefit from my Kind Note. I mail them anonymously (no return address) and hope getting these little surprise notes brightens people’s days. I sell prints of them in my shop and am planning to have a customised option soon as well – so I can paint ‘You’re beautiful, Jane' and it will be like a little piece of original art, making someone, somewhere smile.
What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles you’ve faced in your business and how did you overcome them?
My biggest challenge is staying organised. I’m still trying to get on top of that one. Keeping track of inventory, keeping supplies organised, knowing what needs to go to the printer, knowing when I need more shipping envelopes, keeping my email inbox from overflowing (I fail badly at that), keeping a schedule of what to have ready for a holiday in two months…
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Create for yourself. Don’t fret about whether something will sell – that puts too much pressure on the process. Of course, the downside of this is that I find it very hard to part with any of my originals.
If you could have dinner with any inspiring person (past or present), who would you choose?
Mother Teresa (So kind and selfless!) or Michael Lewis (He seems to know everything about everything and can explain it all in a non-overwhelming way.).
Web: Mari Orr
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