As you likely already know, I am a clinical psychologist and an artist. But what you may not know is I am an avid genealogist and as a result I extensively interviewed each of my parents about their childhood memories, descriptions of their relatives, and what life was like socially, economically and politically during their formative years. One of the things my father elaborated upon was his fond memories of the traveling circus coming to Palo Alto, California during the 1930s and 1940s. This would have been the Depression era, so any kind of special entertainment was probably scarce and something eagerly anticipated. He reminisced about excitedly awaiting the train pulling into the station and witnessing the circus trainers unloading the various exotic animals. These would have been animals that he and his family had never had an opportunity to see before-- such as lions, tigers, bears, and elephants. He described the efforts at setting up the massive tents overnight in preparation for the 2-day extravaganza. He would attend the performance the next day with his mother, father, and sister and so enjoyed seeing the antics of the clowns, the animal tricks, and the acrobats. In a world without T.V., this was completely novel, mind-blowing entertainment! The cliché idea of "running away with the circus" was indeed a fantasy of many children of that era. The lifestyle appeared so glamorous!! Because it was such a special event, literally the entire town would show up for the performances. It was something that brought people in the community together.
My own circus experiences stemmed from several different sources. I remember watching Chinese acrobats in San Francisco and being enthralled. Later I would attend Tufts University where Jumbo, Barnum's circus elephant, was the mascot. Jumbo had an ill-fated end to his life in 1885--he was struck by a train while being loaded into his palace car. His taxidermied body was actually donated to Tufts by Barnum, a trustee of the University, and that is how he became the illustrious University mascot. Poor Jumbo was to suffer yet another tragedy when the building in which he was displayed burned down in 1975! While I certainly had seen Barnum and Bailey 3 Ring Circus and Big Apple Circus over the years, I was most enamored of the Cirque du Soleil performances. The costuming, incredible acrobatic tricks and feats of strength and athleticism, and the haunting music all remind me of my father's stories of the circus of yesteryear.
I am very nostalgic and sentimental. I love stories and experiences like these. I also have an affinity for antique toys. These factors have influenced my interest in creating one-of-a-kind circus-inspired assemblage pieces that are reminiscent of nursery toys of the Victorian era (which often were on wheels). Of course my pieces are not meant as toys, but rather as sculptures to be enjoyed as art.
My first two circus pieces were: (1) "Fifi's Trick Poodles," in which the clown "Fifi" (yes, a play on the fact that poodles are stereotypically named Fifi, not clowns), is riding a circus horse and having her trick poodles jump through a hoop, and (2) "Le Cirque des Animeaux," in which a clown with her trick kittens is riding a circus German Shepherd dog. I am a bit of a Francophile as well, so I often like to give my pieces a French-inspired name (this one translated means, "Circus of Animals.") I also felt this clown looked very Pierrot in style.
My next piece was even more elaborate and larger. It reflects an acrobat doing tricks on a pole while riding her horse around the circus ring. It is called, "The Greatest Show on Earth." When I bought the antique doll from an antiques dealer, she loved my work, but was a bit chagrined to think that I might dismantle the doll and use her head and limbs for parts to create one of my assemblage dolls. So, out of respect for her, I decided to use the doll as a whole and that launched my design.
People seemed to enjoy my circus pieces, so it encouraged me to make more. I began to focus on elephants and came up with these. You might recognize the elephant heads as coming from Jim Bean liquor decanters. When I name my pieces, I try to use an aspect of the tin or the theme or the size or the type of animal. So, here is "Pagliacci e Biscotti," with Pagliacci meaning "clown" in Italian with the elephant's name, "Biscotti," coming from the tin used as her body. "Prodigious Pachyderm" is a play on the huge size of the elephant piece. "Ella Fitzhugh" was inspired by "Ella" being short for elephant., and "Lady VanderHeinzer" is a play on her Heinz Pearl's tin body.
Often I design my pieces as I go along, so it is impossible to take "before" and "after" photos. So, I purposely designed a few pieces keeping in mind the intention to do before and after shots in order to bring clarity to what pieces I use in my design and how they come together to present a cohesive whole. My first example of these before and after shots are "Corky the Circus Elephant." He gets his name from his bottle cap style necklace with a vintage image of a clown with the word "Corky" underneath.
Photos of the completed "Corky," showing the front, back and a detail of the head.
Here are before and after photos of my circus assemblage, "Cheval de Cirque," French for "Circus Horse." She is riding around the ring with two clowns who are taking turns doing tricks upon a pedestal.
And here are before and after photos of my assemblage, "Amaretti's Circus Dogs." Amaretti is the name of the clown, inspired again by the tin body of the horse. As in "Fifi's Trick Poodles," these dogs are awaiting their turn to jump through the hoop.
A different kind of elephant head was used for this piece, "Balancing Act," in which dogs are taking turns doing tricks on the balancing beam while the clowns play music. The elephant head is from an Ezra Brooks vintage liquor decanter and is more realistic in appearance than the Jim Bean ones. It includes quite impressive tusks.
Finally, two more horse pieces, one elaborate and one more simple. "Bozo's Trick Monkey" shows Bozo the clown directing his circus monkey who is sitting on an elevated platform. The horse is decked out in typical circus attire, with lots of lace and bows and an elaborate feather plume. "Prancing Pony" is simply an elegant pony with a horse-themed Cadbury's chocolate tin body.
So, as you can see, I use a combination of various recycled/found object parts and some new parts to create these pieces. I rely on liquor decanter heads, salt and pepper shakers, vintage figurines, vintage or new tins, vintage castors or new pulley wheels by Tim Holtz, antique wood spools (which make great Elephant feet), jewelry, brass embossed pieces, various hardware and industrial parts, antique buttons, lace and ribbon. The banners are made of cardstock and decorated with glass glitter edging. I hope I have captured the "feel" and nostalgia of the vintage circus. Thanks for reading my blog! If interested in keeping in touch with my blogs, please sign up for my e-mail and newsletter list on my home page.
Now that I have been in business as an artist for nearly two years, I decided that I have learned enough at this point to possibly pass on some "words of wisdom" about marketing oneself as an artist. By no means am I suggesting I am an expert at marketing--I still have tons to learn. But, I thought I would pass on the strategies that have helped me thus far. I call this blog, "Part I," because I realized it was getting very long and that maybe I should break up my suggestions into two or more parts! Here are my current suggestions:
(1) Make a product about which you are passionate. It was a very slow rise to selling in my Etsy shop. I remember another Etsy seller indicating to me that I might have to make more of what the general public wants, rather than what I like. I have come to totally disagree with that statement. I think that if you don't really enjoy what you make, then it will show in your product and in your sales attitude. I think your product must be an emotional outpouring of your personal creativity. If you are passionate enough about it, others will become passionate too. There will always be people for whom your product is not a good fit and that's okay!
(2) Experiment a lot with how to fasten things together so that they are permanently adhered. Obviously, the better quality and more staying power your product will have, the more marketable it will be. I learned through experimentation that often glue alone is not enough. I have come to screw, nut, bolt, wire and even solder my pieces together whenever possible. The next best product is using a metal epoxy. It is like a clay putty that you blend together until it looks all one color, and then you can form it at the juncture of two pieces and it will set and harden within 20 minutes. I always use this to adhere my china doll heads to their bodies. This is particularly good because their necks are often broken and I can fill in the space that is left as a result. Also, I often use it on the feet of my creatures. My last resort, but one that I often still have to use, is E6000 glue, a very NASTY smelling industrial strength glue that even says on the bottle, "causes liver cancer" (oh my!). I had some failings with that glue at the beginning and have now learned, "always follow the instructions!!!!" Yes, I would be too lazy to adhere it to the two different surfaces, wait 3 minutes and then press together. This really is essential to form a permanent bond. Also, you must let it set for at least 24 hours.
(3) Believe in yourself!! I cannot stress this enough. I create a product that is quite quirky, sometimes creepy or macabre, and sometimes cute and whimsical. Most people agree that it is "unique" or "different." I have found, while selling face-to-face at craft fairs, that some people absolutely love my work and can't praise it enough. Others just glance at my booth and walk away. I cannot let that discourage me. You couldn't possibly please everybody no matter what you make. The key is to love your own creations and when someone shows interest, help them to love them as well! I tend to sell best when I am present because I can explain the materials I used, how I came up with the idea or the design of the piece, and finally how I came to name it. Bringing each piece to life is what draws people in. Even if they don't buy this time, they may in the future. I always bring an e-mail sign-up sheet to every fair and ask if they'd like to be notified of my progress and any future fairs. I also write out a sales slip for each person with their name and contact information so that I can use that later to market to them.
(4) Create an artist support group. I am profoundly lucky to be in one for the past 1 1/2 years. We have 6 members, but often only 4 are present. We meet once per month in the evenings, taking turns hosting in one of our homes. Of course we provide wine and snacks and good companionship. Every meeting we each have a chance to reveal the ups and downs of the past month and then hone in on what we want to accomplish by the next meeting. This holds us each accountable and helps motivate us to continually progress. We learn so much from each other, such as how to use social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Blogs) to market ourselves and expose the general public to our work. We are each other's cheerleaders, providing much needed support and encouragement. As a group, we have also hosted a couple of smaller artisan fairs, inviting other artists in and getting the word out to the public (via Facebook, Craig's List, signage, mailing postcards, etc.). We also started a Facebook page called, "local Artists 119" (119 is a major road running through Groton and Pepperell, two country towns where we all live, 45 miles Northwest of Boston).
(5) Figure out your target audience and find ways to gain access to them. This has been a bit of a hit or miss process for me, but I'm getting more and more savvy with it. When I first started out, I opened up a couple of small booths in antiques stores and signed up for some local fairs. Because I live in a fairly country setting in conservative New England and I make mostly one-of-a-kind, higher-priced quirky sculptural art, this was not a good fit for me. I remember leaving a couple of fairs literally having sold only a couple of Christmas cone ornaments! What I had to keep reminding myself, though, was that it was an invaluable learning experience. I learned how to quickly set up my booth and take it down, how to interact with potential customers, and what kind of pieces drew more people in. I also met other artist vendors who gave me tips on possible shows that would work for me. When I was at Brimfield Antiques Fair in May 2015, I brought some of my pieces over to the Vintage Bazaar booth and showed them directly to the juror and event planner for that show, Devon Allen. She loved my pieces and told me I was accepted! So, I use every opportunity at shows to market myself for future events. I have showed at two Vintage Bazaars now and at one of them I met Cari Cucksey from Cash & Cari fame on HGTV. She loved my work so much that she invited me to sell at her 2-month long Holly, Michigan pop-up store, RePurpose! What an honor! I always thought that NYC would be a perfect match for my work, since New Yorkers tend to like one-of-a-kind art and many like quirky, whimsical pieces, not to mention their likelihood of a decent disposable income! So, I've honed in on getting my foot in the door there as much as possible, despite initially having no contacts, friends, or family there and having to drive 5 hours each way. So far, the pay off has been incredible. My first step was to try to get into one of the BWAC Gallery juried shows in Brooklyn. I was turned down on my first attempt with the show, "Recycle," but persevered and was accepted into the show, "Really Affordable Art." in October, 2015. I used the fact that I was going to be in the NYC area for the gallery opening to contact Stefanie Levinson, the buyer at The American Folk Art Museum Gift Shop in Lincoln Square. Although I didn't hear from Stefanie before I was in NYC, she did call me the day I returned home and said she loved my work! She bought some pieces wholesale for her shop (which sold fairly quickly) and then I was invited to sell at the Fab Folk Fest inside the museum in December 2015. That was my absolute best show yet, selling 15 of my assemblage pieces! Now I have an ongoing relationship with the gift shop which buys a few of my items every few months. The latest exciting news for me was I was just accepted into a juried show, The 23rd Annual Bedford, Barrow, & Commerce Block Association Fine Arts and Crafts Fair on Saturday, May 21, 2016. This will be a full day fair in Greenwich Village, NYC!
(6) Create a photographic portfolio with which you can easily walk around a town or city so that if you come across a shop or a gallery that you think might like your work, you can show them photos. If you can have some actual pieces in the car just in case, that's a good idea, too. This strategy is how I got into my first two galleries, K. Newby Gallery in Tubac, Arizona and The Pink Door Gallery in Tucson, Arizona. At first I was showing people photos on my I-Phone, but found that if their vision was anything like mine, the photos were too difficult to see. So eventually I purchased an I-Pad, which helped, but it still took too long to swipe through different photos when I might be dealing with a very busy person who wasn't expecting me and didn't really want to devote the time. So, one of my best marketing tools has become two Shutterfly hardcover books that I created, entitled "The Assemblage Art of Shenna Shepard." Each one shows photos of all assemblage sculptures I made within a one-year period. I've included different angles of each piece, the character name, and a description of the materials used and dimensions. Here are photos from those books:
Those books have gotten my foot in the door a couple of times. When you are essentially going "door to door," the owner wants to tell you to e-mail them--that they don't currently have time. Of course with e-mails, you don't always get a response. However, on two occasions, I had this book in my hand and as they were indicating they were too busy, they stopped mid-sentence and said something like, "Oooh, what is that?" Because they could see the photos on the fronts of the books, it immediately caught their attention. This is how I got my work into the Muse's Gallery in Concord, Massachusetts. I also use these books now at my fairs to show customers my body of work.
(7) Use the Internet in every way possible!!! I cannot stress this enough. My business has been growing steadily in the past few months since I created a website which links to my Etsy shop, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest accounts. My website serves as my own gallery in which I am able to show both pieces currently for sale and ones that have already sold. I recently created a page for New Pieces, where I can showcase all that I've made in the past month. This allows return visitors and collectors to just check that page periodically. I set up a Facebook page (Shenna's Vintage Creations) an Instagram page (shennasvintagecreations) a LinkedIn page (Shenna Shepard) and a Pinterest page (Shenna Shepard). At present, I am primarily focusing on building my following on Facebook and Instagram. With Facebook, pick groups to belong to that have common interests and make sure to post on their pages as well. For example, periodically I post my circus pieces on the Vintage Circus Facebook page, and most recently I've posted on the Assemblage Collage Artists Facebook page. I posted my cat, Wilhelmina VandeMew, on their page 2 days ago and already have 102 likes and 12 nice comments! Most importantly, it led a lot of new people to my website, Etsy shop and Instagram! Social media is an essential way to gain exposure and it's free! On Instagram, there are also some opportunities to showcase your work on other's marketing sites that have a tremendous following. For example, I contacted craftcurate through Instagram and they liked my work so they featured my cat, Wilhelmina VandeMew, 4 days ago and I got 511 likes! And, again, it directed many new people to my website, Etsy shop and Instagram accounts.
I hope the information I've shared is helpful. My next blog will focus in depth on some of my circus pieces.
I am 59 years old, a wife of 27 years, a mother of a wonderful and independent 20-year-old daughter, a clinical psychologist who treats adults in private practice, and last, but definitely not least, an artist. Whew! That was a mouth full. My passion is creating one-of-a-kind whimsical sculptural animals, dolls, and cake toppers (with a little multi-media collage thrown in for good measure). I hope you enjoy my creations as much as I enjoy making them!