CRAFTING YOUR CAREER

Need some sanity saving, confidence boosting, profoundly practical advice from craft and design peers and heroes? 

There’s something enormously reassuring in discovering that even some of the country’s most experienced and successful craftspeople and designers face many of the same professional aches and pains as the rest of us: periodic crises of confidence, ebbs and flows in commissions; the challenging juggle of passion projects and paid work; the self-defeating tendency to compare ourselves (unfavourably, of course) to everyone else on Instagram… 

Happily, as the Craft Cubed Festival rolls around each August, we know we’ll find not just candid admissions and genuine empathy but clever, motivating advice at Craft’s annual seminar Craft and Design as a Career. This year’s event at Fed Square featured a stellar line up: NGV’s senior curator of fashion and textiles Katie Somerville; sculptor, jeweller and designer Kate Rohde; craft-based designer Kitiya Palaskas; arts writer Claire Rosslyn Wilson; Australian Tapestry Workshop master weaver Sue Batten; Indigenous art curator Hannah Presley; visual artist Peter Waples-Crowe; glassblower Amanda Dziedzic; homewares and jewellery designer Liane Rossler; and Instagram’s crocheted hat sensation Phil Ferguson, aka Chiliphilly.

What emerged from their fascinating stories – as brief as Phil’s meteoric two-year rise up the social media food chain and as epic as Liane’s four decades of ground breaking fashion, jewellery and homeware design and environmental activism – was hard-earned wisdom about nurturing your talents, embracing your idiosyncracies, finding your people, pushing your boundaries, earning a crust, and taking the business bull by the horns. 

 

Top 10 Tips From Craft & Design As a Career 2016

 

Follow Your Passions

Most of our speakers had a clue how to monetise their creative urges at the start of their careers. They followed their noses into hobbies and courses that allowed plenty of time to experiment with materials, themes and projects and develop signature styles. Over time, and ever so hazily, potential career paths emerged – often with help from social media. For Kitiya Palaskas, the DIY attitude of punk proved hugely inspiring. 

“At the beginning of this journey I didn’t have any clients, and I didn’t have any outlet for this, or a purpose for making anything,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to start making things and see what happens’. It really provided me with this belief that I could just create my own career path and I didn’t really need to wait for someone to give it to me. There wasn’t really anywhere to put it so I just started putting stuff out on my blog and My Space – remember My Space? – to my top eight friends saying, ‘This is what I do, and this is who I am, and I made this thing today’, and not really expecting anything from it.”

Value Your Day Job

Kate Rohde’s high profile collaborations with the likes of Sydney fashion icon Romance Was Born and work for seminal exhibitions like NGV’s Melbourne Now have all been undertaken while juggling a day job. 

“You always need to have a back-up plan if you’re starting out in the arts,” Kate says. “I was fortunate enough that I had a part time job when I left art school, working at a school as an art technician. And that job has served me very well up until this year, so that’s 14 or 15 years of still having this other job on this side.”

 

Find Your Crew

Collaborating on projects and sharing studios are great ways to ‘find your crew’, according to Amanda Dziedzic. So too are applying for residencies, mentoring and being mentored, taking workshops and even applying for grants. 

“Find like-minded people for inspiration and support,” she advises. “This might mean renting a studio with others, taking classes with others, joining groups. Being a maker can sometimes be quite lonely, so these types of things can make it easier when you predominantly work alone. I think collaborations are cool, and we’ve heard so many people say this: you never know where they’re going to lead. It’s a good opportunity for new work and ideas you might not have thought about. And I also think when you’re starting out you want to get your name out there as much as possible. You never know where something’s going to go, who might see it, and that kind of leads to your next opportunity.”

Push and Cross Your Boundaries

Pushing creative boundaries and abandoning professional labels is essential for growth, and can lead to some career-defining collaborations. Kate Rohde admits she initially found it bizarre to be referred to as a designer rather than an artist. 

“I’ve really come to embrace working … across the fields, and in the time I’ve been working it seems a lot more possible to jump between areas,” she says. “Divisions are much less obvious. It’s not so set any more, and you don’t have to feel so self-conscious about it.”

 

Tell Your Story With Confidence

Although self-promotion can be daunting – and public speaking terrifying – Amanda Dziedzic says makers need to learn to tell their stories with confidence. 

“If you don’t believe your own hype, who will?” she asks. “If you’re a jeweller, you should be wearing your creations. Me? My vases are everywhere through the house. Be confident in what you make. We put all of our heart into it so you have to be able to speak confidently about your own work and really believe it.” 

Find your Social Media Niche

As Chiliphilly, Phil Ferguson took just two years to build an Instagram following for his one-off crocheted food hats of 143,000 people. That in turn sparked a wave of media attention, from Buzzfeed to the BBC, which brought in paid commissions within a year. Last October Phil “decided to wing it” and is now crocheting full time, though that may change in the future. His strategy, initially at least, was no more complicated than trying to make like-minded friends in his adopted hometown of Melbourne using the crochet skills he picked up from YouTube as an art student in Perth. 

“I had this idea in my head I wanted to create these hats that looked like certain objects and put them on Instagram,” Phil says. “I was mainly inspired by the idea of drag – putting on makeup … almost becoming a new character.” Finding a niche theme – food – was pivotal to Phil’s success. “I kind of knew really early on that it would be popular,” he says. “I come from a generation that … has always had social media. So … I had an understanding of what … things people liked, and this idea in my head ticked a lot of niche boxes that would make it very unique and, in turn, really popular.” 

 

Master Your Craft

In contrast to Phil, Katie Somerville, Sue Batten and Liane Rossler have been honing their respective crafts since the 1970s and ‘80s. Their diverse stories illuminated the value of devoting one’s formidable focus and creative energies to disciplines that keep things fresh and challenging via diverse briefs, complex demands, ambitious commissions, high profile exhibitions and invigorating collaborations with world class artists and designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Arthur Boyd. 

“I’ve had this long career – nearly 40 years,” says Sue. “And I’m still every bit as enthusiastic as I was when I first started. I think if you can do that in your life, what more do you want?”

Embrace Your Personal Quirks

Kitiya Palaskas used to think her tendency to procrastinate indicated an inner slacker. Recently she’s realised a period of apparent inaction is integral to her creative process. 

“I’ve still been thinking about everything in my head,” Kitiya says. “All of a sudden there’s like one more day left to do this thing and everything crystallises in my brain, and there’s no time to just faff around, and I just smash this thing out. There’s no time for my thoughts to be muddled or to second-guess myself.” Accepting and learning from our creative quirks makes for an easier life, according to Kitiya. “Working with these things is a lot more successful than working against them,” she says.

 

Get Your Business Strategies Sorted

Amanda Dziedzic has the business thing sussed and her precise advice is plentiful. Pay yourself a wage from the outset, no matter how small, or you’ll end up like she did initially: below the poverty line. Include your wage in grant applications. Set payment terms that help your cash flow, such as 50% upfront and 50% on delivery. Outsource work you can’t do: it frees your time for work you can do and expands your networks. Hustle for work every day. Write down your dreams. “Think big, and don’t be afraid of where it can take you,” Amanda says. And be stubborn.

 “Don’t let funding, or lack thereof, get in the way of doing what you want to do,” she adds. “You’ve got to say ‘Fuck it.’ Do it yourself.”

Expect Setbacks – and Use Them

Beware career success that leads to working seven days a week, ignoring friends’ invitations, feeling guilty when you’re not working, and obsessing over your social media likes. Chances are that though the job offers are rolling in as you always dreamed they would, burnout it not far away. Like so many makers, Kitiya Palaskas experienced “a pretty horrible case of burnout coupled with a mega dose of creative block” just as her career seemed to be hitting its stride. She recalls wallowing, journaling, and ultimately emerging with a clearer perspective on what she actually wanted from a career in craft and design. 

“At the time I felt really ashamed about it, and I thought that it was something like a downfall,” Kitiya says. “One step at a time, not putting pressure on myself, I came out of it. The things I learnt from this experience are that burning out is not a sign of failure. It’s just a natural thing that’s going to happen to you eventually. It’s actually an amazing chance to reset and revaluate what you want to do in your career, and what things are working and what are not, and what’s making you happy and what’s not.” 

Ultimately, crafting a satisfying career from your creative passion may mean recalibrating your definition of success. Many makers aren’t at it full time. Loads retain day jobs – and thrive on the mix. Most aren’t involved in one high profile collaboration after another. Most don’t work in stylish, instantly Instagramable studios. Most aren’t changing the course of crafting history. The happiest makers we meet are the ones taking satisfaction from their achievements, regardless of how humble these may seem to others. As Kitiya eloquently says,

“If you measure success on ego-based things like how many Instagram followers you have, you’re never going to win, because somebody’s always going to have more Instagram followers than you. But if you turn inwards and measure your success on things like, ‘Wow, I love craft and I get to do it as a job, every day’, or ‘I started off knowing nothing … and now I know all these things’, and compare yourself to yourself as opposed to others, everyone’s successful then. You’ve achieved things you never thought possible.”

 

- Written by Kath Dolan
Photography by Shermaine Wee