The True Definition of a Cottage Industry - AN ARTSY JOURNEY #13
This was HUGE!
I signed on to be an artist with a huge wholesaler, International Art Concepts, IAC, who specialized in framing and distributing small art collages to national chain stores, such as Pier One, Spiegel Catalog. And their first order was huge, 960 petite art pieces! With a huge deadline, thirty days! This would give me a huge paycheck! But it also came with a huge headache – I had other huge commitments to juggle around this huge project.
First, I had to design a new kids’ coloring book for the Mid-Datoka - Kirkwood Mall Medical Clinic in Bismarck.
Second, I was taking five college classes, closing in on a marketing degree. School was manageable, except for accounting. Debits and credits were more challenging than the probability theories in statistics. And right now, my balance sheet would never justify if I didn’t get extra help to make the nearly thousand-piece, thirty-day deadline.
After placing a help-wanted newspaper ad, I found a couple of artsy gals, Beth and Bobby-Jean, to assist with crafting the collages. That was the easy part.
The hard part was deciding where we would we work. Earlier, my apartment proved too small when I created 400 handmade holiday greeting cards in the broom-closet-sized kitchen. Where would I put two additional people? And larger work tables?
My stomach swirled like mixed-up paint. The mini collages were a new venture with uncertain results. I didn’t need a statistic class to tell me that if I leased an expensive building and didn’t get a reorder I’d be failed data.
The basement apartment wasn’t the most practical space to mass produce the mini-collages but it was the most economical. In order to make room I had to pack up some of my belongings – major ones.
I looked at the double bed. Memories overflowed me. I held my breath, counted to ten, and tried to ignore the hot prickling in my chest. Loneliness and I had this conversation a hundred times before. No, I hadn’t planned to be alone, but when Robert suddenly moved I was left to fend for myself. And right now I couldn’t let my heartache be bigger than my common sense. If I wanted to move back to my home state of Michigan I needed to save money where I could. Besides, there was nothing sentimental about a double bed when you’re sleeping alone. Maybe without knowing it, I was choosing happiness over suffering.
I called a friend, “Uh, Jennifer. It’s Kate.”
“Hello!” I could hear her ever-present smile over the phone. It soothed me instantly.
“I’ve got another favor,” I said, hesitating, knowing Jennifer, like my other good friend, Cindy, was always helping me out. Once she borrowed her father’s pick-up truck to deliver the gigantic, four by six foot, oil paintings to St. Alexius Medical Center.
Taking a deep breath, I griped the phone and pressed on, “Can I store some of my furniture in your basement?” Jennifer lived with her husband in a duplex that had an unfinished area in the lower lever.
"Is that the favor?” she asked. “That’s a lot easier than Friday’s favor.”
How did I forget three days ago Jennifer came to my rescue? I wanted to slink and hide. Last week Jennifer drove from one downtown shop to another collecting their surplus bubble wrap so I could recycle the wrap when packing art.
“I know. I know,” I said, pushing through the humiliation. “That was a huge favor. But bubble wrap is expensive to buy.”
Jennifer cruising for bubble wrap, and now, storing my bed frame, mattress, dining room table and chairs would save me a bundle – at least two airline tickets to visit my family. I had my priorities and I knew I would swallow more than my pride to meet them.
“Sure, you can store stuff here,” she said.
“I owe you a Long Island Tea at the Ground,” I said, naming a local hang out where we met every Tuesday. The free popcorn was my dinner, the drink was Jennifer’s mental health – she taught college kids for more than fifteen years.
Knowing I needed more counter space to paint and collage, I pressed on.
Next, I contacted a local carpenter about a pair of work tables. “We need to stand while painting and often times there’s a bit of spatter,” I said.
“Formica wipes up easily, and is reasonably priced,” he suggested and gave me a quote using unfinsihed 2x4 wood legs and laminate remnants.
The price was modest so I asked about another project, “Can you build some kind of drying rack?” I showed him a sketch of an open shelving concept. “But it needs to be portable and inexpensive,” I added, knowing solid wood shelves were beyond my budget.
“Hmm.” He scratched the scruff on his chin. The drying rack was a challenge.
I offered a comparison, “Something like a baker’s rack, except instead of storing cookie sheets, we need the rack to be narrower, and to have more space between each shelf.
“How heavy are the painted papers?” he asked.
“Light as a kite,” I said, handing him a 4 x 10” square of paper.
It floated in the palm of his hand.
“Kite string,” we said in unison.
Overnight the apartment became an art studio. The two hefty painting tables graced the dining and living rooms. Into the bedroom, I slid the hide-a-bed couch and arranged a coffee table in waiting-room style. I tucked a folding table into a secluded corner for a desk. The room was an office by day and a sleep center by night. I was camping in my own domain. The good news was I wouldn’t get poison ivy and I didn’t need bug repellant.
The studio was a flurry of activity as Beth and Bobby-Jean bustled about. We painted, crafted, packed, and shipped the first order with pride.
Several days later the phone rang.
“This is Ben in receiving at IAC,” he grumped. “I’m short seven landscapes.”
How could he be short? We had dutifully counted thirty-two pieces into thirty piles. 32-30 had been our motto all month to make deadline. From beginning to end: thirty-two pieces per day in thirty days – thirty-two pieces in thirty piles.
But Ben’s barked, withered me. I didn’t question his count. Instead I asked, “Should we send the remainder?”
“Nah,” I’ll just deduct it from the invoice,” he snapped and ended the call.
I slumped into the folding desk chair. The lost revenue was painful. I had negotiated a decent price per piece, but like the notecards, every nickel mattered: envelopes equaled four cents apiece, likewise the cellophane outer package. I calculated paint, paper and glue as six cents per collage. In addition there were the shipping and labor costs. The profit margin wasn’t high; it was the quantity that made this job worthwhile. And the hope of a reorder.
A reorder from IAC would be like the purchase order from Mr. Carlsson on the holiday greeting cards – guaranteed income. With confirmed reorders, I could produce mini collages … from anywhere! I could live anywhere! No longer would most of my income be coming from the Bismarck community. That was the dream I had been clinging to so desperately for ten long months.
Two weeks later, I was sorting mail when I spied the envelope from IAC. With a shaky hand, I ripped the letter open. We had a reorder. I flew, because I don’t remember my feet touching the carpet, as I leaped to the phone and called Beth and Bobbie-Jean to ask them to increase their work hours.
The studio hummed as Beth and Bobbie-Jean and their glue-gun assembly line crafted for a week and shipped out the first third of the order as requested in record time.
Then the phone rang. It was Ben, the IAC receiving specialist for our mini collages. “Your count was correct.” Click. The phone went dead. The cottage industry was not only humming, it was profitable.
Soon I would learn how volatile the cottage industry could be.
The days ahead continued to have high peaks and low valleys, kind of like my life today and probably your life, too.
Although the challenges today are different, it is still friends and family that support my dreams and keep my spirit alive. Thank you for reading and following the stories! I hope they boost your spirits.