Talking with Merrie Buchsbaum

Episode #185

Today’s guest is Ms. Merrie Buchsbaum, a polymer clay artist. She has a lot of advice to offer for artists starting out, good production tips and other eye openers.

Plus lots of news about the new craftcast website!

Interview with Merrie Bucksbaum

Alison Lee: Oh I’m excited. This is going to be good today everyone. Listen up. I’m talking to Merrie Bucksbaum, a polymer artist. She is a self-taught artist. She has a company called Merrily Made. I saw her at a craft show recently this summer and fell in love with her work and also her attitude and I knew so many of you would want to hear what she has to say about being a full time working artist. Merrie thank you so much for coming on and blabbing with me today.

Merrie Bucksbaum: Well thank you for having me.

Alison: So let’s first go into, what is your art background? Like where did you start? Did you go to art school?

Merrie: I do have quite an eclectic background in art. I did quite a lot of art work when I was in high school. I did a lot of ceramics. I went on to regular undergraduate and did my regular art classes, elementary design kind of thing. Did ceramics there as well. And then I started teaching in elementary school and went back to graduate school got a masters in applied arts which wasn’t necessarily any one medium, but I did focus on ceramics believe it or not. And here I am not a ceramic artist, but that is mostly my background. I love ceramics and always half since I was a little child

Alison: And did you think I’m going to be, that's what I am as an artist? You didn’t say, was that your career choice from the get go?

Merrie: I never thought I was going to be an artist. I thought I was always going to be a teacher. I went to school, earned my degree to teach. I never thought I was going to teach art. I did end up teaching art for 1 year.

Alison: And what happened?
Merrie: But I was in elementary school teacher. I was a school teacher for many years and loved it. But I never, it never even dawned on me. Even thought I had an internship in ceramics in college and travelled the world and looked at all different kinds of artist in the world of ceramics, it never dawned on me that I would one day have a business that has lasted as long as it has in the art field.

Alison: Which is how long?

Merrie: I’m going in my 23rd year.

Alison: Congratulations.

Merrie: Thank you.

Alison: Well then how did you make that switch? What made you all of a sudden say, that's it. I’m going to make my living as a, basically I use the term commercial fine artist, commercial artist? What made the switch for you then?

Merrie: I think that it was a series of steps. I think it was a very big step. I took the step totally blind. I had started working with polymer when I was 21 years old, 22 years old and I started making beads when I was teaching and I would sell them to the other teachers. And all of a sudden I had more beads than I knew what to do with. And I started going to small little church shows and just regional bazaars and selling. And I was going to graduate school at the same time and my schedule between going to graduate school and teaching sometimes they weren’t always the best blend. And after a year of having sort of conflict in scheduling and things like that, I decided well, I started making quite a bit of money selling these beads. What happens if I go to graduate school full time and I don’t continue teaching and I just start selling jeweler? Let’s see what happens. And that's how it happened. So I didn’t renew my teaching contract. Went to graduate school full time and started selling my jeweler in every place I could think off and one day I made $1000 in a day and I said wow! I could do this.

Alison: That's fabulous. So that was the bell that went off?

Merrie: It was the bell that went off and it was just, it's sort of just organically happened. Taking one step and educating myself and learning everything that there was to learn and I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning for sure.

Alison: Tell us some of your mistakes. I love the mistake parts. And we hear the good parts too but what was your like mistake that you went I can't believe I did that?

Merrie: Well first I wasn’t a jeweler person and here I was selling jeweler so I didn’t really know the terminology or where to find parts. So I made a lot of mistakes in assuming that, oh I can just find parts easily for the backings and the findings and well that wasn’t so easy to do. And then I just assumed that companies would want to do business with me and that's not the case. You have to have some sort of track record with working with companies. And well I said to them, I'm new. How can I have a track record? Well, we are not going to business with you. So it took a long time for anybody just to even answer my calls or answer any of my desires in terms of trying to move forward in some of my design ideas. And little by little, so being naive that was probably my largest mistake so to speak.

Alison: Yeah but thank god we have that.

Merrie: Yes. And perseverance is really important because somebody is going to open that door for you. You might need to knock on 100 doors and ask 100 people but eventually by asking lots of questions, you'll get the answers that you need. But it’s never going to be the first try, that’s for sure.

Alison: Well now did you say to yourself, did you want to also sell wholesale to stores or were you just interested in selling at craft fairs and direct to the consumer?

Merrie: Well at the beginning I knew that there was a wholesale market and I knew that if you were going to sell wholesale, that you had to know what you were doing and I didn’t know what I was doing. I made a lot of mistakes and you know I was making my own jeweler cards and I wasn’t using the right findings and you know, it was trial and error. Trying to make the product that was going to stand up. At the very beginning there's a lot of trial and error and as I began to perfect my jeweler and my pieces, I realize that there was a marketplace for my products. So I tried to find where I thought would be the right place. And that's when I started investigating in the wholesale market. And so I designed a product to go to wholesale market and then started not just selling at craft fairs but then going to the wholesale markets and selling directly to the stores as well.

Alison: And what was your first product that you did that with?

Merrie: I did that with jeweler. I did it with some very simple earrings and some pins. I had a whole line of pins this was years ago when pins were really popular, pins were on of my most popular things other than earrings. Earrings are always very popular. People love to [inaudible] little calico patterns pins and I thought, "Oh I was going to sell a million of them the first time I went to a show." That didn’t happen on my first wholesale show. I didn’t sell a million. But I sold enough to go to the next one.

Alison: And were you making all your own product always?

Merrie: I have always made all my own product.

Alison: You have?

Merrie: For 23 years, I'm always the one who makes my product. I have had staff that has helped me whether it's assembling or packaging or labeling. They have done things like that. They've done computer data entry information, things like that. But it terms of making the product, I’ve always made my product 100%

Alison: Now I say which I loved, your products and I know you are known for you patterns and your canning. And one of the things I loved about seeing your work was that I didn’t say "Oh look it's polymer clay." I just went "Oh I love those pins. I love that look" I mean I was just immediately drawn to that.

Merrie: Thank you.

Alison: Your welcome. Now was it always your, was that your passion, your artistic voice? Was it always in that type of detail in the small patterns etcetera and experimenting in that?

Merrie: I have always loved patterns. So that is certainly something. Pattern and color are the 2 big things that I have always been in love with in terms of how to have a voice and how to express. And even when I was doing ceramics, I made a lot of my own stamps and I made a lot of patterning as decorative means. So patterns are everywhere in this world and for me I just see them everywhere I go. So for me to reproduce patterns and repetitious motifs it's just awesome. I love it. And I do in a mono chromatic way that's very pleasing and soft and they're mesmerizing patterns that people are very drawn to. There are strong geometric patterns but at the same time they're not [inaudible]. There are things that you want to interact with.

Alison: Oh absolutely. And your color palette makes you just want to go right towards them. Now when did you add in. I know you had these beautiful pins and pins you could use on your iPad. Was that something that you just were trying to expand your market and you thought, how did that come about?

Merrie: That came about a couple of years ago. I started making the pins actually as a treat for my regular jeweler customers. I would always make around the holiday time; I would always make 1 special item that was different then what I would make all year round. And my regular jeweler customers would come and they would see what that special item was that I was selling. So I started selling the pins years ago and it evolved. So when I brought the pens to the market, people loved them immediately. But I also that the pin market and technology were moving forward not necessarily congruently. So I knew that stylists as well as pins were something that could be integrated somehow together and that's when the pen stylist sort of took birth and it's one of my top selling items. So it’s not only just a pin but it's a stylist as well and people love the dual functioning of that.

Alison: Oh yeah. Was a great idea that type of thing. It's still bringing craft and homemade into the feeling of that.

Merrie: And being something that's functional on a regular basis. Something that you can use. everyday.

Alison: No I love it. Now let’s talk reality for people. because you support yourself. Your career is, support is the wrong word but you are a full time artist and let’s sort of, for people who are thinking about, that’s what they want. Let’s just disclose the underside of that, what it's really about. Break down the amount of time, time you spend in a week for actually making art and doing the business of art and what that looks like.

Merrie: It's definitely seasonal for me the breakdown but if I had to think about it.

Alison: Averaged it out.

Merrie: Kept track of things. I think that I make about, I make about 35% of the time. And then the rest of the time is really business things, it's ordering supplies, it's packing orders out, talking to galleries, designing new products, doing my research, designing booths, going to the photographer, doing layouts for catalogues. All that kind of stuff, doing press releases, flying to shows, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes, not just making you product or my product, let’s just say. I would love to just sit and make my product the whole time not do it [inaudible]. I wish someone could do all that other stuff.

Alison: So I guess could you say that in a work week you might spend 1 day a week, let’s say you have a 5-day work week if that was possible. And one day a week would be maybe making actually sitting there and creating? Or even less than that?

Merrie: I would certainly say it’s more than one day a week. And so it’s hard to look at the work week as a 5 day because I do work more than 5 days a week.

Alison: Right. That's the first thing. That's important.

Merrie: It’s sometimes very hard. there are periods of times I am literally doing nothing but making pins from the moment I wake up until I can’t go anymore. But then there will be maybe 2 or 3 weeks where I won’t make a pin at all because I am doing all this other kind of work. So right now I’m making pins like 3 times a week right now.

Alison: Right. Just getting ready for a holiday season I’m assuming.

Merrie: Getting ready for holiday season is like 3 times a week and then the other 2 days we're doing business things and packing orders. Yeah.

Alison: Would you say that then; flexibility is very important in being a full time artist? What would be some of the characteristics you think are most important to take on that kind of career?

Merrie: I definitely think you need to be flexible. I think that you have to be tolerant of so many different types of situations that come your way. Sometimes you are going to be doing the same thing over and over again. So you have to be tolerant of the fact that there's going to be monotonous procedures that you just have to do in order to move forward or fill orders. And things are very erratic, so your schedule is constantly going to be changing. I love that because I never get bored so things are always different. But certainly knowing that ahead of time that there's never any consistency in the schedule, even if you try and say "OK. On Monday I'm only going to do paperwork and something and nothing else." Well it's good in theory but it never works that way for me. But I would definitely say something like that is important. Also the fact being aware, we are so isolated as artists and having in that work outside of your little studio world is very important and keeping a pulse on the market is so important. So it’s not just your in-studio time but it’s what the market is asking for and pricing and really being aware of what’s going on outside your little world.

Alison: And how do you do that? Because I think that's true to. I mean do you ever find yourself going "Oh it's three days. I haven’t been outside yet."

Merrie: Mhhmm. That happens on a regular basis or I say "Oh. The only person I've seen for the last week is the post office. The post people." I get on the phone, I call other artists, I go online, I look at different things that are happening even if they don’t pertain to my form of artwork, I’m always looking at what other people are doing. I search on other people's websites that I like, That I’ve come across. I just for me that's sort of my eyes out there in the world. Even if I go somewhere on the weekend for fun, if I go into another gallery or I go someplace and pick someone else's business card or write some name and artist down. And then during the week I might do a little bit of research to see where they are coming from or what their website looks like or where they sell their works. So really just constantly keeping my eyes open and constantly keeping track of what’s going on around me even though it’s my own world.

Alison: Now are you good at giving yourself, I don’t call it down time I like to call it uptime. Are you good at giving yourself that kind of break? Because I think that's one of the things as artists is difficult to say "OK. I need some time off."

Merrie: I think I have a pretty good balance of that, I do. I think that it’s really important that you are not always working. My brain is always going but that doesn’t mean I'm always making. But I do have big hobbies. I’m a really big perennial gardener so often out in the garden. The other night I was out there with my headlight clipping my plants down. I know it was 7 o clock at night but I was like "Up. That's going to be my time." And so I'm up there in the dark clipping things down. I'm a big white water kayaker. So as often as I can get out, I get out and go kayaking. I will be going kayaking this weekend with my friends. I know it will be 40 degrees but I'm going non the less. So we'll go off and we'll have fun doing it. So it is important and it’s important not to be talking about work all the time. To leave the studio physically and mentally close the door and go off and do something that has nothing to do with your art world. It’s really important. You got to have that, I call it the "Brain Drain" is what I call it. Just have that down time, uptime.

Alison: Yeah. I mean I think it’s the only way to get refreshed.

Merrie: Yep. True.

Alison: Especially doing something physical.

Merrie: I love it. So both of those hobbies I love [inaudible]. I love to cook to. So I think it’s really important to have things outside of the studio that you love to do that allow you a new outlet or a different kind of outlet than what you do during your work day. You're working, you know.

Alison: Yeah. But I think most important especially working as an artist, well you have to be willing I think to be face fear of the unknown. You are certainly not, it’s not like. You can have it set up so that you do know a years’ worth of work and what might happen and all of that after you've been in business for a while. But I also think that self-discipline is very important.

Merrie: It is and in terms of what you just said, you can set it up so that you have work ahead of time. Ultimately that's the goal. [Inaudible] and all the crafters that I talk to, we all sort of kind of giggle. We are gamblers. We are terrible gamblers. Heck we always call ourselves the ultimate optimist because we go out and we hope that when we take our goods out there, that we put our best foot forward just like you gamble, you know. You put your best foot forward, you put your money on the table, you put your product out there with the hope that you are get the reward in return. And there are so many factors just like any gambler. There's so many factors to what’s going to make something work, and the fact that we are so optimistic even though we've all been crush 100 times. We still go out there with the hope that this time is going to be the good time and this is the time that we are going to, you know get more work, where we are going to have a successful weekend or whatever it might be. But we know that hope is always out there and the possibility to have success on a regular basis is there. It’s just finding that right combination on a regular basis so it's fluid.

Alison: Yes. The fluidity would be good. I think that it’s also, do you think it’s in the artist’s DNA. That's why it’s not for everyone because it is the perpetual just, you know happy jean. You know it’s not for everyone.

Merrie: It’s certainly not for everyone and they’re going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows. As I say, well this week we will be eating a lot of rice and beans and next week, you might do better. So I think it’s a balance of knowing that when you have your high highs, celebrate them fantastically and squirrel away the success that you've had because I guarantee you next week, you know you are going to be back to a place that isn’t so successful and you are going to need that the good juju to get you to the next place. So it is really volatile and especially in this marketplace today, whether you are doing wholesale or retail things are so volatile. Customer are coming from so many different places. They have so many different needs and there is no magic answer to satisfy any individual that comes to you to buy something. So you put your best foot forward. You make a product that you stand behind, that you have passion for and you hope as well as educate yourself that you are making the right thing and pricing it the right way, then it’s going to find the correct home, so to speak, you know. It’s going to find the right customer.

Alison: I think that's all key. You have to be passionate, you have to have some education, and then put it out there. It’s all of the above. And then you have to be fearless and just go for it.

Merrie: You do. And you have to say when someone is standing in my booth and they say " Oh my goodness, you want that for that? Who is going to buy something for that price?” And you can’t take that personally, it’s how they are reflecting and so you have to be at some level thick skinned and know that your product isn’t going to be for everybody and that's ok. You just pull up your bootstraps, you smile and say thank you. And then in your mind you are like, next. And your next will come because somebody will buy.

Alison: Yeah. Well I also think that you get great. Well my son used to say "Some people are crazy, you don’t pay any attention to them which always made me laugh, But some people you get, the negative has a lot of good feedback too. You just have to really look at it and discern it without being emotionally attached to it. And that's what key.

Merrie: And know that the idea you've brought to the table so to speak if it’s not successful, you are creative. You can make something different. And so being so attached to one product or being so attached to this one idea isn’t always the healthiest way to approach your artwork and knowing that, well if this whatever it is you are making at the moment it doesn’t work, well you can make something else. And one of my friends always says to me that's one the greatest attributes they think I have is that I can literally fall on my face and have just bring a new product to the marketplace and it be horrible and walk away from the show going "Well. I'll just think of something else." And they are like why aren’t you falling to pieces? Because I know what I make is good, I just didn’t make the right thing at the right time. I'll think of something new. And you do.

Alison: That’s a great way to look at it. I also think that you can’t sell people what you want to sell them necessarily but you have to sell them what they want to buy too. So there are a few ways of looking at it but as long as you can remain unemotional about it all and turn it into a business, I think that's also key. Keep the emotions in check.

Merrie: And remember this is a business and sometimes you have to do things that you don’t love to do or sometimes you need to make a product that still has things that are about you as an artist, but maybe the end product is ultimately what you want to be making at this exact moment. There are steps and progressions to everything. Maybe you need to make a small widget before you can make a big widget. And you can make that small widget fabulously and know that you are aiming towards the big widget. Maybe it’s going to take you 2 or 3 years to get there. But still celebrate the small widget, that’s great!

Alison: Oh yeah. I'm a big fan of celebrating the wins and taking that time to say “No. I met my goal. I’m going to enjoy the whole evening saying that over and over again to myself." So I think it is really important.

Merrie: It is. Definitely.

Alison: Well when you go to and do your wholesale shows, how many do you do a year? Are your shows in general combine let’s say trade shows? Whether it's fairs or trade shows, are you on the road? How many times a year are you on the road?

Merrie: I would say about 15 times a year and some of those, the wholesale shows are longer and retail shows tend to be a bit shorter. So about 15 times, sometimes more, sometimes less.

Alison: And that’s a big commitment right there.

Merrie: It depends on the year and what my financial needs are.

Alison: Yeah. That’s a big commitment there to be going on the road. That's like saying, you know one and point something times a month.

Merrie: Yes. And when I come back from wholesale, it's usually, there's a huge of responsibility of work after’s. So the wholesales usually take up a huge amount of time, usually wholesales in the winter time. And so I'm normally working pretty much straight almost 7 days a week from the beginning of sort of right before Christmas all the way through the end of February. It’s usually 7 days a week right there. So preparing, going to the shows, coming back doing all the paperwork that’s involved with it. So very intense. It’s not just time out of the studio but the intensity to get yourself to wholesale is really big as a single artist. When you have more support, it's different.

Alison: No, it’s a lot. it's packing it all up, taking it all on the road.

Merrie: Yes.

Alison: Now is there something that you are working on now? Do you give yourself some time for future thought and designing new ideas?

Merrie: My future thought is 24/7. I’m constantly thinking of new ideas and thinking of. I think that what I’m thinking of right now is how can I make my products that I have right now more successful in the marketplace in terms of. I get the feedback what customers say or what they don’t say. And how can I make my product my successful because when people buy and use it, they love it. So how do I get more people attracted to it to make it a more successful purchase. So I’m always thinking you know how can I reach more people? And how do you do that? And I'm not a person that knows all about advertising and packaging and I try and I work very hard on that. But reaching out to different people to help me with that is something that I am consistently working on and right now, that's where I'm at. I'm trying to find somebody who can help me make my product have a bigger voice on the market shelf basically. On the store shelf. And so that's how sales are made. When people go into stores, they look at products and they buy them based upon what they look like or do their impact or packaging. There's so many factors that go into it. So that's what I’m working at. So when a customer goes in the store, they are getting a little bit of me when they buy it.

Alison: Right. There's a lot today. Especially keeping up. Do you spend a lot of time doing social media work on your product?

Merrie: I try. I'm not the best at computers, I do try. I do have Merrily Made on Facebook and people are responding. I had a post recently with over 1000 responses so that was very exciting.

Alison: Congratulations.

Merrie: That was my first time.

Alison: Good for you.

Merrie: So I do try to do social media. I have a blog on my website that’s not a daily blog but big milestones for the business. I do blog on the website for that and that's all new for me. So that’s all things that take time out of my every day. I try to have a balance between all of these things. But I think it’s important to reach out through social media is just trying to find what’s important to my customer as well as finding the balance time to do it at the same time.

Alison: Yeah. It is all about that balance. One last thing I wanted though. Because you had mentioned this when I met you at the fair and I thought this was really great, was your approach and I know that you teach sometimes but that you really work with very few tools and your product is gorgeous and it's beautifully finished. And it's just top notch. And you are not big into, you know, everything, all the top end tools. You basically work very simply, correct?

Merrie: Correct. I do. I basically have a blade, my hands. I use a very simple rolling pin and I do have a motor on my [inaudible] machine to help me roll sheets out. But basically those are the only tools that I use on a regular basis to make my patterns. So I’m not into the fanciest, newest widget and gadget and tool. I think they are great. There are some really fun things out there. But for what I do and how I process in my mind how to make a pattern and how I want my end product to be, it’s all for me in my brain and my hands.

Alison: I love that. But wait, do you buy widgets for cooking? Do you buy tools for cooking and things? Is there someplace that you get into the gadgets or you're just a bottom, simple approach kind of person?

Merrie: I'm pretty simple. I’m not huge into gadgets. I do like things, if something that’s going to make my life simpler and is a pragmatic tool, that would be very helpful. I have that. Like I have a great blender so I make smoothies every day. So instead of having a lower end, I really have purchased a really good one for me to use. So I think that makes sense in terms of a gadget but no, I don’t think I’m really into all of the gadgets. I think they are cool but I know [inaudible] a lot of times you buy them and you just never use them.

Alison: Yes. Well it's seductive, especially for people who are hobbyist in crafts. There's always you know, it’s all the bling and it attracts us and it’s like "Oh I have to have that if I'm going to make that." But the truth of the matter is, that’s not true.

Merrie: True. And sometimes they are very helpful. I mean I have gone to workshops and I've taught and I've seen, that’s where I've most of all these tools and gadgets because I go and I see what everybody else has in their toolbox. I just come in with a little bag and everybody has all these things on wheels with all these compartments and all this stuff and I'm like "Wow. What are we having?" I'm always going through everybody else's boxes to see what they have and most of it, I don’t even know what it is because I've never seen it before. And they show me I'm like "Wow. That’s the coolest thing." I would never know how to use it or when to use it but I'm like Merrie: "Wow. That’s really cool." And so I think, you know like you said sometimes they are really fun to have and there is an application for them depending on you know what you are doing. And sometimes as a hobbyist it is fun. It’s kind of like going on vacation and getting a new outfit. You know you want something fun and different. And as hobbyist if we are going to go take a class and we're going to do something special and differently, you want that. Kind of fun.

Alison: It is fun. Well I want everyone to be inspired to google you, it’s under "Merrily Made" and take a look at your polymer and your patters because if you are thinking about "Oh [inaudible] I need the next tool to try something with polymer, I’m talking about myself, just take a look what Merrie makes and she doesn’t use any of those things. You will be very impressed. So, well I just want to thank you for spending some time chatting with me and giving a little behind the scenes of what it’s like to live the life as an artist that so many people want to do.

Merrie: Well thank you for having me.

Alison: My pleasure. Thank you. Bye Bye.

Merrie: Bye. Bye.