Accepting a promotion was the death knell for Zella Bardsley’s career at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare in 1986. Instead of working with special-needs patients as a disability specialist, Bardsley found herself stuck behind a desk as an administrator. It bored her.
Bardsley checked out a book on metalworking at the Boise Library and decided to give it a try. She quit her job, leaving the field supported by her master’s degree in special education. She bought a metal torch and started crafting steel into artwork.
“It was very scary financially, but I made a decision that I wouldn’t accept money doing anything I didn’t love to do for a living,” Bardsley said. “I believed in myself, and I jumped off of the cliff. And I was young.”
Three decades later, the 55-year-old spends her days cutting metal in a West Boise home she and her husband own outright. Though she declines to disclose sales, she says she earns half of the family’s income and more than she did as an educator. Together, the Bardsleys paid for their two children to attend college. Each year she sells more than a thousand of her metal and mixed-medium sculptures, figures and wall hangings through a dozen Northwest galleries, including Art Source Gallery in Downtown Boise.
Unlike Bardsley, few Treasure Valley artists earn most of their income from art. A 2015 Boise State University study found that artists in Boise spend an average of 49 hours per week on their artwork. Just 21 percent reported that their art earnings account for at least 81 percent of their income.
“Artists hold or cobble together a variety of other kinds of jobs so they can spend some portion of their time creating the art they were trained to make,” the study said.
Bardsley, who said she works 12 hours a day almost daily, might serve as a role model for young or aspiring artists who hope their art can pay the bills. But she said she also serves as a cautionary tale: Art is a grind, like anything else.
“You can’t just expect to have this lovely studio where you paint and sip wine,” she said. “You’ve got to work. There was a period of time I got tired of being told I was lucky. No. I worked very hard.”
The workday doesn’t end with the final brushstrokes, either. She spends three to four hours a day on business — promoting work on social media, corresponding with and shipping work to galleries, shopping for metal and other materials — which takes time away from her plasma cutter.
Business details are also a fact of life for Lauren Kistner, a painter who sells work at Art Source Gallery.
Kistner said studying at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle did not prepare her for the roughly 25 hours a week she spends running her business and researching venues and other leads. That work supports the 20 hours a week she spends with a brush or pencil in hand.
“I had to learn everything,” Kistner said. “The college doesn’t teach how to make it a career.”
SALES DON’T MEAN SUCCESS
Kistner, 33, works on batches of 16 paintings at a time in the tiny extra room in her Boise house. The room also serves as her packing and mailing station and as the storeroom for her inventory.
She spends from three weeks to six months per batch, layering acrylic and then oil paints, often adding wax or other materials — like eggshells from her backyard chickens — for added dimension. She switches from the abstract paintings to ink and watercolor illustrations, often with anatomical themes, when she needs a change of pace.
Six-inch-square paintings sell for $50. The price goes up to around $2,000 for 4-feet-by-2-feet paintings. Her ink-and-watercolor illustrations start at $25.
A Kuna native, Kistner booked successful exhibitions but did not turn to art full time until 2011, and then didn’t turn a profit until her third year, even though she said her work sold well. She said her artwork accounts for one-third of her household earnings, and 2015 was the first year she could have completely supported herself with it.
Kistner said she learned a business lesson in 2012 when profits from a sold-out exhibition in Seattle dried up once she subtracted costs for travel, food and lodging. Now she limits her efforts mostly to monthly exhibitions and local art events and showings, and sells at Art Source Gallery, on her website and in her Etsy store.
“In the beginning, I had an exhibition in Oregon, and another in Seattle, trying to stretch out,” Kistner said. “Very quickly I learned that I couldn’t afford to do that. I changed my focus to Boise, Idaho, the Treasure Valley.”
Bardsley said she has never felt secure about finances despite three decades of commercial success. Her husband, Glen, works on heavy equipment as owner of Glen Bardsley Fleet Repair in Boise. They could not afford health insurance until the mid-2000s, she said.
“Feeling comfortable doesn’t ever happen,” she said. “With two people who are self-employed and without health insurance, if one of us needed serious medical care, it could all fall down.”
Another Art Source artist, Boise jeweler Rick Olmstead, makes stone-and-silver jewelry at home when he’s not working full time as a Bench jeweler.
Though Olmstead has built a name for himself at the gallery, Capital City Public Market and at several annual art events, he said he can’t become a full-time artist until he retires and starts receiving Social Security checks.
Omstead said he feels “right at the edge of the cliff” when considering relying on his art as a sole income source.
“You want to jump, but you can’t quite do it,” Olmstead said. “You’ve got insurance to cover, and your expenses will drive you down to where you’re living at the poverty line.”
FINDING AN AUDIENCE
Bardsley and Kistner credit local art events, such as Art in the Park and Art in Roses, for building followings. Kistner will sell works at her sixth and final Modern Art event on Thursday at Boise’s Modern Hotel. The hotel announced that 2016 will mark the final year for the event, which Kistner said is traditionally her best of the year.
Customers often need to see an artist’s work several times before its style grows on them, Kistner said. That means sticking out several long days with scant sales in hopes that customers come back the next year.
“For me, it’s a two-year rule,” she said. “In my first year at Art in the Park, they walked right past me. The next year, they started buying.”
Bardsley said she drummed up interest from galleries by working a booth at 12 shows per year, allowing her to drop the shows from her schedule.
“Now I’m older and can’t do it all anymore,” she said. “But doing all of those outdoor shows is how I found the galleries.”
Olmstead said artists paying $40 per week for a booth at the Capital City Public Market have to stick out slow days before and after the summer sweet spot to make money.
“If you sell one piece, you’ve worked for basically nothing all day,” he said. “But you have to be there every day or else people forget about you.”
Olmstead said he tries to earn $30 per hour working on jewelry, but that calculation does not include time spent at the farmers market or trade shows to buy stones. Even so, he said he doesn’t always hit that mark.
He hand-picks the jaspers, opals and other semi-precious stones for his jewelry at an annual trade show in Arizona. Though he sells more expensive pieces, he keeps most of his prices under $100, which rules out using gold and more expensive stones, such as diamonds, rubies and sapphires.
“At $100 and below, it’s more of an impulse buy,” Olmstead said. “When they have to spend a C-note, they have to walk around and think about it, and a lot of times don’t come back.”
Bardsley said she receives more questions about how to price artwork from aspiring artists than on any other topic. She has sold commissioned work for $10,000, but she said she found success at outdoor shows by displaying work at a range of prices, starting with $12 refrigerator magnets. Her average price is about $135.
She keeps returning to her best sellers. She spends a third of her studio time churning out fish and naked dancing-lady ornaments that galleries can’t keep in stock. The only thing one gallery in Kalispell, Mont., sells of her work is the dancing women.
She spends a third of her time on larger commission work and saves the rest of her time for more fun and experimental work.
“I’m pretty serious about doing new stuff to keep my spirit up, but the guaranteed stuff pays my bills,” Bardsley said. “I could cut dancing ladies in my sleep.”