Janine Nelson has a big studio in South London, she runs mosaic workshops and makes small-scale mosaic pieces from old china under the name of Smashing China. She hosts school visits at a local museum three days a week and works hard in her studio for the remainder.
“I think I’m feeling in a fairly good place even though I’m not making money or selling much”
When Janine talks about her career it seems more like a swirl than a progression. Jamaican born, she was bought up in rural Hampshire and did Fine Art at Camberwell School of Art , went on to do teaching training at Goldsmiths College then taught secondary school art. She subsequently did a self funded textiles MA at Goldsmiths before falling for mosaics
“Everything I wanted to do has been self funded by teaching”
Her teaching hours have fluctuated according to the fragility of her bank balance there have been interludes when she has been able to spend all her time on her mosaics using capital saved from her teaching income. In 2007 she had accumulated capital that has now evaporated by half. She also has her part-time museum job
“For the past three years what is coming in doesn’t match what is going out.
This year I havent used my savings and have managed by cutting running costs but this is only to be expected given that I was working as a full-time teacher and went down to part-time museum work!”
She is lucky to have economic studio space, she rents a double unit at the Lewisham Art house co-op for a minimum of 5 monthly hours running the organisation and £150 a month rent.
Janine’s partner is a fine artist with a studio in the same building so they are acclimatised to this hand to mouth way of managing.
“You never know what is going to happen – the next email, the next phone call”
All crafts people have to be determined about pursuing their craft, you can’t give up just because you have a meagre income, it takes time to find out what sells, and how you need to spend your time . You learn as you go and you keep evolving your product and the way you sell it, until you hit on something that can produce a living wage. Even then you get feast and famine, it’s never a smooth income.
However Janine had absolutely no record of her costs and income, not even a simple total. She thought she might have made “£400 to £500” this year. She is trying to get her business off the ground with her eyes tightly shut. Each new direction is looked on as the turn in her fortunes.
You have to analyse your figures, you can’t hide from the reality, it allows the worry and self-doubt to bed in deeper, it doesn’t evade it. There are so many unknowns, its at least worth using the knowns that you have actually experienced.
Where is the money coming from that she has made? Product sales? Teaching? Where is the money going to? Materials? Overheads? Travel? Fees?
With some answers, you can tweak, for example the products that have sold, could they be priced a bit higher in future? Are you buying materials in bulk to get good unit costs but carrying a lot of stock you may never use? Lots of questions sit in the figures, they contain the clues, you need to look at them carefully.
I like a lot of what Janine makes, I like her mosaic additions to vintage plates I think they would look stunning on a dresser.
They are very pretty and understated, you come to notice her additions as a delightful extra, your eye has a private feast.
Look how the Heron stoops under the foliage, he is so delicately done and is so at one with his landscape
And here is a most solitary duck struggling to fly
These plates should surely sell, they are absolutely on message, for the vintage, retro upcycling fashion of the moment. Tea time and dressers and cake stands and Cath Kitson. They are thoughtful, individual pieces with a bit of character and a real eye for pattern. The maker of these should be making far more than she is
So why isn’t she? The answer is simple the public would have great difficulty finding them. They are beautifully displayed on Janine’s cleanly designed attractive website Smashing Chintz but you can’t buy from there. She very occasionally goes to a fair but then she has to absorb the costs of taking part.
Online Craft Market Places
Her latest move is to put some of her work in an online shop which she has asked me not to name.
This sweet little Scottie dog embellished plate costs £45 through the online shop. When I spoke to her she had sold 3 or 4 plates through this site and had been on for five or six weeks. Given the quantity of produce the visitor has to pick from, that is a good response.
Janine says that she was approached by the online shop after taking part in a craft fair at Bovey Tracey. They said that they had a special offer on and she only had a limited time to decide. The deal on offer was £400 joining fee and 30% commission or £600 joining fee and 20% commission
She took the first deal. So she makes £31.50 if she sells that plate. Here are the sums:
- The vintage plate is worth about £3 (that is the price of a similar plate is on eBay)
- Materials (grout, template, glue )
- Tools to make the mosaic
- Studio overheads
- Three hours making time
- Time to process the order itemising and photographing it for the website.
- Delivery and packaging costs and time ( the site encourages vendors to make this free to the customer for standard UK delivery)
- Eventually she will have recouped the £400 entry fee, but at this stage she is working entirely for the good of the online shop.
So money made =NONE
Not on the High Street is not unusual there are a lot of online presences that tempt the novice but there is an optimum size for these operations. You can get swamped by other products so that even if the whole world is coming to the site you havent that much chance of a sale. Think of Etsy.
The site’s interests are still served as they continue to take on new recruits and entry fees, they are selling product so they have commission coming in. You can always try to buy your way to extra sales by buying catalogue space but then you are again reducing your margins.
I think that the small craftsman needs to be in control. Janine has a great website, she simply has to import something like PayPal and she can sell directly.
She takes workshops, so can collect contacts and tell them when there is new product. Twenty interested people who are visiting to see your stuff and no one else’s are likely to produce more sales than a thousand casual visitors who flicker through a gigantic site.
Craft websites are not a numbers game, its how long do your visitors look and where did the interested ones come form? All this stuff can be discovered through linking your site to Google Analytics which you can do for free. They provide oodles of geek speak info but after a while you get to understand enough for it to be useful.
There was something else that Janine said that worried me and that was about how much time she was happy to spend making her mosaics. She explained that cutting the china and using the grout meant you are exposed to cement dust. You need eye protection, rubber gloves, goggles and a dust mask which she uses, but she says she can still feel it in her lungs and for that reason she wouldn’t like to spend more than two or three days a week actually making.
I am concerned that two or three days making leaves very little time to experiment and try out new ideas, you need time to play around to see what else you can produce, is there another way of doing things?
“It’s quite rare to have a making day as I am doing all the other stuff on the computer and ordering materials “
That means she cannot produce enough stock at her current prices to make a living even if she sold it.
This cow takes four or five hours to produce ( he is still ungrouted in this picture) he sells for £80. If you make for 2.5 days you could produce only five cows which would mean a potential sale of £400 with all your costs to come off that.
That means if you sold everything you could make ( which nobody ever does) you would have a gross income of £20,000 a year less all your costs. So prices have to go up or making time extended at a risk to Janine’s health.
Very sensibly Janine is looking at developing her product
She still has technical issues to overcome but she needs another product which is less labour intensive. It would be nice if it related closely to her mosaics because they are rather lovely
Works 4 days a week , income from sales about £500 this year, teaching fees are in addition to this figure