Professional Practice

Finding a Creative Outlet (Ep. 201)

As art teachers, it is important for many of us to try to find a creative outlet. In today’s discussion, Nic talks to Heather Levine about how she manages a jewelry-making business with her full-time teaching position. Listen as they discuss the joy of artmaking, the business side of being an artist, and the difficulty of finding a balance between the two.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Many of us listening to the podcast right now are art teachers. But how many of us would identify ourselves as artists right now, practicing artists? I’m very interested in this idea of following your passion, becoming an art teacher, as well as practicing your own art. Today, we’re going to talk to Heather Levine, who is going to tell us a little bit about this balance, or maybe not so balanced life of being an art teacher and a practicing and selling artist. This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Good morning. It is bright and early today. I’m very excited to chat with Heather today. I’m going to let her just introduce herself, give us your educational background, what you do for a profession, that sort of thing. Would you please introduce yourself, Heather?

Heather: Hi, I’m Heather Levine. I’m an art teacher at a private school in Apex, North Carolina. I teach Pre-K 4 through 8th grade. I’m new as a full-time art teacher at this school. So, I started in the pandemic, which has been interesting. Before that, I was a part-time art teacher at another Catholic school in Raleigh, North Carolina. I did receive my art education background in Ohio at Kent State University and moved to the south and have never returned.

Nic: Okay. Hey, it’s a Catholic school, but you have quite a group of kids that you’re working with, don’t you?

Heather: Yes, I have. So the thing about a Catholic school is there is one art teacher and sometimes the art teacher is not even considered full-time. So, a lot of your art teachers in this area, who teach at a Catholic school, will often have two schools. So, the schedules are really full. I just happened to be at a school that is large, we’re pushing 600 kids. So, I teach all of them and they have offered me, that is a full-time position. So, it’s a little bit unique. It’s hard to find. I just found it and took it. And I absolutely love it. It is a challenge, Pre-K 4, even though, as an art educator, you are certified to teach Pre-K through 12. It’s just very different to actually teach Pre-K 4 through 8th grade. It’s a challenge in itself. I love the variety, but it’s interesting.

Nic: Yeah, that’s a lot of preps. That is a ton of preparation. Do you find yourself doubling up on lessons or do you just, does every class have its own lessons?

Heather: Well, in my other school, every class has their own lessons. So, the other school that I taught, I was part-time and there was another part-time art teacher, because she worked part-time at another Catholic school. So, it was kind of all pushed together. But it was easy to do, because I taught just certain grade levels.

Now I will say that coming into this school, being such a large community, there will just definitely be those lessons. I find it easier to pair 1st and 2nd grade together. Or sometimes I have a kinder project where my 1st graders just aren’t up to speed on that skill, and I need to put 1st grade with kindergarten again on that project. We have a really large art show that we do come end of January. So, doubling up is… If it’s doubled up, it’s just like those really quick skill lessons versus an artist project.

There are certain artists like Monet is a certain grade, Picasso is a certain grade. So the art history part definitely not doubled up. But yeah, a clay not doubled up. So it’s hard. I think clay is probably one of the hardest, because I do clay with every single grade level. So when you have middle school clay and you have three 7th grade or three 6th grade, it’s a lot of clay pieces.

And you have all these kids coming in. So, what I will say, what has kind of saved me from teaching so many levels is not maybe necessarily doing the same lesson, but if we’re painting, we’re kind of all painting. Because if I got the out the tempera paint, for the majority, the kids are tempera painting for that month or that three weeks or whatever it is, kind of the same with clay, because you have all those tools out, all that mess is sometimes just easiest. Let’s just all tackle this.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, totally. But I understand the logistics of the clay, because it takes so much space up as well. And you do have little people coming in and wanting to touch them… yeah, I get that. I get the logistics. But that’s actually not why we’re speaking today. Now, of course, this podcast is all about our educators, but most art educators are also artists. That is the category that you fit into, right?

Heather: Yes.

Nic: You are definitely an artist of some beautiful work. I’m going to give the floor to you to describe your mediums and what you do for your personal art.

Heather: Well, thank you. So, when I graduated college, I was a painter, loved painting, gotten a studio, even before family and landscape painting was my love. Just because of the busy-ness of life, and evolving, and space, and all of the things, and starting a family, and starting teaching, and all of that. Painting, oil painting is time-consuming and also I didn’t go back to teaching full-time, I needed an income and that, it just wasn’t logical to be like, “I’m going to be an oil painter and have an income off of this.”

So, it just has slowly evolved from supporting a local business here in Raleigh back in the day of jewelry. And I went from, there was a clay artist, the local clay artist had amazing clay beads, and just buying her stuff and started creating and giving and finding my own design and my own creative outlet as becoming a mom and working and… Because I was a stay-at-home mom for a chunk of time.

Then I found, I looked and I was like, “Well, I’m spending and I’m not selling.” And I started taking, in art education, you have a background of, you touch, like you’re a Renaissance artist at times as an artist.

Nic: Yes. That is a good description.

Heather: A jack of all trades. So, ironically, when I was at Kent State, I hated my jewelry and metals class, hated it.

Nic: Okay. That’s interesting.

Heather: I think it’s because I was in ceramics and painting and all of the things, and jewelry and metals, I’m a very, it’s like a oxymoron in some regard, I’m a very type A artist, I am super picky and jewelry and metals it’s, well, on the course level, it’s exact measurements in sawing and soldering, it’s super picky, and particular, and it drove me bananas. It was just kind of funny, fast-forward significant amount of years, and I found myself in Raleigh at an art center taking jewelry and metals classes.

I just found, it just goes to show with art, as we tell our students, “You don’t have to love everything,” and it might evolve that you don’t like drawing, but down the road, as you explore a different medium, you find that you enjoy the drawing aspect of it, but you just didn’t like it in charcoal.”

And I feel like that’s what happened with jewelry and metals. I didn’t like sawing and soldering all the exactness, but doing my own thing in that jewelry and metal world, whatever I went into starting with just simple jump rings and just starting to get to see that there was another option. And then that evolved to adding color on metal. And that’s where I am now.

I took a course from, I can’t reference her name, I’m not sure, she was from Asheville, North Carolina. And she does amazing work, colored pencil on metal. And I fell in love. Then, that’s where that course took me. And I was pregnant at the time, in that course, and I was like, “Wow, this is really cool.” It’s just has gone from color pencil on metal for me to patinas. So, I’ve kind of come full circle and metal is my canvas and I don’t paint oil paint anymore, but now I create… So, a lot of, if you look at my work, a lot of people reference landscape, and that’s a good feeling, because that’s where my inspiration is.

Nic: Wow. Wow. What an adventure to get there. And I love the fact that you said, “And this is what we tell our students all the time.” You’re living your words. We aren’t just telling the kids, we’re actually living it sometimes. And it sounds like that’s what you did. You did a lot of exploration. I very much can relate to what you’re saying, because metals for me too, especially the jewelry, it just didn’t speak to me. But I have dabbled a little bit, not as much as you, you embraced and move forward on this. So, where are you with the art? Now, we’ve talked about how you got into creating again. And you said that you were spending more money than you were making. Has that changed for you at all?

Heather: Yes, it has. So, about seven years ago… So, I started my Etsy shop in like 2007. So, that was to be, that was the beginning years of buying the ceramic beads. I would say probably about seven years ago, I just took an assessment and I was like, “I’m either all in. I either have to be in or out. Is this going to be a hobby or is this going to be a business?” I had my business thing, but we’re talking having a profit, claiming taxes, getting an accountant, doing all the bookwork, doing all the things.

I came to this crossroads of is this something I want to do? And at the time, I was not working as I… I was a nanny for a stint of time enjoying this. I wasn’t back into the education system, but I knew I was going to get there. So, I went ahead and then… Because when you, like anything in art, you get to a certain point where you have to start investing in greater materials, whether it’s something for my studio space, like a rolling mill, those are over a couple hundred dollars. I want to do things with my art, but I can’t justify it unless it’s a business, for me personally, because I just don’t have that type of income.

So, then that was my turning point. And with that, then I was like, okay. So then that means not only do I have to be on Etsy, which I’m horrible and that’s a whole another conversation. I’m horrible. So, the easiest, quickest way to make money, in my opinion, as a business owner, is to then get out to your local pop-up shops and venues. So, I can sit in a studio, I can make all this stuff. It takes so much time to list and all the things online. Or I can just haul my inventory and go to shows basically, I started doing shows more seriously about seven years ago. And so that was my turning point in my business.

Nic: Okay. So, you said pop-up shops and you said shows. So, when I think of shows, I think of craft fairs or festivals. Then, when I think of pop-up shops, I think of maybe a two, three weeks stint in a space, are you doing both settings?

Heather: I was doing both settings at one point, and about a year and a half ago, I pulled. Now, it’s just this evolution of business. You have to decide what’s working. So, shows are always good. I’m fortunate to live in an area where it’s, the Raleigh area is growing, always growing, young, vibrant, all that. So, there’s always endless venues to go to. Shops are a little bit different. So, I would be in shops and those come at a consignment fee.

And if you’re in Raleigh, I would be in a smaller town in North Carolina and they would only take 30% of my profit or they’d come up, they’d take 30%, but then I don’t have as much traffic. If I’m getting into a Raleigh store, they’re taking 50%, and that’s a hit, that’s a hit on my inventory and I could not manage teaching, doing shows and keeping up inventory, because if she had a good run on my earrings, well, she needs inventory, you have to freshen that up all the time. I couldn’t maintain it.

So, the only thing I will do and it has not presented itself yet is commission, not commission, wholesale, sorry, excuse me. Wholesale. So, it’s like, you want $400 worth of jewelry, here it is, it’s no longer my responsibility. Then they come to me and they say, “I want 200 more dollars worth of earrings.” And I just give it to them. [inaudible 00:14:54]. It’s their job to move it around the store and freshen it up and stuff.

Nic: I like that. This is really interesting to me to hear this whole process of learning. And I would assume most business owners go through something, this evolution and this learning from exploring and experimenting.

Heather: Yes, definitely. When you connect with, just as I connect on Instagram, with an amazing community of art educators. I have a great community. Same goes for my art business, locally and also online as well. The Instagram community there.

Nic: Yeah. It is amazing how that connects so well, but it’s interesting to me to hear you say that I’m connecting with other business owners, because I’m assuming you’re connecting with even other jewelry makers, to me, there’s a little bit of competition there. So, it’s interesting that there’s a community that is willing to share, but you’re finding that?

Heather: Yeah. It gets a little bit sticky. It’s kind of funny. I feel like sometimes we’re always in high school at some point, even when we’re in our 40s. There’s just, you definitely have to read the room in anything. There are definitely some people who are more guarded about some of their, I wouldn’t say secrets or their business. You get in and there’s show organizers. So, that’s where I find more so, jewelry is extremely saturated in the market.

And not because I just feel like it kind of has me, it puts me off, not off a little bit, but I kind of step back a little bit when I approach a jewelry, another fellow jewelry artist. And I’m friendly and stuff, but we don’t exchange as much information as, say, I’m on the same show and I’m talking to the leather artist. So, I have a tendency to connect more with a different medium and a business owner of a different medium. And we pull and exchange a little bit more. Because I think we kind of are guarded of our art naturally as artists. So, it’s not like I want to let all of the secrets out of another jewelry artist, but it’s just easier to go to somebody, the photographer.

Nic: Yeah, yeah. Right, right. You still have common goals and you still have common situations you were talking about, even the taxes and that sort of thing. That’s a part that’s over me, I feel, but I’m glad that you’re embracing it.

Heather: I’m not totally embracing it. It’s probably my weakest link. So, I have a program every single year and every year, for five straight years, I’m like, “I’m going to be better. I’m going to be better.” Look, it’s July 16th, if you looked at my accounting program, you’ll be like, “I thought you were going to be better about this. But you have a great pile of receipts.”

Nic: That’s me in flossing my teeth every year. I say, “It’s going to be better.” And it just never is. Okay. So, we’ve talked about you as an art educator and we’ve talked about you as an artist. How do those work together in your life? Where do you find balance?

Heather: I’m really having a hard time finding balance. I’ll be honest, I think I’m cutting myself slack, because I think for the very first time I started a brand new school full-time and even though I’ve basically always worked full-time plus some, because I work part-time as an art educator and I was part-time… So, the hours itself are not a significant change for me, but it’s the overwhelming responsibility of an entire school as an art educator that maybe some people don’t… All the levels of prep that I have to do and just the lesson planning, it just comes with such a greater responsibility than just a full-time job. And I entered into it in a pandemic and I entered something new. And I intervened with the previous art teacher, no criticism to her, she had a very different style of teaching. A lot of times you’ll find, in the Catholic schools in the South that a lot of people, they don’t have a background in art education. They’re either fine art or there’s something else, and then they get qualified for it.

So, I came into a room that was of complete… And she went off to France in the middle of the previous school year, her husband got a job. So, there was a long-term sub in there for like six months before I even came in. So yeah. In itself I will say that I have not had balance. I’ve not had balance at all. I’ve had goals of, I need a better online presence, because right now during COVID, I’m not seizing the moment of opportunity for marketing my product when people are more than ever for the first time, yes, people are online. But I will say that for the first time, in my years of doing business, I have never met more people that are like, “I want to shop small. I want to support small business.” And how are they doing that? They’re doing it by online and I just didn’t have the balance to do it. So, I’m short on that for my business.

Nic: Okay. So, do you feel that the summer, this gift of a summer that we received, does that give you opportunity to pursue that a little bit more?

Heather: Well, that was my goal, I did teach an art camp. So June I was out teaching an art camp and I have two active kids. Yeah. They’re on the summer swim team. Then, there’s that mom balance. Now I will say that July, I kind of had to say, I can’t have income and I’m going to have to say, I’m going to stop. I had a lot of shows. I taught art camp in June. We start back to school August 11th. So, basically I have July.

So, I had to put pause on my life and prioritize and say, “Okay, if I’m going to be able to really be able to go into the school year and manage my business, I’ll know my fourth quarter is your biggest in sales and be able to have fourth quarter sales. Then in July, I’m not going to do shows.”

Now, I did do one. I have one this Sunday that I got into and that I’m going to do. But I can’t do shows. Because then if I’m doing shows, then I’m not working on my inventory, doing all the refinances, because metals have gone up. So, I need to reassess and I’m working gold, 14 karat gold filled, but still it’s like tripled the price at Sterling. So, I kind of had to just collectively say, you can’t have everything, I can’t have an income and be able to better my business, if that makes any sense.

Nic: Yeah, it does. Yeah. You need to put your efforts in different areas to grow it. Right?

Heather: Yes.

Nic: The garden only grows where you water it. Right?

Heather: Yes.

Nic: That makes sense. Yeah. I kind of forgot the whole mom thing as well.

Heather: Yeah. Now, the good news Is my daughter, who’s 12 now, which I can’t believe. She’s a really attention-to-detail child. She’s firstborn, so I have started grooming her to come along in my business. My husband works weekends, so we have a crazy schedule. We’re huge commuters to our jobs. So, we have a huge commute time and all the things.

But when there’s a weekend that he is often is able to take my younger daughter, my 12-year-old comes along with me, so she can start seeing the business end of what I do and setting up for these shows, which takes an hour to set up a show with all the tables and tents and all of the things. So, she helps me and I want her to start seeing and interacting with customers. Then I give her, for the day, I give her 10% of my sales. So, I started paying her out of my business.

Then, my hope is that she can then start helping me market online. I don’t have time to do Instagram. So, a lot of people, I don’t know how, but here’s what I will say is my observation as an artist who sells and who has that, most people who do it, a lot of them work a day job, graphic designer, whatever it is, they have a day job. But the people who really go in full-time, as a full-time art profession and who do these shows, they can do so much more. The one girl that I recently befriended and talked to, and she was a leather artist and I follow her on social media and stuff. She’s able to hire somebody to do her shows on the weekends, and then she’s in the studio space.

So she’s able to do multiple markets or have somebody go out and, I’m in the South. So, my weekend show, it will be 91, it feels like 98, and high humidity, it’s horrible. But she can hire somebody and pay somebody to do that and be back at home, whether it’s spending time with her family that she’s spent all this time in the studio, preparing for a show, or she’s just back at home in the studio.

Nic: That’s amazing.

Heather: So, it’s tricky. It’s hard. Because I have to say, “Okay, I can’t do all of that.” Because I do work two jobs, and there are plenty of other artists who do this and this balance is if I have to have my 12-year-old help me and I give her like 10% of my sales, then that’s a help.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. Well, and it sounds like it’s just continuously evolving. I mean, you have given us a huge background, your life continues to change and it sounds like you reflect often on what you’re doing as well.

Heather: Absolutely. Yeah. You always have to do your own personal reassessment on your business and anything I’ve learned over the years is to just set realistic goals.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. Well, Heather, you gave us a ton to think about and a ton of information. I can’t thank you enough for joining us today.

Heather: Absolutely. Thank you. I’m so, so glad to connect and hopefully help some other fellow artists and art educators.

Nic: That’s right. Thanks. I learned a ton today from Heather on lots of different avenues on teaching, she touched on that quite a bit, as well as how to balance this idea of becoming an artist, a practicing artist, a selling artist. It was really interesting to me to hear about the path that she’s been on so far, the learning lessons that she’s had, and just to really have that reminder of yep, if you’re going to do this, there’s going to be some bumps in the road. There’s going to be some learning lessons.

It was a really great conversation. She also mentioned that art teachers are most often Renaissance people. We have a little bit of everything in our classroom, therefore we have interests in many different areas of art, different mediums, different processes. If you are looking for something to feed any of those processes, I would really recommend doing one of two things. First, going on to The Art of Education University’s website and checking out our free magazine.

So, our online articles have such a variety and I mean, this is years and years of content. So, if you have any inkling of trying something new or revamping something, maybe printmaking or jewelry making as Heather was discussing, please go onto the website and get some free content to freshen up your curriculum here in August.

Another suggestion that I have, if you’re looking for some inspiration, is investing in PRO Packs. So PRO is our online professional development that we have for art teachers. It is in little chunks. But very deep little sessions that you can take on many, many subjects. Again, if you’re looking to learn more about jewelry per se, this is the place to go. You can get clock hours, you can get very, very interesting conversations from great art educators, as well as things that you can do tomorrow in your classroom. That’s my favorite thing about PRO is that you finish a course and you can implement it into your classroom right away. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. We’ll chat with you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.