The art of balancing creativity and business

Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist, specializing in lead generation and content marketing.

OPINION: There used to be a choice. Be creative and poor or choose something else. (Except, of course, for the select few who miraculously made money). I am incredibly grateful that we now live in a world where pursuing a life as an artist or creative, and still being able to support yourself, is now a completely viable idea.

I think you still have to really believe in the importance of allowing your creative and artistic life if you want to make a career out of it, but that’s not enough. While in some ways it’s never been easier to get your name and work for your perfect audience, in other ways there’s so much marketing and brand building to do, as well as all that boring business stuff.

Earlier in the year, I worked with artist Greg Straight and his wife Hannah on his marketing strategy. There is always something enjoyable about working with a small business owner who works in a company that revolves around their creative talents. One of the things I really liked about working with Straight was seeing how he managed to build a business that combines his passion for fine art with his work in the commercial space, and the accessible (meaning lower costs ) art space for prints. I was delighted when he agreed to be on the MAP IT Marketing podcast

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Even if his name isn’t familiar to you, his art probably is. In addition to the art prints he sells online and from his studio in Birkenhead, Auckland, Straight is a sought-after commercial artist who has created artworks for a wide variety of well-known brands and international companies. You may have seen his work on tote bags, reusable coffee cups, drink labels, billboards and magazine covers. I was thrilled to discover that my two favorite coffee cups in our kitchen had his designs. (They had always been my favorite).

Straight began his career as a graphic designer, which brought in some income, but it was not a career he particularly enjoyed. “I always thought I wouldn’t go into graphic design. I wanted to be a painter, but I went into graphic design because I needed a job. And then it turned 20 years of graphic design. It’s really only in the last eight years that I’ve been able to focus more on creating artwork and commercial illustration.”

Straight’s move to self-employment and work on his art began with some work done in snatched moments when his daughter was young. “I decided to make some artwork and started drawing while she was asleep. I tried to do something more creative for me, like a personal project. I made some art prints, sold some to friends and worked on framing them. And then a few galleries got interested and it grew from there, kind of organically.”

Part of his success has been balancing his need to explore his artistic curiosity and work pragmatically on projects that will pay the bills. In the beginning this often meant taking on anything that paid off, but having developed a reputation and an enviable catalog of work for campaigns, installations and corporate design, Straight has been able to work on larger projects that are particularly suited to his style.

With all the artists I have worked or interviewed with over the years, a pragmatic view of their work has been key to growth. Sometimes it meant a strong focus on low-cost prints, or for others it meant spending much of their week working on commercial projects. If you’re an artist, focusing on commercial work can sometimes feel like a step away from your own art, a feeling Straight can relate to. He explains: “I used to think about the word commercial, commercial art or commercial music, like things on the radio, you’d hear you really didn’t like it. I like alternative music and punk rock. I didn’t want to get an assignment and just do what everyone else was doing. But people say my work is commercial. And I think that’s positive now, because I have a product that I can sell. I don’t want to be an artist who has canvas after canvas in my garage that no one sees that no one can really enjoy.”

Part of this shift was Straight trying to strike a balance between his art and supporting his family. “If you want to make a living and support your family, you have to commercialize what you do. They can be different products, or work with different people. If you’re going to make it and you want to sell it, you have to think about whether it’s going to make money. And being a commercial artist has turned out to be a good thing because I’m doing this or trying to get a job doing something else, but I’m not good at anything.”

I'm incredibly grateful that we now live in a world where pursuing a life as an artist or creative, and still being able to support yourself, is now a completely viable idea, says marketing strategist Rachel Klaver.

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I’m incredibly grateful that we now live in a world where pursuing a life as an artist or creative, and still being able to support yourself, is now a completely viable idea, says marketing strategist Rachel Klaver.

Straight recently teamed up with Blunt to create an umbrella, a collaboration he particularly enjoyed.

“It was one of my favorite projects to work on because the team allowed me to create something myself and only wanted minor changes to the finished work. It was nice to take on projects that allow me to work with my own style, instead of having to follow a tight order, now I’m more settled,” he explained.

In addition to commercial work, Straight sells prints that have enabled him to create an income stream that is not so dependent on contract work. “If you have a product that you are proud of and that you enjoy making, sell, you can sell some artwork while you sleep. I’ve been able to send my work abroad and some people come back for more. Having both income options has been really good for us and the company.”

For Straight, the opportunity to share his take on Kiwi summers, beaches, birds and life was an immense joy. “As kids, we had a pop-up camper van, which we took to Shipwreck Bay near Ahipara, or to New Plymouth, everywhere. My art draws from my childhood memories of New Zealand. All these simple things are part of a simpler life. I try to capture that in my work.”

Rachel Klaver is a marketing strategist, specializing in lead generation and content marketing. She owns Identity Marketing, which works with businesses to create the strategy they need to better tell their story to the right people. Listen to her weekly podcast MAP IT Marketing – created to help small business owners learn about marketing.

Identity Marketing is a Stuff content partner for specialist information about small businesses. Find Rachel’s events here.

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