by Daisha Cassel

Courtesy of Handmade Business

Ask Julie Sanford what one of her biggest marketing successes has been, and the answer may surprise you: "Pitching classes and workshops to shows like Bead and Button Show and Bead Fest." Julie, owner of Julie Sanford Designs and Studio JSD in Grand Haven, Michigan, understands that establishing oneself as an expert in a field can be one of the biggest boosts to an art-based business. "It does everything," Julie enthuses about show participation. "It builds a bigger collector base, because students like to purchase the work of artists they've learned from. Of course, it is fairly lucrative to teach classes, but getting your name out on a national level is most valuable."

Yet, building national credibility wasn't even on Julie's agenda when she began as a craftsperson. "I always wanted to be a jewelry artist who sold at the art fairs," Julie answers when asked about her career aspirations as a fledgling artist. She did, indeed, become an art fair vendor, and continued selling at fairs while going to college for an art teaching degree after the birth of her first child. Following four years as an elementary art teacher, Julie gave birth to her youngest son, who was born with a congenital heart defect."Road blocks can be wonderful opportunities," says Julie, reflecting on the decision to leave teaching to stay at home with her son. "This one, in particular, helped me look at life and my work from a new perspective. It was a challenge to do things better, more skillfully, and more efficiently than before." By the time Julie's youngest son started school, she had made a full-time career of jewelry design and was moving from a home studio to her first commercial space.

"The studio work is really all I ever wanted to do," says Julie. "My motivation comes from the absolute bliss I feel when working on new pieces, having a customer discover and appreciate my work, or encouraging enthusiastic students who are discovering who they are as artists." And slowly, teaching came back into Julie's life as a studio artist, as the result of requests from her art fair customers.

The interior of the studio.

A Return to Teaching by Customer Request

Today, Julie has not only built a national reputation as a teacher at the workshops and shows that she describes as her "best marketing"--she'll be leading classes at the 2012 Bead and Button Show in Milwaukee, as well as at Bead Fest in Philadelphia--but also leads scheduled fabrication classes in her studio. While offering classes may seem a natural fit for the former school teacher, customer requests and positive feedback were what impressed upon Julie the fact that knowledge and skill as a craftsperson can be of as much value as your created products. "I started teaching studio classes just by word of mouth. Doing art shows, people always ask me, 'Do you teach classes?' I never really advertised that I teach," admits Julie. She advises other artists to realize the value of being knowledgeable as a craftsperson— and sharing that knowledge. While teaching may not be a natural focus for everyone, talking about the creative process, entering contests, showing at galleries, and taking part in community events are all ways to not only establish oneself as a serious artist, but to market yourself organically.

Crafting a Network

Associating with other craftspeople is another boon, according to Julie, who thinks that building a strong community of independent artists is a smart move for any craftsperson. "There are so many opportunities out there for everybody. Each person is doing their own thing," Julie says, explaining that she sees other artists as part of her network, not as competition. While some craftspeople shy away from putting a spotlight on other professionals in their field, Julie is not only enthusiastic about the work of other artists, but has plans to bring them into her own studio. Studio JSD will be hosting a Visiting Artist Series starting this summer, featuring some of the fellow jewelry artists Julie has formed connections with. "They are artists who I really respect in the industry, who have talents and skills different from mine. I love offering my students a chance to work with someone who might not be accessible to them usually. This makes it affordable for the local student."

Internationally renowned metalsmith Michael David Sturlin is the first visiting artist, with two workshops scheduled in late August. "I am going to have Bill Seeley from Reactive Metals Studio in September, and more artists after that," says Julie. Rather than detracting from her own class and workshop offerings, she understands that bringing in outside talent brings value to her students--and, in turn, her studio. "I don't want anybody to assume I know everything there is to know about making jewelry. From the perspective of being a good teacher, it's about giving your students the resources they need to develop as artists."

Local Connection Make an Impression

Julie explains that, when creating gem and stone pieces, she draws from the unique characteristics of each stone as creative inspiration, allowing an organic balance between stone and metal. "Using materials unique to Michigan helps both art show sales and sales in galleries, especially galleries that rely on tourism traffic,"

Julie at work.

Julie explains of her choice to focus on local stones in many of her works. "People love to bring a special piece home as a reminder of their trip to this beautiful state."

Julie also makes connections locally in the literal sense. "I like to hand-pick my stones, and buy them from lapidary artists," such as Gary B. Wilson, LLC, one of the lapidary artists who supplies Julie with many of the stones. Ironically, one of the truly local materials Julie sources from Gary isn't natural at all. Fordite, also known as Detroit Agate, is a multilayered, multicolored "stone" with origins in the automotive industry. Years ago, when cars were spray-coated with paint in auto factories, the layers of overspray that built up in the painting bays would be occasionally removed. After removal, some of the visually interesting paint chunks were saved by plant workers. Lapidary artists now cut and polish cabochons from the striated Fordite.

"I found it at a gem show years ago, and didn't know what it was," recalls Julie. "Since then, I just keep ordering it, and people keep buying it. It's a really cool Michigan connection," and Julie adds that it makes a great ice breaker--not to mention an impression--when selling to out-of-state buyers. "Fordite is better known in Michigan; people who don't know what it is will ask about it. Once they hear about it, they love it." Although not from nature, the use of Detroit-born Fordite is a natural choice for this Michigan artist. And it's not the only Ford relic in the studio: Julie and her students regularly cut discs with a die cutter once used at the Ford automotive plant where Julie's father-in-law worked as a machinist. Local connections give Julie's work a sense of place that is valuable to buyers, and cements her as part of the "Michigan scene."

Artistry on Display

The sense of motion found in Julie's kinetic, conceptual pieces might reflect the turning of her mind that has moved her forward as a professional artist. "More conceptual work is something I have evolved into. For the first part of my career, I was making jewelry for the consumer, and now that I am more established and comfortable, I can think a lot more conceptually. I can think about using things that might not appeal to everybody, but that I enjoy looking at, like The Hornet's Nest." The Hornet's Nest is a sculptural piece created for Grand Haven's Art Walk event in 2011; it consists of a fabricated tree with hornets made from silver with mica flake wings. One hornet is wired and able to spin around the tree.

On the subject of showing pieces in everything, from community art events to gallery showings, Julie says the benefits include growth as an established artist and also a strengthening of the type of network she values. "It adds to the resume, for sure, which lends more credibility. But when you go to shows, you also meet more academic artists and are involved in a whole new circle." Creating work that is not intended to sell may seem counterintuitive to some craftspeople, but Julie has found that clients see more value in the work that she produces when they see that she is an exhibiting artist. "I bring those conceptual pieces with me when I do my retailing. When people see you can create conceptually, they see you're not just making something to make a buck." Julie adds that her works also lend cache to her display. "It gives a 'wow' factor to my booth, and builds trust. It helps customers get to know me a little bit better as an artist."

Julie says that shoppers love hearing "the stories behind the work." And through sharing something about herself, Julie finds the opportunity to learn about her clients, as well. "I love sharing the concept behind the design, the process used to create the piece, or finding unique gem stones and materials--and quite often the customer will find a connection with you from the stories you tell. You may touch on a memory or story that they will then share with you. Then you've made an important connection that may inspire a purchase or even a new collector of your work."

For information about Julie Sanford Designs, Studio JSD workshops, and the Visiting Artist Series, visit