by Patrice Lewis

Courtesy of Handmade Business

In discovering what it takes to succeed as an artist or a craftsperson, it is useful to learn the secrets of success from someone who has emerged top in their field. Becoming a success is more than merely mastering your particular field; it takes business smarts, creativity, flexibility, and hard work. Lots and lots of hard work.

To illustrate the principles of the making of a successful artist, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Gibson of Arizona Gourds ( Bonnie is a gourd artist and has mastered this "non-traditional medium" to an extraordinary degree. She has succeeded in both artistic recognition as well as business acumen.

The Right Skills at the Right Time
While gourds have been used for thousands of years, their use as an artistic medium is more recent. "Its beginnings were much more 'crafty' than the current art," said Bonnie. "Early gourd crafts included birdhouses, holiday decorations, and simple bowls. In the mid-to-late '90s, artists began making a push to take gourds into the world of fine art. Today, gourds are not only found at local craft shows, but at fine art venues as well."

Bonnie is no stranger to hand crafts. "I have been in the arts/crafts business for about 30 years in some form or another," she related. "For many years, I worked in the field of scale miniatures and also did some woodcarving and scrimshaw on the side. My cottage industry in miniatures was part time while I was raising a family, and most of my business was wholesale to miniature shops."

Bonnie's story also illustrates the need to roll with the punches of life. "In the mid '90s I discovered gourds, and because my eyesight wasn't quite as sharp as I aged, it was a good transition. Like the 'Outliers' in Malcolm Gladwell's book, I was lucky enough to find gourds at the right time and with the right amount of skills and experience. My woodcarving skills and power carving tools were perfect for carving gourds, and at the time, this was a new concept in the gourd world. Today, carving is a common technique and most of the best carvers have been influenced by my work--and many have studied with me as well."

Nature's Canvas
"What really drew me to gourds," explained Bonnie, "was their versatility. Because they are an organic media, each one is different. Some lend themselves well to carving, others to pyrography, weaving, or painting. You can start with a gourd and each finished creation is amazingly different than the next. Gourds are truly nature's three-dimensional canvases."

Bonnie didn't just tumble into success--she "did her time" before succeeding in gourd art. "As an art and crafts addict, I have experimented with and enjoyed many different mediums," she noted. "I am completely self-taught (with help from the local library!) and have experimented with everything from watercolors, to lost wax casting, to glass. After a few years, I found I was mainly drawn to sculptural mediums. I stumbled onto gourds while visiting an art fair, and was immediately intrigued by them. Gourds allow me to incorporate all the things I've tried and skills I've learned over the years."

She uses an incredibly broad spectrum of natural materials in her art. I asked where she gets her inspirations.

Needles and Pins - photos by Bonnie and Everett Gibson

"I am inspired by many different things," Bonnie said. "Sometimes I will see a vessel that a wood turner or a ceramic artist has done, and it will inspire me to create something similar using gourds. Sometimes a pattern on a piece of jewelry, an architectural element, or something from nature will give you ideas. Because gourds are organic, they work well with natural materials such as wood, stone, weaving materials, pods, and leather. I find myself looking at items in nature and even at the hardware store to see what interesting things I can find that I can use in my creations."

So what comes first, the chicken or the egg? The gourd or the idea?

"Both scenarios are used by gourd artists," she replies. "However, the method I use most often is to design the concept and then find a gourd that works well. Occasionally, a gourd has such an interesting shape that ideas just spring into your mind. When this happens, artists jokingly say that 'the gourd is telling you what it wants to be.'"

Since gourds are a natural medium that many people can grow themselves, the obvious question is whether Bonnie grows her own gourds, or does she use a supplier? "I buy most of my gourds from large growers who have far more skill at farming," she says. "They are able to grow thick-shelled, high-quality gourds. My one brief attempt at growing gourds was enough to convince me that I should stick with the artistic end and leave the growing to the experts."

This point illustrates the importance of leaving specialized steps to the specialists. While being a successful artist or businessperson involves wearing many hats, it's best to know when to engage the services of experts.

The Business Side
Bonnie's success has just as much to do with her business acumen as her artistic skills. Since she makes her living through her art, she has learned to utilize the internet, the printed word, sideline business, and teaching. These venues work cohesively to funnel recognition toward Bonnie's work, and they demonstrate how one thing can lead to another.

"I created a gourd art website in an effort to have my work viewed by a larger audience," said Bonnie. "I retail gourd crafting supplies and tools to the general public. My website is my major retail outlet. When possible, I prefer to spend my time creating or teaching, and leave the art sales to galleries. I participate in only one large gourd art festival each year, and do not do arts and crafts shows."

Bonnie recognized the importance of diversification for her online presence. "I realized I had to give people several reasons to visit the website," she said, "so I added free how-to sections and eventually began selling supplies to other gourd artists. Most of my art gourds were sold in a gallery setting as I preferred spending my time creating instead of going to shows."

"My website caught the attention of Sterling Publishing, and they asked me to write a book on gourd crafting entitled Gourds: Southwestern Projects and Techniques. The hardcover version was published in 2006, but is now out of print. Lark Publishing (a division of Sterling Publishing) put out a paperback version in 2009 under the title Gourds with Southwestern Motifs: Rainsticks, Masks, Vessels and More. Same content, different title. My work is also featured in several other gourd crafting books."

The Joy of Teaching
A side benefit many artists discover is the joy of teaching others about one's passion. "When my book was published, it led to many more opportunities to travel and teach," said Bonnie. "Today, I generally travel one week a month to different locations around the US to teach two- to four-day workshops. My website sales and related activities keep me busy as well."

Bonnie is the kind of artist who knows she'll never stop learning or growing. To this end, she learns as much from her students as they learn from her. She is not one to rest on her laurels (or gourds)--she continues to push the envelope and experiment with new techniques. "Teaching has expanded my business considerably, but it has also expanded my own growth as an artist," she admitted. "Because students tend to copy what they see and to use what they learn in classes, you have to keep moving ahead with your own work to keep it fresh and new. This also keeps me from getting burned out by doing the same things over and over again. Over the past few years, I've moved more into a contemporary feel with some of my pieces."

The Importance of Spousal Support
If a business (artistic or otherwise) is going to be home-based, it's important to have the support of one's spouse. This doesn't necessarily mean the spouse works the business (though often they do); it simply means the spouse isn't critical or disruptive.

In Bonnie's case, she is blessed with a husband who not only supports her art, but helps with the business side. "The majority of work is done solo," she explained, "including running the website, writing a monthly newsletter, shipping gourd crafting supplies, and teaching. My husband travels with me when I teach and sells class supplies to my students so that I am able to teach without distractions. I wouldn't be able to teach without his help and without his unwavering support over the years. He took all the photographs for my book, and he was the one that convinced me I should go ahead with writing it in the first place."

Rolling with the Punches
Bonnie's art career reflects the necessity of rolling with the punches and adapting to the realities of life. For example, when her changing eyesight no longer allowed her to work on miniatures, she shifted to gourd art.

But the current economic climate is also something to which artists must adapt. "Today, with the economy changing, my main focus is on teaching and selling gourd crafting supplies," she said. "But I still sell my finished art privately and through galleries." This flexibility has allowed Bonnie to stay in business. Flexibility and adaptability is necessary for any business, artistic or otherwise.

Secrets of Success
Whatever else, never ever underestimate the amount of sheer hard work that goes into a successful career as an artist. "I've worked hard at everything I do," Bonnie confirmed. "I continue to work to develop myself as a teacher and to provide the best possible service to my students and my customers. I spend a lot of time writing educational materials and serving the gourding community. I also strive for high quality in my art, both in technique and style. There are no substitutes for hard work and devotion to your chosen craft."

And the work never stops. "My largest challenge is finding adequate gallery/sales opportunities," said Bonnie. "Promoting myself and finding suitable sales opportunities and gallery placements is extremely difficult for me. I'm sure many other people have experienced the 'We're not going in that direction' response from fine art galleries, and can understand how difficult it is to get a non-traditional medium accepted as fine art pieces."

That's why Bonnie's flexibility and willingness to embrace new things has served her well. "My most notable success has been expanding into teaching," she notes. "It is extremely rewarding to take novices and see the look of excitement on their faces when they learn something new and to see how much fun they have. Even more rewarding is the student that takes the skills they have learned and expands on it to create new things that are truly their own voice. It's flattering that many of my former students are now well-known gourd artists and some of them also teach as well."