Artistic Evolution

Artistic Evolution
Rebeca Mojica's encounter with chainmaille became her career's missing link.
by Stephanie Finnegan

Courtesy of Handmade Business

There's an adage, ''You are what you eat,'' but, more important, you are what you dream. In the case of Rebeca Mojica, she envisioned a life in the arts, and she is living that fantasy to the fullest. How many other people get to sign their business correspondence as ''Creative Guru,'' after all?

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1975, Rebeca had a unique childhood. The daughter of two public-school teachers who were very supportive of her creative leanings, Rebeca attended the Franklin Fine Arts Center from kindergarten to sixth grade. It was the only public school in the city that had an arts focus.

''It wasn't until I was in high school that I realized just how unusual my grade school experience was. I had no idea that other kids didn't get to experience dance, drama, theater, art, and music as a regular part of their curriculum,'' she recollects.

Enrolled in piano and dance lessons, plus a Saturday-morning music school, Rebeca was proficient in the skills needed to be a performer. However, the musical path didn't seem to be a road she was interested in pursuing.

''It'll Always Be Sears to Me'' is approximately 10 inches tall and contains nearly 6,000 aluminum jumprings. A few pieces of wire were used to keep the tower from leaning too much. Other than that, it is maille, through and through. Photo by Larry Sanders

''By the time I was a senior in high school, I'd been playing the piano for a dozen years, and many people expected me to pursue it in college,'' Rebeca explains. ''However, it wasn't something that came truly natural to me. I enjoyed playing, but I didn't love it on a deep level.''

Able to channel her creative energy in numerous ways--she considered being a journalist--she pursued a career post-college as a public relations writer and a funds raiser for nonprofits. Then, in 2000, she returned to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Camp, a fond experience from her childhood. This time she arrived as a counselor: ''It turned out to be one of the most amazing summers of my life, even better than when I was a camper! After Interlochen, I took off to Europe, where I backpacked for about five months, until my savings of $4,000 ran out. I decided to stay in Germany as an au pair.''

The ''Elemental Leaves'' necklace was made using components know as scales or leaves. Combining scales with jumprings is referred to as ''scalemaille.'' Rebecca has been making pieces from this Shaggy Scalea collection since 2008, and they continue to be popular sellers. Photo by Larry Sanders

It was during this nomadic stage that Rebeca encountered an item that changed her destiny. Attending a Renaissance fair in Germany, she spotted someone wearing a chainmaille belt. It was fashioned along the lines of a belly dancer's adornment, with hanging chains and beads.

Not able to find a vendor selling a similar piece, she hunted for one on the Internet. Ready to surrender--nothing was calling out to her--she stumbled across an eBay auction: ''1,000+ jumprings--Make Your Own Chainmaille.'' (The word ''maille'' derives from the French word maille [mesh]. It is because of this etymology that Rebeca, like many other maillers, prefers to spell chainmaille with an ''le'' at the end, as opposed to using the traditional spelling of ''chain mail.'')

Purchasing it, Rebeca didn't know what to expect when the pieces arrived. ''It turns out they were 16-gauge galvanized steel, which is incredibly difficult to work with. But somehow, using the wrenches in my toolbox, I managed to make a belt,'' she admits. ''After that, a second belt, and I've been hooked ever since.''

Leaving Europe and heading back to America, Rebeca returned to Chicago, where she pursued several part-time jobs. She juggled her different duties and learned self-reliance with each pursuit: She gave private piano lessons, worked as a standardized-test tutor, did research as a photo archivist for an educational-pictures database, and continued trying her hand at chainmaille accessories.

''In the years prior, I didn't have any creative hobbies, although I had been known to occasionally cut up and re-sew thrift store clothes, or make jewelry by painting beads or bending toothbrushes. Chainmaille was definitely new territory for me,'' she affirms. ''After making my belt, I took a wire-wrap class at a local bead store. I hadn't been sure how to finish my belt, and was holding it together with safety pins! It was pretty punk rock, but not quite the look I was going for.''

Motivated, Rebeca took a few more classes, including a chainmaille one, where she discovered the instructor was moving to South Carolina. ''On a total whim, I said, 'Well, does the bead store need a chainmaille teacher?' The instructor said she'd put in a good word for me, since I had pretty much self-taught myself all the weaves she knew. I put together a portfolio and approached the store owner, and that's how I got a job teaching maille three months after I started making it myself!''

Such an overture might seem like overconfidence, but Rebeca had an innate affinity for this medium. Unlike her piano playing--where she practiced for decades, but remained somehow untouched--the chainmaille attraction was an immediate, visceral need.

Remarkably, she wove her first piece in May 2002; by 2003, she founded Blue Buddha Boutique as a sole proprietorship. Her initial intent was to sell finished jewelry, with teaching on the side to supplement her income. As she taught more students, she realized that there was a demand for supplies. Heeding that, she began to sell her own ''personal stash'' as a way to raise revenue.

''With the help of a friend, I created a website in 2004, and that's when the business really took off. I put the supplies online, thinking that my students could place orders in advance so I wouldn't have to lug 40 pounds of metal across the city for class. It never occurred to me that I'd get orders from non-students. But slowly the orders trickled in from people all over the country,'' she details. ''Eventually it reached the point that I couldn't keep up. So, in 2007, I hired a part-time assistant and incorporated.''

That year, Rebeca welcomed another milestone. Her business had outgrown her home, so she rented a studio to accommodate her thriving company. The newfound space was 1,300 square feet, located a block from her house. She hired an employee, and then her success accelerated.

''In the next five years, we grew tremendously. Eventually there were more than a dozen of us squeezed into that tiny space, working on orders for all 50 states and more than 40 countries!'' she states with astonishment. ''We sometimes had to walk back to my place to have meetings. It was the most cramped place I’ve ever worked at.''

As her business blossomed, Rebeca shed more of her part-time gigs, until she was free of all of them. Since Blue Buddha Boutique--named after a bulbous blue vase that a friend likened to a Buddha statue--was gaining a solid, reliable reputation as a source for supplies, Rebeca named her finished line of jewelry after herself: ''I used to sell everything under Blue Buddha, but I would find customers at an art show wanting to buy kits and pliers. I realized it would make more sense to split my own jewelry into its own sub brand. So, in November 2011, Rebeca Mojica Jewelry was born.''

''Some people had never seen chainmaille so tiny,'' Rebecca remarks about ''Poiseidon's Embrace,'' a 2012 Crafts Report Cover Contest semifinalist. ''It was great to expose them to the versatility of this art form, and to promote my piece online.'' Nine strands of mesh twist and intertwine to create the illusion of seaweed-like ribbons. Approximately 14,500 anodized titanium and stainless steel rings were used to create this flowing necklace. Photo by Larry Sanders

Two traits that have helped Rebeca on her journey are her open-mindedness and ability to be receptive to opportunities as they appear. She credits her childhood immersion in the arts as giving her that courage: ''Simply being surrounded by the arts from such a young age gave me a profound appreciation for all things creative. It helped give me 'permission' to pursue an artistic career.''

She is also reliant on her eagerness to learn and to utilize new information whenever and wherever it presents itself. ''From the get-go, even back in the first year of business when my total sales were $2,500, I tried to absorb every bit of knowledge I could get my hands on. I read business books, subscribed to industry publications, such as The Crafts Report, and attended workshops at my local small-business development center. I devoured articles in Inc. and Entrepreneur magazine. Even though I was much smaller than most of the businesses they featured, I was surprised to discover that many of the issues we faced--marketing, product development, operational procedures, customer relations, human resources--were the same.''

Today, Rebeca Mojica and her team of 17 employees--plus assorted contractors, Web master, several ring makers--greet the public in a recently acquired 6,000-square-foot venue. It includes three classrooms, a retail storefront, administration area, photo room, and space for inventory, quality control, and renovations.

''In addition to selling supplies, we sell the work of local artisans, including several Blue Buddha employees,'' the entrepreneur reveals with pride. ''I knew that once we made the decision to go retail in a high-traffic area, we were more likely to have someone come in from off the street wanting to buy a gift for someone, rather than looking to spend three hours making a gift. It's my goal to be a mecca of creativity in Chicago's North Side, so that when people think about making or buying 'gifts with personality,' they think about Blue Buddha.''

5 Tips to Ease into the Art of Good Business

Rebecca Mojica acknowledges that many artists often flounder when it comes to the business angle of their livelihood. She feels that she is lucky to be both ''right- and left-brained.'' Blue Buddha Boutique (akaB3) just nabbed the honor of ''Best New Business in Edgewater,'' bestowed by the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce. Here are some of her tips for succeeding in the role of entrepreneur and boss:

It's crucial for artists to meet with a small business development center and find mentors. People who've ''been there, done that'' can keep burgeoning crafters form spending time reinventing wheels. They also provide much-needed support.

When it comes to number crunching, work backward from a personal budget. How much money do you need to survive, including health expenses and saving for retirement? Once you calculate that, what does it mean in terms of how much revenue your business needs to bring in, in order to achieve the post-tax bottom line to match your goal?

You'll need to decide if you are willing to outsource some of your production to others. You may need to hire someone to take care of the tasks that ''anyone'' can do--updating the website, mailing packages, filling out paperwork for shows--so you can concentrate on doing what only you can do--creating your art, deciding on the vision and direction of your business.

Don't underpay yourself. That's a big lesson I learned. I felt like I was doing the ''entrepreneurial'' thing by working a zillion hours a week for an hourly wage that amounted to $4 ... and that really came back to bite me. That model isn't scalable.

I had to overcome being a people-pleaser. I'm sure pleasing others is one reason why we're so customer-care focused, which is a good thing. But it became a bad thing when I was so consumed with trying to make sure everyone on my staff was happy with everything. Instead of celebrating what we had, I would only tune into complaints about what was wrong. I hired a coach to help me get past this.