From Comedy Writer to Mosaic Artist in Midlife: Sybil’s Story
When opportunities for comedy writing gigs were drying up, Sybil turned her love of mosaic art into a business.
Tell us about your background…
I was raised in Teaneck, New Jersey (before Chris Christie’s time) and graduated from NYU with a major in psychology.
My first job after college was as a marketing research trainee at Playtex, whose undergarments were more like infrastructure than lingerie. After months of tabulating questionnaires saying why women preferred one girdle over another, I took a stenography class and became a secretary.
Romantic comedies had me expecting that once I got into my 20’s, men with great smiles would find me adorable and I’d be romanced the way Doris Day was on screen. That didn’t happen. Mostly I was going to Chinatown with my cousin and eating an entire plate of pork lo mein after dinner.
Working as a secretary wasn’t much more exciting so I took time off to be a ski bum in Vermont and then a secretary at Grossingers, a resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains. I may have originated the concept of a “gap year.” My parents were probably worried that I would have a gap life but when my brother, an attorney at United Artists in Hollywood, told me he could get me a job as a secretary for the summer of 1965, I impulsively left for L.A.
That would, I imagined, put me on the fast track in show business. For two months, I booked restaurants and tennis courts for a man whose title was “Vice president in charge of production,” before he packed up the one memo he’d dictated in July and returned to New York. Because you could rent a furnished apartment with a swimming pool for very little, I decided to stay on the West Coast. I bought a used car, streaked my hair, and tried to pass as a native.
Following a series of temporary jobs, I was hired to listen to records and type up lyrics for a local TV show, after which I did time as a secretary in Jerry Lewis’ office. In 1966 I finally got a job I loved as Carl Reiner’s secretary. Working with the man who’d created The Dick Van Dyke Show and done The 2,000 Year Old Man bits with Mel Brooks made work fun. The laughing was non-stop and I assumed I would never leave. In my fifth year with Carl, one remark changed my reality. A man walked by my desk and I heard him say, “Sheldon’s old biddy will know where that is.” That told me I had to make a dramatic change. Otherwise, I would one day be Carl Reiner’s old biddy. The Women’s Movement was impacting, adding guilt to this fear. I needed to do something, but what?
Since I’d majored in psychology, I applied to a graduate school that offered night classes for those with day jobs, my plan being to become a psychotherapist. When I wasn’t accepted, I was devastated and whined to my therapist. “You think you can only be a secretary or therapist?” was his response.
“Uh-huh,” I said, seeing no other possibilities.
On dateless Saturday nights, single women tuned into CBS for their comedy line-up. While watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, an idea occurred to me: maybe I could be a comedy writer. In the 70’s, there were almost no women doing it. I’d always enjoyed writing but didn’t have the chutzpah to pursue it as a career. I realized it was unlikely to happen, but neither was anything else. However absurd this was, I propped myself up with the reminder that I had nothing to lose. When that wasn’t enough, I threw in that I made people, including Carl, laugh.
I wrote a spec script and gave it to some agents. We were all shocked when it got me two writing assignments in one day. I was lucky enough to do episodes for hit shows that included Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Alice and Barney Miller. As much fun as this was, however, I wanted a personal life. That didn’t seem to be happening. At 35, I was too old to be a first or second wife in Hollywood so I rented an apartment in New York and became bi-coastal
In 1980, I married a New York magazine writer and we became a professional team as well. Except for the 24 hours I was giving birth to our son, we laughed 24/7. Nothing could be better. When our son was 3 months old, we packed 13 boxes and headed to L.A. to be with my parents. Martin and I worked on movies, pilots and in TV, writing for Magnum P.I., Growing Pains, Northern Exposure and many other series. Wanting to raise our son in a city where people without screening rooms and a Mercedes don’t feel like failures, we left L.A. and moved back to New York in 1991.
The combination of getting older and not being where the work was, not surprisingly, resulted in fewer assignments. Waiting for our agent to call brought back memories of my dating years, when I was often sitting near a phone to hear from some guy (this was before voice mail and cell phones freed us up). It became clear that comedy writers have a shelf life. I missed working with funny people and it was disappointing to fall out of demand when I felt capable (perhaps even more so than when I was younger) of doing the work. I have never understood why older people are trusted to make life and death decisions on the Supreme Court, but not to write an episode of Two and a Half Men.
My husband and I had been paid well and believed we had enough money to carry us through our retirement years. But that changed in 2008 and I was desperate to retire from retirement.
What is your next act?
A mosaic artist, I work in the French style that mainly uses pieces of plates and is called pique assiette. I’d never had a hobby, didn’t have the patience for needlepointing, scrapbooking, or découpage. I came into this accidentally…unless you think nothing is accidental. At some point in my late 50’s, I saw a picture of a magnificent chest of drawers entirely covered with tiny pieces of blue and white china in New York Magazine. I had to have it and raced to the gallery only to find it was unaffordable. The third time I visited, the owner told me they would be giving a class. I signed up.
In a large room with stacks of plates on shelves, I was seated at an enormous table with other women, all of whom had previously done mosaic work. We were each given a 16” wooden square, nippers and a heap of tile cement. There was only one teacher so there wasn’t enough personal guidance for a beginner. I nipped my fingers almost as often as the plate, which wasn’t a promising start. The shards I cut were jagged and I wasn’t satisfied with the class, but I was hooked. For me there was magic in treating tiny pieces of plates like paint and creating a design. In two days, there wasn’t time enough for the teacher to show us how to grout, which was a problem since that’s the final step in completing mosaic. They allowed me to come back for a private lesson.
When I came home, I broke some of our own plates and covered a planter with them. It looked amateurish and uninteresting but instead of giving up, I set about teaching myself how to refine my work. In time, I developed a style of my own, thrilled to be dazzling myself and others. On eBay, I familiarized myself with plates, buying those with beautiful patterns, others with words and themes that would add interest — like Andy Warhol soup labels, the London Metro map and wine images. I found a new way of storytelling; my work often has a theme.
Malcolm Gladwell maintains that if you do something enough, you become good at it. My early attempts – mostly planters, vases and picture frames – were okay, but nothing like what I was able to do when I became more experienced. To stay fresh, I designed furniture and, at the request of friends, added boxes, kitchen caddies (for utensils) and lamps. The most ambitious project was covering the fireplace in our living room, which took five months and required many trip to a chiropractor to repair what contorting had done to my body. I was flattered when friends expressed interest in having an item I’d made or asked if I would design something they could give as a present to newlyweds, new parents and grandparents.
Admiring the mosaic items that had were everywhere in our apartment, a friend said, “Why don’t you turn this into a business?” That made sense. I enjoyed it and nobody cares about the age of a mosaic artist. While working, I had the TV turned to cable news shows so I was continually hearing about America’s economic and political crises. That got me thinking about doing satirical mosaics that would take advantage of my humor.
The Breaking News Series can be seen on my site, www.sagemosaicart.com. It seemed fitting and funny to do them on cremation urns, using red, white and blue plates, some with flag images, to comment on politicians in cheating scandals, partisanship, Wall Street scoundrels and the job market. I experimented and developed a way of including photos, a process that allowed me to introduce personalization.
An urn titled, “Is the Right Right?” was chosen by the Brooklyn Waterfront Arts Coalition for their exhibition called “Wide Open.” At the show, a pet owner said, “My dog’s ashes are in a box. I would love to have an urn with photos of Cinnamon.” That and other memorial art – for people as well as pets — can be seen on my site, www.personalized-urns.com. Each is personal and special, and I’m thrilled that I’m able to help those coping with a loss. “This urn is to die for,” someone said though cremation urns don’t get the same laughs as a comedy. But putting a smile on the face of someone who’d grieving is rewarding.
What challenges did you encounter as you started your new business? How supportive were your family and friends?
Starting an online business is not for sissies. It was far more involved than I’d anticipated. I bought bubble wrap, scoured eBay for plates, hired a web designer, brought up boxes that had been discarded by neighbors in our Greenwich Village apartment building, opened accounts at a bank and stores where I would be getting supplies. Our home now looked like Home Depot.
I had to buy photographic equipment and learn how to use it (guess which was harder). A lawyer told me I needed to be an LLC. State and federal tax forms had to be filled out. Like it or not, I had to have an Excel sheet to keep track of expenses and orders. There was a lot more to do besides the art. I was my own purchasing agent, photographer, gift wrapper, accounts receivable, business manager, shipping clerk, buyer, press representative, customer service, quality control and night cleaning crew. It’s more than I’d expected and there are aspects I would rather not do, but this was definitely the best choice for my encore career.
Friends helped in every way they could. Susan, a graphic artist, designed my logo. Alex downloaded a photo editing program and taught me how to use it. Her mother, Jackie, got me onto a radio show. Nadine, a professional photographer, did what she could to enable me to take shots of my work. I pretended I knew the difference between F-stops and pixels, determined not to let fear put the kibosh on this. Bonnie demonstrated gift wrapping. Bambe and Dale wrote press releases. Joyce got me featured in The New York Times.
Patricia arranged for AARP to produce a videotape that appears on my site. Ann and Mara appeared in it. So did Linda, who had a show for me in her home, as did Lynn. Beth and Rob connected me with a gallery in Woodstock. Lily Tomlin made time between appearing on “The View” and getting to the airport to be photographed with a piece I’d done. Everyone contributed glass vases they’d received with flowers and plates that had chipped or broken. My husband and son have provided emotional support and given me sage advice (okay, maybe that’s a pun).
My friends all studied my website and shared their reactions. There were a few cranks. The clerk at my local Fed-Ex office complained about the way I taped boxes, but she mellowed when I gave her a lemon cake. I wasn’t satisfied with my first few web designers and that was costly, but Joshua Peromsik is terrific. In addition to making the site look great and work, he does optimization, which is critical, as you want people to find you online. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everyone had suggestions. Sometimes I listened. That’s why I signed up for a booth at a large art fair. I had to purchase tables, cloths, overhead lighting and carpeting. Pat, a producer, insisted on taking me to Hold Everything and getting display stands. My sister-in-law, Annie, contributed a folding table she uses for the enormous dinners she prepares and schlepped over with me along with a laborer I’d found on Craigslist. The three of us arranged mosaic vases, lamps, tables, picture frames, and utensil holders. Other vendors told me the show hadn’t been properly advertised and they were grousing about the low turnout. I regretted the investment and was heading for a meltdown, but I stopped it by reasoning that the only way to find out what works is by trying. As politicians have said, “Mistakes were made.” But their mistakes mostly hurt others; mine impacted on me.
Why did you choose this next act? What other options did you consider?
Making money felt like an emergency, turning friends into first responder. Marty referred me to an agency that placed people in jobs. I was sent to a commercial real estate company in midtown Manhattan, sitting in a cubicle with young assistants, unable to bond with them or with the executives whose phones I was answering. It could be worse, I told myself when I passed someone dressed as a banana and standing near the subway with a sign promoting Jamba Juice. At the end of my two-week try-out, I was asked to return the bathroom key, but not thanked by either of the two people I’d been reporting to, who slinked off to avoid saying goodbye. I may not have deserved a gold watch, but this was truly a low moment.
Antonia, the editor of Coastal Living, invited me to write for them. My first humorous essay covered the futility of trying to read on a naked beach in St. Martin, the next addressed hating to be a house guest and a third dealt with the impossibility of knowing who people are on a beach since Nooks and Kindles have done away with book jackets, which was how I decided whom to schmooze with. I enjoyed doing the essays, but needed more.
I wrote a book proposal, “Breaking News: You’re Broke,” and despite an agent’s enthusiastic attempts, it didn’t sell.
There was a new show coming on TV featuring a female comic very close in age to me with a sensibility similar to mine. Friends recommended me for the job and the interview lasted about as long as a typical commercial. This was followed by a call from the producer, who said, “Everyone liked you, but we’re going to hire someone with more comedy experience.”
“You’ll have to look in cemeteries,” I quipped.
“I meant on a daily basis,” he responded.
Linda, the gift who didn’t stop giving, got me an extra job on the daytime serial, One Life to Live. A woman in her 60’s doesn’t need a drama coach to be in the background. Another friend, a casting director, arranged for me to be an extra on a movie starring Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker. I could have been helpful to the director, telling him the set, wardrobe, flowers and actors needed to be tweaked but an extra, let alone one not in the Screen Extras Guild, would surely be removed from the set for giving notes to the director.
A team of human rights workers, after receiving emails from my high-powered friends, Kathleen, Gerald and Monica, interviewed me. Though I felt qualified to work for them as they were filmmakers for the organization, the job wasn’t offered. An employment agency conducting a pre-interview for a fashion designer looking for an assistant may have assumed that because I forgot my gloves on the desk, I wasn’t as organized as my resume pretended.
I applied for every job on Craigslist that didn’t require fluent Mandarin. Among those who passed on my services was a lovely man who said I was overqualified to be his assistant and a guy my son’s age selling Obama condoms. That there wasn’t more rejection was only because almost nobody wanted to interview me. At some point, even the most dogged, determined applicant gives up. I did after meeting with Dick Cavett and being told, “We’re not hiring you, but we’d like to be your friend.”
Starting a business as an online mosaic artist may mean broken nails, but it doesn’t break your heart.
How has your routine changed now with this next act?
When I’m doing a commission, I put in about five hours a day. Our kitchen serves as my studio. It’s a comfortable and pleasant setting, and a tile floor is ideal as I have to sweep up tiny pieces of plates that invariably scatter everywhere. I have an enormous assortment of dishes and other surprises I like to include, but the supplies are minimal, basically nippers, tile cement and a few tools. To establish that I’m done working and the coast is clear for eating, I open a bottle of wine and set it on the table.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Starting anew requires being realistic and relentless (I like alliteration). Know that it may take time and you may get discouraged so it’s important to enjoy what you’re doing. Taking the road untraveled is a challenge at any age. It’s easy to question your ability and you can’t be sure it will be profitable. I pumped myself up by recognizing that I’d overcome ridiculous odds by becoming a female comedy writer, hoping that I could repeat that triumph.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
I continually check the Internet and Facebook groups to look at the work of other mosaic artists. My custom orders are highly unique; nobody else does exactly what I do. If someone wants a photo montage on an urn, I’m the go-to. For personalized mosaic gifts, that’s also the case. The challenge is getting traffic to a website. Mine is a niche that isn’t likely to be searched so I use my writing ability to blog and help gain visibility. If you’re looking to make a fortune, mosaic, which is labor intensive, may not be the best choice.
What resources do you recommend?
Read and research. Be current on what’s happening in your field. The book, Making Bits and Pieces Mosaics: Creative Projects for Home & Garden by Marlene Hurley Marshall should prove useful. There are mosaic classes and workshops as well as Facebook groups, where you can get answers. I approached sellers on eBay when I was looking to incorporate photos that would be protected by clear glass into the work. A woman who sells jewelry supplies advised me about glues and glass.
Contact Sybil Sage at email@example.com
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