When Chris hit her 40s, she discovered mosaic art and studied with a master artist. Some successful sales at a local art fair were all the encouragement she needed to remake this hobby into a full-time career.
Tell us about your background…
I was born and raised on the Northwest side of Chicago, in a blue-collar neighborhood where, at that time, we could leave our doors unlocked without any worries. My parents were hardworking and tried to squeeze as much as they could out of a dollar due to our large Catholic family with six children.
I had aspirations of being a doctor during high school since I loved biology and chemistry, however, my mother would tell me that it is more important to take care of a husband and have children—in other words, become a stay-at-home mother.
In grade school, I loved art projects. In Chicago, all the public schools would select one art piece from each school for a display—my art was selected twice. One project I still remember vividly was making paper mosaic with tissue paper in 7th grade—I had so much fun with it! We were to cut out shapes with black construction paper and glue different colored tissue paper over the shapes to make a “stained glass” piece that we could tape on a window. I cut out the shape of the Mary and child (it was close to Christmas). When I handed it in, my teacher asked me if my parents helped me because it was so nice; I told him that I did it myself with no help at all.
After graduating from public high school in Chicago, I received a full scholarship to Loyola University for one year, then chose to take a “gap” year—it lasted a decade! I worked for a nonprofit as well as several corporations, primarily in finance, software, and process improvement.
In my 40s, I decided to complete my bachelor’s degree in Communication at Northwestern University, taking evening classes while I was working full time. Completing all the courses and receiving my degree—cum laude, at 45—gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. I was dedicated and focused. I missed many parties and dinners with friends because I was either in class or studying. But it was also during this time that I met and married my husband, Chuck.
When did you think about making a career change?
After I received my bachelor’s degree, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands. Over the years, I had continued to dabble in art, taking drawing, painting, printing, felting, ceramics, and photography classes. At one point, I even thought I was going be a professional photographer. At 45, I signed up for a mosaic class at a suburban art center. I loved doing it so much that I started to mosaic everything in the house! I would look in our storage room and find sitting stools, trays, wooden boxes, etc. I would clean them up by removing any dirt and loose paint, seal them with primer paint, and then mosaic them.
After taking many mosaic classes, I found myself wanting to do a lot more. Chuck and I took a trip to the Smith Museum of Glass at Navy Pier in Chicago (now the Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass) and saw wonderful stained glass mosaic windows by Khaim Pinkhasik. Chuck did some research and found that Khaim, a mosaic master, lives and works in Chicago; he promptly enrolled me to work with him one-on-one. I loved the class and took many more. Khaim is truly a gifted artist and fantastic teacher.
What is your next act?
I am an artist; I make stained glass mosaics windows, which are very similar to regular stained glass windows. I love working with many colors and doing highly detailed work. For example, one window depicted an egret, using very small pieces of glass to imitate the feathers. I also love the flexibility in my art: I can change the design as I go along rather than being limited by a strict pattern.
The creativity that goes into my art it is based on the subject matter, color and opacity of the glass, color of the grout, and any additional embellishments. I find inspiration from nature. I am amazed by the beauty and energy of wild forests. It is in these places that I become one with the environment. The colors, sounds, and smells are intense and profound; I try to capture them within my art.
Being aware of the fragility of nature and our ecosystem, I use as much recycled material as possible in my artwork. Most of my window pieces are actually old recycled window frames and a significant amount of the stained glass used in the pieces are either scraps from other projects or glass that would have otherwise been thrown out. I glue stained glass directly to the clear glass of the window. After I am finished gluing all the glass, I fill in the cracks with grout. Depending on its size and complexity, it can take anywhere from ten hours to a month to complete one piece.
I work in the basement of our home in Evanston, Illinois. We bought this house especially for this large space that can handle several large worktables. I sell my work primarily through galleries.
How did you go from taking classes to selling your work in galleries?
After studying with Khaim, I started to focus my work on stained glass mosaic windows. It was about this time, at age 48, that I decided to sell some of my items at art fairs. My first one was at a local church. Much to my surprise and delight, I sold two thirds of my items! It was then that I starting thinking about turning my passion into a full-time art business.
I was very fortunate to meet a wonderful gallery owner named Steve Rubinkam in New Buffalo, Michigan. He later moved the gallery to Douglas, Michigan. He took several of my pieces, which sold pretty quickly, and I became a permanent artist in his gallery. Steve passed away several years ago. Another gallery owner, Lynn Neuman asked me to be a part of her gallery and I happily agreed!
I also joined the Illinois Arts Council Agency. This council supports Illinois artists by conducting art sprees and displaying their work in various galleries around Illinois. There are two opportunities to apply for membership, in the spring and fall. The council has a juried panel that accepts artists into the council—from what I understand, not everyone is accepted. It was an honor to be selected to be a member of this council.
By some luck, I was invited to have some of my artwork photos in art books. I also responded to “calls for artists” on various artist websites. As of 2015, my artwork has been featured in four art books, as well as other publications:
- Creative Glass, Kracun/McFadden, July 2010
- Mosaic Art Today, Jeffrey Snyder, Schiffer Books, July 2012
- Flowers in Art, Cindy Ann Coldiron, Schiffer Books, Fall 2012
- Contemporary Wildlife Art, Cindy Ann Coldiron, Schiffer Books, Spring 2015
How supportive were your family and friends?
At first, my husband was very skeptical; he thought that I was quitting my full-time job just to quit work. But when he saw me work hard every day to grow my business, he became more supportive and now gushes about my artwork to his friends!
My friends were very excited and supportive from the get go. They helped me carry and set up during art shows, introduced me to potential clients, and even recommended me to several friends and family. When I donated some of my pieces to help fundraise for nonprofits in my community, my friends had a bidding war on several of them; it made me cry for joy.
What challenges did you encounter?
It was difficult to walk away from a consistent salary and benefits. I knew that I needed to save money to account for the “dry spells.” Before the 2008 recession hit, I was doing pretty well: My work was constantly in exhibits and galleries and I was completing one commission after another. With the recession, gallery sales and commissions dried up; I needed to get a job. I worked 18 months for the 2010 US Census as a field operations supervisor. What a terrific opportunity. After the 2010 census ended, I found a part-time job in which I still had time to work on my art. In 2013, I started working at an Evanston CPA firm, which still allows me to work on my art. I love this balance of left brain/right brain. I can still be creative as well as use my managements and financial skills.
Another challenge starting out was marketing my work. I promoted my business by being in several art shows but now it’s mainly word-of-mouth. The more people you talk with, the more the word gets out! Every once in a while, I receive an inquiry about a piece from someone who has found my website.
Today, the higher price point of my items ($500 to $2500) makes selling them through galleries much easier than selling them myself. This also allows me to focus my attention purely on my art. I price my pieces by looking at how other artists are pricing their work. Stained glass mosaics are always priced by square footage and complexity.
What advice do you have for those interested in becoming professional artists? What resources do you recommend?
If you have had a passion that has been brewing for years, pursue it! I believe you must try something and see if it works. If it doesn’t, move on to the next thing. I would rather fail at something than regret that I never tried it.
If you’re an artist thinking about going full time with your craft, write a business plan before quitting your job. A business plan forces you to think through your goals. I’d advise you set clear milestones for the next five years. I put together a business plan AFTER I quit my job—I felt I missed many opportunities in the first several months because I was still figuring out my focus. When preparing my plan, I talked to many gallery owners and successful artists to gather information and also asked my husband to review it. It helped me immensely! I was able to determine my market, price points, commission goals, etc.
Read up on sole proprietorship vs. incorporation and see which one applies to you. I chose sole proprietor for the time being because it was the easiest to form and less expensive. Also remember to file your business with your state.
Take marketing and business classes aimed toward the art business owner. This was valuable to me. I took mine at The Art Center in Highland Park, Illinois.
Save money before taking the plunge. Pay off all your debts and try to have about six months or more of savings in the bank. Know that there will be months in which nothing sells. And that is OK. Just keep making art. Purchase a financial software package like QuickBooks and keep up with your business finances every day.
Network with gallery owners and other artists—and don’t be afraid to talk about your work. Sometimes artists have a difficult time talking about their work in fear of being judged. Creating art is putting a part of you into the piece; for some artists, their work is a reflection of them personally. To put your art on view for all people to see can be vulnerable experience; it was for me at first. As time went on, I realized that not everyone would like my work. On the other hand, I have found that my work has inspired other artists to step out and display their own work.
Make sure you have business cards to hand out. Use one of the many resources out there: Vistaprint, Zazzle, and TinyPrints all are good with quality and pricing. They have templates that make it easy and economical. If you want custom cards, they will cost more, however, it does make your cards stand out.
Price your work well. A funny thing about artwork: If it is priced too high, you’ll get no or very few sales; if it is priced too low, the same thing can happen! Then find the right venues for your work, which will depend on your pricing. Is your work more likely to be an impulse buy or a planned purchase? Because of my higher price points, art galleries worked better for me than art fairs.
Find a good photographer for your artwork. You can find a reasonable photographer in your area by talking with other artists. I currently take my own but I am reaching a point in which a professional photographer will be vital in growing my business.
Structure your time. I plan on working on my art each day for about six hours, and reserve two hours for marketing-related tasks.
For mosaic resources:
I discovered a vibrant community of mosaic artists in the Chicago area. There is a devoted group at The Art Center in Highland Park and another one at The Evanston Art Center. SAMA (Society of American Mosaic Artists) is a great organization that includes extremely talented artists from around the world. And The Chicago Mosaic School is another good one. These are all great resources for mosaic classes too.
For inspiration, check out the work of these mosaic artists, to name a few: Oliver Budd, Bonnie Fitzgerald, Kelley Knickerbocker, Lynne Chinn, Martin Cheek, Gary Drostle, and Atsuko Laskaris. And check out Mosaic Art Now.
What’s next for you?
I’d like to create much larger mosaic stained glass pieces. My current pieces range from 12” by 12” to 36” by 36”. The largest piece I have ever created was 3 feet by 6 feet.
I’d also like to do more stage and performance work for fun. In the past, I have done some storytelling—I even did a small stint on a local cable station. http://www.ectv.com/
In 2007, I joined The Woman’s Club of Evanston, a philanthropic organization that raises money for nonprofits in the Evanston area. One of their fundraising events is a benefit show that entails singing and dancing and just good fun. For a couple of years, I helped with props and stage crew. Then in 2010, I decided to take the plunge and get in front of the audience. I learned two things: I can belt out a tune and… I can’t dance to save my life! I am grateful for The Woman’s Club of Evanston to be able to have this opportunity to sing on stage, make new friends with amazing women, and be a part of something that is much larger than myself.
My husband and I would also like to travel more. Our bucket list includes: Italy, the South of France (a river barge trip), Thailand, Spain (especially Barcelona), Australia/New Zealand, Hong Kong, and several states in the US (Maine, Oregon, Montana, North Carolina, and Alaska).
Contact Chris Heisinger at email@example.com