Hey Everyone, we have some big news to tell you about Clawhammer Press, and we wanted you to hear the straight-up story from us.
For those of you who have read my September post about chasing creativity (which now seems like a long ways in the past), you’ll know that I’ve been in the process of orchestrating a change. Originally, my plan was just to change the kind of work I took on for custom orders; to limit it to a few kinds of work I really enjoy and am well equipped for. From there I was going to spend the balance of the time working on my own printmaking, as well as creating some new products for our shop. Wedged in there somewhere was all the other stuff it takes to make a go of it in a rare artisan trade that definitely falls into the ‘luxury’ category in the middle of trying economic times.
It’s not easy to be an artist or an artisan. It’s a full-life commitment. It’s at least 1.5 full-time jobs with no mental or emotional down-time. The artist life is (typically) also not the kind of job that has you calling wealth-management firms to help you make the best investments.
The Back Story: When we founded Clawhammer Press in 2011, we never intended to be gallery owners. We were looking for a place large enough only to hold a printing press, some cabinets of type, and a retail space large enough to sell my own prints and posters. The space we found ended up being so much more–it became a space we held concerts, poetry readings, art openings, political rallies, workshops & demonstrations, in addition to the day-to-day retail traffic. The large space allowed us to showcase several local artists who were teetering on the brink of careers in painting and pottery. It allowed us to create a culture of live acoustic music that found a niche outside the pub venues and Arts Station venues and eventually spawned the Old Type Music Society, which has gone on to host house concerts, old-time dances, and fundraisers at venues all over Fernie.
All these unanticipated things have been amazing. Because of them we have felt a connection to our community that goes beyond what we would have felt if we were just a retail shop. On the other hand, however, they have brought complexity. Not the burdensome kind of complexity that a break-up brings to a heart-struck lover, but the wide-eyed, shit-eating-grin kind of complexity that comes when you have so much of something good you just don’t know what to do with it all. That’s the kind of complexity we have been facing.
Defining Success: To me, success is only in a very small part a financial consideration. I know we live in a society that values the dollar above all, but that’s not the artists’ currency. Money contributes to the overall knowledge that what you’re doing is valued by society in general, and of course everyone needs some of it to pay the bills and buy clothes for kids and maybe once in a while go on a vacation, but really that’s not what I’m out to find. What artists know is that real value is found in many places: being part of a community, finding acceptance, sharing your passion, making positive change, seeking personal growth, and simply feeling like your living your dream are all things that are a strong currency in the life of an artisan.
More often than not I see my colleagues, those who can on the whole not afford to do so, are the ones volunteering their time, their art, their expertise or their energy to find this kind of currency in their lives. This is a choice they (we) make because our aesthetic values make us conscious of beauty in many forms all around us, and give us that longed-for endorphin rush when we see that beauty, especially if we get to have a hand in bringing it to life. That is the core function of the creative process be it creating community or creating a typographic poster: we are all feeding that addiction to the process of something-from-nothing.
This is a choice we make. It is a lifestyle choice. We choose to gamble at the craps table of creativity knowing we’ll probably walk away with less money than we brought, and that’s okay. Once in a while one of our table-mates gets lucky and makes it to the VIP table, but as they say, most of those stars took 15 years to become an overnight success, and since we define success a bit differently, we always take away this secret stash of other value that is far less tangible but just as real.
The Unexpected: What actually happened to us was that our esteemed artists and our loyal customers have all made the unexpected gallery an unexpected success (in all the above ways). In the last half-decade we have put almost more that half a million dollars of local art in the hands of visitors and residents of Fernie. That feels like something significant. We have been honoured to be trusted with by local artists, even as we figured out some of the logistics of owning a gallery, mostly on the fly.
So while success has been knocking at both front & back doors with the gallery and the print shop, I have a problem: There is too much to do for one person, and just not enough of that elusive success to pay for help. In the last 5 years we’ve tried a variety of employment models from interns, grants, wage subsidy programs, and part-time retail assistants. Each model has had it’s ups and downs, and we’ve made some amazing friends along the way because of our students and staff, but ultimately I end up spending my time managing their time, and paying them out of my own ‘wages’, and ultimately what I set out to do was create something busy enough for me to manage, and successful enough to pay just one person.
That task of balancing the busy times with the down times has been quite a challenge over the years. The rigidity of retail hours in a resort town has us staying at home when everyone else is on holidays. Our kids are going camping without me in the summer, and to Nordic races without me on weekends in the winter. Christmas holidays are short or non-existent. The crux: things have gotten out of balance.
The last 6 months have been so full at the shop that I worked 6 and 7 days a week from September to January. Evenings were spent carving blocks and doing more work from home after the kids were in bed. Even so, the to-do list always far outweighed the done list. This pace is not sustainable for any length, and has left me feeling heavy, drained and unsatisfied with the quality of my work life and my family life.
Hoisting the Anchor: I’ve come to realize what I’ve built is a really, really lovely boat anchor–and as a result, I’ve been stuck in the harbour–but the open sea is calling. Through a series of completely unexpected events in the last 4 weeks, culminating in a hefty hike in our monthly lease payment, we are taking this opportunity to hoist the anchor and (ahem–here is the big news) move the print-shop.
There… I said it: Clawhammer Press is moving, and now that it’s happening it’s going to all happen very quickly.
First, let me assure you that we are only moving up the street. We will have a presence in downtown Fernie, which is still very important to us. What will be different is that we will have very limited retail hours (2 days/week), and we will not have a large retail gallery as we will be selling only our print and letterpress work from there. Thus, it is with great sadness that we are in effect closing the gallery at Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery and morphing into a slimmer, more agile and flexible Clawhammer Press.
The New Digs: We are going to be sharing studio space and gallery hours with local painter Angela Morgan in her 2nd avenue space. As it turns out, Angela and I hold many of the same values dear; primarily the ability to focus on our work when we are creating, and the ability to focus on our customers when we are retailing. I am looking forward to working alongside, being inspired and challenged by, and learning from another professional artist.
For those of you who are worried about losing your source for cards or posters during the week, we are also working on building some new wholesale relationships with local shops to make sure our most popular products are available anytime.
The Timeline: At this point we are planning on closing our retail doors in the Fernie General Store building after Sunday, April 3rd, and spending the following 10 days moving to our new location to be ready and set up by mid-late April. At some point in the spring we will have a celebration to invite you all to the new space for some wine and cheese.
Were we really ready for this? No, but I don’t think we ever would be. These words have been feeling so true for us these days:
“It’s a terrible thing, I think in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now”
What an unexpected delight it has been to grow this gallery from nothing. I am so proud of the Clawhammer Letterpress & Gallery. It has become an important part of my life and the downtown Fernie retail and arts scene, and I trust it will continue to be as we grow and change.
Anie and I have truly cherished the time we have nurtured the gallery, and as we hoist the anchor and set out on the next chapter of our adventure, please don’t be strangers. As an aside, I feel like we have proved that there is a demand for a professional retail gallery in Fernie, and it is time to pass the torch and see who swoops in and picks up where we left off.