A financial planner would probably say that Christopher Huck was insane for giving up a lucrative white-collar career to engage in something as uncertain as peddling his own art. And it’s true that Huck, a stockbroker turned blacksmith, is financially poorer than in his previous life. But the 53-year-old would never consider going back.
Huck, an American, began selling stocks and bonds more than 25 years ago in Colorado. “I started with the idea that I’d do it for three years and make enough money that I could buy a sailboat and go sail around the world,” he recalls. But, to paraphrase a cliché, the road to dull is paved with good intentions. “I never did sail around the world because I bought a big house, then I bought an expensive car, then I bought a summer cottage. I got completely sucked into the whole thing and I couldn’t just walk away from it.” That is, until 1987 when Huck’s dad died suddenly of an aneurysm. “That really shocked me out of my stupor,” he says.
The tragedy prompted Huck to “try and figure out what it was that I really wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do something creative, to work with my hands, to not have to sit in an office full of suits. And one day I read an article in the newspaper about an old marine blacksmith in Nova Scotia. The story had a picture of him standing by his forge, and just seeing that article really clicked for me. I thought, that’s it, I’m going to become a blacksmith. That really fits all my criteria.”
At the age of 42, Huck threw himself into learning the smithy’s trade. First stop: a course at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Then came menial labor for the blacksmith whose story had inspired him initially. “I kind of fumbled around in his shop for a little while as an unpaid apprentice,” he says. “As I learned more and more about the blacksmithing community throughout North America, I went down to the States and took courses from some great, great artist-blacksmiths.” Helped by his background in finance, Huck drew up a business plan for a place where he could both work and sell his wares. Less than two years after first picking up a hammer, he opened Lunenburg Forge. It’s located on the south shore of Nova Scotia, not far from where the famous Bluenose schooner was built. Huck chose a spot in a seaside area so he could cater to boat owners in search of new marine fittings. But the more he blacksmithed, the more his interest in decorative ironwork grew. Huck calls it “serendipity,” but more likely he’s too modest to take credit for recognizing that the many tourists who come through Lunenburg would be an ideal market for his candelabras, sculptures and furnishings for the home.
As Huck’s example demonstrates, a successful artisan has to keep an eye on business as well as on his craft. If you’re not lucky enough to have Huck’s background in finance, you can reap big benefits from learning a few simple business skills. Taking a night course at your local community college or getting your hands on some literature can help you avoid many pitfalls. For instance, the Cultural Human Resources Council offers a business-basics guide called The Art of Managing Your Career ($20; log on to culturalhrc.ca and click on HR Tools & Resources to order). Written by a group of successful visual, literary and dramatic artists, the guide covers self-promotion, money management and legal issues, in everyday language. You should also check out the Royal Bank’s Definitive Guides, 12 small-business information leaflets covering topics from cash management to marketing. They’re available at no charge from royalbank.com/business/resources or at any branch.
To get hands-on experience in the business of art, try working with a mentor, just like Huck did with his blacksmithing role model. Finding a mentor can be as simple as calling up an artist in your field whom you admire and offering to volunteer in his or her studio. You may be stuck cleaning or filing, but you will get the opportunity to learn from an established pro.
It may surprise you how much marketing and promotion an artist has to do to survive. While making art can be exhilarating, it won’t pay the bills unless you can induce people to actually buy it. “If you make art and shove it under your bed and never show it to anybody, it’s rare that a career’s ever going to develop,” says Barbara Astman, a photographer and professor at Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. “You’ve got to keep showing it to people.” If you can’t afford to set up your own studio, band together in a collective with other artists or craftspeople so you can split the expenses and offer each other encouragement. In her almost 30 years of teaching, Astman has found that students who joined a collective stay engaged in their careers much longer than those who try to go solo.
You may be able to underwrite your dream by selling other people’s art alongside yours. Craig Urquhart and his furnituremaking partner Etsuko Amano had originally planned to sell only their own handmade furnishings in their Toronto shop, Artifex, which they opened in May 2003. But as their business took off, they had a hard time keeping their 2,500-square-foot retail space fully stocked. So they filled the holes with inexpensive items, such as handmade soaps and jewelry boxes created by other craftspeople. Surprise — the small stuff sold well enough to pay an employee’s entire salary. Urquhart saw that success and went with the flow. “A business is like an organic thing,” he says. “You’re growing and changing all the time.”
It helps to remember that success doesn’t come overnight. Before making furniture, Urquhart earned a comfortable income as a technical writer. But he hated the corporate environment and longed to strike out on his own. Now he earns 40% less than his employees, but looks forward to the day when he’ll be able to enjoy a much better standard of living.
Even if money isn’t plentiful, you will have other compensations. After 11 years as a self-employed blacksmith, Huck’s motto is earn less, live better. He drives a 1983 truck, but “I haven’t gone hungry yet.” In fact, he’s doing well enough to open a studio in Mexico, where he’ll spend winters starting this year. He wouldn’t trade his freedom for a bigger income. “I live in a tiny house, but it’s on an island outside of Lunenburg, a beautiful spot. I could have a brand-new truck, but if I had a brand-new truck I couldn’t go to Mexico. It’s a matter of choices.”
From the February/March 2004 issue.