Danielle Perrault: Studying Opera, That Stunningly Gorgeous Musical Expression

Danielle Perrault planned to be a psychologist.

In 2007, she finished her undergrad degree in psychology at Simpson University in Redding, CA, while maintaining a connection to music. “I had a lot of friends in the music department and I sang in the choirs,” said Perrault. “I was very interested in classical music even back then. There were times I considered switching my major to music, but at the time, I didn’t think I was good enough. I was afraid I would fail at it, so I never switched while I was at Simpson. I still really loved studying psychology, so I finished that. It wasn’t until I almost graduated that I realized I didn’t want to be a psychologist.”

Born in Queens, NY, but raised in San Diego, CA, Perrault returned to San Diego to be with her family while she figured out what to do next. “We’ve lived in the same house since we moved here when I was five,” shared Perrault, who has one younger sister named Kelsey. “After I graduated I thought I wanted to be a nurse. I moved back home and went to a community college to take prerequisites for nursing school, but the classes that I needed kept filling up. I ended up taking a music class to keep my schedule at full time.”

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Credit: Matt Haney

Then a class assignment required her to perform. “That was the first time I sang a solo by myself in front of people,” Perrault explained. “That was the beginning of my catching the performing bug. I started studying music about a year later and never went back to nursing.”

Perrault completed her degree in music and moved to Kansas in 2015 to study opera performance at the University of Kansas. She graduated this spring with her master’s degree. “I actually started out thinking I was going to go into musical theater,” admitted Perrault. “The two have a lot of similarities. Musical theater borrows a lot from opera, and it just kind of went off on its own track. But as I kept studying and taking voice lessons, my teacher and I both realized that my voice was well suited for classical singing. I still love musical theater and I’ve recently been honing my skills in that genre so that I can incorporate it into my career at some point. I went with opera as my primary focus because that’s where my voice was going and I ended up falling in love with it.”

Perrault sang in performances at the school and for the Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. “I’ve loved working there,” said Perrault. “The people are amazing. It’s always a fun experience with high production value. It’s a great place to sing.”

She also has had several opportunities to travel abroad. Currently in Italy for the month of July, Perrault also completed a choir tour in Spain while an undergrad and traveled to Germany after being selected by a panel to sing during the Eutin Summer Opera Festival in Eutin. “That was actually a tough experience for me,” admitted Perrault. “There were a lot of great things about it. Every time you get to go overseas and spend any amount of time in another culture is amazing, but it was also really interesting working in another country and experiencing a different work climate, a different work structure. It ended up being quite challenging. But I did get a lot of good things out of it as well, like cultural insights and learning how to deal with adversity.”

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Credit: Lauren di Matteo Images

Perrault is no stranger to tackling difficult roles and embracing learning experiences. “I think I’d have to say my favorite role so far has been Hansel in Hansel and Gretel,” Perrault shared. “I did that while I was in my undergrad. We had a music director at the time who was very demanding and gruff, and the rehearsal process was often a bit scary. But as a result, I learned a lot and I grew so much. … I got a better sense of what it actually takes to be well prepared for a role. And the role itself was such a blast. I was playing a pre-teen boy. I’m a mezzo-soprano, one of the lower female voice types, and we frequently get cast in the roles of young boys or young men. When I was first starting my vocal studies and found out about that, I was kind of upset. I had all these stereotypical ideas about playing tragic, romantic heroines. Why would I want to play a little boy? But I actually really love it. It’s intriguing to play someone who is completely different from myself. I love digging into the psyche and physicality of a boy and having a blast with it. I hope I can do that role again many times.”

Ultimately, Perrault would like to be accepted into a young artist program, which, she explained, is an apprenticeship for opera singers. Typically, aspiring opera singers apply to programs at opera houses around the country. “They’ll typically hire four singers or so, one per voice part,” Perrault added. “They’ll use those singers for outreach events and sometimes they get cast in small roles or cover (understudy) lead roles for the company’s main stage operas. They’re all a little bit different, but ideally, that’s a possible next step I’d like to take. It’s one of the few ways young singers have some stability. It’s typically a two-year contract with a regular paycheck, which doesn’t happen very often in this industry. It’s not much and it’s not for long, but it’s steady. And it’s a great training ground to learn from professionals who are further down the path than you are, and to focus on your craft without the distractions of worrying about your ‘day job,’ or where your next gig will be. There are a lot of ways to become a successful opera singer, and a young artist program is not a requirement, but that’s an experience I think I would enjoy and benefit from.”

She’s aware of the personal challenges that the career holds. “I’m under no delusions that this isn’t a tough industry, and at the beginning, it’s especially hard,” Perrault said. “You have to do a lot of start up work yourself on the audition circuit. It’s a costly process in terms of time, money, and energy. Some people go the competition route, and if you’re good at that and win a lot, it can help with your many expenses. Application fees, recordings, accompanist fees, coaching, lessons, travel expenses… It adds up quickly. It’s really helpful if you can get management to represent you and open some of those doors for you. But the work never really stops. An opera career is still a business, and you still have to maintain relationships and connections and stay on the radar of producers, conductors, and company managers. I’m not quite there yet. They say you have to have something to manage before you can get a manager, and I’m still working on the ‘something’.”

Then there are difficulties with societal perceptions. “It seems like every few months, someone publishes a new article about how opera is dying,” said Perrault. “I can see how people come to that conclusion, especially with the culture we live in now. Everything is instantaneous. Opera is hard. It’s a difficult art form to consume. Even for people in it, it is challenging. For one, it often takes a lot longer to say things when they are sung. You have to be patient. The story takes a little longer to unfold. If you don’t know the language the opera is being sung in, or even if you do, you have to rely on translations projected above the stage. It takes a little more work than sitting in front of the TV. But because of all of that, it’s rewarding. Because things take longer to say and because the story takes longer to unfold, it builds a greater sense of dramatic tension, and the payoff is greater. You get to experience stunningly gorgeous musical expressions of human emotion that words alone can’t convey. I think opera has a lot to offer and I think it’s presented in a way that any human can identify with because it goes right to your soul. I don’t think the problem is that opera is irrelevant, I think people are reluctant to consume it because of the effort that it takes.”

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Credit: Villa Medicea di Lilliano Wine Estate

Perrault has noticed that opera houses are trying different series and offering music in different venues, like libraries, museums, and restaurants. “I think the new performance trends are helping people realize that opera doesn’t have to be stuffy and boring like they thought,” she said. “Is it for everyone? No. Nothing is, really. But I think it’s for a lot more people than those who realize it. Opera is fighting against culture notions of what opera is, but I think it can thrive. … I have a lot of hope for the future of opera. People can help by just trying it out. Companies are doing what they can to make it more accessible to more people. A lot of them are active on social media, so you can get regular updates on what they’re up to. Just find something that looks even slightly interesting and go! Worst case scenario, you don’t like it; there are worse things in life than not liking something. It’s no big loss. But then again, you might be surprised and enjoy yourself.”

Full opera performances are available on Spotify or Youtube, Perrault explained. “You don’t even have to leave your house. There are so many ways to learn about opera these days. Operas are even broadcast in movie theaters now, so you don’t even have to dress up. It’s best live though, so check out what your local opera house is doing and go support it. It’s such a beautiful art form that expresses humanity in such a beautiful way. I think it’s something that needs to stay, and it can if people are willing to take a second look at it.”

Perrault continued, “Another hindrance is a general lack of appreciation of opera as an art form and the people who do it. There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it. I’m not trying to tell a sob story. It’s just a reality that many people don’t know about. One of the biggest critiques I hear is that it’s too expensive and that’s why people don’t go. For one, that’s becoming less true. Yes, if you want orchestra seats you’re going to pay a lot. But a lot of opera houses now offer special rates for students and young professionals. And most of the time, balcony tickets are very reasonably priced.”

Finding the right venue for the right price can help. Sometimes, opera houses will offer tickets between $15 and $20 for great seats. “It’s financially accessible for a lot of people in different income brackets,” shared Perrault.

Perrault also explained the prices. “Opera is very expensive to produce. A lot of people are involved. You have the singers themselves, and you also have a whole orchestra of anywhere from 20 to 100 people. You have the people in the costume, wig, and scene shops, the stage managers and stagehands, the lighting technicians, everyone working in the main office, etc. It takes a huge village to put on a opera, and all of those people need to be compensated for their time and expertise. We don’t make a ton of money. Maybe international super stars make a good living, but most opera singers don’t. You may get a nice big check for a six-week performance and rehearsal run, but then you have to make that for last several months until your next gig.”

Perrault added, “When you think about supporting opera, it’s helpful to think about the people behind it. It’s not paying into some elitist thing that executives are using to line their pockets. It’s helping to support people who really love this, want to keep it around, and are already making a lot of sacrifices to do so.”

Follow Danielle’s adventures online at her website or on Instagram. She’s currently performing in Italy.

This is the second of three articles about appreciating, studying, and performing opera.

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Christine Sacchi: Writing about Opera in a Way that’s Interesting to the Aficionado, Accessible to the Curious

Artistic talent and music appreciation runs in Christine Chase Sacchi’s family, but opera unexpectedly captured her heart a few years ago.

In 2009, when Sacchi’s daughter traveled to Italy as part of her art education, Sacchi, a homeschooling mother of seven, wanted to hear music that evoked the experience of being in Italy. She found Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, an Italian bass-baritone opera singer, on Youtube, and got hooked. “I looked up everything I could on Youtube and starting buying CDs,” Sacchi said. “He sings a lot in Europe and not as much here.”

She started to watch for a chance to hear him on stage, and was eventually able to see D’Arcangelo on the stage in Los Angeles, and continued to pursue her appreciation of opera in other ways. “I started being more interested in opera in general through being his fan,” Sacchi shared. “I would get so full of words every time I would go to something. I would write and put it on Facebook. My girlfriends who were opera fans that I met through Facebook groups had an endless appetite for everything I wrote. They said, ‘You gotta write a blog.’ A girlfriend from Russia said, ‘I read all the opera blogs, and I like yours better than theirs.’ After a year, I got around to it.”

Sacchi launched her blog on January 1, 2014, and now, over three years later, has hundreds of daily visitors reading her posts. “I’m having so much fun with it,” Sacchi said. “I’m having people tell me on Facebook that they saw me at the opera.”

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Sacchi started adding interviews to her blog, in addition to her reviews. She interviewed two composers, Robert W. Butts and Marco Frisina, as well as bass baritone Mark S. Doss. Doss sings in twelve different languages, and flies around the world singing in many prominent opera houses. When Sacchi first reached out to Doss, he was singing in Italy. Doss is tall and strikingly handsome, and Sacchi was a bit nervous at first. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m kind of afraid, but my readers just love interviews,’ said Sacchi, who was able to complete the interview in writing and eventually met Doss in New York. “This interview was perfect for my readers, since my blog is focused on basses and baritones.”

While the opera blogosphere is full of good writing, Sacchi wants her niche to be writing for those who may not be musical experts or even opera fans.  She wants to discuss things in a way that’s interesting to the aficionado while accessible to the curious. “I’d like to be a bridge between normal people and the world of opera,” Sacchi shared. “I want to appeal to the avid fan as well as the first time opera goer.”

As she’s attended more performances, Sacchi has been able to verbalize what she finds particularly appealing about opera. “I have distilled for myself why the art form is very special to me and why I’d like to see it perpetuate instead of dying out,” shared Sacchi. “The human voice without amplification is a very beautiful instrument. The experience of it hitting not just your eardrums but your body can’t be reproduced outside a live performance. To be in the room with the music is an experience of the whole body, mind, and soul.”

Of course there’s a place for microphones and recordings, Sacchi agrees.  But hopefully through writing about opera she can reach people with the idea that live singing is a tradition well worth preserving in an electronic age.

In her quest to introduce more newcomers to opera, Sacchi admits encountering some familiar preconceived expectations. She responded, “Some people literally expect to see a large lady in Viking garb, horned helmet and all.”

This raises the question of body image and the pressure on singers today to not only sound great but conform to standards of beauty driven by film and television. As to whether a large frame is necessary to sing well–it’s not. “I’ve seen a lady five feet tall and slender fill an opera house with her voice,” said Sacchi. “It’s pretty amazing what they can do with professional training. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with size at all. In the meantime, they’re now dealing with being judged on how well they look, as well as how they sing. This modern standard of physical beauty is putting a lot of pressure on the opera world. The singers think, ‘If I’m overweight, I won’t get the role. And if I get the role, but I’m not someone’s idea of slim enough,  what will the critics say?’ The critics can be vicious.  Fans like me get nervous because I don’t want people to get hired just because they’re thin. I want them to be good singers.  If the balance tips too far toward movie star looks, we could end up hearing lesser voices.”

In addition to old stereotypes, technology has influenced how a potential audience views opera. “We can all hear the world’s best at the touch of a button,” Sacchi said. “What does this mean for audiences attending local shows? Will we become unrealistically demanding?”

When considering new material for her website, Sacchi looks for performances that revolve around a featured singer, a new opera, or a particular composer, especially if she’s featured a certain person on her blog. “Because I’m interested in new music in helping opera not die out,” explained Sacchi. “We need new opera. The old opera is very beautiful but I don’t think we were meant to watch the same shows over and over. There’s something stale there. Culture needs something of our own time.”

She is also aware of how music continues to evolve. “In the 20th century, some modern music got very hard to understand, very intellectual and technical,” Sacchi said. “Audiences became wary of new compositions. I think we’re finding our way forward now to music that’s very beautiful and relevant. Opera is just drama and music put together–people singing about their feelings and about life.”

Sacchi writes in other forms as well and is working on her first novel, a murder mystery that revolves around a real-life church homicide. Catch the latest in her adventures on her blog.

This is the first of three articles about appreciating, studying, and singing opera.

Ruby Allain (5): “I’m an artist, too.”

Ruby Allain only turned five at the end of April, but she’s already making her mark as an artist.

“We all hang out together in our one big room and share supplies,” explained her mom, Morgan. “The bookmark thing started because when Danny and I have to cut down paper, there’s usually an inch left over.”

Trying to cut down on waste, they started making the paper ends bookmark size and giving them to Ruby. “I like painting,” Ruby said, who makes 10-20 bookmarks at a time. “I’m an artist, too. My mom and dad are the greatest artists. That’s why I did bookmarks.”

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Ruby started painting two years ago, at age three. It took her about a year to understand how to control the brush, Morgan explained. Ruby went to her first event as an artist over Christmas 2016, then another event more recently, selling about 70 bookmarks all told and making over $50. “I’m gonna sell more though,” Ruby said. “They have different colors and I did them all by myself and pictures, too.”

Painting with watercolor, Ruby likes to add in a variety of colors. “I do every color,” shared Ruby. “I like colors. Blue, pink and yellow and orange and red and green. I like pink. That’s my favorite color.”

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Ruby is also a fan of the comic, “The King’s Lost Ruby”, that Danny draws for her. “It’s about me,” Ruby explained. “I like that my dad did the ogre. That’s my PawPaw. It’s really fun. My MawMaw is a witch – a good witch though.”

And she’s a fan of the Labyrinth artwork Morgan creates. “She does Labyrinth and we have that movie and I like that,” Ruby said. “She loves David Bowie and I do, too.”

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Plus, living in rural DeQuincy, LA, their backyard is perfect for exploring. “Me and my dad go on adventures,” gushed Ruby. “We go on adventures where the treehouse is. We do a lot of fun stuff at my MawMaw and PawPaw’s house. We make maps and I have a sword.”

Asked if she fights monsters with her sword, she said yes– “Zombies, mummies and other nasty things.”

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Ruby gets her love of painting from her parents, Morgan and Danny. Follow Morgan on Facebook, snag a piece of art from Etsy or Society6, see some fun stuff on Tumblr, and catch her on Instagram or Twitter as @theinklinggirl. Danny shares his work on Instagram and sells through Morgan’s Etsy as well.

Danny Allain: “I’m not the next big guy or anything. It’s just me. I make stuff.”

Danny Allain learned to read using his brothers’ comic books years before he started writing and drawing his own. The youngest of six, with two brothers and three sisters, Allain mainly stayed at home, drawing and playing in the woods of DeQuincy, LA. Comics made it easy to follow the story, even without knowing how to read. “You can know what’s going on,” Allain said. “The green guy is always mad.”

Art talent and interest ran in the family–Allain’s father, Gerald, creates portraits, and Allain’s brothers both draw as well. Allain started drawing all the time, but didn’t attend an art class until he moved away for college. He became a drawing major, and met his wife, Morgan. “She knew a character I was drawing, a dark elf character,” shared Allain. “She was like, ‘Hey, is that Drizzt?’ I was like, ‘F yeah that’s Drizzt.’ I was pretty oblivious to everything in the world. That’s how we met. Or at least that’s how I noticed.”

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They got married and moved next to his parents, who live on 10 acres of land. After college, Allain taught elementary art for seven years, until ultimately deciding that teaching wasn’t for him. “It was a very controlling, micromanaging situation I was in,” Allain explained. “I got out of that and decided I wanted to do art. It was super stressful. I was on blood pressure and anxiety medication. I didn’t have any plans after quitting teaching. I had a mural, then got another one.”

Three years later, Allain is still painting murals, taking commissions, writing and drawing his own comics, making fences with his father and building houses with his brother. “Pretty much whatever I can do, to sustain art, is what I do,” Allain said. “Luckily, I married Morgan, who feels the exact way that I do. We’re hustling to do what we can to do this. I’m not saying I’m making baller money, but I’m making more now than when I was teaching. Teachers don’t make anything. It’s sad. You’ve got to sustain yourself.”

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An artist herself, Morgan has painted several series and manages the Etsy for her own work and for Allain’s. Their four-year-old daughter, Ruby, also recently made over $50 selling her own watercolor bookmarks.

Their family creates together in other ways. Two years ago, Allain started a comic for Ruby. There are two volumes with 90 pages each, and Allain has planned out the third and final volume, which will have a big fight scene. Allain involved Ruby by asking what she wanted in it.

Allain’s father, Gerald, is a troll that was cursed with cuteness and manners. “He’s bright pink and flowers grow off of him and he wears a tutu,” Allain explained.

Allain’s mother appears a witch, the source of Gerald’s curse, and sports a wort on her nose. “She loves it,” Allain said. “She actually has a wort on her nose and I always make fun of her for it.” Morgan is a mermaid. Other family and friends also make appearances. As Allain was planning the last volume, he told Ruby that he was almost done and asked if she had any final requests, and she did: werewolves. Morgan suggested making them weresheep instead.

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The pair has found other creative ways to share their art as well. Allain helped found Southwest Louisiana Art (SWLArt) with friends, and they organize an art market twice a month called LUNArt Sunday Art Market. “Every LUNArt, I do live art and make some weird thing or portrait,” said Allain. “One time I did the bones of a rabbit, and people liked it and bought it.”

Allain created an entire series based on his bones concept, and held his first solo show in May displaying his work. “Actual animal bones are fun to do, because you don’t see what’s in American bison,” shared Allain. “The big hump is their back bone. I thought it was muscle. Some of that is neat to find out. I like doing dragons, griffons, hydra. I did a breakfast set of a chicken, pig and cow.”

Allain plans to continue the series. “I want to do some more predatory scenes,” Allain said. “I have a fox and a mouse, pouncing. I want to do a sabertooth jumping on a mammoth or something. I have a bunch of ideas. I just have to get to the table. The hardest part is just getting to the table. Get to the table, with pencil and paper and the table is clean. After the first line, I’m hooked, and I’ll be there until I’m done. It seems like a chore to draw when I’m not drawing, but when I start, I remember it’s awesome.”

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Allain considers himself a storyteller first, even as he continues to draw and paint. “I love writing little stories–not even writing them out, just thinking them,” admitted Allain. “Comics are an easy way to do all of it. I can draw it, and write it and do all the lettering and inking myself. It’s just one solid metal hoop and that’s just me.”

A few years ago, Allain came up with an original idea about a western bounty hunter, and he had created three issues and was selling them at cons. The comic revolved around an alien crashing in the wild west and strapping an alien band to a cowboy’s arm, which allowed him to communicate with an AI system. Then Allain saw the trailer for Cowboys and Aliens at the movie theater, which was almost identical. Discouraged, he quit his sci-fi western and decided to write a standard fantasy novel and make it his own. “It was not an original idea by any stretch of the imagination,” said Allain. “It’s fun.”

When Allain’s nephew asked him to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, Allain decided to use the novel, Shadow Wars, as the story line. “There are five of them, 17-19,” Allain described his nephew’s friends. “They’re super preppy and stuff, from nice families. They pull up in their vehicles to my trailer house and we go into the shed and play. They are all about it. They rearrange their work schedules so they can play.”

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Allain also started making figurines and props for the campaign, and now sells D&D starter kits on Etsy. He found that creating the props was a stress reliever, and the guys that participate in the campaign love his work. “They’re the tiniest little hot glue things that they freak out over,” said Allain, who uses hot glue, matchsticks, popsicle sticks and polymer clay. “That’s about it. It’s just how you put it together. It’s a lot of fun.”

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Allain focuses on continuing to create, no matter the medium. “Ninety percent of the stuff I’m making is just art and stuff,” shared Allain. “I’ll make it. If someone buys it, cool. If it’s not a commission, I’m just making it for me. It’s lowbrow. I’m not the next big guy or anything. It’s just me. I make stuff.”



If you’re in Louisiana, catch Danny and Morgan at their next event on June 18, LUNArt Sunday Art Market Luna Live, 11 am – 4 pm.

Danny shares his work on Instagram and sells prints through Morgan’s Etsy store.

This is the seventh in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Hey! My first newsletter is hitting the web this Wednesday! Click here to sign up and get an awesome newsletter with other profiles, including a brand-new feature not yet posted, and more art and quotes from Danny, and other fun tidbits.

Jenna Rayesky Floral Studio: “It is possible.”

Building a family trade holds fond memories for Jenna Rayesky, as she and her husband, Steven, grow their event planning and flower arranging business, Jenna Rayesky Floral Studio, in the historic suburbs of Philadelphia.

From an early age, Rayesky worked side-by-side with her mother at her store, Erdon, which began in Medford 25 years ago. “I feel like I learned so much from interacting with adults as a child and being given meaningful work,” said Rayesky.

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Jenna Rayesky putting the finishing touches on an arrangement. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

By the time she graduated high school, Rayesky officially joined the staff but was working in the high-end boutique as young as age 11 on the weekends with her mother. One day, her mother left her in charge while she ran across the street to make a bank deposit. She warned Rayesky not to change the window displays. “I was notorious for changing the window displays,” Rayesky explained. “A coat had come in from a designer in Paris. It was made beautifully, and it was the most expensive coat we’d gotten in at the time. It was $1,000 and it was in the window. A little old lady came in. She had her bag of donuts from the bakery next store.”

Rayesky helped her try the coat on, and she loved it and purchased the coat. Rayesky asked her what she was going to do the rest of the day, and the woman said, “I’m just going to go home and wear this coat and eat my donuts.”

When Rayesky’s mother returned, she saw the coat missing and thought Rayesky was joking when she explained she had sold it. “Everyone wanted to be the one that sold this new expensive coat,” Rayesky explained. “My mom really didn’t shy away from giving me meaningful work and letting me be a part of what typically isn’t a kid’s world. Grown women in their 40s were taking my opinion and letting me pick out things for them.”

Those fond memories encouraged Rayesky to include her own two children in the business she officially launched with Steven in spring of 2016. “My husband and I want them to see your work can be meaningful and you can enjoy it,” shared Rayesky. “I don’t feel like they have to do what we do, but I want to help them uncover what they enjoy so they can pursue that.”

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Steven Rayesky in a moment of glee. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

After joining the staff at the boutique, Rayesky started working with her own clients, providing personal shopping. Additionally, she utilized the retail space at the store for events that she planned. “It wasn’t totally random that I started doing events,” Rayesky said. “I just love hospitality in general. It’s kind of naturally evolved.”

The seeds for the business began in 2013 when Rayesky and Steven were asked to assist with a friend’s wedding. What started with floral arranging morphed into the other wedding details, and guests noticed. “My husband and I just loved doing the setup and loved working together,” Rayesky shared. “We didn’t think it would go further than that. We just did it for fun.”

Then the phone calls started, either from those who personally attended, or who had heard about the flowers from someone who attended. “‘We were at the wedding and I heard you were the florist. I got your number from the mother of the bride,’” Rayesky said, sharing some of the connections that led to more clients. “I felt like I was underground. People would call and ask, is ‘This the right number?’ Even my voicemail said nothing about the floral studio. We were like, we should probably make this official. Just this year, we launched our website.”

Now with an official website of February, inquiries have been pouring in and the studio is nearly completely booked for the year. “This has been the most insane month of our life,” said Rayesky.

They’ve been working on the business side, streamlining the process as more and more people hear about the studio. Rayesky also appreciates that the business allows her the space to include time for her children. She had stopped working as a stylist in 2013 to stay home with her daughter, and while she and Steven worked on the wedding, their daughter, just a few months old, was with them the entire time. “She was right there along with us in a bouncy seat while we were doing flowers and setting up a table,” shared Rayesky, who now also has a nearly two-year-old son. “I was home with her. We had free time on our hands when our friend asked us if we would help with their wedding. Initially, they asked if we could do the flowers for the wedding and it just morphed into all of the details. Not just the centerpiece but all the other details. I spent so many years dressing people’s wardrobes, picking out their entire wardrobe, that it’s hard for me to not see life through that lens.”

Rayesky found that her work in her mother’s boutique, creating window displays, helped her develop an eye for the details. “It’s hard for me to not see things through a cohesive lens,” she explained. “That’s how it morphed into more than the flowers. I didn’t set out thinking I’ll start working and do this job. It really fit naturally. I was home with our daughter and someone would find me, call me, and I’d be like, ‘Sure I’ll meet you for coffee and talk about your wedding.” We’d take time planning the details and my daughter would be in bed. Then the wedding weekend would come and we’d be super busy. My daughter would hang out with my mom or mother-in-law. My husband would handle the logistics of it. It would be like a date night/date weekend for us. We love working side by side. I love being creative and serving people in that way. All throughout it, my prayer was, I don’t want it to take away from my family. I only wanted to do it if it would add value to my family.”

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Jenna and Steven’s daughter helping before a wedding. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

Even the studio itself is close to home since the couple converted their garage into their working space, and wedding weekends have become dates for Rayesky and Steven. They’ve found that their strengths complement each other, and have been able to build a strong business model. With 75% of floral design requiring busy work, Rayesky handles ordering, designing, and creating the color storyboard board for weddings and events. Steven takes care of the logistics of obtaining and processing the flowers, which requires hours of cutting, hydrating and feeding until Rayesky creates the arrangements.

As their business grows, the duo outsources more, hiring assistants to help with the hours of processing and allowing Rayesky and Steven to handle other tasks. Rayesky has found that being creatively minded does not lend itself naturally to the business side, and they took some time figuring out how to make their business viable. “The first dozen weddings we did, the joke was, how big of a wedding gift do we give this couple?” Rayesky explained. “I would put hundreds of dollars more into the wedding because I wanted it to look beautiful. I didn’t want to think about numbers and margins. I still don’t. That’s been the biggest challenge. I have gotten a lot of wisdom from others on that.”

Rayesky realized that when a talent comes naturally, whether floral design, photography or another creative field, there is an intimidation when it comes to setting prices. “I had to overcome that hurdle,” Rayesky explained. “There was a wedding we did two years ago. When all was said and done, we made $3 an hour while working 80 hours. It’s insanity–working on four hours of sleep. We realized that if we’re going to make this a business, the hardest thing is, you don’t want to resent the love of doing something. You want to do something you love, but if the business model doesn’t work for you, then all of a sudden the thing you love becomes something you hate. We had to create a business structure. That part I don’t like. Starting out, I didn’t realize how long I had to sit in front of a computer. No one wanting to get into floral design thinks, ‘I just love crunching numbers.’”

Rayesky discovered that the time and money to make the business run smoothly was worth it. “It’s been hard but it’s so necessary,” she admitted. “We evaluate every few months to see what we can do better–we learn and change what’s draining us.”

She also holds onto the advice she was given when she started the business: outsource as much as possible, and protect your dreams. “This is hard, easier said than done,” said Rayesky. “It was hard for us. It’s so hard. I totally get the shoestring budget for starting your own business.”

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Jenna Rayesky with her handiwork. Photo credit: Hannah Marie Bruccolleri.

When starting a business in a creative industry, and there are no funds to hire people to write the copy or take care of the finances, it seems impossible to outsource. Rayesky turned to networking, bartering and gleaning from those who had already gone through the process.

She also realized she needed to be careful about sharing her dream. “Don’t just share it with everybody,” she encouraged. “There are not as many people who are creative. There are a lot of people who will say you can’t do something you love, that you’ll be a starving artist. I’ve learned I need to guard these seeds of dreams and not just let anybody hear your dreams. There are going to be so many people who aren’t going to get it. They’re going to discourage it. Try to confide those dreams and hopes with people who have already done it. Be wise with who you share it with. It is possible. We tell our kids, you can be anything you want to be, but when it comes down to it, do we believe it? Find the people who can share those dreams and they won’t crush it.”

Jenna shares her designs on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about the studio by visiting the (recently launched) website.

This is the sixth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Contact me to share your story.

Elizabeth Kinahan Paintings: “A Way We Can Share an Experience”

After a stranger noticed her first cattle painting through her apartment window and bought it immediately, Elizabeth Kinahan, a representational oil painter, has built a livelihood around painting livestock.

Originally from Westfield in north central Jersey, Kinahan’s love of art began when she was five years old. “I’ve been interested in painting and drawing since I was very young,” Kinahan said. “My earliest memory is my grandmother giving me an Alice in Wonderland coloring book. Instead of coloring in the book, I had a blank piece of paper, and I was trying to copy the picture. I did this drawing of the Cheshire Cat maybe 10 times before I came up with one I was so happy with. I think I was five. I still have this thing and I think it says 1986 on it. That’s the earliest memory I have of being interested in drawing. That just never stopped. I always knew art could be the class I could take if I wanted to do something relaxing I knew I could be good at and it wouldn’t be stressful for me. I was a straight C student in gym but art I was good at.”

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As a teenager, Kinahan completed portrait commissions. “They were trying to help me and give me a little money and improve my skills,” Kinahan explained of those who asked her to create. “They were all people who believed in me and wanted to help me out. It made all the difference that there were people who believed I could be an artist and I had a skill that was worth exploring and pursuing. I never really started as much as I just kept going with it. I’ve always loved it. It’s been a source of relaxation and joy and peace and pleasure. It’s an outlet. We all need some sort of outlet and if it’s creative, great. I never thought I could be an artist for a living. I didn’t think it was possible when I was young. As I moved along this path, I realized it’s not only possible but necessary. Historically and culturally, art is important, and if that’s what I get to contribute to this world, I’m good with that. I’m happy with that.”

Even with early talent, interest and encouragement, it took Kinahan a little while to find her path. She completed two years of college as a nutrition major, but couldn’t connect to the college or her choice of study. Kinahan left school for a few years and moved back to New Jersey, where she started working for an airline. “My father said, ‘You just need to get a degree in something. I don’t care. What do you think you can get a degree in?’”

Kinahan chose art, and found a small, all-girls Catholic school, the College of Saint Elizabeth. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art degree in 2004. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me, getting into that school,” Kinahan shared. “There were seven art majors in my class. It was a very small group. Almost all the classes were taught by Sister Anne. She would teach us how to paint flowers and the chapel. There was not a whole lot of variety. She did teach screen and block printing and ceramics. She was an amazing woman and I learned a lot of techniques from her. When I graduated, I kept going.”

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Kinahan decided to move west after witnessing the destruction caused by 9/11. She had her sights on Arizona, but her boyfriend at the time suggested Durango, Colo. “The whole drive out across the country, we were friendly bickering about where we were going to move,” Kinahan said.

They decided to pass through Colorado on their way to Arizona 13 years ago, arriving in Durango the day of the Main Avenue Art Festival, a yearly tradition in the small town. “I get teary thinking about this,” Kinahan shared. “It was magical. It was perfect. It was a beautiful day and the sky was bluer than I’ve ever seen. We parked on Third Avenue and walked down. I remember sitting on the curb and I had a beer in one hand and a tamale in the other hand, and a stranger was sitting next to me. They said some generic kind comment. And I immediately knew I was home. I don’t ever want to leave this place. I have felt that way about Durango ever since. … I love it. I have found such kindness and support and wonderful like-minded people. That’s how I ended up here and I’ve never really looked back.”

The relationship didn’t last, but Kinahan has continued to thrive in Durango. She switched to oil painting from acrylic after realizing her acrylics were drying too quickly in the dry climate. She met a successful photographer when she started working for the Art House downtown, who taught her the value of visual art and how to approach other people about that value. “My responsibility as an artist is to think as creatively and outside the box as possible,” she shared. “That skill of visual art is valuable to other people. That is where I struggled the longest–in seeing there is value in painting pictures. He was powerful in teaching me a lot about that. He would say, ‘Let’s walk around town and go into the shops and see what art they have up. If they don’t have art up, we can say, wouldn’t it be nice if you had art on your walls? We’re artists. We can put some art up. And if it sells, we can give you 10-15% of that piece.’ I said, ‘That’s crazy. We can’t do it.’ He said, ‘Nope, let’s go.’ We got our art up all over the place. I ended up falling in love with him and living with him for six years. He opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of life and I’m very grateful to him for that. If you have a dream or vision or goal, you have to just ask for it. Ask people for help, and for their time and their ideas. And people actually want to help other people.”

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Kinahan began to understand the value behind her art and how it connected people. “I view artists as documenters of the current climate,” Kinahan explained. “Wherever they are, throughout time and geography, they are documenting the way it is there–animals, what people wore, documentation of a culture, people and a time that I don’t know if you’ll get from writing. Writing can be fudged later on down the line. Historians can change facts. But no one can take a painting from the 16th century and change the garments that were depicted and tell us, ‘No, they didn’t wear collars like that. This is what they wore.’ It’s a different way of charting the time. We as humans, part of defines us and separates us from the other living creatures on this planet, is art making. I think that’s pretty neat. I don’t know why we’re drawn to do it, but some of us, or most of us, are artists. That doesn’t mean we paint pictures or sculpt marble. But we make meals and want to arrange it beautifully on a plate. Or buy pretty pillows. It’s all art. It’s aesthetics and beauty and we want to add joy to a world that would be mundane and boring without it. Many more of us are artists than people want to admit. Almost all of us are doing something creative like that in our lives. That’s important just to acknowledge.”

She added, “It must be important because we’ve never stopped doing it. We’ve always done it. It’s like joining around the table with people you like for a shared meal. It’s important. Why? I’m not sure I can state all the reasons why. It connects people. It’s a way we can share an experience. With an image, you can share an experience with someone you’ve never met. That’s powerful. And exciting to think about. Art is a language of emotion. A visual way to depict feeling through imagery. That all creates this shared bond when you have an impact on someone through an image you’ve created, there’s a connection that has been made. I think this whole human experience is about making connections with other living things. If art helps us do that with other people, there’s got to be healing in that. We’ve always needed that and we will always need that.”

After switching her medium and realizing the value of her art, Kinahan started painting livestock. She had appreciated animals for as long as she could remember, and she loved being able to see cattle and sheep in pastures and get close enough to take pictures. She was living on Main Street above a coffee shop when she decided to paint three cows. “The painting could be seen from across the street,” shared Kinahan. “There was someone in the restaurant looking at me working on the painting. She actually came up the stairs and knocked on my door, and said, ‘This is really weird, but I can see you’re painting cows.’”

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The woman, visiting from Grand Junction, bought the painting. “I really enjoyed the process of painting those three cows,” Kinahan confessed. “As soon as that sold, I decided to do another one. That one sold and it made me realize there might be a market for this. That wasn’t why I started doing this, but it was really encouraging.”

She found more and more people connecting emotionally with her work. “That’s something I’m finding incredibly fulfilling and exciting,” she shared. “I don’t think I’ve ever painted anything that was so personal and something that my entire heart is truly in, and to find another person who shares that passion and that connection is kind of a benefit of the creative process that I never expected. I’m so touched – it just gives me chills every time a person looks at a painting and looks into the great, big eyes of a dairy cow with these big lashes and I’ve seen people truly moved. It’s so interesting to me and I love it. I just feel like this is an area that I have to pursue. I still paint other things. I love to paint. This is definitely where I’m going and what I’m going to be pursuing.”

As her paintings garnered more attention, she started getting invitations to visit herds or to meet an individual animal. When she first started looking for subjects, Kinahan had to learn how to adjust how she encountered the animals. “It was an interesting change in how I learned to actually physically approach an animal in a pasture so they wouldn’t run away,” she shared. “Sometimes they do, but I’m getting better at it. It was this process I didn’t expect, but as I started painting them more and more and displaying them in places, people would seek me out and say, ‘Oh you’re the one who paints the cows. The cattle lady. My neighbor has this exotic breed of cattle and maybe you want to come out and I’m sure she’d be happy to have you.’ I was super excited about those types of opportunities as they came up, and I would travel anywhere to talk to the person who owns the animals and hear the stories and learn what it’s like to raise cattle, how to approach them.”

Kinahan enjoyed hearing the personal stories shared as well. “I’m always surprised but grateful that the owners–the farmers and ranchers–have an understanding of their individual animals,” Kinahan said. “They’re aware of the different types of personalities that each animal possesses, and they’re just as excited to share that as I am to learn about it.”

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One of her most memorable visits was being introduced to a herd of ancient white park cattle, which was a surprise. She had scoped out the ranch for years, driving by and seeing the various animals that lived on the property. She drove by once a week, hoping the animals were close enough to the road for her to snap some photos. Then she started wondering if the owners noticed her visits. She sent them a letter, with a picture of a painting of one of their animals, explaining what she was doing. “Sometimes to a fault, I’m trying to be polite to other people,” Kinahan shared. “I included at the end, if this feels like an infringement, no worries, that’s just me and I’m not harming anyone and I’m just taking photos and that’s it.”

She got a call from the owner of the ranch immediately. “She said she’d love for me to come out,” Kinahan said. “She told me about the different sheep she has – this flock for wool, this for meat, and this is how the mommas behave.”

Then Kinahan got to meet the cattle. “I didn’t even know that was coming,” she said. “I thought it was just sheep there. She told me so much about the breed, and how it’s an English breed and how it came to America and was lost for decades. It was so interesting.”

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These days, Kinahan continues to paint, chase down animals, go on tours of ranches and farms, and donate to rescue organizations. She is also the co-owner of Studio & on Main Street in Durango, which is coming up on its seventh anniversary. Her partner at the time was a founding member, and she couldn’t fathom living and working together. “I tried to stay out of it for as long as possible, and then I finally realized it would be a really good idea for me to join with this team of artists who were doing progressive things in town and filling a void of some type,” admitted Kinahan. “With the outlandish practices we get to procure on Main Street and the uncensored art we can show. It isn’t anything lewd or terrible. I’ve had difficulty showing a nude painting or anything close to be a nude painting in Durango and I was happy to be a part of a place that would welcome that and not shy away from showing something noncommercial or out of the ordinary. There were a number of reasons I was excited to join the studio. It was an opportunity to show my art on Main Street without having to give 50% of my sales to someone who wasn’t working at all for me. To take home 100% or close to 100% of my sales was amazing and was what enabled to keep me being an artist.”

The studio does take 35% of commission currently, which is the bare minimum Studio & can take and still pay bills. “We really want to give artists as much as possible,” explained Kinahan. “For the first two years, we didn’t take any commission. Then we realized we were spiraling downward financially. We were forking out all the money for the rent, and drinks and food and shows and advertising. We had to start thinking about it. We settled on 35% and it’s been a good balance.”

Kinahan also encourages artists to utilize the internet, which makes it possible to connect directly to clients and collectors. “Most of it is free,” she said. “The most powerful tool an artist has is their email list. We can shoot around the side of galleries now. I’m not trying to talk down galleries. They have their place. Artists don’t always want to deal with self promotion. But if you want to keep more of your revenue, then you have the power to do that now. In the ‘80s, it was really difficult to do that. Now, we can do it. It’s a powerful piece for people to wrap their heads around and when they do, it makes things a lot easier.”

Elizabeth posts her work on Facebook and Instagram. Learn more about her by visiting her website. You can see her work at Studio &  in Durango, CO or at Gallery Flux in Ashland, VA.

This is the fifth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people who make money creating. Contact me to share your story.

Quiet Bear Art: “Trading an Object that Means Joy”

Ken Webb of Quiet Bear Art sort of stumbled into an art career.

Webb started working with steel in high school, working for his wrestling coach in a steel fabricating shop. He wasn’t creating art, but he enjoyed the process of working with steel. “I wasn’t good in school,” Webb explained. “Disinterested. I had no idea of artistic stuff at that time.”

After a few years of steel work, he became a professional iron worker. He would use the scraps leftover from jobs to make some creative pieces. “I’d make something for me, or a family member or a friend,” said Webb. “I was making pretty good money as a steelworker at the time. It was a hobby type deal.”

After ten years, Webb began to realize he couldn’t stay at his job for another 35 years. “It was a decent job, but wasn’t too fulfilling,” he admitted. “It all came together at some point over the period of a few years that I wasn’t content and happy doing the daily grind that I saw people doing of getting up and punching the clock. … I was slowly doing more art as a side hobby and that was the direction I wanted to go. It was pretty difficult leaving a pretty secure job for something I didn’t know how to make a living at.”

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The process of building a viable business took some years. “I did it slowly over time,” shared Webb. “I held onto my job and I did the hobby more and more. I started doing some art shows while I still had a job on the side until I felt secure enough. … It was kind of a scary deal, because for several years, I didn’t do just art. I did art, but I did a lot of more construction type work, such as staircases and gates to make a living. But it supported my art. Slowly over the years, I knocked that out and did more just art. It was kind of a long process.”

Originally born in Arizona and raised in New Mexico, Webb made Silverton, Colo. his home in 2001. Drawn to the small mountain town by an art show organized on the infamous Blair Street, Webb spent a week there before deciding to move to the area permanently. He’d been living in Tucson while traveling for art shows, and he enjoyed being able to play in the mountains. “I was just traveling and doing art shows in the summer,” Webb explained, citing towns such as Sante Fe and Taos for shows where he could display his work. “I just liked Silverton, so I ended up staying.”

The art scene in Silverton hooked Webb initially, but the area and its people also captured him. He’d grown up in the mountains — a different kind of mountains, he clarified — and he enjoyed the outdoors. Then there was the community. “You may not know all the people in Silverton because it’s a transient place, but you know a lot of people,” shared Webb. “You can stay still and get your art all over the world.”

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It took a few years before Webb realized what he had accidentally stumbled into. “I realized that people from everywhere, from all over Europe and anywhere I can think of, have traveled to my shop. That was a complete mistake by me. It wasn’t planned that way. A couple years into it, I realized, ‘Wow, you get people from everywhere here.’”

Silverton has a busy tourist season, with the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad transporting up to 200,000 visitors yearly. With tourists and the proximity to Telluride, Durango, and Ouray, Webb stays busy with custom work and commissions. “It’s a good center location without living in LA to have enough clientele to make a living,” said Webb.

He’s found that his pieces connect with his clients. “I don’t have to push it like a used car salesman does,” shared Webb. “People either don’t like it at all, or they fall in love with it and they’re happy to exchange some money for my art. I like that. Most of the people that buy the art I’m selling are really happy. You can see in their eyes that they made a connection with it and there’s no sales involved. They want to purchase it. Those kind of people I connect on a different level with. You’re trading an object that means joy to the person who wants to buy it.”

Webb stays busy by finding inspiration from nature, his fellow artists, and just the challenge of trying something new. “I like to be challenged, but it has to be something new to me. I like to  be challenged creatively, or spiritually. Trying to make something out of steel or copper that I’ve never done before. I like that ongoing challenge. Inspiration comes from all sorts of places.”

He also finds his art to be an important part of spiritual growth. “A big part of that is it can be meditative to go out to my shop and just go with the flow when I’m in a space where I can be so productive in a matter of hours. Other times, I’m disconnected and can’t figure out what I want to do. I’m sure some people write and get that, or exercise and get that, or meditate on a trampoline. Art is my avenue for a spiritual connection.”

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Webb encourages other steelworkers to ask for help and get involved in the blacksmithing end of steel work. There are often state blacksmithing chapters or some sort of metal working group. “You spend a lifetime and still have a lifetime of learning to do,” said Webb. “Ask for help. Ask questions. You’ll run across people who are very very helpful and you’ll run across people who don’t want to help you at all, for whatever reason, maybe fear. But just be consistent. In the blacksmithing community, more times than not, they’re very willing to help if you just ask. Fear kept me from doing that for a long time. I kept trying to figure it out.”

And perhaps even more importantly, Webb suggests finding work that’s enjoyable. “If it’s not fun, it’s not something I want to do,” he said. “I do a lot of art shows, but not nearly as many as I did at one point, because I have my gallery that’s open six months of the year. I see more people trying to make a living out of art, and almost make it into commercial art instead of following their passion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the avenue for me. I want to do what I enjoy. I’ve run into people who aren’t doing what they enjoy. They hate it, but they’ve turned it into their job and way of making money. It’s too much work for the amount of money you’ll make. Whatever it is, if it’s not fun, do something different, whether that’s a job at IBM or an art career.”

Webb finished a show recently in November, and he has a few smaller shows in December. His next big show is in Tucson, starting January 26, with 18 days reserved to display and sell art. Follow Webb on Facebook or visit his website to see upcoming shows and more art.

This is the fourth in a series of articles I’m writing, called “Sustaining Craft”, which focuses on people of craft and passion. Contact me if you think you or someone you know has a good story.