When you enter Jennifer Chenoweth’s house, you immediately sense her aesthetic running through the rooms. Her bedroom walls, painted the color of butternut squash, tinged with golden light. The iron bedframe she designed, inspired by climbing pumpkin vines, tendrils climbing upward and mirroring the spiraled, calligraphic drawings on either side of the bed. Her silver Silken Windhound spread out on the mattress, as if carefully placed there by the artist.
Art hangs in her children’s bedroom, in her bathroom, and in her dining room—mostly Jen’s work, although she is known for hosting stunning group shows during the annual East Austin Studio Tour. Her office sits at the back of the house, the studio in the backyard, a shed full of paint, saws, hammers, and welding equipment.
I met Jen several years ago, when she attended my workshop at the Writers’ League of Texas. We immediately connected over our mutual commitment to daily practice. Petite with long, sandy blonde hair and an impish grin that belies her wit and intelligence, Jen was a firecracker in class. Serious, funny, deep.
When she launched Generous Art, her online, non-profit gallery, I was intrigued by the idea of shopping for serious art online, but wondered how the site functioned as a non-profit. And how did she manage it, while continually creating new work, maintaining an active exhibition schedule, and raising two boys as a single mom?
When I cooked up Creative Mix, I knew Jen would be my first interview. As I expected, she had her finger on the pulse of many issues facing artists as the traditional means of distribution collapse. But instead of bellyaching about what was lost, she thought deeply about how to solve certain problems for the visual artist, creating a new model for earning a living as an artist/entrepreneur.
Saundra: Let’s talk about your various roles. First and foremost, you’re an artist. Tell me something about your work.
Jen: I’m a contemporary abstract painter and sculptor and I also do conceptual art and interactive work. I use whatever media and whatever collaborators fit the concept. For example, I might need someone at a machine shop or I might go to a fabric store and buy scraps and sew them together. For some pieces I might collaborate with an architect or GIS (Geographic Information Systems) expert to do a mapping project, and that’s all with my hand and my direction. The artist drives every decision, so that still is what makes it artwork.
I always set an intention and then every creative and technical decision has a reason and something to check in against, an idea that it’s adhering to. I work toward making the best iteration or manifestation of the idea, but there’s still a lot of discovery in the process, whether I’m collaborating or doing something with my hands and a piece of paper. I work backwards from an idea and forwards from process and the work manifests somewhere in the middle.
Saundra: It’s the same way in writing, I usually have something I’m moving toward, but then the mind moves in another direction. Your mind knows where it wants to go.
Jen: It does, and so does your hand. But those have to be brought together. If your hand isn’t agile or warmed up or ready or in-tune — if your body isn’t in-tune with your voice — if you’re out of practice, then you’re not going to be able to work and bring those two parts together so that it looks like a beautiful thing that was handmade by somebody who cared.
In terms of practice, I am a crazy good painter, but I don’t get to just go out and paint and see what happens much anymore with my kids’ schedules. Painting is like playing Chess. The board sits there until you know what to do next. And you can sit there for hours and play a really dense game of Chess, or you can walk out there once a year and make a mark and let it sit there. Some of the coolest paintings I’ve made are very spare and took me nine months to do. And some of them are done pretty much all at once, and that’s fun. But you have to be in the right state of mind, and that’s about showing up all the time on that level of daily practice.
Saundra: And that’s hard when you have constant interruption. I’d like to make my daily practice to write first thing in the morning, but there’s a child there and she needs attention.
Jen: There’s a child there, and also maybe it’s the best time to go to the gym, or people want to connect with you, plan the work meetings for the week. There are constant interruptions, so it’s a lot about scheduling and prioritizing.
Saundra: You started Generous Art in 2011. How did you come up with the model for an online gallery that is also a non-profit organization?
Jen: Generous Art was for me a solution to a bunch of different problems I was seeing. I have a pretty thick community and people were always hitting me up for donations to their silent auctions for all their good causes. At some point I thought, Really? You want more? You want me to give you thirty pieces in a year when I’ve only sold two? I’m really generous, and it’s hard for me to say no, but couldn’t they buy something once in a while?
One year I turned somebody down for a fundraiser. It was a cause I cared about, but they didn’t even thank me the two previous years or have the courtesy to tell me who bought my work. “You know I can’t do it this year,” I told her. I simply declined. And she yelled at me over the phone. It was one of those moments where you think, “You have just kicked over the red ant hill. You will not be yelling at me for not giving to you after you didn’t even say thank you.” So, I started thinking about how to fix this.
Shortly after that, there was a fundraiser and silent auction at my kids’ preschool, for which I made a series of little paintings. I hadn’t had a deadline or a project since my second child was born, so I thought it would be great to get back in the studio, even if it was a donation. So, I made these little series of paintings.
Who was at the silent auction fundraiser? The same parents who contributed to the raffle baskets. It was a closed loop and it was so frustrating. Everybody was circling the paintings and no one was putting down the minimum bid, even though there were thirty of them for $15 each. At the last minute, all of them flew off the wall for $25 each. Three of them are hanging on the wall now at Green Lights, a support organization for non-profits. They are actually in the background of their banner, which reads “How to raise money for nonprofits,” which is so delightfully ironic.
I was on the playground one day with Tara Levy, who works for Green Lights and whose son went to my son’s preschool. “Tara, the silent auction model is broken,” I said. “What are we going to do?” And that was the beginning of a series of conversations that inspired Generous Art.
The second problem is that the gallery model is broken for artists. It’s an unreliable distribution model. Art dealers used to get their artists into museum shows. They used to care for and cultivate their talent. Now there is so much competition for gallery representation that artists have little power in the relationship and can easily lose the inventory the gallery holds if there’s a disagreement. There is exploitation, secrecy, and imbalance. And the galleries have to pay high storefront overhead, insane costs for art fairs, and to maintain an online presence. Their bills are too high to maintain their image and also pay their artists.
If you’re an artist, you may not get paid, even if they sell something. The galleries are secretive as possible about buyers’ identity, and they rarely allow the public real access to the artist except for at the opening. They don’t promote you, and they have all these exclusivity agreements, and then you get only fifty per cent on consignment. The artist has done all the creative work up front, and they have to pay a photographer to document the work. They’ve framed it, they’ve maintained the cost of their own materials, time, studio overhead, website, all that cost goes into it up front. The gallery then takes it and shows the new work for a short time. If they sell it, that’s great. The artist gets fifty per cent. Although you can’t really force them to give you a check. There’s a whole lot of trust and a whole lot of ways for it to go wrong.
Saundra: So, Generous Art comes out of at least two broken models.
Jen: Also, what can you to do support artists to do their best work? You sell their inventory. I got the idea after a conversation with Katie Kraemer, who runs Tecolote Farms, which is the oldest organic farm in Austin, with her husband. They raised their family as organic farmers here. They’re the hardest working people I know. They work seven days a week.
I had signed up for the CSA and I hated it
Saundra: What’s CSA?
Jen: Community Sustainable Agricultural, which is the weekly box of vegetables and fruit from the farm. But I couldn’t continue with it because I couldn’t use the vegetables fast enough, and they were rotting. I had to tell Katie. “I feel so guilty,” I said. “I can’t do the CSA.” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. There are plenty of people for whom that works and who pay for subscriptions. That’s our big money. Everything we have left over after that, we take to the market, and that’s what we buy our kids’ shoes with.”
And my mind went, “Ding!” First of all, I knew you had to have multiple income streams. But then I thought, “What is the bread and butter that an artist needs to pay their bills?” You figure that out first. And then when you sell stuff out of your inventory, that’s what you buy your kids’ shoes with, right?
We all make compromises over what is our bread and butter work. Some people do production work, or maybe they have a limited set of prints that they sell regularly, or they have a day job, or they teach, or they’re massage therapists, like Virginia Fleck, who has a massage table she rolls out in her studio three days a week and the other days she rolls it aside and it’s her studio. We all have something that we do that pays the bills. And then there’s the other thing that lets you do new work. Selling your inventory is actually what helps you thrive. And there’s no distribution model for artists selling inventory.
Saundra: Right. I’ve visited too many studios of older women artists, many of them prominent, and there was so much art tucked away in drawers and stacked against the walls, it was sad.
Jen: Yeah, and it’s their worst secret. They feel guilty that they have this bad habit that they have to do. They have to make new work with storage units full of old work, closets full of old work.
I had a kickoff party for Generous Art a few years ago, and I had forty or so pieces of mine around the house, and thirty-five pieces sold. Then I had this problem of how to deliver thirty-five works of art, and I had to schedule my whole week around it. But then the walls were empty and my drawers and my stacks were empty, too. And it was like ground had been ploughed for new seed. There was space and energy to make new work.
Saundra: It’s not only physical, then. It’s psychological, like getting back to zero.
Jen: It’s like this crazy psychological baggage that piles up, making it harder to breathe into the new. When you move inventory, it allows for space for new work.
So Generous Art is a distribution model for artist’s inventory work, where the artist gets the same cut they would have received in a gallery. They get fifty per cent and they hang onto their inventory until it’s sold. In addition to the website, we produce exhibitions so that we can auction off the work and get it out in front of new people.
Saundra: How many exhibitions do you do a year?
Jen: We do one major group show a year in Austin. We have businesses host our events so that we get in front of the employees, who work in the design and architecture field. We do lunch and lead presentations and the artists talk with them so they learn about our mission as well as getting access to artists.
And then it’s a fundraiser for nonprofits. If you buy through Generous Art, fifty per cent goes to the artist, thirty per cent goes to your charity of choice, and twenty per cent goes to Generous Art, which is also nonprofit. So you’re sustaining the community—the creative community and the Sustainable Foods Center or Safe Place or Meals on Wheels or whatever you choose.
The buyer pays the same price as in a gallery, where half the money goes to the gallery and you hope the other half makes it to the artist, which it does sometimes, but you never know. If you sell an artist’s work outside their gallery, you have to keep the pricing consistent, wherever you show it. Whether its on a website or out of a shed, you can’t change the price. So where do we send that other cut? We send it to charity, and the buyer gets to pick which one.
Saundra: So it’s an incentive to buy, and it makes the artist feel good.
Jen: The artists feel good. They get to deliver the art if they want to, and they get the tax write-off. So if they get fifty per cent in cash and fifty per cent in tax write-off, they have the opportunity to benefit from one hundred per cent of the value of work.
It also helps with buyer’s regret, which can happen if you’re not a regular collector. Collectors get the vibe and they’re fine. They don’t ever feel bad about buying art. But sometimes people who are new to buying art, or maybe never spent a lot of money on it even though they recognize its value, get scared they’re going to regret it later. With Generous Art every time they look at the work they bought, they remember the $3,000 that went to Safe Place. How can you ever feel bad about that?
Saundra: In addition to Generous Art, you run a business under the name, Fisterra Studios. Can you tell me about that?
Jen: Fisterra Studios is the umbrella name for all the other things I do as an artist. For example, I serve as an artist on architecture design teams, or I’ll be hired to on commission for a functional artwork, like a sink or a railing or maybe a mural or something like that. I don’t do that as much now as I used to, but I’ve done a lot of that over the years.
Saundra: Do you still teach workshops?
Jen: I do. I teach some workshops and work as a remodeling coach for construction and I pick people’s house colors, and those are all related to my experience in the studio.
And then the other thing I do is I create community. There’s a place where all the circles in your life overlap, which is where you are effective, which is where you’re your best whole self.
Saundra: How do you move among your various roles as artist, entrepreneur, mother, etc.?
Jen: I have learned how to balance different needs and desires. I move through my roles daily and yearly, and with practice, I can see when I’m out of balance. The great thing about having many years to develop a studio practice is being able to listen to the voice that dictates what is the next right thing to do. I create a rough schedule and stick to it. My creativity cycles are seasonal, and I allow for that. But I am very efficient with my time, as any working mother learns.
Saundra: Can you talk more about how you organize your time by season?
Jen: I’ve actually had the privilege of doing this long enough that I know what my annual cycles are. When you’re young, you can’t picture that and you can hyperventilate sometimes, because you don’t see how it’s all going to come out right.
Saundra: So annual cycles, like your kids’ summer vacation.
Jen: Yeah, but also how you feel in your creative process in the winter versus in April when the shoots are coming up out of the ground.
East Austin Studio Tour has become my annual fall Thanksgiving closer where I show the work, I celebrate with my community, there’s eating, there’s talking. I document the new work. And it’s followed by December, which is for rest and holiday and family. Then January is bookkeeping month. It’s not sexy, but it’s dark outside and I have passive ideas that are germinating, but they’re not ready to sprout until my feet are warm. That’s just the animal that I am, and so in January I sit down and I do all the grant applications that are up for artists, which I’ll also do now for Generous Art. It’s also that season in the business world that coincides with what I do for my bread and butter. I do bookkeeping for an hourly rate for individuals and businesses, and they have extra work at this time of year because they’re doing end-of-year financials. So January’s kind of boring and it’s dark outside and that’s fine.
Saundra: So, for your annual planning, you have to take into consideration business cycles as well as your own creative process.
Jen: Right. By February I’m back to shows and planning other events, moving towards spring, which is the busy season in Austin. And then summer is trying to balance summer camps, time with my kids, and some adventures, fitting in family time and getting work done before August creeps in. By then almost nothing is moving here, which makes it a good germinating period. A lot gets planned in January and August for the upcoming big booms that we have here.
Saundra: It’s really smart and something I’m now learning after a few years of running my own business. Like you said, when you’re in this for a while, you start to see things seasonally, that there are cycles to things.
Jen: Exactly. This isn’t a day job. It’s your work, which is attuned to the animal that you are, so you have to create the job that fits you and the work that you have in it.
Saundra: So, you’re a working artist, you’re running business, you’re running a nonprofit—and you’re the mother of two boys. How old are your children?
Jen: They’re seven and nine.
Saundra: That’s a lot of work
Jen: I feel like we’re in the golden years right now, so it’s not as much work as in the past. But I co-parent with my ex-husband, so I have a few days off a week where I get to work more, play more, get to be a grown up, which in terms of creativity and time is a real bonus. And I’m refreshed as a mom when they come back, and I’m glad that they’re here, whereas I think fulltime moms have some moments when they feel guilty for wishing away a day.
If you have a good in-house co-parent, you might get the time to think, but not all moms get that, one way or the other.
Saundra: You’re the first person I heard admit that divorce has parenting benefits, because your children go away for a little bit and you have the time. And then, like you said, they come back and you’re happy to see them. There was actually an essay in the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times titled, “Let’s Get a Little Divorced.”
Jen: I tell my married friends they ought to plan their weeks around a co-parenting schedule, which includes date nights and family nights and individual time off for both Mom and Dad.
I was very cautious about having kids because I wanted to be an artist, and I did not want be that martyr Mom, but I didn’t know how to pull that off. When I started Generous Art, I was trying to create a business that I was excited about, because my income streams from when I had been married ended dramatically and painfully.
I had been remodeling houses and had been a landlord. I would get an old house on the East Side, remodel it, make it really cool, and rent it. And I bought a house every two years. So I’d spend six months remodeling it and then I’d have a new passive income stream with property values that were appreciating.
So that was my retirement plan and income for the family for the next thirty years. I was crawling through crappy, dusty attics pregnant to get this done. I was working very hard on how I was building my life. I had a solid income stream from those rental properties, plus long-term income if we ever wanted to sell a house for college fund or whatever, and that just went away after my divorce.
I had to think of something else. I had a little bit of a settlement, because I sold one of the houses, and so I had a little bit of money. What could I do with it that would buy me a year or two to do my work and some other things for income? So, I worked on my plan for Generous Art during that time.
Saundra: So the idea was to create more passive income?
Jen: Yeah, I that’s what I thought. What kind of business could I create that I could get behind with my integrity and put my name on it and have it fit my life? It had to be flexible, without overhead, and not require me to spend time babysitting a storefront. How could I take something to market and solve a problem and do these cool things?
So I put together the plan for Generous Art and spent all of my savings.
There are a lot of woman entrepreneurs, more now than ever, and some of them have kids, some of them don’t. If you think about starting a business like having twins, it will make you stop and think, because it’s a whole lot like that. In terms of the cycles of human process and growth, starting a business is a lot like having a kid. It’s four years towards wiping its own bottom, and when it’s two, you want to quit.
But the idea gestates and then it shows up and then you’ve got twins and the work grows exponentially and there’s no sleep. So here I had taken all of my savings, I put it in an idea, hoping that I like was going to create a revenue stream and all I really did was have twins as a single mom. But now it’s rolling along.
Saundra: I think there’s a myth about passive income. Since the birth of the Internet, everyone’s talking about creating passive income online, but it takes a lot of time to set up. It’s not free money. It’s work. You put the hours in and it pays off later.
Saundra: When we corresponded earlier this month, you confessed that you’re a do-it-yourself girl. You have skills, and you can do a lot of things, but you have a hard time asking for assistance.
Jen: I do. That’s a good lead-in to being a mom. “It takes a village,” has become a cliché, but it’s true that in order for our children to thrive, we need each other. We can all survive on our own just fine, but in order for our families and our children to thrive, we actively need each other. And we need each other in a super positive, committed, involved way. Children need resources, they need time, they need money, and they need people.
Saundra: They need other people besides their parents.
Jen: You need to ask for help from their teachers, from your community in school, from your friends network, from other parents, whether you have four kids and twenty cousins and you’re married or you have a blended family and you have two sets of co-parents. Those are the most valuable things: people and love. You can throw money at the problem and you can throw time at the problem. If you quit your job and you’re a stay-at-home mom, that’s throwing time at the problem.
Saundra. And that can be a disaster if you build up a lot of resentment about being home all the time with your children.
Jen: Exactly. Getting more people involved makes your children thrive.
Saundra: What are your biggest challenges right now?
Jen: My biggest challenge is getting Generous Art the seed funding it needs to become self-sustaining. Like you said, I’m so used to being a DIY’er, I don’t know how to ask for help. So it’s a little slower than I’d like. I feel urgent about getting it all done now because I see how it seamlessly solves so many problems. And if I’m screwing around trying to get the bills paid, I’m not able to create the work projects that Generous Art needs. It needs staff.
I’ve put together an executive board oriented around individual skills, and we have an awesome new web architect, who’s designing our new website. Beyond that we want to grow and include more artists, more regions, more markets, and create a much stronger online presence. When we first started, I asked all of my wonderful artist friends if they’d join. We also did a couple calls for artists, and we got a couple of new people, but most of them were people I already knew, and so it’s a little too much about me at this point. I want the art to be more diverse and super high quality. Plus, I’m not a curator. So the next thing we’re doing is putting together a Curator’s Roundtable to get the curator community in Austin to look at our criteria and review process, and get their feedback and direction. Hopefully we’ll also get some commitments from a few of them to serve on the board and review applications. If Generous Art is really going to thrive, it actually needs to be bigger than me.
We’re also looking for businesses to host our shows, and then other businesses to sponsor our shows. It’s a great marketing opportunity for businesses that care about these kinds of values, because they’re reaching a really cool, very bright audience.
Saundra: Do you have any role models?
Jen:My first role model was Denise Betesh, a jeweler I interned with in my early twenties. Denise worked at home in a beautiful downtown apartment. I say apartment, but not the way you think of New York apartments. It was big and unique and sprawling and right in downtown Santa Fe. Everything in it was either handmade, art, or super unique and picked by her. Everything in it was design detail, and you could see the maker of it, and you could see her voice in picking it. Every fork.
I came in to draw illustrations of the jewelry for her catalog – this was before digital – and we worked for trade. She paid me in jewelry, which was amazing because up to that point, I had been a tomboy and never worn jewelry and these were 22 karat. Each piece was its own little world and I just fell in love with it.
Denise showed me how you live at home, how you work, how everything in your whole life is integrated into your aesthetic sense. And everything you do is intentional because life is short. That hit home to me because one of our mutual friends, Craig, who was in his twenties, died of AIDS during that time.
I still wear Denise’s beautiful jewelry every day as a reminder of how powerful desire and dreams are.
Saundra: I wonder if you have any advice to give artists who want to empower themselves either through a similar online gallery or a parallel business.
Jen: Let me talk around it and see if I can summarize it. I developed a class called, “Creative Entrepreneurship,” which got people to look at the spectrum of choices they have, from misery to the dream, and what they were willing to compromise and what they were not. For some people, like for me, if you sit me in a cube with no window, you might as well kill me.
I don’t mind the compromise of living with less money than I’d like when it comes to my kids. They are loved, happy, and have the basics, plus a lot of adventure. However, the sculptures I dream of are large, expensive, and need to be installed permanently somewhere. I want to have the chance to do my best work, and that takes time and money. In the meantime, I explore how dynamic paper and modular sculpture can be.
Some people are not going to be happy with that kind of economic compromise. You have to actually study each point on the scale, from misery to heaven, to see how far you’re willing to go and on what point you’re not. Your scale is going to be different than somebody else’s, so you have to actually do the work and take the time to see.
You want to ask, what’s your happiness range? What are you willing to compromise on for your creativity, because we’ve all got to make some compromises. My friend Virginia, who figured out the model of being a massage therapist, just turned fifty and now she’s not as strong, and asking herself what am I going to do for income now that I can’t be a massage therapist for the next twenty years? You have to actually think about it and be willing to change. Before you have kids, you might be willing to work for free as an intern and sleep in a closet, and then later that’s not okay anymore.
Part of the process of making art, whatever your medium, is the discovery of yourself. You have to do the same work when it comes to building the rest of your life. You need to know what choices are going to make you happy and what choice will not. And only you can answer those questions. No one else can tell you what’s going to work for you.