According to flow and creativity guru, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity with a capital “C” means putting together two existing ideas in a new way. The effect is combustion, cracking open something fresh and alive. Monique Capanelli’s work is literally alive, combining art and permaculture into something unique, for which she coined the term, “Articulture.” Her company, Articulture Designs, offers art and plant lovers everything from terrariums to living walls, living furniture, and wedding canopies built of succulents.
I first saw Monique’s work a few years ago during East Austin Studio Tours at Jennifer Chenoweth’s annual group show (see Creative Mix interview with Jen here). Monique’s grass lightening bolt, combining living, growing plant life with dynamic design, shook up all expectation about appropriate art for the living room. I’ve followed her work since then, admiring the model she built as an artist with a viable business, that optimal blend we’re after with Creative Mix.
I visited Monique a few months ago, on a cold, winter afternoon. Her studio — a cornucopia of bromeliads, driftwood, moss, bird cages, and lanterns — felt like a living organism, strewn with works in progress. Trails of the creative process covered her home, including her living room where her studio assistants were applying moss to a living wall. Sitting at her kitchen table, listening to her talk about her business and the life she’s created for herself, I was impressed with her intensity and clarity of purpose.
Saundra: Why don’t you start by telling me how all this began, how it evolved. Did you go to art school?
Monique: I actually studied psychology and dance. But I’ve always been an artist and dabbled in different media
Saundra: How did you start creating horticulture as art?
Monique: I started Articulture Designs about six years ago. I’d been in the design world before that. An opportunity came when a big job ended and I thought, “Do I want to go elsewhere? Do I want to go out on my own?” My goal in my life was to work for myself and be my own boss and do something I love to do. I struggled to find that for many years.
My love of art merged with my love of plants and nature and the kind of lifestyle that brings. I’m not an office person. I can do it, but it doesn’t fulfill me. I grew up in northern California and my love of being around the outdoors fueled my desire to work with plants. Then being around artists most of my life.
I started Articulture and it took off. We had a couple of great clients who knew me from previous businesses where I’d worked. They heard I was on my own and helped jumpstart it. Otherwise, it’s been a bootstrapped business with no investors. For the first few years, it was just me and my blood, sweat, and tears. Later I got help, these lovely ladies who are here today. Having them enables me to focus on bigger and better projects.
Saundra: Where in California did you grow up?
Monique: In Sonoma, and in Glen Ellen. I spent about thirteen years there. My days were filled with roaming by myself through the creeks and picking up driftwood and making mobiles. People who know me from the past see me doing these things now and say, “Oh, that makes complete sense.”
No one tells you in school, “Hey, you could actually go and do this crazy, weird, niche thing and be successful.” I had to make it up. It was apropos that I made up the name “Articulture” for my business. You have to make up your life. Ask yourself what you want to do and find a way to do it.
From the beginning, I was clear about my product, what I wanted to sell, who my demographic was. I was clear about where I wanted to go. I had a five-year plan and a ten-year plan, and that gave me a trajectory, which was powerful in the beginning and helped me get off the ground. I didn’t waiver, never wondered how it was going to work. I was focused with a clear vision.
Saundra: It’s not always obvious what that true thing is. There may not be label for it, no program. I’m always telling my daughter, it’s the way you put things together that makes it creative and interesting. I admire what’ you’ve done, being able to figure out that thing that no one else has named because no one’s done it before.
Monique: As creatives we have to understand that and be diligent about finding what that is, knowing that it is something you discover for yourself, not waiting for somebody to tell you what it is.
Saundra: It’s an interesting time for artists as the gallery system is collapsing, as are many systems of distribution. It’s a great moment for entrepreneurship.
Monique: I equate it to gardening. There’s a lot of ebb and flow, the cycle of life where the big plants are thriving, but at some point they also have an end. From there the seedlings come up from the ground as soon as they get sunlight. I feel like I was at that point. In 2008 people were saying, “Whoa, you’re going to start a business? It’s a terrible time.” But I thought, “No, this is going to work”
Saundra: I want to back up a bit. I’m curious about your process.
Monique: Each process is a little different. Someone might invite me to their home wanting plants. We’ll start with a consultation onsite, get a feel for their home space, the lighting, the logistics, but also the real way they live, how they move through their house, and what their style is. Then we go to the drawing board and make recommendations for plants, pots, what goes where, that kind of thing.
For the bigger projects like living walls, whether it be interior or exterior, it’s similar in the beginning where there’s a consultation, but those projects involve a lot of other people: architects, contractors, as well as the client themselves. In those situations I’m brought on six to eight months before we start to fabricate, because that conversation of concept has to be strong and structurally sound. At Whole Foods, we had to consider how people would move through the place, from one year olds to seventy year olds, people walking, literally passing their body through it.
Saundra: It has to be able to endure that.
Monique: Exactly. Especially in public places. For residents, too, we don’t want to put in a five-inch deep wall in a 36-inch hallway.
Saundra: Does your background in design inform your ability to work with architects and understand how spaces are used, or is that something you had to learn?
Monique: I didn’t formally study that in an institution. When I discovered that this was what I was going to be good at, I studied on my own. I read a lot of books and took a lot of seminars and classes on design. And I think in some way, I don’t say this egotistically but I say it honestly, I’m intuitive about composition. It comes naturally, and I trust that. Even though I’m not a stamped “architect,” I can sit with confidence in the room with those people and say, “I know what will look good and what won’t.”
Saundra: And you also have a feel for space, right? Because it’s also physical.
Monique: Exactly. And I have to be able to articulate it within their language. Knowing how to navigate a boardroom and sell my product as a living piece of artwork came with a learning curve. Selling artwork in an expensive realm is already tough, but then you have to sell something that’s living, breakable, damageable, dies. They’re sweating before you can even get them to look at your numbers.
I’ve had to learn to trust myself as a businessperson, knowing my product is good and stand by it. We knock it out of the park every time if you allow us.
Saundra: I want to reiterate something you said: You discover the thing you’re going to be good at and then seek the tools and information and training you need to back it up. Our culture tends to get that backwards.
Tell me this, how do you navigate between the business part of the venture and the creative process?
Monique: I love that question, because I’m excited to be a successful, creative, and happy artist. I grew up with a great example. My parents were entrepreneurs, so I learned quickly. My dad owned a restaurant in Glen Ellen, and I saw at an early age what hard work it takes to do something that you’re passionate about and want to do. That was ingrained in me.
I didn’t like being called an artist for a long time, because people in the business world have a negative stereotype about what that is. It doesn’t get a lot of respect. I was actually good at the business end of things, making proposals and selling the product. I love when people give me opportunity to make my case.
When I told people I was a designer, they would say, “No, you’re an artist.” I struggled for a while with what that identity meant as an entrepreneur. Would that help or hurt me? It’s less of an issue now, but I felt like being a designer in the boardroom was better than coming in as an artist. And that’s unfortunate, because I feel like artists aren’t given the opportunity to create work with that kind of value.
Again, working with living, one-of-a-kind art works was difficult, trying to wrap people’s minds around the value of that. It’s still a conversation I gauge based on who my client is and the actual project we’re bidding on. It’s still a man’s world out there in the construction industry and the architectural arena, and even in the design world. So navigating as a woman is challenging.
People might look at me and say, “Oh, well she’s just an artist and working out of her home.” They think they’re going to barter. But I am crystal clear about my vision and the quality of life I want to live as an entrepreneur.
I learned early on that sometimes you have to say, “This may not be a good designer/client fit.” You need to be able to say with confidence, “I don’t think this is going to work.” And sometimes there’s a backlash, but then you know you made the right decision. I recognize the signs now. I know when it’s a good fit and we’re going to be respectful to one another. I know when someone is going to appreciate my opinions and not nickel and dime me because I’m an artist. I see other artists struggle with that. You want to fight against it, without being a bitch, because you want things to change in a positive way.
I want creatives to get paid what their worth. We’re always being asked to donate. I feel passionate about trying to work that through in the business side.
Saundra: How does your husband participate in and support your business?
Monique: He’s a copywriter by trade and has background in marketing and advertising. So I’m super blessed that he’s good at all that. He writes press releases and newsletters. He ran my Kickstarter campaign from start to finish, including promoting it on social media. He does some website copy, my taxes, the books. And he has a full-time job. He tacks on an extra fifteen to twenty hours a week for Articulture. On occasion he’ll come to big installations, like the Shake Shack or Whole Foods, the ones that are exciting to see happen.
He’s not so much part of the creative process or fabrication or the ordering process or working with clients. Eventually we’d love for the business to support us to the point where he could quit his day job. Because press and PR help so much.
Saundra: It’s everything now, to be able to communicate in the virtual world and to your clients, to be able to be articulate what you’re doing and who you’re serving. I’m in the process of trying to do that now, and it’s hard work.
Monique: But then you have an “aha” moment, and boom, there it is.
Saundra: How do you navigate your time? What do your days and weeks look like?
Monique: Lists and diligent calendar scheduling. I’m such a tactile, visual person, I can’t do my calendar on the phone or digitally. I do old school, big, week-at-a-time. But with pencils because what we do is constantly changing. No day is the same.
For me it helps to be really, really organized from the beginning and be honest with clients about scheduling instead of being fearful over losing business, so I don’t shoot myself in the foot. This is something I’ve had to learn. If somebody calls and says, “Hi, I want a six-by -twelve living wall next week,” that’s not going to happen. It will take six to eight weeks.
I’ve learned to be generous with myself. Sometimes you have a client you want to impress and you want to do it on their terms. But as my good friend Wells Mason says, “You can’t have it cheap and fast, and well-made.” So I’m good about giving myself enough time for each project.
I love that we do so many different things. That keeps me on my toes. And instead of resting on my laurels, I’ve got to be on it so that nothing slips through the cracks. That’s what saves me, not letting any client, big or small, feel they’re not important. I call back right away, email right away, stay on top of things.
I used to procrastinate. In school I was the girl who was cramming the night before the test. But I’ve learned that just doesn’t work. It sets me up to fail. And its uncomfortable when you’ve got go through that.
Saundra: Tell me about the weddings.
Monique: That gets back to your previous question about scheduling and time navigation. I love to do high quality weddings, where the bride is a good fit for me. But we don’t take on more than six a year. And, if it’s only four or five, that’s fine.
Knowing the capacity of my business is a part of the navigation. You can take on just so much overboard before it tips you.
I can do that with the weddings, because it’s not what I’m most passionate about. I love to do them, but it’s not our focus. Also, narrowing the number brings in the bride that’s the right fit. She can set me free to do what we want to do without micromanagement.
We work throughout the year. Landscapes are slow in the winter, but the design process is high during that time. During the spring, when South by Southwest is coming, our clients need a refresh. And then we’ve got the events. So there’s a nice fluctuation throughout the year where the four different services complement each other. There’s no real downtime, but it’s smooth and pretty constant. And hopefully when the store opens, business grows, and the capacity to hold that business also rises.
Saundra: Tell me about the store you’re opening. What’s going to be involved and where will it be?
Monique: We’re hoping south Austin. I’m a south Austin girl, and see a great niche here. The studio will move, too, and we’ll be able to do more. I have a kiln, and a welder, and different lines and ideas that I’ve been sitting on because we don’t have the space or the manpower or the time to make prototypes. I’ll offer more of my products as well. If someone calls and asks for a terrarium gift, no problem. We can bust it out.
But my goal is to merge a high-end garden boutique with an art gallery setting, the way I’ve merged art and horticulture. We want to give the work the setting it deserves, installing it like art, with white walls, so it speaks for itself.
It will be a more of a boutique situation and less of a garden store, featuring items related to my work and not the things you can get in a garden store. We’ll have selective, high-end lines that no one else carries. We’ll also offer the kind of service where you can come in and get a nice pot and a plant that day and we can install it. And we’re hoping to do bigger living wall works too, which I love.
And then the different programs that we’ll offer–Yoga In the Garden and some other “In the Garden” programs. We’ll be a community space/atelier where we offer different courses in different media, but still clear about my voice in the horticultural world and speaking through that, keeping it pure.
Monique: I think that’s important. Retail people have warned me again and again about that.
Saundra: What are your biggest challenges right now?
Monique: The biggest challenge is this next step, trying to make sure we succeed financially, because it’s a large jump from where we are now. I’m trying to make sure I have enough work coming in, pushing a lot of bids and a lot of big projects. The transition is exciting, but also scary. There is a lot on the line. We’re taking a big leap, but the process, from the beginning, has been organic. I haven’t done anything forcefully
I believe in the place where preparation meets opportunity, and I’ve been prepared for every opportunity and jumped so far. I trust that we’re ready for this next jump. And even though I’m nervous, I feel calm inside, which leads me to believe we’re doing the right thing.
Saundra: When did you feel ready to start hiring and letting other people take over parts of the business?
Monique: That’s a tough one on many levels, beginning with money. You have to ask, is the business coming in enough to justify that? I started with interns from the U.T.’s Art department, which alleviated some pressure. But when I hired my first employee, Robin, who’s here today, she took on a big job helping me maintain existing work for clients.
We have about about thirteen clients who hire us for maintenance, which is a big hourly per week job. In the beginning, I covered all of that plus the new business. I was emotionally and physically spent, and irritable about why I was feeling stuck. I was completely paralyzed. I thought, because it’s my work, it should be only me, always and forever. I had to get over that.
Artists and businesses are like cities. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. I knew that if I didn’t allow and let go, I would be a grouchy micromanager and a poor artist. I told myself, if I really want this to take off, I’ve got to let go and get over the ego of it. I had to say, “I trust who I’m hiring to help me. It’s going to be good and trustworthy and collaborative.”
I’ve been blessed with the people who’ve come into my life since then. They’ve been with me since I made that decision. But it was hard. Ego was involved more than money. I think of big artists who’ve been really, really successful in their lives, and I ask, why are they successful? Some of them are institutions. They are true working ateliers. They’re the masters of it.
You have to trust that whoever you’re bringing in, is also a master in their own right. You have to respect that. Honor other creatives. Who am I to say I’m the only one? That’s just silly. You obviously have talent that’s different than mine. Let’s bring out what’s good in you and focus on that.
As a good manager, my job is to find the person that’s fit for this, highlight that greatness in them, and let them expand and grow, because they may have ideas that I don’t have. And that’s great, because as a creative, I’m going to hit a blank wall, and then what happens? Production stops? That’s not possible.
Bringing in that fresh air was a huge release for me and a true moment of relaxation after nearly four years of grinding work. I couldn’t sustain that. No one could.
Saundra: It’s lonely, too.
Monique: Very lonely. I missed being in a work atmosphere. It’s so nice to have these young women around, laughing in the other room, or having conversations in the studio. It’s nice to have that camaraderie back and sometimes it’s just the sweet silence of working next to somebody.
Saundra: Other obstacles?
Monique: One obstacle that will come up soon will be letting go of management, stepping back into being director of creativity. I had to learn how to be a good manager. It was not innate. You’ve got to learn that one with people. That’s where my psychology background came into play. People are different than you, and how do you work with that?
Stepping back from that, being the direct connection to my creative staff, will be hard for me. There is ego involved, but also just being sad about things changing. Being able so say, “That’s done. Something’s lost. It’s different now.” The sweetness of what we’ve had here, working out of my home. I’ll be sad about that too.
Saundra: Role models, mentors, people you admire?
Monique: I say this honestly, not because we connected through her, but Jennifer Chenoweth was instrumental to me as a baby artist in this town. Jen walked beside me in the beginning years, and I learned a lot from her, how she navigated the art world and business. And then having the opportunity to show at her place during East Austin Studio Tours, getting exposure to other artists and legitimate collectors.
In the wider world, Patrick Blanc is the godfather of vertical walls in France. That was my first exposure to living walls, and I fell in love with him as a hardcore botanist and a lover of plants. I knew needed to be that person, too. Not just make pretty things, but understand my product and hone that part of my craft. He’s not only creative, but super smart, and like I want to be that.
Saundra: Advice to people who will come behind you, women who would want to strike out as artist/entrepreneurs?
Monique: What I said about knowing your demographic, knowing your product, and knowing how you want to sell it. Be really clear about that, be business-like with it, be a little heady with it, and be okay with that. Everything doesn’t have to be about feeling. Have a serious moment with yourself and ask, Who is that client? If you’re in the fashion industry, what girl is wearing that? I think similarly about my clients. What do they look like? What do they do? Are they mainly women or men? Being clear like that will sell your work, which is the hardest part for most artists.
Putting a price to the work is also hard. How do you qualify and quantify this piece? What is the perceived value of my work? And be honest with yourself as a young artist. Your perceived value will be lower because you are new, and that’s okay. You have to work your way up through the ranks and then your value increases. And knowing that that’s the ladder you have to climb without being pissed about it will make your journey a lot nicer. When I first showed at Jen’s, my prices were low. Later Jen told me I should consider raising them, and she was right. Every year after that, she would say, “Evaluate that. I think you can get more for that now.” So calculate time, materials, but then your perceived value of that work.
Saundra: Also the way it’s developed, the years that are underneath it.
Monique: That’s true. I think people can see that in the detail, and I think that’s worth a dollar amount.
Saundra: How do the artworks stay alive?
Monique: Good light. Sunshine is number one. Photosynthesis is more important than water. We use a lot of succulents and air plants, a lot of bromeliads, cacti, varieties that are by nature low maintenance. They’re going to survive if you miss regular watering.
Saundra: The heartier they are, the more fit they are.
Monique: Exactly. The number one problem I see is people overwatering. They think, “Oh, a leaf fell, I’d better water it. Oh, the leaf’s brown, I’d better water it. Oh, it doesn’t seem like it’s growing, I’d better water it.” My first advice to a new owner of a wall or a terrarium is just enjoy it. Look at it and walk away, and then water it maybe once a month, maybe every two months. But just live with it and know that it’s living, even though it might have a brown leaf.
We joke that we’re Plant 911 here, because I get calls and emails like the sky is falling. Someone will call and say, “The plant’s dead,” and I say, “Okay, can you send me a picture and let me take a look?” I got one recently that was a Japanese maple. They go dormant in the winter so they lose their leaves and look like sticks. My client says, “This tree’s dead. I need you to come here right now. It’s urgent.” “I promise,” I said. “I didn’t plant a dead stick.”
Saundra: How does that work in terms of guarantee of time and maintenance?
Monique: When they’re under maintenance contract, there are different stipulations.
Saundra: So it’s like when you buy your refrigerator. You can buy a maintenance contract?
Saundra: I’ve just compared your work to the fridge.
Monique: Those guys get paid well. I’m okay with that. It’s a little bit of a security, the retainer. They know they have me at their beck and call. If you’re a maintenance client, I’m going to respond to you a lot faster than someone I haven’t worked with yet. Maintenance clients know their plants are cared for. We’ll be the ones picking off those little dead leaves, making sure everything is perfect and the gravel’s nice, and we’ll cover it if it’s going to get cold.
Especially with the living walls, which is like having an aquarium on your wall. You don’t spend thousands of dollars on it and think, “Ok, they’ll just do their thing.” Low maintenance doesn’t equate zero maintenance. It’s still alive.
Saundra: Do people get nervous about their investment?
Monique: It’s nerve-racking for people, especially when they’re spending that kind of money. Most people are going to want to keep that design integrity at 100%. They want it to look the way it did hot off the press all the time. That’s a tall order, because plants are going to grow differently. The design is kind of going to change, because a plant’s growing.
I try to do due diligence for them and myself. If they’re going to maintain the work themselves, I give them the tools that they need in order to do so. But for the higher end pieces, it’s better for their investment if they have a professional do it, because the likelihood that it’s going to survive and look great longer is higher. I don’t charge an arm and a leg for that. I keep it reasonable, because I don’t want to gouge. I want the pieces to succeed. It’s personal for me.
Saundra: On the website I noticed a reference to recycling. Can you speak to that?
Monique: Sure. We reuse a lot of things, plants for one.
Saundra: How do you reuse plants?
Monique: For example, for a recent wedding, we used lots of little cloche domes and geodes, succulents and air plants. When we’re using the plants for a single event, we bare root them by getting off most of the dirt. The root ball is gone, but all the other roots are still there. The plant is still very much alive, and we nestle it in whatever we’re using. When we‘re done, we deconstruct everything, take back the plants, put them in a pot with soil, and return them to inventory.
Saundra: Where do you keep your plant inventory?
Monique: On the side of my house and in my baby greenhouse, which is where I keep a lot of the big ones. During the winter I try to not have too much inventory, because I’m limited on space. I do lose plants. In the winter, I can lose $2,000 in inventory because I didn’t cover things properly.
Saundra: Tell me about this space.
Monique: Six years ago we renovated the garage, and it became my studio. As you can see, it’s taken over. Every room in the house except my bedroom has been taken over by work. Even bathrooms have stuff stored there. The joke is that we’re just saving the marriage. Nothing related to work can go in the bedroom.
Saundra: What we see here are things you keep on hand? Do you pick them up as you see them?
Monique: I have hundreds of vendors and shop constantly. And then sometimes people find things and give them to me. Everyone’s onboard to help me out with my inventory. My dog found that skull over there. Some things I know I’ll probably never sell, one-of-a kind items that I won’t find again. But most everything here goes into the work we do, the events, the living walls, the interior botanical design. I have an office, too, where I work on my landscape design, but this is where the magic happens.
Saundra: What are these little pieces?
Monique: These are my tiny living walls. We recently finished a Kickstarter campaign, and they were one of the rewards, a mini living wall. They’re all different, which I love.
Saundra: Oh my goodness, this room is insane.
Monique: There’s a lot to see, it’s like eye candy.
Saundra: I’m overwhelmed.
Monique: Believe me, I come in here and can’t find anything. We have a rule and everyone knows, there’s a place for everything and you’ve got to put it back, because otherwise it’s lost. You probably saw the POD on your way in. That’s also full of inventory.
Saundra: I want to look everywhere. It’s like a museum. I have to tell you something. When I was a curator at the DeCordova Museum near Boston, I saw art all the time – in people’s studios, in the galleries, traveling to New York. I started dreaming about making art and one of the things I dreamt about was a giant terrarium. Just like these.
Monique: Have you ever taken a terrarium class or done it yourself?
Saundra: No, I don’t make things with my hands. I’m very cerebral.
Monique: Well you have to come take a class. The next we’ll host will happen at the new garden boutique.
Saundra: What kind of classes will you offer?
Monique: So many different classes, plus we’re hoping to offer a monthly series. We recently offered a class on making succulent wreaths for the holidays. We’ll offer one on how to make a terrarium, another on how to make a succulent centerpiece. We’ve had requests for a class on making your own bridal bouquet, so I think we’ll do that. We’ll also offer private classes. You can have a bridal shower and the girls come and make bouquets that day.
Saundra: It’s popular now for women to have parties where they make things, but this is more sophisticated than making refrigerator magnets.
Monique: It’s great to see people acting like they’re kids again. Also, we offer a little libation, a little champagne, a little snack. It’s a night out, and I love going to things like that, so I love giving them.
Saundra: I want to sponsor one for Creative Mix!
Monique: We can do that!
Learn more about Monique Capanelli and Articulture Designs here.