Handmade Here: Creating Your Local Life

often invisible, june pfaffdale, mixed media art, local networking

original mixed media painting by June Pfaff Daley

by Joanne Gilbert of Drawn to Letters

As an Artist it is easy to hide in plain sight. Each of us has a neighborhood where we are seen by locals who know or do not know our names and occupations. Some people like the separation of their work life and local life. They build a leisure identity in their neighborhoods based on non-working interests. Others wear their occupation publicly as a natural part of their persona. You may be known locally as a dog owner, library lounger, substitute teacher or a regular at the hardware store on Saturday mornings but chances are, if you work from home online only your postal worker knows you spend 10 hours a day making art or caring for customers.

When I changed tracks from teaching art professionally to creating my own illustration business online , I began to spend more and more hours in my neighborhood with less and less interaction based on my true occupation. It was OK at first, since I needed to concentrate on creating my products and quietly approach a couple of local mentors for feedback. Then I would disappear into my house for long sunny days wondering what the neighbors thought I was doing while my sidewalk garden grew weeds? When my online business turned one year old last summer, I realized that my life as a working /selling artist was missing from my local community and it was hard to explain in a casual encounter at the park! So I read Alyson Stanfield’s great advice in I’d Rather Be in the Studio and declared this “the year of local”. After all, my local art business, just like local food, fits into the very heart of home and community life for local residents no matter where their work is. An artist’s professional identity is not separate from their neighborhood.

I can actually walk in 5 minutes to almost every small service I need in my village and people often strike up conversation even if they don’t know you. I try to make sure I glimpse the lake everyday when walking my dog and the local bank tellers enthusiastically compete for the task of doling out dog treats to my wagging friend.

Cazenovia Village, acrylic painting by Marilyn Fegan

My small town is in upstate New York where horse, dairy and apple farms co-exist with a small college, a lake, an historic main street and a wide variety of work styles. We are 20 miles from Syracuse, a city of 150,000 with at least 20 other colleges and universities and all the commercial services that support conventional suburban American life. However it is still possible to live and work locally in this village of 4,000 and I was proud to be doing it. But how could I reacquaint myself locally without feeling artificial and self serving?

Six months later, I can share 5 things that are helping me to build a better local life as a working artist. It is a rewarding but time challenging work in progress. I know some of you began with a thriving local identity as a maker/artist and added the online identity to your business— I invite you to hang with me and share your own tips in the comments here!

As with most things, I started with baby steps that did not feel unnatural and worked my way into full blown local press and inviting the public to view my work.

1. Walking with business cards. A picture saves 1000 words so when someone in the park comments on their new grandchild, I can genuinely congratulate them but I can also hand them my business card to check out what I make for new babies. Heck, I hand them 2 business cards because I know they have a friend.

2. Local Giveaways. Local nursery schools and childcare centers have fund raisers/ auctions. These are my perfect local customers and unlike my experience with online giveaways, I find the products are more valued and remembered by people who learn that you are local.

3. Local business mentors can create a Main Street event . My local fabric shop knew me and was quick to suggest a Trunk Show for my designs which they would publicize in their newsletter. It was up to me to email my local contacts and pitch an article to the local press. I did and they printed it on the front page. Many people emailed me about the news article and promised to remember my work and spread the word. I followed this event with a holiday workshop at the same retail shop. It is a win-win event when a local retailer can present a local artisan. The opportunity exists to meet your neighbors through stores, restaurants or special Chamber of Commerce events. Look for things that fit nicely with your product or customer and it will feel natural.

cazenovia artisans, joanne gilbert, drawn to letters

4. Join a group of artists. This has been a big change for me. At the same time the Trunk Show happened, I was juried into a local Artisan Coop (pictured above) with a lovely permanent shop display in our village. It serves an older and different customer than I have online and I am finding it to be a great place to offer cards for grownups while editing my children’s line to meet these customers’ tastes. One of the biggest benefits and time commitments is the 25 hours a month working in the retail shop and on support committees. Meeting other artisans and sharing ideas is a very valuable part of this and the full time local visibility is wonderful. If you have a coop, guild or weekly market available I would highly recommend it. I am dreaming of joining the local Watercolor Society next…

5. Local work relating to your inspiration. I recently snagged a part time position working with small children. It will be a muse for my work and continue to connect me to my best audience. Perhaps real estate events, spas or food carts would be a good view point for you and your clients?

My time is definitely divvied up carefully to allow all these commitments to work together. My garden may still be imperfect, but these days when I walk my dog, someone rolls down a car window to tell me they love my cards or stops to say they will be ordering books for twins coming in Spring.

My neighbor’s granddaughter has a steady supply of personalized notes from her Nana and one of my former coworkers called to order a book last week for her niece’s first birthday in Philadelphia.

What is your neighborhood like? Do you find a balanced identity between your neighborhood and your online network?

Please enjoy my Free Downloadable Valentine “You have a home in my heart”.



  1. Stephanie Douglas says:

    Loved this article, the art and the great ways you not only create in your community but also support and interact in and with your community. And now, I also know a little something about another place. Thank you.

  2. Hi Joanne,

    What a great post. There are some wonderful ideas here to raise the profile of your business locally and engage with potential customers.

    All fab marketing techniques, and I don’t think you mentioned the ‘M’ word once :o) Lucy

  3. Joanne says:

    Thanks, guys. Stephanie, you got my point exactly. Lucy, I fear the “m” word but wish to grow and prosper so I love your professional compliment! (I did mention the T word though –Time!)

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