“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” – Andy Warhol
Artist-entrepreneur Colleen Attara, “An Artist’s Values Sell Art.”
[Interviewer] All right, hello! This is another Artists Who Thrive thriving artists profile. Colleen Attara, who I have worked with a while back, and I’m just gonna introduce you, Colleen, by way of explaining what your mission is, your unique value proposition, the pain that it alleviates, and your target market. And then I’m just gonna ask you– just tell me off the top of your head what you consider your three top successes as a thriving artist, your three fattest failures, three resulting lessons, and then just one piece of parting advice for other artists who are also eager to thrive creatively and entrepreneurially. So, Colleen has got a fantastic business model, and we’re gonna put a link to your website so people can check it out. Colleen’s mission, I’m just gonna read this, is to have a sustainable creative business, she already has it, she’s not gonna have it; she has it, a sustainable create business that supports her by creatively re-using by what others see no value in, so the discarded is what gives you inspiration. So that’s pretty specific mission, and there’s a lot of emotion that will resonate around that, so listen closely to what Colleen is up to. Her unique value proposition, also people refer to this as the unique selling proposition, they’re pretty much one and the same, is that Colleen creates joyful art from this discarded materials, from reclaimed materials. And she does this by saying yes to where others see or say no, and partnering with like-minded businesses who save materials for her to create with. So one of the things that Colleen’s employed here are strategic partnerships, so that’s a beautiful thing, and I always ask, you know, in business, and a lot of artists recoil at this, or they don’t know how to plug into this concept, but it’s very important to get clear on, what pain your offering alleviates. And art does alleviate pain. So you gotta know what it is. But a lot of artists will say no, no, no, I only create beauty, or no, that’s you the artist as a technician, maybe. But as a entrepreneur you have to alleviate some specific pain within a target market. So obviously I would say… Let’s say, well obviously not everyone is Colleen’s target market, so it’s those individuals who share her values, and she creates specifically hand-scripted words that are salvaged from plastics, and people feel very good about something that’s been transformed. So again– so she’s plugging into similar values, and then people also resonate with a word, a word that she’s crafted that is hopeful, and they’re trying to bring that word– or they’re trying to bring that emotion or affirmation into their life. So, it’s serving– it sounds like you’re serving two purposes, Colleen, you’re affirming people’s values around the environment, and caring for the environment, and also caring for themselves, their internal environment. So it’s an interesting combination. And her target audience, her target market is hopeful, environmentally minded, and also artistic, so they’re also aesthetically minded and probably really dig typography and all that good stuff. So enough of my intro. Now it’s Colleen’s turn to talk. So Colleen, off the top of your head, no right or wrong here, what would you consider your number– your top three successes so far.
– My successes usually lead to other successes, so that’s kind of how I’m gauging these, and in speaking with you and putting together some of these answers, there’s a lot of different things I do, so words are something I do. I do installations in healing spaces; I teach Altered Book workshops; I create art that’s on its way to becoming a card line, so I do a lot of different things and they all kind of feed each other. One of my biggest successes was when I was working with you, and I’m trying to think, I guess it was about six years ago and I never had the pleasure to talk with you like this back then–
– I know, I never– we only ever talked on the phone, we never really–
-each other, until now.
– I like this! This is fun.
– [Ann]Cool! Well thank you Google, Google’s technology’s come a long way since you and I started to talk to one another.
– I coached Colleen a number of years back, to put this all in context. Yeah, so–
– You know it was right around that time that I had raised my hand, put my– hand out, or put my hand up, and had put my work out there, it was part of a– I’m gonna start again, Ann. I live in an area with a lot of artists, I’m from the Philadelphia area, and there’s New York and there’s New Jersey and there’s Pennsylvania. So I’m in an area that’s very, very artistic. So there’s a new regional hospital, and they had a call for artists, and you know, I just put my hand up, and I was one of 70 artists chosen out of 700, and then I became one of the five top installations in the hospital. So my art was– is actually owned by the hospital. It was that big that they wanted, you know, in case there was any changes on walls or whatever, that it was part of the hospital. And through that came a lot of other opportunities. It took me almost two years to create that installation.
– But I made so many connections, and once I did that, like once I worked on something for two years straight and I showed up the day that it was due, and I showed up on time, and I– took me 11 days to install. It was just a crazy, crazy time period. Once I did that I had that behind my belt of something I had accomplished. So from there on I could go and I was able to get other grants, so you know right now I’m working on an installation in Penn State Hershey Hospital, and then I was able to do grants in cities, and I have grants in schools, so by that one success it kind of, you know– it kind of expanded.
– Spurred other successes.
– Yeah, and it’s you know, it was really pretty amazing.
– [Ann] That’s great, what would you consider number two? Top two–
– Number two, I think the partnerships that I’ve created. I basically work with a company, they’re a plastic fabricating company, and we work really closely together. And what’s great about them is they’re very environmentally minded, but they save material, they put it aside to where I could use it. But they have this scrap material, Ann, and they have absolutely no value, sitting in a warehouse. And I wanted to script these words. So I was scripting it from signage, and it was kind of coarse and brittle and hard to work with, and they said what about this material? So it’s a great partnership. I do not pay for any of the material, but I pay for every single cut. So this material that was in a warehouse had absolutely no value to them now has a lot of value to both of us.
– [Ann] That’s pretty awesome, that’s very–
– [Ann] So that I think speaks to your values on your overall mission
– Oh yeah.
– just transforming things, transforming– you know, the discarded things that are just really gonna otherwise lay waste in a landfill, and you have reached– you just grab it, save it from the fire, and make it into art that inspires people on a few different levels, so strategic partnerships and the ability to form them is really, really important, because relationships equal revenue. So you understand that, I know,
– and to really put that into practice. So what would be number three? Top three, your third biggest success? Now they don’t have to be in any ranked order–
– Yeah, I mean, they’re really– this is something I’m kind of in the middle of, you know, working with these words and these hand scripted words, seeing how they sell, setting up wholesale accounts, setting up– you know, just selling directly from my website I just realized how powerful words were, and I’ve been writing for years, and it kind of just– you know, like one little thing just kind of sits in your mind and you sleep on it, and I started just really writing, and using the photography that I use, and basically what I was doing I was taking photographs, printing them, ripping them up, changing the composition, using my words behind them, again, reusing, taking what’s leftover on my studio desk, what’s leftover, you know, I pick up things all the time. Salvaged materials, vintage stamps, postcards, and putting them into these pieces. And then a few months ago I applied to the National Stationery Show. I decided it was really time to kind of you know, just see it this was what I really think it is, and I decided that I didn’t wanna go in. It’s a very big show. I didn’t wanna go in unless I went and juried under a category called Fresh, which is for emerging new designers. So again, raised my hand, just gave it a try, and decided that this was how I was gonna go in and if I wasn’t accepted, that was okay too. It just wasn’t the right time. And I got accepted, so I’m there in May and I’m really excited.
– Awesome! Congratulations. So what’s wonderful is that you’re not afraid to just raise your hand up and to throw your hat in the ring, and you’re also– you’re willing to take the action to participate, but you’re also willing to let go of it if it doesn’t happen and that counted as some big fat failure, or also do it on your terms according to your values. So I think that speaks very well of you, and I think that’s why you’ve been successful. So let’s– that moves us right into the next one, because a lot of artists will look at– they look at people like you, they look at people like me and they say oh my gosh, you know either they look at us as well, they’ve got a long way to go, or they may say you know, I’m not there yet. But what you have to understand is you fail forward, and you learn either the failures can take you out, you can give up, or you can learn your biggest lessons from them. So just tell me what was your– what are your three fattest failures so far.
– Like specific failures, Ann?
– Anything you want.
– Like where we’re talking about something I was working on?
– [Ann] Whatever comes to mind. Whatever you consider.
– You know, one of them is I would say that– and I think around the time with you I was trying to get my work into a catalog, and I eventually went and gave a presentation, and the catalog then came to me and said would love to have your work, and… I– there was so much paperwork and so much stuff to jump through, and I probably could’ve filled out the paperwork a little faster, I really hate paperwork, I hate all that kind of stuff, I just wanna make, I just wanna do that.
– So in the in the time a new buyer came in, and then the buyer that I was working with that said this is exactly what we need, another buyer came in and she said that we’ve changed the entire direction. So–
– That happens!
– Yeah, I mean, you know, I basically, looking back, I think to myself well had I acted a little quicker on the paperwork it would’ve already been in there and we could’ve seen what happened, but also what I learn all the time is that I’m really grateful for the things that don’t happen because it leaves me more time for what’s supposed to happen and right now I can’t imagine being busier than I am, I mean I’m really– I’m getting to a point where I need help and I need to hire people, and so but even more importantly I wanna focus on what I wanna focus on. I think one of my failures would be– you know, I plant so many seeds, and when you plant a garden, and you’re just– you’re planting seeds, sometimes you don’t know what’s gonna come up, or when it’s gonna come up. And sometimes I have these experiences where the the whole garden blooms at once.
– [Ann] Right. So that is a real– you know, it’s a real strength of mine, but it can also be a weakness, because then I’m overextended.
– [Ann] Right, it’s a good problem, but there’s– I heard this author, I can’t remember his name, but he was talking about lilies and leaches. So when you have leaches in your life you need to remove them, and so that they can make room for the lilies. However, if you’ve got too many lilies in your garden, they all might be beautiful lilies, but if there are too many lilies in a garden they will choke each other out for air and food and water. So you have to be– so you’ve got a good problem there. So one failure, it sounds like getting overwhelmed by the administrative– somebody else’s administrative process, and letting that put you behind a timeline and good potential opportunity. It sounds like the other one is just getting overwhelmed with opportunities, ’cause you are deliberate about planting seeds, you’ve used that term before, and I think it’s a very– it’s very instructive. When you think of planting seeds then you don’t have to feel as if all your eggs are in one basket. You just continue to cultivate opportunities by growing relationships, and eventually something will sprout or it won’t, so that’s great. What would be your third fattest failure?
– My third would be: recently I had an opportunity to do a really large project, and it was with someone that I had worked previously with, and I had worked with them for so long, and I’d felt so close with them, and I was working with one of the partners, and it was just very easy for me to work with them. It was very natural. And then I was working with another partner, and I didn’t really switch gears. I kept it the way it was. It’s kind of like one of your– you know, a very big taboo with you. I was loose with that, and–
– [Ann] You were loose with your terms?
– Yeah, I mean I didn’t put everything in writing; I treated it like–
– [Ann] Okay, so where’s my wet noodle? Fifteen lashes with a wet noodle!
– I know, but you know what?
– She does this all the time, put it in writing, get your agreements defined verbally–
– [Ann] Clearly, and then put it in writing. You can just make a memorandum of understanding, you know, and that will– that will preserve a lot of relationships.
– Well I mean the relationship is still in tact, but I think, and I didn’t let it go that far, but–
– What I– and then I also learned that I did not care to do that. So I made a choice that that project was not for me. And that was again, a really– I mean, it was a good choice in that it made room for things that I didn’t even know were coming. It was a hard decision at the time because you know, you can– you know, you wanna go after that business, you wanna work with these people, but I could just tell that the way it was going it wasn’t– it wasn’t gonna be good for me, and I was willing to just kind of step away and say this is not gonna work.
– So I’m not your person right now.
– [Ann] Good, okay, so you trusted your gut. It’s so interesting–
– I did.
– [Ann] So I hope, you know, with the way that– the reason I make these interviews in this specific format is because a lot of artists struggle to understand what their mission is, what their unique value proposition is and how that could serve a target market. They also– you know, they wanna be inspired by other artists being successful, and they wanna hear that other artists are being successful who are also entrepreneurial and are thriving. But they also wanna know what are the keys to the kingdom, which are what are the lessons that you learn as a result of the failures, and in every one of these interviews, no one says I learned this giant lesson from my success. They all– everyone so far says I learned this giant important lesson from my big fat failure. So, same here. I’m waiting for that– that may change, but so far, that’s how– that’s the score. So, in parting, I would just like you, Colleen, to offer… Either, I’m gonna- you can frame it in one of two ways. I’d like you to offer a piece of parting advice to other artists who are striving, or if you could look back to Colleen, maybe that Colleen who I met maybe six years ago, right? And who I was– and who was coaching. What would you say to her? What would you be– you know, she knows she’s destined to thrive, but she’s just starting out, and she doesn’t know yet what she doesn’t know. What would you tell her?
– I would tell her to really treat her ideas as if they’re a real business, and to take it very, very seriously, and… I believe that everything that you wish for you will get; you will find a way to get. One of the first things you had me do was a dream board, and it’s kinda crazy how many things came true on that little dream board.
– [Ann] So good to hear
– Yeah, so… Yeah, I mean I even had like– you know, studio on a farm, and then I had like–
– I remember that!
– you know, on a farm, you know?
– I remember that image!
– And it’s crazy,
– And now you got it! it’s still there.
– Yeah, it’s beautiful, you know, it’s crazy, and… So I think you–
– I just wanna stop. This is a true story, so I have all of my– all the artists that I coach, that’s their, one of their– that’s their first assignment is to make a dream board, and so Colleen came up with hers. And that’s basically, you pretend you have a magic wand, you can have anything you want, and you really engage the power of your imagination. You can have anything you want. You’re not supposed to edit or limit yourself in any way, really look for images and words that express your true desire. And Colleen chose this beautiful picture of a farm with this big grassy area in front, I still remember it, and now she actually has it.
– Yeah. That’s where your studio is.
– Yeah, and it’s you know, a lot– It was just– I just, I feel really lucky for that, but I also feel like I kind of– you know, there’s some will in there…
– Oh, yeah!
– Yeah, and I would also say to be really gentle with yourself and to realize that just because you’re going along, like– you change. I mean like, I can’t. Like I… You know, like something seems like a fit, and then you follow your instinct and you say maybe not so much, and you shift.
– And you surround yourself with people that build you up, I think is huge. I have one friend who’s an artist; she’s very different from me. She’s… Just has a totally different style. We do not compete in any way with each other, except that we’re joyful in our work. But we both get the other, and we both nudge the other along. And it’s really been amazing, that I feel like in a way we both hit some goals that are just really crazy, like maybe it wouldn’t have happened, but by saying them out loud, by saying them to someone else makes them very, very real. And someone is holding you accountable
– to them.
– [Ann] So yeah. So that’s a great piece of parting advice, and you’ve given a few things, so thank you, because they’re all very wise nuggets.
– Thank you.
– [Ann] I will say, just to end on that note that if you can form a mastermind, whether it’s just a mastermind, if a group of people or one person, it’s a huge advantage to both of you, and that’s actually one of the things that I baked into the eight week Making Art Making Money course is it’s designed so that artists can connect with one another, and begin to develop or further their professional network and act in a way that’s mutually supportive. And so this is key, and it actually doesn’t have to be another artist. You know, I have people who are on my advisory board who– I have a filmmaker, I have a mergers and acquisitions guy, I’ve got CEO of a branding firm. So it’s a very diverse board, and… It’s just whoever will support you and that you can be of support to them, is a fantastic starting place for a mastermind. So thank you very much. That’s a great piece of parting advice. So that’s it. I wanna thank you so very much. I’m very proud of you, Colleen. You have come such a long way, and I have witnessed this woman’s ability to dream big and to act on it, and she’s a shining example and I recommend that you visit her website. Shout-out your website.
– www.colleenattara.com That’s it. My name, thank you.
– All right, great. Thank you!
– Thank you!
“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” – Andy Warhol