Every month, founder and owner of Bird On A Wire Creations, Kate Nagel, visits a local artist in their studio to learn all about their journey as crafters, creators, and entrepreneurs.
Shifting the Paradigm from Starving Artist to Thriving Artist
”Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” ~Steven Pressfield
This visit brings us to Robbie Vergara’s studio at 1000 Parker Street. A buzzing hive of creative individuals located in one four-story building - artists who spend their days translating thoughts and ideas into the physical world. Walking into this hub reminds me of what I am doing, and why. I find I need to continually give voice to what I was called to do. To bring awareness that it’s time to say ‘goodbye’ to the starving artist and ‘hello’ to a creative revolution, one with a focus on how we can be creative and confident in how we want to show up in the world – as a thriving artist. Can you think of any other career choice that provokes immediate scrutiny and judgement? Or one where we offer an all-or-nothing attitude about choosing to be an artist? There is none. So I asked myself this question, “Where did this concept of a starving artist come from?” I was surprised to find that the belief of the “Starving Artist” is not an old one. Its birth is derived from a book written from the perspective of an artist living in Paris, France. The author’s name is Louis-Henri Murger, who lived a life as a writer in the early-to-mid 1800’s. The famous opera, La Boehme, is based on Murger's book, and introduces audiences to penniless artists taking any job to put food on the table, and scheming to avoid paying rent. This idea of the starving-artist set the tone for our society’s current views on creative individuals. Today I would like to share the creative journey of one of our favourite t-shirt screen printers, Robbie Vergara. Please enjoy the read, and if you have a favourite way to express your creativity please share with us so we can celebrate your willingness to be bold.
Robbie Vergara - Local Vancouver Screen Printing Artist
Robbie Vergara was born in Canada, but raised in Colombia, South America. He grew up and was influenced by a creative Father and Uncle. Robbie was influenced by the presence of these two men in his life and inspired by their talents. His favourite form of art in his youth were band/musician t-shirts, so he collected all he could. His curiosity of how a graphic tee was made became the seed of who he is today. At the same time, he was fascinated by film and its creative process. By the time he graduated from high school, he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, and in 2001 he moved back to Canada to enroll in the film program at Simon Fraser University. At SFU Robbie was surrounded by creativity and “cool people”. This fertile ground allowed him to explore both his passion for film and remain involved in the contemporary arts. Upon graduating, he secured his career in the film industry (props & set making), where he enjoyed six years of employment. But there was still something missing. He found that he still wanted to pursue his first love – making graphic tees. So, in 2010, equipped with his dream and on the heels of a seasonal layoff, he set his sights on achieving his objective of screen-printing his own designs. From 2010 to 2014 Robbie worked out of his home. He also worked at four different day jobs to cover costs of living, and to invest in his craft. A few of these jobs ranged from a preschool as a sound tech, a sales person in a retail store, and a cashier at the Vancity Theatre, where later he would become the manager. These four years saw his business grow from running a deficit to breaking even. He still needed to work traditional jobs in order to pay rent.
The Challenges of Building a Business
What were some of the challenges he had while developing his business? Robbie shared that while working from home, he had to grapple with balance. For one, he worked out of his kitchen, so meal time planning and preparation became a dance of timing. Robbie shares, “I work with water based ink, and we had 2 cats at home, while the t-shirts were drying, the cats would walk across them and track tiny paw prints across them... not in the design (*grin).”
Another task Robbie had to tackle was how he was going to get his work to market. He became friends with Yuriko Iga, proprietor of the Blim Market, and was one of 50 vendors selected for monthly markets held at Heritage Hall. “Yuriko was so helpful to me. Whenever I had a screen-print question, she would be there to mentor me through the problem.” Robbie also participated in the Car Free day events. He found that these smaller venues were the best opportunity to test the market on his designs. The biggest thing he learned, Robbie said, was to not take selling personally. “If someone doesn’t buy something from you, understand that it doesn’t mean they don’t like you or your work. It just means that your style is not for them. But don’t worry. There are plenty of people who will buy from you and who will like your work.” When he first began, he created mostly one-of-a-kind t-shirts, however he soon found that in order to be efficient with his time and materials, his designs needed to be reduced to the most popular selected by his customers. This also brought the realization that in order to produce more, he would need to invest in better equipment.
Trial and Error in Running a Successful Business
Robbie confessed that he does not have any business background and that he has had to learn a great deal through trial and error. “There is a so much to know. Even for a small business, there is a lot that I had to deal with, like filing taxes, understanding materials cost, my time, labour cost, and rent. I learned that what I was charging was not covering all of my costs. A great way to do this is to create a spreadsheet so that you can keep track of your time, material costs, and equipment that is involved with producing saleable items.” By 2014 Robbie knew he needed to find a place to work that would no longer interfere with the balance in his home environment. “The energy of having your own studio space and all these creative people around you really made a huge difference into how I viewed what I was doing and creating. I felt more legitimate, that I am now a true maker/artist. I remember visiting the 1000 Parker St. building during the Eastside Culture Crawl and being inspired by all the artists’ studios. I would dream of doing my work full time, and now I am here. I’m so excited that I can now inspire makers/artists to dream of making a living off of their talents.”
Selling Art in Local Vancouver Shops
Back in 2011, when Robbie was still so early into his career, and with the success of a few markets under his belt, he felt it was time to see if he could get his work into a few stores. “My first store was Bird on a Wire Creations. I had seen the store and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to sell my stuff in it?’” He then braved an email, set up a time to meet with Kate (me), and an agreement to supply the store was born. “When I decided to dedicate 100% of my time to my business back in January 2017, I sent out a bunch of emails to stores that I thought would be interested. I was motivated to pay my rent, and to thrive, and realized I needed more venues. It was only at this time, that I created my official business plan, and did a cost analysis of what I would need to make a living. In hindsight, I see that it would have been a good idea to have created the business plan sooner than later.” Now Robbie’s work can be found in 13 stores throughout the province of BC, one of which contacted him after seeing him at a market. Robbie is thrilled with his hard-won success.
Becoming a Full Time Artist in Vancouver
“I am a one-man operation: I print, package, deliver and mail out. I have noticed recently, that I am going to have to consider hiring some help soon. I have learned that I do not have to do everything myself. I’ll probably start with my on-line presence (e.g. Social Media, on-line orders, etc). You know, it’s important to do what you love while at the same time balancing the investment of the time and energy that it takes to create a successful business. I am proof that an artist can make a living and thrive.” Finally, in 2017 Robbie was able to let go of his last job, the manager position at Vancity Theatres, and dedicate 100% of his time to his passion. He is now independent and thriving as a maker. Shop Robbie's designs on our website, or visit us in store for the full selection! Next month we visit Riding the Pine! For more creative content, connect with us on Facebook!