Weeks before Bon-Ton announced Younkers stores would close across the country, Lisa Mahar quit her 11-year position with the company to pursue being a full-time artist.
"I worked in retail as a visual person for like 20 years. But it came to a point where I was just a number; I wasn't even a face anymore," Mahar said. "That was really scary to jump ship. I kept asking, 'why did I do this? Why did I do this?'"
While Younkers announcing its closures was one sign Mahar made a wise decision, she was still filled with doubts about whether she could make a living off her art. She's painted and made mixed-media collages for around 25 years, but has clung to the security of a regular paycheck.
But Thursday afternoon in downtown Davenport, Mahar, in head-to-toe pink attire, stopped by the Bucktown Center for the Arts and Crafted Q-C to drop off more of her work. After a successful past month of sales, it was time for the artist to restock the stores where she regularly sells her wares.
Over the past few months, Mahar has realized determination can make selling art a viable full-time job. Along with other local artists, networking with businesses and organizations in the area has taught her what it takes to market her art, her brand and herself.
‘One sale encourages you to make more’
Mary Talbert set up a 400-square-foot shop three years ago to sell artwork created by herself and a dozen other artists. Today, work from 100 different artists is on sale at the now 1,400-square-foot shop called Crafted Q-C on 2nd Street in Davenport.
“Honestly, I just had this dream of this cute little shop. I love handmade. I love hand-crafted. I didn’t think it would be as big of a focus as it’s become,” Talbert said. “But there’s obviously a need and a want for it. That’s just continued to grow. And (artists) have just come out of the woodwork.”
Among the art decorating the shop’s walls are Mahar’s shadowboxes, filled with collages that celebrate female empowerment. And like Mahar, several of the artists selling work at Crafted Q-C started out with a laundry list of doubts.
Even Talbert admits it’s hard for her to take a compliment about her own art, let alone convince someone to buy it.
“It’s hard for some people to stand up and sell their own work. Artists are so filled with self-doubts,” she said. “And a lot of the time it’s hard because people would purchase off Facebook and that, but then the artist is in the situation of not wanting someone to come to your house, or not wanting to meet in a parking lot or something.”
Through owning her shop, Talbert has supported others by taking on the roles of marketing manager, teacher and cheerleader.
“I’ll talk all day long about somebody else’s work and how amazing it is. It’s nice to have that degree of separation,” she said. “And I help some with graphic design and packaging. I help them market their pieces and get the word out there.”
Along with Mahar, Talbert said she has worked with five other people who have taken the leap to leave their day jobs and become full-time artists.
“I’ve learned so much more about marketing myself and PR,” Mahar said. “Mary (Talbert) sells at least one thing a month, which is what you really want. And on a good month, she sells four pieces, which is fabulous.”
Talbert said the community surrounding Crafted Q-C is instrumental in artists having confidence in their abilities to make sales.
"I'm really proud of the art community here, and the Quad-Cities is super supportive of makers and artists," she said. "It's a huge confidence booster for an artist to have a sale. One sale encourages you to make more, and make again. And every time you're making, you're perfecting your craft."
'It’s hard to hang your hat on being an artist’
Next door at the Bucktown Center for the Arts, two retired teachers coordinate their schedules, still learning how to balance operating two art galleries.
Jim Elias has owned Sunrise River Gallery in Muscatine since 2016. While the gallery has had success selling the work of 12 local artists, Elias kept his position as a business professor at Muscatine Community College.
His career path took a turn this past year, though, when designers of Muscatine's new Merrill Hotel and Conference Center approached the gallery.
"They were looking for local art and we ended up outfitting the Merrill with over 300 pieces of art," Elias said. "It was validation that this really can be a business — that people like and appreciate our art, and that they're buying it to the point they want to reproduce it."
The sale encouraged Elias to retire from his position and open a second location at Bucktown in Davenport. The gallery opened last week, and also will be run by Muscatine resident Shelly Servadio and retired teacher Jane Doty.
"It's exciting and it just gives you a purpose — a purpose with something I already had a passion for," Doty said. "It's nice taking something you love to do and actually doing something with it. It's hard to hang your hat on being an artist. It takes a while to build that up. But having my art in the hotel helped me feel like, OK, I'm really an artist. It verified that."
By taking on the order, Elias learned that reproducing copies of artwork could be a way to make it in the commercial market. He has begun selling reproductions online, and hopes to supply art for other hotels or commercial developments.
"You can get a reproduction of Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' if that's what you want, but why not get a reproduction of Jane Doty's 74 bridge?" Elias said. "It's less the art, and more the story behind the art that people are buying. People want the local connection."
'Every artist has a story'
For the past 14 years, Tony Seabolt has dedicated his life to helping promote local artists. He's now manager of the MidCoast Artists' Market at Bucktown, which rents space to around 40 artists each month.
"Most artists hate marketing," Seabolt said. "I would rather spend time making art, but if you want to make a business, you have to learn about business. It doesn't matter how good you are at art. Until you get your work out there so people can experience it, it doesn't have a life of its own. I probably couldn't make a living off my art, but I sell enough to validate it."
In the Quad-Cities, Seabolt said he has noticed more customers, hospitals, hotels and other companies looking to purchase local, unique art.
"You can go on Pinterest and buy art that way, but I feel like artists should create what they're passionate about," he said. "I like knowing I have something on my wall that isn't in every home in America, and that the actual artist touched it. Every artist has a story, and you're buying a piece of that story."
Bucktown has created a society of artists who can support each other and learn from each other, he said. For Seabolt, he wants the center to be a space for artists to get their names out there.
"I meet a lot of incredible artists with various backgrounds and styles in the Quad-Cities and I want to represent them," he said. I want them to be the best they can at representing themselves so they can go away from here and thrive. Once you get pieces out in the community, then your work starts to become valuable."
The local community of artists and makers acted as a safety net when Mahar quit working retail, she said. The artist, who also works with Bucktown and MidCoast Fine Arts, said she could never go back to her 9-to-5 job.
“I’ve had some dry spots, where I thought I might have to get another part-time job, but it hasn’t been that way. Opportunities have opened up,” she said. “You have to be positive or you’re not going to sell anything. It’s like any other job. There’s ups and downs. But there’s a really super close-knit community of us that watches out for each other.”
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