I first discovered New Zealand-born sculptographer Anna Church on Instagram where her attention-grabbing photographs caught my eye while browsing my explore feed. Totally unique, her arrangement approach to fine art not only creates beautiful pieces, but speaks to her passion for the environment by transforming garbage and forgotten items into art, giving a new meaning to the word recycling. Using whatever she can get her hands on – be it forgotten plasterwork moldings or a Victorian sconce – she elevates found pieces into something extraordinary.
And just as her work tells a story and invites you in to experience the meaning for yourself, today we’re inviting her aboard to chat more about her career path. Anna shares with us how she funded her dreams, the challenges of being a full-time mom and artist, and the wonderfully difficult game of defining what it is you do. –Sabrina
How did you finance your business in the beginning?
I was fortunate enough to have the support from my husband’s income. This enabled the dual task of allowing me to focus on my art plus raise our little family. I’ve also had investment from wonderful family members too, and funded myself via contracted work, editorial and commercial styling and art sales. It’s helped that my business has grown organically over the years, so I haven’t had huge production costs. The biggest costs to my business would be my time (free for many years), buying and renting props, studios and photographic rentals. For a while, I didn’t pay myself: every penny I earned went straight back into the business to help it to develop and grow.
Having a background in graphic design, styling and photography has been a bonus – this also has enabled me to keep my outgoing costs low. I now have an in-house studio in our family home. Within the last two years I have brought the all photographic and studio equipment I need to enable me to do what I do.
I’m now in the position where my business funds itself, gives me an income, enables me to create new work and the finical resources to exhibit overseas (like at the Affordable Art Fair NYC!). It’s been seven years in the making to get my business to this position. A journey of ebbs and flows – achievement, failure, opportunities (some missed), and most of all a steep learning curve of experience and growth, both personal and business-wise!
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
It was a natural progression. I had trained in and practiced as a graphic designer for many years, then I moved into interior, editorial and commercial styling which I LOVED because it was tactile as well as visual. It was my vocation and passion for many years. Then one day, I had an idea, and in my spare time I created a series of artworks. I collected pieces of Crown Lynn (iconic New Zealand pottery) for many months and created my very first series, For NZ Sake. It was a hit, so I created another series, At Your Service, and that grabbed the attention of a whole new audience outside of my home country [of] NZ. I began receiving inquiries from collectors the U.K., the U.S. and Canada (where I now live). It was during the release of this series that I had my first child, Molly, and I was gifted the special opportunity to balance being an at-home mum with creating my art on the side. Now I juggle the two roles full-time. Molly is six and Thomas, our second child, is four. During school hours (and most evenings after the kids are in bed) I work on creating more art, building my business and serving my supportive art-appreciating audience.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
My parents nurtured my creative side and allowed me full reign, so my career choice came as no surprise. My childhood revolved around making and creating. I can only imagine the carnage and mess I must have left in my creative wake! I try to be as tolerant towards my own children as my parents were with me. They nurtured and reinforced my freedom of expression, and I’d say this has fared me well. I view my time as a freelance stylist as being a transition to becoming an artist. It enabled me to exercise and hone my creative muscles. The briefs I was delivered were generally loose and I could use my imagination to its full capacity. Styling at the time was just starting to become a “thing” and a career and I loved every second of it. I never thought I’d become a full-time practicing artist back then, but I did know I needed creativity and an artistic outlet in my life as much as I needed air to breathe!
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
I have been fortunate enough to work for some wonderful creative companies and was a partner in two entrepreneurial start-ups prior to launching my own personal business as an artist. These experiences gave me insight into what was ahead of me. I also ask for advice on a daily basis – small, medium or large advice. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by friends who run their own businesses, so collectively we act as a sounding board and a support system to one another. One day, I asked a creative panel of entrepreneurs in a brainstorming session, “how can I best describe my artistic medium?” What the heck do I call myself as I’m a mixture of things; a collector, an assemblage artist (of sorts) and a photographer. Calling myself by just one of those terms didn’t seem to describe the essence of what I do. Someone piped up and said in loud, confident voice, “Anna, you’re a Sculptographer!” It was a stroke of genius, and I have coined the term ever since.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Trusting my gut instinct, even if others couldn’t quite grip the idea or my vision entirely (although that’s not always a bad thing as I find I gain so much from hearing a different perspective). I have a voice that comes from somewhere that unleashes my gritty determination. I’m always prepared to give an idea a shot even if there is potential for it to fail. I am also conscious that art isn’t a consumer priority, and it also comes down to personal choice, so I’m fortunate to have a beautiful, engaged audience who appreciates me and that the art I create resonates for them.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Things take time, patience is a virtue. An overnight success has most likely been 10 years in the making! Lucky for me, I don’t like to rush ideas. I move at an even, forward pace. Timing is everything and I totally believe that when you’re ready, or your idea has properly fermented (and the universe may have a little bit to do with it, too), things take traction and that’s the time you’ll be totally ready for it, too!
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Failure is a positive in my eyes: it makes you widen your eyes further, really listen and understand why something may have happened or not happened, and every time it’s for good reason! Failure = reflection and a chance to improve.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Watch more movies (by myself and with the kids and my husband). Watch copious episodes of Downton Abbey back-to-back. Visit galleries and catch up with friends for cocktails in the evenings. Dance till the early hours of the morning.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
My time! I’ve now learned how to outsource what I can (accounting, copy-writing, marketing, printing, dispatching) otherwise the list of to-do’s can become unachievable and disheartening. This allows me to focus on what I really enjoy which is creating art, serving my audience and business development (I love connecting and collaborating with businesses and other creatives).
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Well, currently my artwork “The Botanist” is fronting the Affordable Art Fair NYC spring campaign. A friend reminded me the other day that on a girls’ weekend in New York two years ago I had said to her, “Wouldn’t it be cool to exhibit in NYC, what a dream that would be!” And now it’s a reality and my art is all over Manhattan promoting the AAFNYC spring campaign. It really is a “pinch me now” moment!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Last year I took the plunge and invested in Marie Forleo’s B School – it was full-on but transformative. I’ve implemented many of the things I learned and I continue to learn and grow within the program as a lifelong member. I’m also an avid follower of Paul Jarvis, especially his Sunday Dispatches and Elizabeth Gilbert… I repeatedly go back and watch this TED talk.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
I think being on the brink of failure or quitting gives you determination and drive to keep going and prove yourself wrong (not others, that’s not a worthy driving force), and that equals success. Success is totally how you perceive it, too. I’m a believer in keeping expectations low, focusing on the process, then anything that comes from your efforts (blood, sweat and tears) is a bonus! I like how Paul Jarvis sums up expectation and equates happiness to being like Gravy.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Passion and a love for what you do. Keep growing with your business – keep learning and gaining new skills. It might seem like yet another thing to find time for, but in my experience it’s invaluable and worth every early morning or late-night hour I’ve invested.
2. Focus on being of service. I never thought for a minute that art was a service. I found myself thinking people must view being an artist as such a self-indulgent, almost unprofessional career choice, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have discovered it certainly isn’t. Yes, it’s not a computer, a pencil, or self-help book, but it does bring people an experience, fulfillment, and joy on a daily basis. I certainly enjoy creating it for these reasons. After many years of being an artist, my art appreciators and collectors have empowered me to really believe in my offering as being of service to them and it’s such a good feeling. I appreciate them and they appreciate me / my art!
3. That’s a good segue… Listen, to those who support you; friends, family, colleagues, customers, collaborators, critics. I emphasize here, these are your critics, handpicked by you for their honesty and trusted perspective. We are not talking just anyone willy-nilly who chooses to be your critic. Your critics rock! Not so much your inner critic, though, that can be a little unpredictable and disabling. Your inner critic is not your gut talking! Listen to those who observe you, they are who you serve. Look after them and tell them you love and appreciate them (even if what they are saying is not what you want to hear sometimes).
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Being the jack of all tradeswoman; mother, wife, business owner, creator, sales rep, business development implementer, administrator, daydreamer… oh, I really could go on and on. I love it all, but some days there are just not enough hours and I feel I’m going to explode with all the amazing possibilities of where I can take my business. It’s both exciting and exhausting, and most of all never dull!