By Carrie Bloomston
We had a business for seventeen years, my husband and I. It wasn’t a scalable or glamorous business. It was just him and me in painter’s clothes working in houses one by one. We painted murals and did faux-finishes and generally painted and glazed all of Scottsdale a warm Tuscan gold or medium taupe.
It wasn’t fine art or anything I studied. It was a job. It kept us nicely middle-class, and for two twenty-somethings that seemed pretty rad. But in 2008 the luxury real estate market in Arizona was hard hit. We had a two-year-old and a baby on the way. Pardon me for glossing over a considerable part of the story here, but there isn’t enough space, so I will say that my husband’s father died right then. And our two-year-old baby was in chemotherapy for a rare disease. He is twelve now and healthy, and for that, we are deeply grateful. That fact is what has made most other things seem insignificant since then. That year was an emotional blackout. Therapy kept me only mildly patched together. My husband found comfort in craft beers. I kept being grateful and my husband kept drinking until our baby girl was born. Then just a few weeks later he found himself in a tiny desert town in in-patient rehab for five weeks.
Did I mention it was a deep-dark time? People say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That is an understatement. People also say that we don’t get more than we can handle. That may or may not be accurate. But I can say that when you go through something that intense–holding your baby in your lap while nurses inject chemo into his port–and then taking him to his twenty-five MRIs under general anesthesia–every one of them against his will until he was in third grade–when a person goes through that–it doesn’t break you. It illuminates you. It does, in fact, make you stronger. At least it did for me. It taught me to finally connect–to look people right in their kind eyes and say thank you. To feel empathy for anxious or afraid new parents–to forgive folks for all their teensiest human foibles. To remove the barriers I had placed between me and others. It binds you through an inseparable cord to all of humanity, irrevocably. And the cord is made of love. There is no way to explain it better than that.
And then, we moved on. We went back to ordinary life. And still, we had no business. On top of all of it, we would have lost our cars and our house without the support we received during those years. Many, many people did. But we were spared due to the generosity of our families.
Within the first year of my husband’s recovery, I took a class and fell in love with the modern sewing and quilting movement. My art background ensured that I made artful things. I was encouraged by my local sewing shop to sell my sewing patterns. I started a brand–marketed and created designs. My mom and I attended our first retail craft show in 2010 in Long Beach, California and then went to the International Quilt Market trade show in Houston, where we found lots of support. People took notice. I came back home to print and fulfill orders but quickly realized that making money two dollars at a time was very different than my previous business.
I used to show up for a day for a thousand dollars. And now I could work for weeks to make that. I had grown weary of only being a luxury and embraced the chance to inspire a wider audience with my designs. I finally offered something for the everyman, like Ikea.
It felt good until I realized that I couldn’t teach people to sew because, in fact, I didn’t know how to sew. What I could offer to the new craft movement wasn’t sewing, but was my background in art. I am an Rhode Island School of Design-trained abstract painter with a nerdy affection for art history and color theory. I coupled that with my love of unlocking the interpersonal potential of creativity with vulnerability, expression, and authenticity.
And how do you turn all of that into a business? I began designing textiles for Windham Fabrics. (My fifth collection Wonder hits stores in September.) I wrote a book for C&T Publishing, The Little Spark–30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity. I offered corporate creativity events and taught workshops both in my studio to synthesize creativity, yoga, and meditation. I had a full schedule, and when it wasn’t full, I’d sell my art.
Meanwhile, my husband started over, too. He was urged by his therapist to become a therapist. He went back to school online full-time for four years to get his Masters in counseling. He did internships and ultimately landed a great job at a local practice where he could use the crucible of his life to become the wounded healer. But ten years after the recession, we still weren’t on our own two feet. Our family continued to help pay our bills monthly. The gratitude one feels from receiving handouts fades substantially after protracted years of gifts (not to mention burning through your children’s college funds). Despite mindfulness meditations, that gratitude slowly turns to shame. With every written check, we were more and more emotionally disabled. Thankful, yes, but also we felt we were somehow flawed and incompetent. To be 45 years old, with two children, and not pay your way for ten solid years, It makes a person feel sad and bitter and angry.
I hustled so much that I began even to resent the word hustle. I tried daily to promote myself on Instagram and to sell my art, offer giveaways, pitch workshops and anything I could do to generate income. And it worked. Just not nearly enough.
I did the grind. I pivoted again and again. And with every year, I thought I was getting closer to “making it” whatever that means. But even though Oprah Magazine featured my book, I got through the first round of Shark Tank pitches, and I had great press, it never added up. I kept working towards success and hoping for magic, and yet it never happened financially other than the fact that my fabric sells very, very well. It sells way above industry average. I am truly grateful to the fabric shops around the world who support me. Royalties from Windham Fabrics have been my primary source of income every year for six years. I’d think if only I could double or triple this–we’d be okay.
Over the past two years, I sank further down into subtle despair. I knew that it was never going to work. I felt ineffectual. Ineffective. Broken. Now, the upside is that I worked from home and was there to drop and pick up my kiddos every day from school. And they are my everything. I was home, and I was with them. But the angst, resentment, and emotional turmoil behind the scenes in my house because of our financial situation was intense. My husband and I were leaking rafts–patched together with tape–trying our very best to stay afloat. We never really had a chance to be just average. Just people who go to work and make money and come home. We weren’t sailing in a boat of our making. We were only slowly sinking.
It became clear to me that I had no real employable skills for that job. I’ve never had a boss in my entire adult life other than myself. I can speak to 100 strangers about art or design–I can lead groups in metaphysical musings and self-help-ish sage-burning and vision-boarding. I can teach creativity. But how do you employ someone with a passion for mothering and art history?
And then something predestined, karmic, and beautiful landed at my feet. In a particularly dark moment this past winter, I told my best friend that things weren’t improving–weren’t seemingly ever going to get better–and we may have to sell our house. And if we did that, the shame of it all would be too much no matter how good we’ve become at being vulnerable. So, we’d probably move out of the state. When I told my her, she burst into tears. That is what besties do.
So about two weeks later she said to me, “hey, my daughter’s art teacher is on an extended absence because of a health issue and wouldn’t it be great if you could be the art teacher for them for the rest of the year?” We conspired. Within eight hours we received confirmation that there was an actual job opening. I can’t describe what happened next other than to say, all the molecules in me began to rearrange; everything inside me ran at full speed at the opportunity.
I hadn’t made a resumé since I was 21 but I knew how to market the hell out of the brand of myself from years of trying. I created probably the most hippie-dippie resumé the world has ever seen. Under my long list of work skills, I led with “openheartedness.” I put all my many hustles on there. And it looked good. Within 24 hours of our parking lot scheming, and with the help of another wonderful friend, my resumé landed on the desk of the head of middle school. My whole family said a prayer over it before I sent it out. All the molecules in me were vibrating–humming–changing at this chance.
I got an email requesting a phone interview. I was nervous, of course, but even I could genuinely see that everything I had done in my life had prepared me for this step. Of all of my recent brand-offerings, teaching both kids and adults came the easiest. Whenever I’d guide a class at the kid’s school or a workshop like Pokey Bolton’s Craft Napa, I’d think, “wow, that felt amazing” or “wow, that was easy–how can I even get paid to do that?” But the mind is much more stupid than the heart. The brain is idiotic. Humans can be dense, blind, and distracted from the soul’s calling. Sometimes something is directly underneath one’s nose, and yet it is invisible. And this from a person who lived her life as a self-proclaimed creativity enabler helping people to listen to the heart.
I did the phone interview with a great deal of sparkle and courage and sweaty armpits, and a few days later I was brought in for a full meeting with the heads of school and six teachers. I showed up with a rolling suitcase full of my fabric and books for everyone and a heart full of longing and optimism. A day later I heard back. Yes. It was a yes! I was hired as a middle school art teacher at a private school. They were thrilled to have me on their team. I cried and cried. They offered me an excellent salary and full benefits for me and my family. Our insurance, in that one moment, went from the chokehold of $1,900 a month to less than half of that.
I interviewed several local art teachers and teacher friends for their wisdom and guidance. I prepared and made lists and bought books. I cleaned the art room for two weeks solid so that I could have a fresh start. I purchased an Eileen Fisher linen dress second-hand because it seemed to me that all art teachers needed to wear boxy linen dresses and clogs, right?
I stepped in that first day on April 2nd nervous as shit and knowing as hell, and I did it. I loved it. I stood there in my beginner’s mind at age 45 in front of rooms full of fifth and sixth graders and I spoke about all the things that spill most easily from my soul–color theory, drawing techniques, the big-picture Why’s of art making, and the importance of expressing oneself and cultivating an inner, emotional life. And it is good. And I am new. I don’t have to hustle or Instagram to prove my worth or make my way. I show up, and I am enough every day. I get to help students build bonfires in their souls.
In two years, ask me how I’m doing. I can promise you I won’t want to quit teaching to start a handmade greeting card company or a DIY lifestyle brand or return to selling my art in tents. For me, I needed to not make it so I could finally make it. I’m still designing fabric for Windham during my summers off, so stay tuned–I’m designing my sixth collection now. But I’m done with the hustle and easing into the stability of the day-to-day. So many creatives want to quit their day jobs to follow their heart. I had to stop hustling and get a day job to follow mine.