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Interview: Susan Beal

by Grace Bonney

Susan Beal is a long time fixture in the craft scene. She’s been selling her handmade goods on her site, Susan Stars, for as long as I can remember. She’s a member of PDX Supercrafty, has craft columns for several publications and a new book, Bead Simple, coming out soon. To me she appears to be everywhere, so I was glad to have the chance to ask her about what she is working on now.

You make and sell things, you have a book and you’re in the process of getting out another one, you’re involved with Portland’s huge craft scene, you write about crafty things for lots of publications, you split your time between Portland and LA and you help on your husband’s stage productions. How do you keep organized, much less so cheerful?

You know, I think I’m one of the lucky ones in that freelance life suits me right down to the ground. The hours are unpredictable, and you’re typically either facing a work drought or finding that when it rains it pours… and pours… and pours! But working for myself, writing and running my own little business, and working with my husband Andrew on his shows has been amazingly fulfilling. Some weeks are just insane, with deadlines looming every day so I’m working late into the night, and then others are much quieter and I can suddenly go to the thrift store on a Tuesday afternoon, or actually read a book. It’s hectic and unpredictable and I’ve paid for my own health insurance out of pocket for eight years, but I really love it.

As for staying organized, I am a list-maker. I make to-do lists on a half-sheet of paper (the current one is four inches away from my laptop right now) and I check things off as I do them, which is such a satisfying feeling. I mark up my Indie Craft Experience calendar with deadlines and reminders and appointments and somehow it all works. My email inbox is pretty out of control and I do my best to contain it — I probably have 75 folders in my account, which is a lifesaver. As for my business, I keep all my invoices sorted by date so I know if I’ve gotten paid for the article I wrote two months ago, and I use PayPal for my susanstars website, because it’s so easy to keep track of orders. It would be nice to upgrade to a more sophisticated system, but I also love keeping my business small, streamlined, and relatively easy to run, so that it can comfortably stay a one-woman operation.

The other thing that keeps me feeling balanced is writing my West Coast Crafty blog for fun in between work projects. It is such a gift to write about whatever I want to — my current craft projects, other people’s handmade work, interesting events going on — without an editor or a paycheck or any rules at all except my own. When I make something for fun, I can post pictures and a little tutorial within the hour, or when someone is doing something cool, I can help get the word out. I have met so many amazing people through craft blogs and I am constantly inspired by other people’s posts!

As for being cheerful, honestly I really like to stay positive when I write for publication. There are plenty of critical reviews and negative anonymous comments in the world, and I choose to only write about things I like, which is a luxury. If I don’t like something, I won’t review it. The one exception to the only-writing-about-what-I-like is that I occasionally mention my political beliefs on my own blog, like linking and supporting anti-war events and fundraisers, and encouraging people to register to vote.

Andrew and I recently moved back to Portland full-time after two years of splitting our time between Portland and LA, which has been great. The craft community here is incredible; if you’re visiting, just take a peek at Diane Gilleland‘s DIY Alert! site for a great overview of what’s going on every day. I love Los Angeles and I loved living there, but it is nice to have a solid home base after all that running around. I love to travel and I can’t wait to visit LA next month, but staying organized while living out of a small apartment in LA and a room in a friend’s house in Portland was challenging. I did end up with a lot of frequent flyer miles!

You’ll be writing about the evolution of craft fairs for the upcoming Handmade Nation book. What was the first craft fair you sold at like?

Actually, the first craft fair I sold at wasn’t too exciting. It was in Portland in a tucked-away location in 2001, and hardly anyone came by because it wasn’t very well publicized. I sold lip balms and earrings and did a little better than breaking even on my table fee, which was great for a first sale, but it was such a long, quiet day that I had plenty of time to chat with all the other vendors… and I met Cathy Pitters of Bossa Nova Baby, and we’ve been friends ever since! In fact, we thought it would be fun to do our own craft sale, so we started co-organizing a little twice-a-year event called Riches at Rimsky’s. And now Cathy and Torie Nguyen co-organize the monthly Crafty Wonderland sale here in Portland, which is amazing. It’s such a fun event, and one of the fairs I’m spotlighting in my essay for Handmade Nation.

I’m writing about how much craft sales have changed since the early days, and how incredible they are now; there’s so much more going on than there used to be. I loved the church bazaars I went to as a kid in the 70s, but craft sales now have so many cool extras: Crafty Wonderland has a DIY table with a different free craft project every month, Felt Club has a bake sale, a DJ, and free crafty classes throughout the day, and Renegade draws people from all over the place. It’s so inspiring. I’ve sold my handmade jewelry and crafts for so long and made a living through the support of my customers, and now I get to return the favor to other crafty businesses with my purchases, and support cool events by helping to spread the word. It’s a great community of people and I feel very lucky to be part of it, and to get to write about it, too.

You have a book about beading coming out, and you also wrote a collaborative book with PDX Super Crafty. How did the two projects compare? Was having a bunch of authors more motivating or fun? Was being a single author easier to organize?

I really love both the books I’ve worked on, and they were such different experiences! Sasquatch Books approached my craft collective, PDX Super Crafty (which is four women: Cathy Pitters, Torie Nguyen, Rachel O’Rourke, and me), in 2004 and asked if we’d like to write a craft book, which ended up becoming Super Crafty. They gave us free rein to dream up eighty craft projects, and include more narrative things that we love, like craft activism and vintage crafts. We collaborated with a fabulous illustrator, Ryan Berkley, and great photographers, JD Hooge and Betsy Walton of Morningcraft. It was a real low-budget labor of love on top of our businesses and day jobs, and we worked so hard on it — there were a lot of late nights with Thai food and Charles Shaw, and a lot of early mornings with Stumptown coffee keeping us going! It was a long haul, and I ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection with less than a month to go. Torie was an angel — when I got home, she came right over and helped me finish my last five in-progress projects so I could limp through to the end. Every time I see the ladybug bike helmet cover, I think of her! Super Crafty came out in 2005, and we’ve done dozens of classes and events teaching craft projects from the book ever since. I’m so proud of our book.

My new book, Bead Simple, is coming out in March of 2008 from the Taunton Press, and I’m so excited about it. I love all kinds of crafting, but there’s something so cool about making your own jewelry. I went to a jewelry-making school and I’ve sold my own pieces and taught beading classes for years, so it really is close to my heart. It’s a beautiful book inside — Burcu Avsar and Zach DeSart took the photos, and Alexis Hartman illustrated it.

I designed fifty projects, from necklaces and earrings to embellishments and ornaments, and each one has two spin-off variations using totally different materials or style, so there are a total of 150 pieces in the book. I love using vintage and unusual materials, like hardware store bits and pieces, instead of making a special, expensive trip to the bead store (though that can be fun too!). So I wanted to make sure that readers could dip into their stashes or stop by the thrift store to make a project instead of spending a lot of money off the bat. I asked 39 of my favorite designers to contribute their own variation to one of my projects, and they came up with some really gorgeous pieces… so even though it’s a solo book, it really has the feel of a collaboration, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

I’m planning to do some free jewelry-making book events next year, and I’m building a website to go with the book, beadsimple.com. It’s just a simple one-page for now, but by next spring it will have tons of resources and links and little videos of each technique to accompany the book.

What is next for your business? Any ultimate goals?

The first thing on my list when I get a moment to breathe is to update and overhaul my susanstars website. It’s been up since 2002 and I am really eager to streamline the collections for sale and add my newer work, both jewelry and skirt kits and links to my writing and craft projects elsewhere. I also want to develop some new jewelry-making kits, like my a-line skirt kits, and I’m planning to have those ready by the holidays. I’m teaching a jewelry-making class at Felt Club in Los Angeles in November and selling and helping out with Crafty Wonderland here in Portland in December, and really looking forward to both.

My ultimate goal is to keep doing what I’m doing: writing craft books; writing for magazines like CRAFT, Adorn, ReadyMade, BUST, and Venus; selling my handmade work and kits; and writing my craft blog for fun. I really want to keep making time for leisure crafting, though, as it is the first thing to fall by the wayside when I get busy.

Any craft business sites you frequent? Any particularly helpful?

I especially love craftster, getcrafty, and supernaturale, which all have business boards. I think The Sampler is a fantastic networking and promotional tool for indie businesses, and The Switchboards is a great community too. We wrote up some general business advice on the PDX Super Crafty website, and Austin Craft Mafia has some great resources and advice too. Venus Zine runs helpful crafty-business articles regularly, too.

Please tell us a favorite story.

I lived in Los Angeles for two years, and about a year after I moved there I sold my work at the very first Felt Club sale in the spring of 2006, which I’d heard about online and thought sounded awesome. It really felt like the part in the Wizard of Oz where the movie goes from black and white to color, in terms of my life in LA! I met so many amazing people, like Jenny Ryan of Sew Darn Cute, Cathy Callahan (aka Cathy of California), Jill Bliss, and Jessica Wilson of jekbot… and in the crazy crowd, two of the people who stopped by my table, a producer for “Craft Lab” on the DIY Network, and Carla Sinclair, the editor of CRAFT magazine, took my card and contacted me later. I ended up filming an episode of “Craft Lab” with Jennifer Perkins soon after and I’ve been regularly contributing to CRAFT ever since. I also started organizing craft nights with the other crafters I met there, recruited some of them to design for Bead Simple, and started contributing to their projects as well. It was just such a cool afternoon and it led me to some of my closest friends in the city and to a lot of great crafty things!

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