“Don't pursue a career in the Arts unless you love the Arts truly, madly, deeply. And do not have any delusions about what awaits you both in educational settings, and in the job market. …If you think you're gonna get a break because you have a disability, think again. …You better be the best you can be at what you do, and do not allow yourself to use your disability as an excuse NOT to work continually and consistently towards total professionalism and high standards of quality.”
-- Jaehn Clare, professional theatre artist, from "A Career as an Artist Ain't an Easy Row to Hoe," keynote address for The Art of Employment: Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities on March 25 & 26, 2002 at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN.
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Printed on business cards the artist Wug Laku has created for his new enterprise are the words "Art is Where You Find It." Laku's work reveals the hidden potential in humble materials. Inspired by, say, a piece of pine wood and a stone washed up onto a beach, he creates an elegantly shaped box with a lustrous, richly hued finish. "My art is about ideas and finding the purest, simplest ways of expressing them," he says.
Laku's paintings have graced the walls of many Indianapolis exhibit spaces. Nevertheless, he reached a point where he realized his sales weren't going to be sufficient to support himself as a painter. Painting is Laku's first love, but art materials were costly and funding cuts to the arts made it even tougher to make a living.
He began crafting objects such as wood furniture, waterstone boxes, and illuminated light boxes, which he thought would be more marketable. While Laku says he has been unable to hold down a regular job due to the nature of his disability, he knew he had skills, talent, and experience as an artist. Self-employment made sense.
Laku has no formal art training, rather he's taught himself what he's needed to learn. He spent five years developing his craft-oriented work before he began the process of starting his business, Wug Laku's Studio & Garage in 2006.
Laku found the support and assistance he needed to get started from an employment consultant at Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, Roxane Fischer-Piepenbrok. Along with Easter Seals Crossroads, Goodwill is contracted by the Indiana Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (VRS) to offer Customized Employment services. Fischer-Piepenbrok worked closely with Laku to think through the details of his business concept and to create a successful plan that would meet the criteria for approval from VRS.
Classes offered by the Business Ownership Initiative of Indiana (formerly Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative) in Indianapolis got him up to speed in business practices, writing a business plan, getting a business going, and doing online marketing. NSI classes are offered on weekday evenings and Saturdays, on a sliding-scale fee basis. Laku has been especially pleased with their willingness to accommodate his individual schedule.
As a client of VRS, and because he convinced them he had a viable concept for self-employment, Laku qualified for financial support to get his venture started and cover his initial operating expenses. VRS helped with the cost of equipment and art materials, rental of studio space, telephone and utilities, and other employment-related expenses.
Working with his employment consultant, Laku gathered the information he needed to create a business plan. He researched his target audience using the library and census data on the Internet. He learned from the commercial practices of others doing the kind of work he wanted to do, and looked at how they priced their work.
When you write a business plan, you focus on the specific steps it takes to get "from here to there." The language of the plan doesn't have to be technical, Laku emphasizes. You can use the same kind of words you would use in an artist statement you give to a gallery or grantor. (An artist statement describes your vision of your work ) Look at what's selling, and figure out how your cash flow will work. How much will you have to take in to break even? Laku will use his business plan to convince VRS, and later banks and other potential supporters, to finance his enterprise. Aspects of the plan may change, as a business plan evolves over time. (The image above shows one of Laku's furniture pieces.)
Laku discovered more assets in his personal tool box when he needed to create a catalog of his work. Because of his art skills, it was relatively easy for him to do it himself, taking his own photos, doing the writing, page lay-out, and duplicating. Not only a means to reach customers, the catalog helped demonstrate his business potential to VRS.
The supports that helped Laku get to where he is now in his career, he says, included a girlfriend and a wife (both no longer in his life), who were willing to provide financial aid during lean times. The online community he's acquired through The Icarus Project has become an important source of emotional support. This grassroots mental health network has brought together people with a shared vision of what it means to have a label of bipolar disorder. Icarus members describe their quest to "use our powers to make the world we live on better, more beautiful, and way more interesting." "We believe we have a dangerous gift to be cultivated and taken care of, rather than a disease or disorder to be 'cured' or 'eliminated'."
Along with taking business classes and doing your homework of marketing and pricing research, Laku offers this advice: "If you're thinking of doing your art as a business, make sure you get your art out there and get feedback, so you can refine your product."
Laku hopes that in the future, sales of his craft-oriented work will enable him to return to the painting he has had to put on the back burner. In the meantime, he has plenty to do launching Wug Laku's Studio & Garage and creating work to add to his inventory.
Posted Feb. 2008