Thursday, October 8, 2009

Featured Friday - Barb Plevan

Barb Plevan
Toronto, Ontario (Canada)

Tell us a little about your work. What sort of items do you sell, and where do you sell them?

My work falls into two separate categories which overlap slightly. For the past 12 years I've been what's known in the trade as a "miniature artisan." I make 1:12-scale dollhouse accessories and am best known for my plants and flowers. I sell them through my website. Since January 2009, I've also had a shop on Etsy. This is where I sell my pet portraits, fish decoys, and other painted things. Some of these are small enough to be considered as miniatures, but they aren't specifically intended for use in dollhouses.

What medium do you feel most comfortable creating in?
Acrylic paint, definitely. Even while making miniature plants and flowers, it's the painting stage that I most enjoy. My petals and leaves are cut from translucent vellum and hand tinted with paint washes until they're as realistic looking as possible. For my pet portraits I prefer to work on wood (especially pine or basswood), but this isn't always practical. A slab of wood costs a lot of money to ship to a customer, so lately I've been painting on canvas, paper and illustration board instead. And I love making fish decoys from balsa, even though I'm not the greatest wood carver in the world... because once I finish carving them, it's so much fun to paint them.

How long have you been working in your chosen medium?
I've been painting with acrylics as a hobby for as long as I can remember, but doing it professionally only since the mid-80s. That's when people started commissioning me to paint their pet cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and birds. Sometimes their kids, too.

Did you receive any training in your medium or are you self taught? If self-taught, what helped you most in becoming proficient in your chosen medium?
I'm a self-taught painter, for sure. Nobody ever showed me how it's done. I studied cartooning and graphic story arts at college, but only for one semester. Then I ran out of tuition money. And we didn't use paint there anyway... just pencil, pen and ink. I learned how to paint by trial and error. I have to give credit to my mom, though. When I was just a kid, she taught me how to draw with crayons. My friends all thought it was good enough just to stay within the lines in their colouring books. But Mom showed me how to mix basic crayon colours to make lots of other shades. And she encouraged me to decorate my drawings with all sorts of fancy patterns... polka dots, plaids, stripes, and so on. Her influence can clearly be seen in my most recent work.

Which artist(s) do you admire the most?
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Fritz Scholder, Jane Martin (the work she was doing in the 70s and 80s), Michael Sowa. But my favourite artist of all is George Herriman, creator of the Krazy Kat comic strip.

What sort of recurring themes do you find occur in your work?
Cats, cats and more cats... usually standing upright on two legs and wearing human clothing, which some people think is weird. I like to paint them dressed in the same clothes I used to wear when I was a little kid. I had a much nicer wardrobe back then than I do nowadays. And just so you know, I'm not one of those crazy old cat ladies you sometimes hear about. I have only two cats at the moment (George and Skeeter), my sister has one (Onslow), and we all share the same house that our parents and grandparents lived in before us. I guess I enjoy painting cats so much because I've always got live models to work from. If I happened to keep dogs or sheep or reptiles, I'd probably be painting them instead. Other recurring themes often show up as backdrops for my cat portraits, including things I also remember from my childhood... the birch trees surrounding Grandpa's cottage, for example, and the front verandah of his house (my house now).

What inspires you? How do you keep your inspiration juices flowing?
Inspiration is sometimes really hard for me to dredge up, but I can usually get the juices flowing by rifling through a stack of old family photos. I especially like the black and white ones of myself from the 1950s, where I always seem to be posing in the cutest clothes... Halloween costumes which were sewn by my mom, party dresses given to me by my grandmother, sweaters knitted by the lady who looked after me while my parents were at work. I also spend quite a bit of time staring out the window of my studio, which overlooks the backyard. A lot of the neighbourhood cats wander through there on the way to somewhere else. The ones I like best always end up as models for my portraits whenever I get bored of painting George, Skeeter and Onslow over and over again. Friends, customers and relatives send me pictures of their cats, too, so I always have a good supply of reference photos from which to work.

What does a normal work week look like for you?
Well, I work every day of the week and each day is pretty much the same as the one that came before it. I wake up around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, boot up my laptop, make a pot of coffee, and check my e-mail. Sometimes I'll receive an order from my website, but I don't keep any dollhouse miniatures in stock. As a result, I almost always have a very long list of customers who are patiently waiting in line. As soon as each order comes in, I bill the customer, add her name to my waiting list, and provide an estimated shipping date. That night I'll probably do a bit of preliminary work on the order and then set it aside until it's that customer's turn... which could be anywhere from a week to several months, depending on my current workload. If I've sold something on Etsy since the last time I checked my mail, I'll immediately spring into action and get the order ready to be shipped the following day. Only after I've dealt with my customers will I reply to e-mails from friends, order any supplies I need, pay the household bills online, or whatever. By then supper is ready, which we generally eat much later than most people. My sister does all the cooking, thank goodness, which means I never have to waste any time doing that. And right after supper I'll start working... and I keep going until the sun comes up, sometimes even later than that. I figure I spend approximately 5 or 6 hours a day on paperwork, correspondence, and packing orders... and another 12 hours or so making miniatures and/or things to sell on Etsy. I try to split my time evenly between the two, just to be fair to both my website customers and those who buy things from my Etsy shop. If I never had to sleep or eat, I'd put in even more hours than I already do.

What event stands out for you as being your most memorable/successful, or as having the greatest impact on your work?
Oh, there's no doubt about it. Opening my Etsy shop at the beginning of this year is the best thing that's ever happened to me. It's given me a place where I can display my cat portraits and other painted things, which I never had before. And now I have a perfectly good excuse to paint on a regular basis, instead of just once in a blue moon when I get all caught up on orders for my miniatures. My work is improving with each passing day. (I think so, anyway.) And for the first time in my life I feel like a "real" artist, which is all I've ever wanted to be. It's a dream come true!

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