The view from the peak of that roof was amazing. The house itself was nearly 60 feet tall and it sat on the edge of a cliff, so I could see for miles into the valley below. Soaking up the view could have been a serene moment of contemplation, except that it wasn’t. It was hot as hell that day, and I’d been working a side gig in construction on this terrifyingly high roof for the past 3 weeks.
The idea to start my own business was not conceived on that roof, it had been in my head for years; however, that is where the idea was solidified. I needed to make a change. I needed to find a way to support my family while simultaneously working closer to my potential as an artist. Once that decision was made, my wife, Molly, and I started The Grit Shop within the month.
Time to Call It In
The Grit Shop is an artistic fabrication studio. I collaborate with designers, organizations, companies, and other artists to transform ideas into reality. From playground playhouses to giant alien plants, I specialize in sculpting the weird stuff that falls outside the scope of other fabrication shops.
According to the paperwork, The Grit Shop was founded in 2018, but parts of the business were born almost 25 years ago. It started with making theater props and papier-mâché dragons in middle school and cafeteria murals and homecoming floats in high school. It was refined with a solid technical education and a BFA in ceramics from the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana, and was redefined by an MFA in ceramics from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida, where I acquired a heavy conceptual education. My network of clients began forming through residencies at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, and The Mary Anderson Center in southern Indiana. My knowledge of alternative materials and sculpting techniques was pieced together through commercial art positions at Weber Group Inc., OZ Arts, Noble Building Group, and a brilliant collective of Nashville artists known as TANK 615.
Two months after we launched The Grit Shop, I taught a clay workshop at Blackberry Hill Art Center in Orford, New Hampshire, with Dianne and Mark Burger. I was discussing my fears of working for myself and keeping enough cash coming in when Dianne simply said, “It’s time to call it in.” Her insightful wisdom proved correct as all my creative adventures from the past seemed line up more work than any marketing plan could have.
The Grit Shop hasn’t always had a name or an Employer Identification Number (EIN). It grew for many years without the helpful lawyer, understanding insurance company, or patient accountant I have now. It is a young company, but its foundation was being built for years through my experiences.
Nuts and Bolts and Lots of Epoxy
Every project starts with a meeting. Some clients only have a vague notion of what they want, while most professional designers walk in with precise measurements, pre-approved visual references, and contracted deadlines. Regardless of the context, I enter each meeting in search of the original idea.
The original idea is the spark that ignited the project. It’s the “in a perfect world” vision that might have burned brighter before budgets and physics were considered. As an artist and fabricator, my first job is to find that original idea and convert it to a well-designed, three-dimensional concept with minimal compromises.
Once we have a concept and a contract, the action moves to my shop. I have a 20×60-foot building with 12-foot ceilings in our backyard. The front of the shop is the clean room, where I do maquettes, molds, ceramics, and painting. This section is temperature controlled, so I can store materials year round. The middle of the shop is the dirty room where I sculpt foam, spray concrete, and do all things fiberglass. This section is typically lined with plastic and gets trashed, over and over again. The back of the shop is an open-air patio where I do most of my woodworking and welding. The wall between the interior spaces is removable and two 10×8-foot doors open to the patio. If a big project comes in, I can convert the shop to a single 16×60-foot footprint under one roof in about an hour.
Most of my projects involve fiberglass, epoxy, wood, metal, foam, concrete, and/or ceramics. This eclectic toolbox of materials is my biggest strength as a fabricator and allows more options in tackling each new gig. My background in ceramics gives me an advantage in projects that involve mosaics, custom tiles, commemorative mugs, and anything clay related. My clay sculpting skills and some of my tools have translated seamlessly into epoxy and concrete work. After hours, my fabrication experience crosses over into my personal artwork. When my own concepts require more than clay, I already know what to use and how to use it.
4, 5 Where They Dwell (public sculpture), 15 ft. (4.6 m) in height, concrete, metal, Picasso Park, Jeffersonville, Indiana. Commissioned by the city of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Made possible by The Jeffersonville Public Art Commission, NOCO Art District, Indiana Arts Commission, Hanover College and the National Endowment for the Arts, 2019.
Balance on a Tight Rope
Impossible deadlines, difficult clients, and unpaid invoices are standard issues for any creative business, but my biggest struggle has always been balance. Balance between passion and paychecks. Balance between art and fabrication. Balance between family and everything else.
The first way I navigate this struggle it to differentiate between what is important and what is noise. I’ve been told that art is a waste of time, art is not a viable career path, fabrication is never art, you can’t be a fabricator and an artist, and true artists don’t sell out. This is all noise and my word-count allotment for this article prevents me from explaining all the reasons why.
When considering the balance of what is important, the hard truth is that there is no balance. Out-of-town business trips take time from my family and my art. Sculpting my own clay beasts into the night means I’ll miss breakfast with my kids and my productivity for the next day will be shot before it starts. To truly be present with my family, I have to temporarily forget looming deadlines, ignore emails, and stop conceptualizing every experience I have into the next sculpture.
With important matters, I adhere to a philosophy of balance on a tight rope. Keep your eyes forward and concentrate on what you are doing in the moment. Don’t let distractions affect your efficiency and try not to look down.
6, 7 Preds Pit (sculpted sandbox), 14 ft. (4.3 m) in height, concrete, wood, sand and plants, Calvary Young Children’s School, Nashville, Tennessee. Designed by Vicky Flessner of PLAYceMaker, 2019.
No Secret Sauce
My advice for young creatives looking to launch a career in the arts has always been this: decide what kind of artist you want to be and what kind of life you want live, then exist where those intersect. I hesitate to be more specific because every journey is different and there is not a designated path for artists.
Killer potter, kiln-building genius, and longtime friend Matt Gaddie tells his students, “there is no secret sauce.” I think this is true in art and business. You work your butt off for years, building your knowledge and your network; you polish your skills and refine your talent, you show up on time, stay late, and rely on your training and your grit to pull it off. Then you inch forward and fight your way through, or you miserably fail and start over. It’s not easy to be an artist. It never has been, and it probably never will be. All I can say is, the rewards of a life in the arts is worth the struggle; everyone who is pulling it off already knows this. Just remember that if it was easy, everyone would do it.
the author Brian Somerville’s sculptures explore human relationships and the beast within us all. For the past 15 years, he has worked on creative projects with Chicago’s Shed Aquarium, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, Great Wolf Lodge, Six Flags, The Grand Ole Opry, Blake Shelton’s Ole Red bar, Maker’s Mark, Patron, Lexus, and zoos in Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Birmingham, and Miami. Somerville’s client list for The Grit Shop, LLC, includes Otherworld Entertainment, Playce Maker, MadeFirst, OZ Arts Nashville, Tuck-Hinton Architecture and Design, Camp Digital Productions, and Up to Parr Productions. To learn more, visit www.thegritshop.com.