Interview by Karyn Keene
Steam Crow co-founder Daniel Davis reveals the sacrifice and the satisfaction of creating art for a living. His steampunk inspired shop makes “Good Monster Goods,” such as kawaii ghost art prints and curly mustache pins. Read on to discover how artists of all ages can succeed with a little bit of luck and a lot of patience.
Can you tell me about Steam Crow and the parts you each play in running it?
Steam Crow is our personal brand. Basically, it’s the creative pop-culture creations of Dawna and I. I’m the prime illustrator/designer, though everything I do is critiqued and plussed by Dawna. She makes my work stronger. I tend to be our overall creative and operations lead, as well.
Dawna is our prime sewist, making plushies, aprons and our display cloth. She’s also our convention packer, Con Operations lead and shipping dept. Together we plan what we’re wanting to do, and we both do production stuff like screenprinting, taxes, and studio organization.
You mentioned that it took about ten years to get Steam Crow off the ground. What was that journey like?
It’s been a whole lot of work. Most artists feel like if they refine their craft enough, they’ll be deserving of a great art career. In this point in time, it’s not true for most of us. We started from zero, and started to “bless” fans one at a time. (“Blessing” is what we call welcoming, connecting, and treating our fans (the “Crows”) with our thanks and goodwill.)
Like anything, it was really exciting at first. I had the most positive feedback about my work in one day of our first convention, than I’d ever had my whole life. We failed at our first shows to turn a profit, but by the end of the first year, we were in the black.
Goblin Boy was 3 when we started, so Dawna took up most of the slack, so that I’d have lots of time to work. I figured that if I worked as hard as possible, I’d be able to work full-time for Steam Crow after 3 years. This was really optimistic, and ultimately impossible. After some despair, we went back to work and got back to making the work that we like to see—building the kind of life that we’re trying to lead.
Daniel had mentioned he interviewed a lot of successful artists as you were starting out. What did they have to say and how did you learn from them?
It was pretty simple, and was basically this: “You see where I’m at? You’re seeing me after 10 years of work. How long have you been working on Steam Crow?” I bashfully said “three years”, and they just nodded knowingly.
It’s a tough thing to have faith in yourself, when things are rough or not going as well as you’d like. It’s a gamble, as who really can say whether or not your creations are successful both creatively, and commercially. (Because we’re really talking about commercial success here.) I appreciated what they told me, as it made me work harder.
Did you have to make some sacrifices along the way?
Yeah, we have. We’ve sacrificed having a really nicely decorated home, like most of our 40-something friends are making now. We don’t really take vacations. We don’t have days off, at least not often. Free time is rare. Our home-studio is filled to the gills with product. Running this thing is often really stressful. We usually only see our friends at events. Hobbies have had to be rolled into the business, or left behind.
I could go on, but why depress everyone? 🙂 Thing is, all of my friends who are doing this are pretty much in the same boat. So, it’s reassuring at least to know that we’re not totally crazy.
How did you know what sacrifices were acceptable?
I can’t really say. I mean, the work has to get done, somehow. To get to be an artist for a living, making your own work, not doing freelance, and being your own boss, it’s something that has to be earned. We get to draw cartoon monsters for a living. How crazy/lucky is that?!
Would it be great to take more vacations, hang out with friends more, and have a fancy house. But we wanted to live a creative life on our own terms, a bit more.
Were they any sacrifices you knew you would be unwilling to make?
Sure. Goblin Boy is a priority. So is our relationship. We knew that if this was just “Daniel Davis Art Inc.” it would ultimately tear us apart. We knew that we needed to do this together, to be all in. Balance isn’t easy. Fact: I’m terrible at it. Dawna is better, though she’s obsessive about making stuff as much as I am.
In a world where things move so quickly, how did you find the patience to wait for your dream to become a reality?
I’m not terribly patient, but we knew that our dream job was right there, right in front of us. We just had to keep working, keep treating people right, and keep making work that is authentically US – and we can see that it was working. It was never as fast as we’d like, but momentum builds. The real payoff is when folks are excited about what we’re creating. That’s fuel to keep on going.
What would you say to someone who thinks they are too old to start a new business or be a successful artist?
We started Steam Crow when I was 35, which felt old at the time. It really motivated me to work on stuff that mattered (stuff I wanted to draw instead of freelance), and toss aside shortcuts (like doing bootleg art).
Remember that older artists have power too: You have all of these great life-experiences and mature skills to draw from. USE ALL OF THEM. You probably have more patience and focus than younger folks, too. Art is something that you can keep doing the older that you get. You get better the more you do it. You’re not too old, so stop worrying about it, and focus instead on making more art.
How have you balanced being successful artists and raising your son Goblin Boy?
It isn’t easy. We try to give him as much time as we can, and make it as fun and focused as we can. We feel guilty that we can’t spend all the time with him, hanging out and having fun.
He’s on the road a lot with us when we’re on tour, and he’s in online school, so we get to spend most days with him ALL DAY LONG. So, that’s pretty great. We’re spending more time with him now then we did when we had full-time jobs with a big commute.