Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in fine arts but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Sarah Yeung, Owner of Arts Speak, located in Toronto, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
I’m a self-taught contemporary artist that works primarily in oil paint since 2020 and in digital art since 2021. My first ‘customers’ arrived in the form of my family and friends, who saw me privately share my artwork during the pandemic and lent me the confidence to do so publically online. As such, they also were the first to commission my work for custom pieces to celebrate loved ones or to commemorate a special occasion. Since then, it’s grown to become a small one-woman team where I offer fine art giclee prints of my work in stores and online, as well as popping up in artisan markets across the city in order to connect with some of the most interesting variety of people in our blended society, all because of the conversation art inspires.
Tell us about yourself
Arts Speak began as a pandemic hobby that was meant to be an interlude between the sudden lockdown we found ourselves in 2020 and the naïve belief that we would soon return to ‘real life’ in a few months’ time. Prior to the pandemic, I was a co-owner of a women’s kickboxing studio with my sister. We moved from Vancouver to Toronto in 2017 to realize this dream and operated for two years up until the pandemic. At the time I began painting, it was at the suggestion of my partner to ‘get a hobby’ in so many words. I was introduced to the soothing practice of Bob Ross on Netflix. It took three episodes with a lot of pausing and rewinding before I painted over my canvas one day in frustration and did my first portrait painting instead.
Since then, I’ve rapidly fallen in love with the study of human features ever since. I credit a lot of my ambitious beginnings to unpretentious curiosity. There is something to be said for not expecting anything big when you first set out to try something but rather relishing in an experience for the sake of it. Then, if and when you happen to be rewarded with the surprise that it turned out to be something good outside of you, too, all the better. For example, I remember my partner bought us a bottle of real champagne to celebrate the publishing of my online website or the sheer disbelief at making my first sale at an art market. Everything felt like a big step towards something slightly more palpable. In hindsight, it can be described as a small feat now, but it was, at the time, a big leap of faith to actively take ownership of my art and pursue an unorthodox path of a creative.
Having been a part of the local artisan markets since the summer of 2021, it has served as such a learning experience to witness the available spectrum of entrepreneurship. The opportunity and blessing it is to do what I do is never lost on me. I set out in 2022 to pursue the arts full-time as a challenge to myself and ended up with a handful of milestones, such as being accepted into my first juried art show with the 61st edition of the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair (TOAF) in July, as well as my first group show with Leslie Grove Gallery over the holiday, plus the sale of an original painting from 2020, way back before I could have ever conceived of a complete stranger being such a fan of my work. Before the end of the year, I had over-achieved a financial goal I had set for myself in business. It’s absolutely bewildering to consider that what I do for creative expression has tangible measurement in a world that is so concerned with metrics.
Although last year’s successes did not come without losses, and there is always a learning curve to continually recalibrate ourselves if we want to continue as independent artists, it’s an insecure ambivalence I believe all entrepreneurs feel. For me, perhaps the fear is still greater that we would be left wondering what it could have been if we didn’t go ahead and see for ourselves presently. Sometimes the push we need is not an aspiration to be something greater (because we don’t always know what we want or what we’re reaching for) but the fear of the alternative if we don’t try at all.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
As counterintuitive as this may appear, one area of pride has been the recognition and respect I’ve allowed myself towards embracing the smallness and necessary slowness of a small business. Compassion and leniency is a trait that is not as glamorized as the hustle culture, and while I equally fall prey to the pressure of measuring up against society, it’s my personal feeling of accomplishment that, as of the third year in business (2023), I am still in awe of my craft and compelled to paint for myself as a matter of creative freedom rather than sheer obligation.
What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?
The equally empowering and isolating realization that you are fully in charge of where you’re headed. We’ve been conditioned in childhood and academia to follow a linear path, and there is a lot of adoptive fear from people around us surrounding the volatile trajectory of a small business without guarantee. It’s really hard to place the bet on yourself and not doubt it.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
Just do it. There is enough to be said about imposter syndrome, even when you’ve been in active operation and have ‘proven’ success. Sometimes narrow tunnel vision does us a favour when progress is infamous for being slow and steady. The monotony of a good habit is the fundament of building towards something greater. We also cannot outpace what we don’t know, so we learn to be comfortable with not being the smartest one in the room. Realizing that nobody judges you for having the humility to be introspective, the authenticity to recognize your shortcomings, and the integrity to ask for help.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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