Rebekah Nordstrom - August's Entrepreneur of the Month
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Will you tell me a little bit about yourself and your art?
My name is Rebekah Nordstrom, and I am an oil painter. I did not go to art school. I became a painter after a visit with my father who was [ill and] under heavy medication, and he was looking back on his life, and he had a lot of regrets. When I left that visit, I was like, "I don't want to be that person, I don't want to look back on my life and have regrets." And so I was thinking of the things that I had always wanted to do but never had. And some of them aren't attainable, like going to the moon, but there were things that were attainable - I had always wanted to try painting, and I never had. And so when I got home from that visit, I signed up for a painting class at the community college. I was still working full time, but I would take this class, and it became evident that I had a natural talent, or aptitude. So when I lost my job at the beginning of 2016, I decided with the support of my family to not look for another job, and just focus full time on painting. So that's what I did.
What job did you have that you were let go from?
I used to work in the studio of James Turrell who is an artist in Flagstaff that has Roden Crater - I worked in his archives. And on a very strange weekend, he brought his studio out for dinner on a Friday night, where he was singing our praises (there were two of us) and how happy he was with how his studio was getting back into shape, and he was eating food off of our plates. I don't know if you know who James Turrell is, but he's a blue chip artist, he's a Guggenheim artist. He's a big thing. So then the weekend happened, and on Monday morning, he fired us both. For no reason at all. And that had never happened to me before, because most people see my value, I guess. That had just never happened. And so I just kind of spiraled a little bit. I didn't know what to do, I was really upset. That's what I did before, but my background is [as an] interior designer, and I worked for years at the Design Center in Flagstaff designing kitchens. And there you go.
Were you entrepreneurial as a kid?
I think so. I had a paper route when I was young, and I remember my mother encouraging the paper route thing, so that we could get checking accounts. I was in fourth grade or something like that, and I had a checking account to deal with my paper route income, and being able to pay for the papers, because that's how you did it back then. And then I paid my way through college working for my brother, who's only 18 months older than I am, and he had a business being a concessionaire. I sold french fries at county fairs and things like that. I was able to pay for my college that way. So yes, I think I have always been entrepreneurial.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in Minnesota. Alexandria, Minnesota. [I grew up] on a little hobby farm.
What is that?
It was a 60-acre farm, and we had a very large garden and backyard animals. Then we rented out the fields, because we didn't have things like combines. So my dad had a full-time job as well as our little hobby farm.
Does entrepreneurship run in your family then?
My mother more so than my father. My mother passed away when I was young, but she was the first in her family to get a college degree. She was a PE teacher, but she always had a very... She once told me not to be afraid of not walking on the path. It was kind of this weird parable. I think she assessed my personality, and said, "You know, you don't have to follow the main path. You can walk off that path, and then you can feel the grass in between your toes." So that's a pretty cool way to go.
You're making me cry. I always cry when I think about my mother.
She always encouraged creativity, we probably did a lot of crafts, she taught me how to sew very young, so if I wanted something, she'd say, "Just make it." Create what you want. But my dad worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. So government job.
Did you sell things from the farm?
We did. We had a huge garden, and so we would sell [produce from] a pick-up truck at the end of the lane. We tapped maple trees, we had honey bees. So, it was a pretty adventurous little childhood.
So you told me what inspired you to start painting - you sell your paintings, right?
I do. I sell them out of shows, and I'm in the Artists Gallery in Flagstaff. I sell online, and I've only been doing this a couple of years, but I'll be finding more galleries. I'll be in Minnesota for a month - I would like to find a gallery in Minnesota so when I'm working in Minnesota, I'll have more of a regional location to sell that work. So trying to spread my love further afield.
What made you decide to start selling your paintings?
I think that when I was given the gift of the freedom to become a painter instead of getting another job, I definitely looked at it as a business. It was a business opportunity that I was lucky enough to be given. Because a lot of artists have to work a day job, and then [create] in their spare time. So now [this is] my full time job. That's how I look at it. It's kind of a balance though, because that joy and energy has to come through on your work as opposed to, "Ugh, I don't feel like being at work today." So I do have to figure out how to handle those natural ebbs and flows of creativity, and discipline, and all of the things that come into a business.
How do you handle that?
I try to paint on the days that I'm feeling the love, and then on the days that I'm not, then I'm cultivating love. So I'm cultivating through writing thank-you notes for people that have purchased work. Or I'm looking for possible shows to enter, and being inspired by the huge lists for calls for artists that are out there, things like that. And not trying to beat myself up just because I can't produce every day. And I sometimes just sit and hang out with the chickens too, because they have a calming effect. So doing some self-care, and recognizing that that's part of the creative process. And not be so hard on myself when I have to just sit with chickens. Sometimes I waste time too. But I wasted time at my full-time job too. I wasn't "on" all the time.
There seems to be a definite mental shift that takes place from the employee mentality, where you'll do whatever your boss wants you to do, to the self-employed mentality, where you have a dream that you have to work towards and really believe that it's possible. Have you found that to be true for yourself?
Are you talking about how I view myself?
Yes, but also the way that you view the world - balking at the idea that a person should just go work in an office, and instead taking a path that is unclear, but going for it anyway.
Yes, that is applicable to me, and I'm really envious of the people who just go [work] for others, because I worked more, I was less happy, but I was more stable when I was working full-time. The way that I'm working now... there's a lot of weird stuff that happens in my head. The self-doubt - sometimes I feel like I'm on top of the world, and then other times it's just like, "Who do you think you are? The audacity... You have no talent. How dare you, why don't you just go and get a real job, and contribute?" I do almost everything for free now, because I make my product, I market my product, I do every single thing. And I get paid for none of it. I don't get paid until somebody buys something. It feels weird, because [if you're working for someone else] you go to your job, you do your thing, and you get paid for it. Even freelancing, you go and you provide a service, and you get paid for it. But as a painter, you do all these things, you have shows, you're entertaining to people, you're used as a prop, a tourist draw. And you don't get paid for it. You only get paid through recognition, name recognition, and maybe it'll come out in the end or something, but it's very strange. I get asked to be on a lot of boards now. I feel like I work so hard, but the payment doesn't come until someone comes and takes that little painting home with them. It's an odd business. I was just listening to the radio this morning, they were talking about the art world, and how unregulated it is. It's just a big hot mess. Like if I were an accountant, I could charge you by the hour. You hire me for a service. Same with interior design. But with painting, the distribution of when the money comes back to you is weird. So I run around like crazy, [thinking] "Ugh, this is so much harder than what I used to do." And I get no paycheck. So, it's interesting.
What do you love about being an entrepreneur, and what do you find difficult? How do you navigate those difficulties?
I like doing my own thing. If I need a mental break, I can go on a hike with girlfriends to bring it back together. I like not having a 9 to 5. I don't like that there's a little bit of isolation. It's kind of what I was talking about before - it's unrelenting, it doesn't ever relax. The reason that I took over this whole [basement] space... so, I was painting here, my drafting for design work was here, and then we had our television here. And I could either never start working, or never stop working, because my life and my work were too close to each other. So this division of space works better for me, because I can be at work during the day, and I can go upstairs and have lunch. So that's a little better. But the isolation, and having to do it all by yourself.
How do you deal with that challenge?
Especially when I started, I spent a lot of time googling how to do things, because I used to have someone else do those things for me. Keep my books, and my inventory, and social media, and writing newsletters, and making paintings, and ordering supplies, and... I have to order bios, because the gallery is almost out. So ordering my print media... I have to do all of that, and that's all I can do [laughs]. Because I don't make a paycheck. But, I would like... my friend was telling me about getting an intern to help me post the goofy stuff that I just don't want to do anymore. She said that there's a service at NAU that I can bring in my intern to do things that they like to do, like post social media stuff.
Could you describe any positive effects or challenges that have come up between you and your partner and/or family as a result of your entrepreneurship?
No, it's been pretty smooth sailing. I have a very supportive partner, he's the one that encouraged me to do it. I can get paid these little checks, and he'll say things like, "You're just rolling in it!" [laughs] When we did taxes this year... I actually got to pay taxes, which was really great, because that means that I'm in the red. So I moved out of the black in one year. That includes going to conferences, and travel, and supplies, and so we took my little tax form... Did you ever watch "It's a Wonderful Life" when they had the two dollar bills, and they're skipping? I was just skipping around the studio down here with my tax return, because I owed money.
Because that meant that you had made money?
That meant I made money. I might have only made $100, but I still made money. I still sold more art than I spent. That is a pretty tough thing to do, and so quickly. So yes, he's been really supportive. I can't think of a single time that he's made me feel inadequate, or that I've taken away from wifely duties, if you will [laughs]. You know, dinner's not on the table or some stupid thing like that. He would never do anything like that. I feel very fortunate. I'm very blessed, and I know I'm blessed. Sometimes I bruise myself by pinching myself over how blessed I am.
Do you have any specific ways that you approach productivity or efficiency?
I was asked just last week if I've always been focused, because I am pretty focused with painting. The first year that I painted in 2017, I completed a painting a day, because I needed to learn fast. I had two years to pull this off. It was a fast failure, and I painted every day. I was a runner, and I think that being able to discipline myself and recognizing that if I want this goal, I have to put in the legwork. I have to put the time. Also, if I make bad paintings - I've been making some bad paintings the last couple of weeks - it's because I've been going outside to paint, and I haven't been painting in plein air as much as I did that first year. Painting outside is really difficult, because you're taking the whole wide world, and you're putting it into a tiny canvas... because I work so small. It can be really challenging. I'm out there and I get humbled, and then I bring it back into my studio, and I focus on what went wrong, and then I fix it. By doing that, I'm teaching myself how to do it right. I really try hard not to be discouraged by my bad paintings and take that as "You never learn from succeeding, you only learn from failing, right?" But that failure can also make you feel like crap about yourself, and so I don't let myself go there. I let myself then take that painting and make it so that it has the energy and the light, and all of the stuff I want the painting to have, but I failed to get in the field. It's this constant discipline. I don't know how you find discipline, you just force it maybe? I think discipline is a little bit of a forced thing. It doesn't come naturally, it's just made. It doesn't seem like discipline is a very natural state of being. It's more like a forced...
I think so. I started playing the drums recently, and I've been playing instruments since I was 5, and I'm 32 now. I think playing music is one of the things where people say, "You need this amount of discipline." But I discovered with the drums that I just love it so much, I want to play every day, which I'd never experienced before. I don't think I want to go as far as saying, "If you really love something, you'll just do it every day." But there is that thing, where it just happens.
Are you just starting?
Yeah, I started 6 months ago.
So I think that that is true, especially in the beginning. Because there was not a day that I did not want to get up and paint. On my birthday, on Christmas morning, I didn't care. But now it's evolving a little, the salad days of being a painter are over, and now I'm painting more difficult subjects, expectations are higher. It becomes a little different. And that's what I was talking about in the beginning, balancing the joy of painting with higher expectations and more stress. That first year it was just like, "Wow, I can't believe I'm doing this! Wow, everything is awesome!" The first year, a crappy painting didn't matter, because I hadn't painted that much before. You're expected to have crappy paintings. But now I have articles written about me, so I'm not supposed to have crappy paintings, but they still happen. So then it's, "Okay, I've got to discipline myself to figure out why that painting was rotten." And what works on the bad painting and what doesn't work. Which I never asked before. I wasn't versed enough, it was just all spontaneous that first year.
Do you have any business tools that you like? Digital or analogue ?
The digital stuff that everybody does. Social media, active particularly on Instagram. Keeping my website up to date. I used to blog a little bit more than I do now. Especially that first year, I was totally into it. A newsletter. Nothing brand new. I used to do a lot more research into different platforms.
One thing I do that I think is a really great idea - once a month I have a board meeting, and I'm the only member of it. I go to the library, because I get to take myself away from the space. I create an agenda, and I make sure my website's up-to-date. Just checking into all of these little bits. I get dressed up like a board person. [laughs] I get a briefcase. It's so I can check in and make sure everything is going according to plan. I try to go every month, I suppose I go closer to 8 or 9 times a year to have a board meeting, which I think is a pretty decent check-in. So that's when I would go in and start looking at different platforms and different auction sites online. Things like that.
Like a business development day?
Are there any Do's and Don'ts you've learned over the last couple of years?
Mainly just "do" - practicing yes, so just do it. If you're going to do it, hopefully you'll have the opportunity to just jump right in with both feet and give it all you've got. It's a lot harder emotionally I think to do it halfway. You should either do it full time or consider options to be able to get there in the future. I do much better when I'm on, and I'm creating, and I'm business-ing. Then sometimes I back off, I get too tired or the pollen starts bothering me, so I slow down a little bit, and then that inertia, it can be hard to get it going again. So just keep going.
You said that you'd always wanted to paint, but did you also always want to have a business selling your paintings?
I had no idea that this was ever going to happen. I never wanted to be a Painter, I just wanted to paint. The circumstances just happened. When I lost my job, and I went into a little bit of a spiral... This town can be really hard. We're in Flagstaff because of Alex's job, and they have a thing at Gore called the "trailing spouse," meaning that one person that gets hired at Gore has a good job and then the other person - the town of Flagstaff just might not have what the other person does. So, I'm the trailing spouse. It's just like, "This town! It's killing me!" I don't want to have a crappy job, and I also felt like, "Now I'm going to have to go and visit old boyfriends that I broke up with," so the jobs that I've left, like at the design center. It was a great job, but I don't necessarily want to get back together with the design center. I have a BA, but if I'd wanted to get my Masters, I would have gotten it years ago. I didn't want to go back to school. I don't want to get a Masters so that I can get a crappy job at NAU. So Alex said, "If you spent the time and the money that you would spend getting your Masters that you don't want, so that you can get a shitty job at NAU, you will come out ahead. I know you will."
That's how the business part came, but if you would have asked me, what - 3 years ago even? - that my whole house would be changing so that I would have a studio and that I would have stacks of sold paintings all over the place? No. I would have never ever... No. No idea. Not a clue.
So you never know... what you might want to do. If you just go after it, your whole life changes. And I'm super happy that I am a painter. I have a hard time referring to myself as an artist though.
Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. I just call myself a painter. I guess maybe it's because I've never... a lot of artists do a lot of art media, because they've been exposed to a lot of art media. I just paint. I paint and I draw.
Did your family have a particular attitude around artists when you were growing up?
No, my mother's side of the family has always been folk-art types. I have an aunt Mary that does funny paintings, and she's incredibly talented as a paper-cutter. It's a folk style of art where she cuts little things out of black construction paper using nail scissors. Very intricate - it's just amazing stuff. My mother also designed her own clothes and sewed them. She built us all amazing costumes during Halloween, and using things like garbage bags and cardboard... just found things, creating out of air, and that passed down to me with the [award-winning chicken] coop, being able to build something without really spending much money.
Is your family Swedish?
My father's side of the family is Swedish and my mother's side is a whole bunch of different things. They were wackier. My dad is more stoic, like a Swede. My mother's side of the family are kind of kooky. So I think I got a little of both. A little bit of Scandinavia, but not as much as... Some of my family members on my mother's side are a little [coo-coo sound]. Not in a good way.
When you first started out, were you nervous about asking for money for your paintings?
No, I don't think so. I think it's because I'm older, and so I just recognize... it's like, I asked for money for renderings [that] I used to do - a lot of drawings of interiors and kitchens and buildings. I think it's just age. I'm really glad that I didn't start painting until I was older. I think that I've been able to incubate a lot of things in my head and my heart. I've sold a piece that was in a museum show, so it wasn't a little $100 piece. I was able to ask thousands for it, and I got thousands for it. I just recognize what things are valued at, and what people that want fine art expect to pay. One thing with the Artists Gallery that I get a little frustrated with is that the mentality is, if it's not selling then you should lower your price. My opinion is kind of opposite. If it isn't selling, you either need to change your work or raise the price [laughs]. Unless you're having a studio sale, lowering the price is not what you do. Don't devalue your own work. It's just like a neighborhood. If you devalue your artwork, the artwork sitting right next to yours is expected to be cheap too.