A few weeks ago I sat down with the artist and designer, Jennifer Gibson, to discuss her journey as a creative entrepreneur in the thirty plus years that she has been actively producing work. Hers is an interesting story that started in the country of her birth
(Barbados) and led to her eventually moving to Guyana to continue the pursuit of her passion for art and business. Her previous work experience with the Barbados Batik Export company was, in many ways, her first real introduction to the business component of creative production.
“I had heard about the Barbados Batik Export and decided to send in an application. After that I got a call and they told me to go for the interview. They asked me if I could start the next day and I said yes. So that was how I got started there. While there I started making work on the side and displaying them with a prominent Barbadian artist who had a gallery in Pelican Village at the time. I remember I had done some silk wraps and the response to the work was really good. Then it just so happened that some of us got retrenched from the Barbados Batik Export company. I saw that as my cue to start my business.”
Gibson got to work immediately and started production from her apartment, one that was
big enough to provide the space she needed to work. It wasn’t long after that opportunities came for her to participate in creative showcases in Barbados and then further afield in Jamaica, Antigua and St. Lucia.
“The Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) had a program called Steps to
Success where they would select certain businesspersons so that people could see how you could use art and design as business. I was one of the persons they selected. They compiled footage of me working and then it was shown on television. I got a lot of good feedback and from that they began to sponsor me to go to trade fairs in the Caribbean.”
Like many others in business, Gibson has faced her share of challenges. But in spite of it all, she has managed to find ways to sustain her creative business ventures for more than thirty years.
“Finance was the number one challenge, as it is for most people. As my work sold I would reinvest that money. I tried to cut down on overheads by working from home. I never ventured out to have a separate studio or an outlet. I worked from home and that worked for me. But the cost of raw materials and certain equipment in Barbados was very expensive. I remember I would travel to Trinidad to get fabrics and dyes. It wasn’t that Barbados didn’t have those things but they were expensive. In order to be competitive it was better for me to go to Trinidad, source my fabrics and dyes to maintain that competitive edge cost-wise.
Another challenge was employees. You have to be making a certain amount of people to be able to pay people to work with you. At one point I had gotten a contract to do lots of t-shirts. I had about four girls working with me. There were some times where I paid my staff and I didn’t pay myself a salary. I had to sacrifice a lot to ensure the persons working with me were paid. So I had my challenges but I’m not the kind of person to give up easily.”
When she eventually relocated to Guyana a new set of opportunities to create and expand her business were presented to her, although they too did not come without challenges.
“I see me being here in Guyana as the place where God wants me to be. I came here with the intention of starting my business and I did that for a while. But I was diverted a bit because I started teaching classes. People liked my style of teaching because it was different. I started with morning classes and because the response was so overwhelming I had to have an afternoon class as well. I also taught at the Carnegie School of Home Economics and the Amerindian Affairs Ministry. Then I started doing work for designers. So my work was put on hold for a while. Eventually I joined the Guyana Women Artists’ Association (GWAA) after I heard about them and started exhibiting in their annual exhibitions.
It’s even more difficult to source the fabrics and the quality dyes and paints. There are different brands of paints that I would get in Barbados that I don’t get here. I don’t get the kind of silk that I would love to paint on and do my batik. Another problem is getting staff. People come for two mornings and they think they have it covered and run off to do it on their own. So I have to keep training new people all the time. It sets me back and interferes with my production, especially if I have a big order to fill.”
Despite those challenges, Gibson remains positive about her future as a creative business owner. She feels strongly about educating herself on professional business practices and has recently completed a number of workshops that provide training for entrepreneurs. In addition to identifying more areas of business that have potential for development within her current practice, she now also has a better understanding of export markets and how she can ready herself to be a better competitor.
“My art has made a way for me. I’ve met prime ministers, presidents through my work. My work has opened doors and allowed me to go to places that I don’t think I would’ve gone otherwise. My gifts have caused me to be sought after.
I’ve been blessed to be a part of several training workshops sponsored by the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce and Industry, partly sponsored by the Caribbean Development Bank. I’ve also been a part of the Master Class as well as the Wealth Creation Summit and the Entrepreneurship Master Class held by Dr. Rosh Khan.
So I would encourage persons who want to get into business as artists to go for it. There are things being put in place by the GCCI and different associations to help.”
Reflecting on her extensive history in this kind of creative business field, Gibson had quite a few tips that she was willing share with persons considering a career in similar fields.
“Research is important. You should really know the area of business you want to get into. Try to maintain a competitive edge by finding your niche. Attend as many workshops about business as you can. Talk to artisans who are already in business to get their advice. Know the different funding agencies that are out there. Keep your overheads down as much as possible. You don’t want to incur too many overheads in the inception because that can frustrate you if you’re not making any money.
Don’t try to be an overnight success. It takes time. A business is like a child. It’s your baby and you have to nurture it. When you start making money don’t spend it on partying. Put what you make back into your business and keep working at it because you won’t see any real profit in the first two to three years.”