Homegrown and Hand-Designed

Growing up, Ashleigh Finlay always had an affinity for drawing. Bringing to life the “whacky little creatures” her mind would conjure up became a fun activity she shared between her childhood best friends, Kaya and Matilda. To their surprise the trio saw quite a positive response amongst their peers, so the girls “opened [the] doors to entrepreneurship” and sold the drawings for 20 cents a pop.

Nineteen and “unhappily employed” as a barista, Ashleigh has left her primary school joint venture behind to focus on studying for a career in nursing. Meanwhile her art has stayed with her, evolving from “crazy critters” into self-portraits, as a way to help her make sense of her “scattered and labyrinth like brain”.

Given that her art is usually quite personal to her, Ashleigh has never been inclined to put it up for sale. “It would feel like I am selling my feelings and emotions to strangers – it feels exploitive and self-destructive,” she explains. One day, however, she drew a “cool looking monkey man” that didn’t come with the emotional connection her other pieces are infused with. She decided to digitise the design and upload it to e-commerce platform Red Bubble which then sells shirts and other merchandise with Ashleigh’s design. What was her reasoning? “Just for shits and giggles,” she joked, “in all honesty I just thought it was cool seeing my artwork on a t-shirt”.

Monkey Man
Ashleigh Finlay’s “Monkey Man”

Shelley Cheng, a 20-year-old Law and Journalism student, has taken a far more entrepreneurial approach to selling her handmade items. She started her Etsy store in 2013 under the pseudonym ‘theshelljar’ and has been making and selling items such as art prints, clay jewellery dishes, stickers and earrings. Her collection of products is ever-changing, fluctuating with the ebb and flow of Shelley’s interests at that point in time. Her most recent creations including felt earrings that resemble fruit cross-sections, fairy bread and Iced VoVos.

Shelley Cheng’s avocado and papaya earrings

Instagram has been a valuable tool to promote her one-woman operation. The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report for 2018 mentions how Instagram is “becoming an essential tool for the art industry in reaching consumers beyond the existing market”. Shelley’s online presence on Instagram and a globally accessible Etsy store has given her the opportunity to proudly say most of her customers are from overseas. As co-founder of AussieCommerce Group Adam Schwab says, “Online marketplaces … bring together a huge number of diverse buyers and sellers, nationally and globally, in an efficient manner”.

This accessibility factor which e-commerce platforms such as Etsy provide, is one of the reasons Shelley believes young creators are choosing to set up online stores. Having the ability to work from home and do things on her own terms is something Shelley feels is very valuable amongst this demographic. With Etsy, “anyone can do it,” she says. Ashleigh is also in agreement, saying these platforms are great “stepping stones” for creators to begin sharing their work with the community.

With the success of her Etsy store quietening down recently, Shelley decided to submit her funky creations to Junky Comics, a store located in Brisbane’s West End, for consignment. Her work quickly became popular with the customers that frequent Junky Comics and so Shelley now wholesales her products to the store.

Shelley Prints
Various prints designed by Shelley Cheng

Having both an Etsy store and wholesaling to Junky Comics has given Shelley the income she needs to continue creating the things she loves. Being on Youth Allowance and having a part-time job allows her to pay for necessities like food and rent but her art finances itself. “[It’s] going to remain a side hobby because it’s kind of like a release or something fun, I don’t want it to be my job,” she says.

Both Ashleigh and Shelley have their eyes set on careers outside of the artistic sphere. It’s no surprise that the paths they have chosen will provide far more stability than focusing on their art. The Australia Council for the Arts released a report in November 2017 which detailed a grim outlook for practicing professional artists. The report found that in the 2014-2015 financial year the average gross income for an artist sat at $48,400; way below the average income of $77,121.

These figures are not at the forefront of Shelley or Ashleigh’s mind though. If she had her time over, Shelley doesn’t feel she would change any decision she has made thus far and Ashleigh sees herself happier following a career in nursing. Their artistry will continue to provide a creative outlet for the both of them, rather than being an unpredictable occupation. “I aspire to be Bob Ross when I’m retired,” Ashleigh chuckles, “but for now art is just a way to express myself”.


This piece was written for QUT unit DFB404
Featured Image Caption: Frida Kahlo jewelry dishes by Shelley Cheng

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