The Sarah Jane Story Part II: Finding my Voice

(pencil drawing, age 10)

The past few months I have actually been rather pensive as I've looked back on the journey I've been on the past 3 years. I had this idea in my head of what I wanted to do (open a shop selling artwork and stationery for children) but in looking back, I realize how unconventional my path was, as well as how unexpectedly I found my artistic voice. I've written and rewritten this post over and's a rather hard thing to write about since I am still in the thick of it! But I wanted to share some of my thoughts as well as some of my path to how I ended up learning how to find my voice as an artist.

I mentioned in the Part I portion of the story, that Sarah Jane Studios began with the intention of getting my husband through a Masters program as well as my need to open up my artistic side. I've always been an artist, and though I am mostly untrained, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life being a mother and living creatively with my art. Ever since I can remember, I'd planned on being an artist and a mother..a children's illustrator even. And when I found myself at that age, my decision remained unchanged.

See, I had put my art on hold, while I spent 5 years studying Musical Theater at BYU, and then a few more years after that while I taught voice lessons to support my husband while he finished his Bachelor's Degree. I craved getting into my art again, but it just wasn't the right time. I had other areas I wanted to develop in myself, and other arts to explore. And looking back, I am really glad I didn't study art. As hard as it was to not take an academic art class in college, I learned more about expressing myself by studying theater.

But when it came time to get back into art again, I was ready to make a living off it. Well, I wasn't ready. That was the problem. But I was in a position where I had to. I knew I could do it, but I also knew that it was going to take time to find my "voice" that was real and truly was my own. That was going to take time.  And I will say right now, that I am still finding my voice...and that my voice is changing...but I needed to find, at the least, an authentic place to start. And I didn't know where.

Pencil Study, 2003

The kind of art that I was familiar with would be considered Fine Art. The classes I had taken and the studying that I had done on my own, was classical in nature: Figure Drawing, Oil Painting, etc. And I loved it. Here are a few sketches that would be considered the work that I studied at home. I'd read books and sketch and paint, teaching myself the best I could.

Profile of Kenneth, 2005

I can't tell you the amount of times I'd spend in Fine Art galleries with goosebumps all over me from a pencil sketch of the movement of the human figure and the mood that it created from just the gesture. Or the way that an oil painting, when painted with layer upon layer of a certain glazing technique would motivate me to start a new painting.

Portrait of a friends house, 2004

Not only did I love this style of art, but that is also what I had studied. Most, if not all of my art created up to that point, was hours and hours and hours of work.

Portrait of Kenneth, 2005

This portrait for instance, created when Addie was just starting to walk, was the last oil painting I did to date. I started painting in oils when I was 10 years old, so it's very natural for me because it's where I started painting. But in trying to decide a medium of art to make money off of,  I knew that oil painting wasn't for me because 1) it took too long, and 2) I didn't have the academic training to keep up with gallery artists. Academic painting takes years and years of studying and time. Something that  young mother of 2 babies and a husband who was teaching and going to school didn't have time for. And to be honest, I didn't really want to. I wanted to do something in the children's industry. But what?

I started exploring with what I knew was popular. This was an interesting road. If you ever want to know what do NOT do, do what you think is popular! But I had to start somewhere. And just as I studying and copied artists as a teenager, I learned that when you are starting out, it's important to see what has already been done, so that you can venture off and do your own thing.

At the time, hand painted personalized wall art was the rage, so I tried to take my own spin on that.  Ugh. It was painful. I knew I wanted to stay in the children's art world, but how? This was an interesting time in my life. I had a deadline for opening a shop by October 2007, and it July. I realized after a good 2 months of this that it just wasn't me, It wasn't challenging enough, and that I wasn't born to do what everyone else seemed to be doing at the time.

That realization left me with an entire summer of doing nothing. I had spent a good 6 months creating art that I thought would be marketable, but never enjoying a second of it. I had to find MY voice. And it just wasn't coming. This was a really hard time for me, because if you know me, you'll know that I get really excited about things, and I tend to go all the way with it. I don't like giving up on dreams. It's very depressing. But I wasn't finding what seemed to fit me, and what I could market. Taking time off was the only thing I could do.

But by early September, the inspiration started to come. I decided to start drawing the way that I enjoyed most. I wasn't worried about what it looked like, or what was going to be "good." Here's a portrait of Ian during that time, when I was just illustrating from my heart.

Portrait of Ian at age 18 months

I realized, by stepping back, my true voice was in illustration. As much as I enjoyed fine art and painting, what I enjoyed the most was line work. Most of what I studied and was attracted to as a child was illustration and print. And though I had spent a lot of time learning about the fine art side, the way my brain saw the world was in a much simpler form....line drawing and more simple illustration. And as a mother, I noticed that so much of art decor at the time was painted  canvas type art, but where was the illustrative art? (This was over 3 years ago, remember).  Old School, retro and vintage was trending again, and my favorite illustrative art was vintage picture books. So, it seemed to make sense that I needed to focus my art in that direction. After all, it was what I enjoyed most, and there seemed to be a need in the market.

(E.H. Shepherd study, age 14)

I was going through my art files, and I pulled this illustration out. I had done this ink and pastel drawing when I was 14. This isn't traced, but an enlarged study from the Winnie the Pooh stories we had in our house growning up. At around 14, when I stopped taking art lessons, was when I began to spend hours in my room at home studying the line work of illustrators: not fine artists, but illustrators. I went through a short phase as a teenager of trying to build a portfolio in illustration (I wanted to be a Disney animator!) and I had forgotten about that. And I've always been inspired by Maurice Sendak, Rie Cramer, A. A. Milne, and the work of other brilliant illustrators with a gift for line work as well as story telling. That, I remembered, was what I wanted to do.

I felt a door had opened though all those years of fine art, studying theater, having babies, collecting vintage children's books taking time out to just live my life authentically was coming together. I realized I had something to say in a voice that I knew how to say something. I wanted to illustrate childhood: the simple, timeless aspects of childhood that are appreciated so much in books we collect and consider vintage now...but to add my own voice to it. Fresh color, simple line, etc.

Here are some of my first illustrations I created for the shop: These paved the way for me to start with what I already knew...but allowed me to ask myself an important question:

How can I apply what I already know so I can market myself in the world of design, decor and print?

Asking myself this question was the best thing I could have done, because it opened up my creativity to applying myself in marketable ways.

"Storytime" 2007

"April Showers" 2008

"Winter Cheer" 2009

"Take me for a walk" 2010

I feel a bit awkward talking about my "voice"...I mean, if your voice is a natural extension of the person you are and the things you believe in, then isn't is always changing? It should...because you change. I have changed. And my art continues to change.

But for me in 2007, I needed a place to start. A place to feel that I could put myself out there without feeling like I was riding on the coat tails of someone else.  I needed to start with something I already knew, something that would be marketable but an adventure in learning at the same time!

So, that's how I got started!

While I was in theater, I learned something very important: I learned that the best performance is when you aren't stepping in the shoes of someone else, but rather letting the person you are portraying influence the person that you already are. And I look back at my 30 years, and see that the art that I was surrounded by, and the art that I studied had it's place in giving me the tools to ultimately find my own voice. That lesson alone was better than any art degree.

The Sarah Jane Story: Part 1

Photo by Katherine Le Cheminant

Next month is Sarah Jane Studios' 3 year anniversary! Now through the end of the month, I will be sharing my personal story of how a simple idea turned into a stay-at-home career in illustration & design

THREE YEARS AGO was an interesting time in my life. I had 2 children,  2 1/2 years old and 1 and 1/2 years old. I was finally sleeping through the night after 2 solid years of nursing and having babies. We were living in a tiny, middle story condo and my husband was in graduate school. Part of me was really tired, and the other part of me was just getting out of the slump of having my babies 12 months apart and I was finding  a new energy. I had this incredible urge to start a business from the paintings and the drawings I had been working on that summer. I had recently graduated with a BFA in Musical Theater, and was ready to put my stage life behind. I have always been an artist, and knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in my art. I had big ideas, big energy and big hopes, but no money, tactics or direction.

But beyond my burning creative energy, I had a strong motivation to start working with my art to support my husband through school. He is a school teacher, and had just recently decided he wanted to get his master's degree. It left him with absolutely no time to get a second job, and left me even more convinced that I needed to step in and help out.

Me and by babies the month I opened the shop.

My faith is a huge part of my life. I can't tell you how many times you'll find me praying in a day. This art journey of mine is no exception and during this time 3 years ago, I was very prayerful about how to start a business at home without it getting in the way of my two infants. I barely had any time! Addie's naps were very short and Ian's were long. They went to bed early so I had some time in the evening, but they were very early risers so it was hard to stay up late. I told God that I needed to start a business to help support my husband through graduate school, but I didn't want to leave my babies. I also had a dream about making a mark in the children's industry, but I told him I didn't know how to even get started. But I started working in that direction, and prayed for a way to make it happen.

One of the first items in my shop 3 years ago

My husband came home from work one night with a clipping from a newspaper he had read that day. He never reads the paper. He prefers the computer.  But that day he had read the paper, and saw a clipping about an event specifically for women entrepreneurs who want to start a business. It was the following night and it was only a few miles away. I had no idea in that moment how much I would learn about how to get from the "dream" stage to the "make it happen and really have a business" stage. I was about to embark on a really awesome journey.

The event was perfect. Was it a coincidence that Nancy Cajun spoke on the very topic of "Turning an Idea into a Business?" Was it a coincidence that she was a published author and she spoke about the lifestyle and ropes being an author and illustrator?  Was it a coincidence that she talked about protecting your art and holding to copyrights? It was almost too perfect. It was just what I needed to really have the motivation and tools to move forward. But even more than that, I met people that night who could help mentor me, brainstorm, and give me ideas and support.

Goodnight friend: My very first sale.

But from here, I learned things like:"Know where you fit in the market, but don't try to fit in." "Your business needs to fill a need in the market. Identify it, and fill it." "Do your homework and know your competition." Simple business tips like this that allowed me to think beyond my own sketchbook and gave me the motivation to move forward. Someone like me, who had no business training, art education or professional experience in this market, needed to hear these things, and I was so grateful.

I will stop there with my story. There is a lot more to tell. But it's long, and it's not fair to ask you to read it all in one sitting. But what I did want to express this morning is how grateful I am this month for the mentors and support I found 3 years ago which ultimately gave me the boost I needed and the contacts I needed to get Sarah Jane Studios from my head into an LLC. I realized how guided I was then, but I see it even more now as I look back. It's just amazing...all the people and events a long the way that took me, step by step, in the right direction.

Kelly King Anderson, founder of Startup Princess has provided a fantastic network of support, and if you are feeling the need to start a business from your hobby, or if you have already started but need some extra support or inspiration, there is an event next week that will really help you. Sept 23& 24 I'm going to be speaking about building online sales, specifically on ETSY. I'm feeling rather sentimental and hope there are "Sarah Jane's" out there like I was 3 years ago....driven but needing help and ideas. I know how much these events can help, and I hope to see you there! Register here: and enter in 'princess' for $50 off.

I'm going to be writing parts of my story over the next few weeks. It's a special one to me, and I love looking back to see how I have been so led and guided the whole way.

Happy weekend everyone! And thanks for all your support. It's been an amazing journey!