Shari Elf

Shari didn’t invent making folk art from found objects, but she informs her high level recycling with a dry humor that makes her pieces irresistable to a growing, adoring audience. To wit: her motto is “Good and Sturdy Art,” and her gallery show at the Light Box Gallery in Kansas City was titled “95% Trash.”

Shari’s marketing history is remarkable. Although she had already made lots of exuberantly whimsical art, both wearable and decorative, before moving from Kihei, Maui (where her family had moved when she was eight), to Santa Monica, California, the roots of her success began at the Rose Bowl Flea Market and the Santa Monica Airport Swapmeet. She was adding a second income to her seamstress business, buying and selling stuff that amused her, and occasionally painting on something to make it into something else: Flowers on oxford shoes, smiling dogs on purses. Whenever someone bought an art piece, she wrote their name, address, phone and email address on a 3×5 card, plus the name of the piece, the date, and how much they paid for it. If the buyer returned and bought another piece, she added the info to the first card. Gradually her booth evolved into a display of all original works of art; gradually return customers became avid fans; gradually she acquired a card file full of client information.

Next she held a yard sale. She made a whole bunch of pieces, sent out amusing postcard invitations to her customers, and sold all of the art from her yard in a day. A month later, she held another sale the same way, with equal success. So she gave up swapmeets, and sold enough art from her front yard to make a good living.  She began performing her original music with her All Star Steamstress Band, which featured two drag queens running sewing machines as percussion to her guitar (or Omnichord) and vocals.

Next came a series of retail outlets that asked to display and sell her pieces, then a formal gallery show in LA, and then a national agent who wanted exclusive right to sell her work. At that point Shari decided to go back to selling it all herself, since she enjoys the personal contact with her fans (who love sending her interesting junk to add to her pieces) and prefers making her art available to them without galleries and agents in between, doubling the prices.

Next she had a website designed, informed by her unique wit, and she self-produced I’m Forcing Goodness Upon You, a comedy album of original music, which made a big splash on the college stations. A few years later, she produced a tribute album of recordings of her original songs by fans, regardless of musical ability, with packaging to match.

She turned her mailing list into an emailing list, notifies her fans whenever a new group of works is available on her site, and sells everything in less than 24 hours. I don’t know another artist who can say that. So, now she works from her high desert home as a mail order business and avoids galleries almost completely (she did have a museum show last year!). She is free of the middlemen that bleed artists, financially self-sufficient solely from her art, and having a good time doing it.