Matt Tommey is a contemporary basketry artist following his dream.
He shares his journey to working full time at his craft.
ABI: Tell us about your work and your market.
MT: I’ve been making baskets since I was a student at the University of Georgia back in the mid 1990’s. Initially my work focused on traditional Appalachian forms and some very rustic random weaving using kudzu vine exclusively. I sold my work a few times a year at local craft shows and to friends very inexpensively. It was truly just a hobby and probably more therapy than income.
About 5 years ago, I began to really get a vision for my work and where I wanted to go with it both creatively and professionally. My wife and I were transitioning out of working in our marketing business in metro Atlanta and were considering a move to the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina – a craft Mecca in it’s own right. This move served as a major impetus for me to take a major leap of faith and pursue my basketry full time.
Since moving to Asheville in 2009 my work has evolved into a much more contemporary expression focused on sculptural vessels. I maintain a very close connection with my work through sustainably harvesting locally available materials including a combination of various invasive vines like kudzu & honeysuckle, tree bark, found objects and recycled metal.
The market for my work has changed dramatically as well. Through both galleries, retail shows and my own studio in Asheville’s River Arts District (180+ artists in 23 different studio buildings), I’m selling to a much higher end clientele who are coming to Asheville expecting to purchase fine craft direct from local artisans. This has allowed me to charge a premium for my work and move toward making a viable living from my art. Now the bulk of my work ranges in price from around $300 to $800 with some production pieces as low as $90 and other one-of-a-kind pieces as high as $1800.
ABI: How do you cultivate your collectors?
MT: The cultivation of relationships with people who desire to collect my work has always been a dream of mine. Over the last few years, I’ve found a few things that have helped me begin to realize that dream. They include reputation, relationships and regularity. Collectors want to buy from artists who have a reputation for great work among their clients, gallery owners and peers.
Being a part of respected guilds and being represented by great galleries has really helped me develop a reputation as a serious artist. I’ve also found that collectors are looking for a relationship with me, not just a Walmart, low cost, quick purchase experience. They want to know my life story and creative process, visit my studio and feel like they are supporting me creatively through their purchases. Lastly I’ve found that it’s important for collectors to be able to see and interact with me with some regularity. That’s as simple as having regular studio hours where clients can visit, being involved in the same shows year after year, being active online through social media and continuing to create interesting work.
ABI: Matt, you have done numerous things to grow your basketry business and raise awareness about yourself as an artist. Please tell us about them.
MT: As artists, it’s easy to think that everyone loves our work as much as we do, but that’s simply not the case. It’s also equally tempting to think that a ‘silver bullet’ marketing approach will solve all of our sales woes, but alas not true. I’ve found over the years that a multi-dimensional approach works best when trying to build my fine craft business. Consequently, I’ve chosen to craft my life in a way that helps me say yes to the things that support my goals and no to the things that don’t.
In this season of my career, the things I’m saying “yes” to include activities like community service (I am VP of the National Basketry Organization and a board member for the River Arts District in Asheville, NC), professional membership in several reputable fine craft guilds (Southern Highland Craft, Guild, Piedmont Craftsmen, NBO), teaching basketry (John C. Campbell Folk School, Arrowmont and regional basketry conventions), retail shows, wholesale gallery accounts, and maintaining a working studio and gallery in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC.
I also lead a national arts ministry called The Worship Studio where I speak at conferences, lead a weekly artists group at my studio and write on topics around helping artists combing their faith and creative pursuits including my book “Unlocking the Heart of the Artist”. All of these activities keep my in my “sweet spot” creatively while also raising awareness of my work and establishing me as a leader in my craft.