Pittsburgh’s great. Have we mentioned that before?!? This entire month there has been so much energy around celebrating women artists in honor of International Women’s History Month, from the Kelly-Strayhorn’s Sun Star Festival to SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2013 and many other events. We’re going to round out our brief exploration of women artists in Pittsburgh* by spotlighting Amy Garbark, founder/owner/artist behind garbella, a company that specializes in hand screen-printed apparel, accessories, and home decor. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Amy for several years now and am in awe of her entrepreneurial spirit and passion. And although she echoes the sentiment that Pittsburgh’s great, I would argue that she–and all of artists we have here in Pittsburgh–make it so.
1. Describe your current work with garbella. Why did you decide to start your own business, and how has it grown? I have always been a maker.
I went to school for Art, I worked as an Art Teacher, and then for an Arts-based non-profit. I have always had some kind of creative outlet. In 2006, I opened an Etsy shop (at the time it was a new online marketplace to sell handmade work). During that time, I was having so much fun crafting: sewing, making jewelry and clocks out of bicycle parts, buttons, etc. I didn’t sell much, but it was fun! I kept making and then decided to make a t-shirt for myself and friends. I went to an open studio at Artist Image Resource to print it and I was hooked! I spent a few weeks riding my bike to the Northside with a ton of t-shirts in my messenger bag. After being accepted to Handmade Arcade in 2008, I decided to set up a little screenprinting studio in my basement so that I could prepare without the bike commute. My husband had just found an old table-top screenprint press that somebody was throwing away; it was perfect. My DIY studio set-up was not pretty, but it definitely got the job done!
Slowly, but surely, people started buying from me on Etsy and I started traveling to other cities for indie craft shows. I did this for the next two years while working full-time and the business slowly grew. In 2010, I had a meeting with a woman who contacted me on Etsy saying she was going to be opening a card and gift shop in Pittsburgh and she’d like to carry my work. That woman was Rebecca Morris, the store is Wildcard (in Lawrenceville), and that’s how I got my first wholesale account! Now, I have more than 50 wholesale accounts and this is my full-time job.
It has been fun to see people that I don’t know wearing garbella- It happens with more frequency now and it’s usually people that I don’t know! My brother recently sent me a photo of a guy wearing one of my shirts in San Diego, a friend spotted a Pro Skateboarder wearing a shirt in a Thrasher Magazine video, and my Mom found a discontinued, old garbella design at the Goodwill!
2. How have the arts helped you become a leader and entrepreneur? What skill sets did you have to acquire?
The arts have helped me to connect with a supportive, vibrant community in Pittsburgh. As a maker, I connected early on with lots of creative folks in Pittsburgh and developed relationships that have been vital to my success. I meet with a group of creative small-businesses once a week over early AM coffee to talk about ideas, share experiences and struggles. Having this kind of support from other artists has been essential to my growth as a leader and entrepreneur. I feel like I am continually needing to learn new skill sets as my business grows, but generally I have had to develop business and marketing skills. Oh, and how to juggle working a full-time job at a non-profit with a growing business on the side!
3. How did you become a leader in your field? What has been your greatest success as a leader and entrepreneur?
What has been your biggest challenge? It’s an honor to be thought of as a leader and I think this has been a slow process. My greatest successes have come from setting big goals (the kind that scare you) and pursuing them with determination and purpose. My greatest challenge has been making the time and space to create new work while managing all aspects of my business. I still struggle with this issue, but am working on it.
4. Why is it important for women to create their own opportunities in the arts?
I definitely think it is important to create your own opportunities in the arts because you are your own best advocate. Pittsburgh is a city in which you can do this and I think that is what makes this city so interesting and exciting. I love to hear about all of the awesome new projects, collectives, shows and events happening around the city.
Handmade Arcade, I Made It! Market, Wildcard are three local organizations/businesses that really, really helped me get this little business off the ground. All three have women at the helm that have created their own opportunities while also supporting and creating lots of opportunities for women and men. There are many others that have helped the business grow and I’m grateful for all of them, but these 3 really were integral to garbella’s growth.
5. What advice would you give to emerging women (or of both genders) artists and arts administrators?
Work hard. Do your best to figure out what makes you feel fulfilled and then pursue that with passion. Create a community and network of supporters: support others and let yourself be supported. Set some big goals and take some risks. Whether you succeed or fail, you will be better for it. “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
From start to finish, all products are drawn, designed, and hand screen-printed by Amy Garbark in Pittsburgh, PA. She studied Fine Art at Alfred University and spent a few years as a Public school Art Teacher, followed by several years as a Program Director for an arts-based non-profit. During this time, she set up a screen-printing studio to work on personal projects and quickly developed a passion for printing. Since 2008, Amy Garbark has been exhibiting at retail shows across the United States, developing new lines, and creating long-lasting relationships with customers and retail stores. When not working in the studio, Amy can be found connecting with youth and community through teaching, cooking, renovating her house, riding bikes, hanging with Steevo, and traveling to indie craft shows across the United States.
*Our spotlight on women artist in Pittsburgh was very very brief…please forgive us for not being able to do more. But hey–if you’ve got a suggestion for someone to spotlight in the future, let us know!