Can you make a living as an artist? Sarah Faith Gottesdiener is determined to find out. A lifelong creative and the person behind feminist apparel brand Modern Women, Sarah decided a few years ago that her artistic talents were put to better use making functional, saleable items that challenge the patriarchal paradigm on the street, than hanging in galleries. Four years back she became fully self-employed, and she now earns a sustainable living via several different streams: freelance design work, writing, her online store, and by offering tarot readings and workshops…yet as she says, she looks forward to the days she will be able to paint and create art freely once again, a dilemma I think many creative freelancers face.
In this frank and insightful interview, Sarah explains the ideological motivations that lie behind her work, and discusses the huge leap of faith and perspective that it takes to begin working for yourself, with all of the financial risks involved. She tells us about her personal goals, her philosophy around staying small despite the pressures of capitalism, and how ‘work-life balance’ is pretty much a unicorn. She also shares with us some of the biggest challenges she faces both as an artist and a person with a chronic illness. As a fellow creative entrepreneur, I found Sarah’s story to be motivating, inspiring and encouraging. I hope you will too.
Sarah Faith Gottesdiener, freelance designer, artist, writer, and Tarot reader
Los Angeles, CA
Hi Sarah! Can you introduce your business in a paragraph? What’s your mission? Who do you serve?
Hi! I’m a solo freelancer. I started out as a freelancer designer and adjunct professor four years ago, determined to make a living on my own. After two years teaching at three different colleges I quit, as I was barely making ends meet teaching at very expensive universities for pennies. My focus became one part working for others, one part working for myself. For all of my entire twenties I had various amazing and not so amazing roles in the creative industry, but always fantasized about working for myself. Now my old fantasy has become my current reality, and is both incredibly dreamy at times and way more challenging than working for others ever was!
My apparel serves awesome people fed up with the dominant patriarchal paradigm. I offer products that strive to act as feminist propaganda, as a reality disruption. They also serve as identity markers to those wearing them, it ends up being a common story people tell. Others stop them and say “I love your top!” A friend wearing a top of mine texted me the other day thanking me as when she wears the shirt she gets less street harassment. Small victories!
My mission with my spiritual work is to empower others, to inspire people to live deeply, take risks, and transform in the spirit of service to one’s higher path. I offer different tools in that realm: my intuitive Tarot readings, my Many Moons Workbook, Tarot and manifesting workshops, and blog posts. As investing in my own spiritual life and practices have helped me overcome trauma, anxiety, depression, self-destructive behaviors, I feel the drive to help others, particularly those who are queer, femme, women-identified, trans or gender-nonconforming. I believe that when you help others, you help yourself. When you live your life in an authentic fashion, you inspire others as well.
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
I’m an artist who got an MFA in design. I decided to become a designer so I could make money. As someone who has worked since I was 13 and must support myself, I often feel like I don’t have the luxury to be an artist, even though I can’t wait to introduce painting back into my life. I have never taken a business class in my life. Math gives me hives. My goals have always been small: make x amount an hour, then x amount a month. To pay my gargantuan monthly student loan debt by selling weird feminist gear? It seemed like an awesome joke on the universe.
Having exceeded all my old goals and manifestations, I’m currently in a stage of figuring out what my next steps are. It involves giving myself the time and space to recalibrate and reconfigure. I don’t have a map, there aren’t a lot of trustworthy people in my life I can talk to about business, so things always feel a bit unnatural.
Working in very competitive, prominent, fast-paced offices and agencies in my twenties offered the incredible opportunity to see how ‘successful’ and ‘ambitious’ people operate. This was invaluable: what I learned about time-management, project management, communicating with clients all stems from that almost decade of working internally for companies. I have a very professional manner when working with clients. My role, the quality, and deadlines are taken very seriously. I never forget – whether I’m designing a logo, mailing out a T-shirt, or giving a Tarot reading – that wonderful people trust me with something precious.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine?
I wish I had a typical day! In general, my weeks work around my clients’ needs and on various deadlines. For example, today I designed client work in the morning from home for a few hours, then spent about fur hours mailing out orders, then finished out the day with a client call/brief for another project.
I’m trying to get better at setting boundaries with myself and my work, as well as batching days, for example, having just one day be for writing, one day for designing. Obviously life doesn’t always work like that, but it is something to strive for. It is one of my current goals.
What kind of things do you actually do?
Here’s a probably-impartial list of my tasks: I design for all types of clients (mostly in beauty, lifestyle, and fashion/apparel sectors), I project-manage, do concepting and research as well, create invoices (do my own accounting/billing – FUN), I design things for my own products (mostly posters, tees, and totes), I write both for my books and my own blog. I create content for my site and my Instagram account. I market, process, and ship out all orders for my online shop and work with other stores that my goods wholesale at, I read Tarot cards for clients, and I design, conceptualize, and teach original content for workshops on spiritual/metaphysical topics, such as working with the cycles of the Moon, and all sorts of Tarot topics. And, of course, I spend way too much time emailing!
How many hours a week do you spend working on your business?
An average week is between 35 and 70 hours of work. Sometimes I work six days a week, sometimes less. This is not counting all the time I am talking and thinking about my various projects.
What is your workspace like?
I work from home in my kitchen most of the time, and spend a couple days a week in a studio. I’ll be moving everything to my studio soon. I’ve been reticent to leave my elderly dog and access to food anytime I want: I’m snacking all the time! Also I like to take breaks and walk my dog. I rent space out of the Women’s Center for Creative Work, that’s where I keep my products and do my shipping.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do? And what were your early goals, your first steps?
After working in the creative industry as a project manager and art-director and seeing what designers made and did, I figured out that’s what I wanted to do. (This was on top of working 40 hours a week, then going home and making art until midnight, and being in various bands, sometimes DJing, yet making barely anything off of my creative pursuits.)
My answer was to take out a huge amount of debt and get an MFA in design at a fancy, yet completely nightmarish graduate program. After graduating I decided to dive right in and instead of getting a ‘job’ as before, to start trying to get my own clients. A big dream was teaching; that was where the MFA came in. (I had a childhood dream of being a college professor, teaching students about art and design.) I taught for two years before realizing it was most likely not going to go anywhere.
It was hard to quit teaching, as I truly love it and am a very good professor, but it didn’t make dollars or sense. Teaching three-four classes at three different colleges only just covered my basic expenses, so I had to freelance on top of it to be able to save anything, or pay for a pet surgery or car emergency. All aspects of my health were suffering from this, so I quit teaching at the college level and focused more on working for clients and myself. Teaching workshops gives me the same kind of joy as being a professor did, so I try to teach those frequently.
I’ve always been attracted to the sort of blue-collar, functional aspect to design. Multiples are inexpensive (as compared to say, a painting) and as design is work out in the world, it can make much more of an impact than work in a gallery, only seen potentially by a few privileged folks. There’s a specific sort of pride I get when I see my work in the world, even if it’s not exactly the most chic. A shampoo bottle I designed years ago was randomly in a friend’s bathroom, and I got all excited like the nerd I am!
Ideally I’d be an artist just doing what I like some of the time, and some of the time taking on dreamy design clients that are a good fit. I always have an itch to design really awesome things, and I really like working with interesting, intelligent, and open people.
The tees and sweatshirts I make started really organically and small and then really exploded for a while. I’m scaling back a bit on that realm; I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. Capitalism really pushes us to like, MAKE MORE, DO MORE, SELL SELL SELL etc. It teaches us that if something is going really well aka generating money, to keep doing it and make it bigger etc. And I’m questioning that. Staying small has benefits, so I’m currently trying to define what exactly that means for me. Creativity is really important to me, and I’ve not had as much time to just be creative for pleasure or fun. I literally have like 100 different ideas that I’ve not been able to do anything with because I haven’t really had any time to sketch them through.
This fall has been about questioning my motives big-picture. Other people were really telling me to push my goods but I’m thinking about what will make me happiest on the daily. Ultimately I’m happiest when I am creative and connected, when I’m exploring, flexing my brain, being challenged and growing. I need to scale back on the things that aren’t allowing for that creativity to come forth, or reconfigure it. If I was making hand over fist obviously I’d hire someone to do all my shipping, but sales are very up and down. People see I sell stuff, because my stuff is out in the world, and they think I’m like, on a boat eating sushi every night but there’s great months and dry months. I don’t make my sole living selling products.
I’m really asking myself to narrow in and define ‘success’ for myself, what that looks like, feels like, and resembles. It has a lot to do with overall health, flow, ease, and joy. For a long time I postponed joy, and didn’t value ease. Hard work and sacrifice had been ingrained in me, it’s in my DNA. That anxious, survival mode, totally drained adrenals, totally rough on myself. Trying to feel my way through that into love, into a higher mission statement with my work is one of my priorities currently.
I have worked long enough to get to a place where I have the income stream in order to do that. For years it was just nose to the grindstone, hustle for my bills style. Like, are we having lentils and rice for dinner, or beans with rice? It is a true blessing to be able to breathe a little bit, to have the luxury of pause that some savings gives us.
Tarot reading started as a hobby and became a partial income stream fairly effortlessly. It is truly something I enjoy, it is a wonderful place to harness my intuition into. It is my vessel for my intuition, from messages from spirit, from guides and the universe. My empathic abilities previously would hinder me in the world. Anyone who is intuitive, or who is clairsentient or empathic knows what I am talking about. When you take on or feel the emotions of those around you, parties sometimes aren’t just parties and a trip to the grocery store is sometimes not just a trip to the grocery store! In Tarot, I have a beautiful place to put my channelling, to invite in my guides in the service of another alongside spirit.
Word of mouth spreads over time, lots of my clients are from referrals. I do a monthly Tarot day at Otherwild. I owe a lot to Rachel and Brandon from Otherwild, they have been unwaveringly supportive of my work. Rachel encouraged me to make more stuff and told me she’d carry what I make. She’s really a pleasure to work with and an inspiration.
So its been a bit of a journey. Nothing happens overnight.
What’s the best thing about the work you do?
Seeing total inspirational babes wear my stuff, getting to meet incredible and interesting people as a result of my work, knowing that my guidance and insights are helping people, getting to give money away to social justice organizations as a direct result of my work, and having the flexibility of schedule are a mere few of the perks.
And the worst?
It can be incredibly unpredictable. Not having steady income to rely on can certainly ramp up stress levels. Not having a “map” of where to go, because you are drawing it up as you go along, can feel disorientating. Lots of questioning, lots of goals, not enough time.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? What are your tactics for overcoming these?
Challenges? Running three separate businesses with a capitalist-critical mindset, as someone with unmedicated ADD, with absolutely no business experience or acumen has presented me with no challenges.
The greatest challenge I’ve faced in the past year has also been my biggest gift. Almost a year ago, I was diagnosed with a very rare myeloproliferative disease called Myelofibrosis. In layman’s terms, I have a genetic mutation in the chronic leukemia pool that causes all my blood levels to be off, that is slowly making the insides of my bone marrow scar. When the scarring gets to a certain level, I’ll die. The only known cure is a bone marrow transplant, that has about a 50% success rate. The symptoms are exhaustion, weakness, fatigue, physical pain and inflammation, blood clots, and incurable anemia. I’m on a chemo medication to help slow the disease which adds to my exhaustion levels.
This came after almost a decade of going to various doctors and other practitioners, getting all kinds of tests, spending thousands of dollars on panels. My disease is incredibly rare and almost unheard of in someone as young as me. For ages I couldn’t explain to people how I felt, I just felt like “something very scary is wrong with me”. It was very difficult and isolating trying to explain to medical professionals or friends or family that you are exhausted, and having them think you are hysterical, or a drama queen, because you don’t ‘look’ sick. Getting my diagnosis was the ultimate blessing. It also was scary, depressing, and sobering.
Most of us abstractly think about our demise, but it stays in the back of the mind. In that ‘someday’ territory. To have someone sitting across from you telling you that there is a good chance that you are going to die young, or unexpectedly, or anytime in the near future slowly and painfully…it was the ultimate game changer for me.
My focus has changed completely: anything that brought me undue stress had to go, I could not afford to hold it in my body. Any relationships that were negative or draining, anyone unsupportive of me, any activities that were not supporting my physical health had to be eradicated. A ton of stuff in the past year has been getting cleared out. People will peace out really fast when something like this pops up. It is easier to let go of patterns, habits, objects, when you tangibly accept our impermanence. So of course the amount that I work, and the focus of my work is changing in proportion to my diagnosis.
Its also a bit of a mindfuck to live like I’m going to be around for a long time, because I have hope and faith that I will, that either the disease will progress very slowly, or that the bone marrow transplant will cure me, but also be aware that yes, there is the possibility that my life is going to be cut much shorter than the average span. It is a balancing act between not putting off things I want to do like travel, be more creative, achieve my goals, and live in the present, yet still build my life and make goals as if I’ve got decades to live.
Ultimately it is positive: I’m much more present, I’m much more engaged, I’m a better partner, friend, and worker as a result of this health condition. I don’t feel guilty if I can only physically work for 4 or 5 hours in one day instead of 10 or 12 like I used to. I listen to my body and rest more. But also it is my greatest challenge: how to fit in all my goals, how to leave an intentional legacy?
What about work-life balance? Has your social or family life been impacted by starting your own business?
There’s a lot of sacrifices being made when you work for yourself. I also think the idea of ‘work-life balance’ is kind of a unicorn. In my mind it doesn’t really exist. It is more about keeping yourself healthy, keeping yourself sane, keeping yourself away from burn out.
Years of working 6-7 days a week, missing parties and social time has left me with a permanent case of FOMO (fear of missing out). It is a choice I’ve made – and I need to accept it and hold myself accountable for it, instead of whining or feeling lonely. A lot of my friends work for themselves too, so there’s an understanding there.
I’ve certainly had romantic relationships be impacted or fail as a result of this. One of the reasons why my current partnership is so successful is his inherent understanding that part of my happiness involves working. I enjoy working; it gives me purpose and a sense of well-being besides money in the bank. My partner is also really clear about voicing his needs and concerns: hey, you are working too much, let’s hang out, date night etc. Prioritizing those around you is imperative.
Due to my medical condition, I’ve been putting my health (working out, eating well, meditating, getting a lot of sleep) and my friendships first. For hang-outs, I have to schedule them ahead or they will not happen. For health, I need to prioritize this, make them non-negotiable in my schedule or they will not happen.
Can you tell us about your financial side of your business, how you started out and where you are now?
My first year, I made so little I qualified for social services (food stamps, MediCal, etc.). My second year I made what I had earned at an agency 5 years prior. My third year I made a smidge more than I had made working my highest paying, most wonderful, cushiest design job. My fourth year I made more money than I have ever made in my life, actually exceeding my manifestation goals. I’m not sure what this current year holds just yet, as I’ve been working less and I rarely look at my numbers until tax time is upon me.
I don’t believe in taking out debt for your business, after taking out so much debt for my undergrad education and grad school. I call my credit card my trust fund, and I try not to go over a $2k balance!
As a freelancer, my goal is to have about 3-6 months’ living in savings, and I almost have that. Not going into panic mode over rent money is truly priceless! Feeling like a there’s bit of breathing room is one of my main goals as a freelancer.
How do you feel about the money side of ‘following your arrow’?
These are such good, complicated questions! It would take a book to answer them. I had no idea starting out how much ‘work’ would actually be encompassed by ‘working for yourself’. Romanticizing a freelancer’s lifestyle was a ridiculous mistake that I made. However, had I not had such high expectations I may not have worked so hard in the beginning.
Not realizing how long it would take to be financially ok was a big mistake. I would tell anyone now to have six to nine month’s worth of savings before deciding to work for themselves (I had three months of savings.)
‘Following your arrow’, especially if you are someone like me, who does so many different things to make money, can feel pretty disjointed at times. If you are a true artist, the minute you try to make your art/creativity your living, things start feeling a little bit strange. There’s way less separation than clocking into a job…but now it has become a job. There’s also more blocks, knowing more than two people (my partner and my dog) are looking at my stuff. I am the most creative when I psychically, physically, and mentally feel like no one is watching me and I am all alone. Unblocking and moving ahead is a constant struggle of mine.
It is such an incredible feeling doing your taxes, seeing what you made and knowing: “Every penny of this I earned myself, through my own hard work.” It is a very cool feeling.
One thing that’s really nice as well is having a lot of my limiting beliefs about money change. Generating income feels much more elastic, less rigid, filled with potential and possibility now that I’ve worked for myself. For example, if at some point I want to take a ‘job job’ again (as I do sometimes think about), or if I need to take a serving or catering job, like I did for years, I feel fine with that. Because I’ve done so many things for work, because I know things are always changing and turning around, a lot of shame or guilt about the type of work I do has dissipated from when I was younger.
And the future? Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?
From a creative side, I want to work with creative clients making beautiful design work and campaigns. My best feels yet to come, I’m itching to produce stunning design work.
Ideally, I want to help more people through my work and my teachings. I’m interested in addressing larger questions of recontextualizing queerness/intersectional feminism within spirituality, in creating and engaging in dialogues around capitalism and commodification in and around art/design/spirituality, and I want to continue to empower and help as many people as possible.
Giving more money away is a big goal as well. Currently I give hundreds of dollars away (from selling my products) to organizations such as Black Lives Matter LA, the NAACP legal defense fund, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Real talk: in even the next year I’d love to up that amount to thousands.
And, duh, I want my mountain of student loan debt paid off ASAP!
How do you market your business?
I network authentically; if I have a real connection with someone I’ll reach out to them. Oftentimes I’ll get introduced or referred to a potential client. It is important to enjoy who you work with, to believe in them and wish to support them on all levels. There’s no use being sketchy or trying to push anything too hard, just form meaningful relationships with people you value and down the line opportunities may come.
When hired, I do the best job I possibly can. That’s honestly probably the most important focus of mine. Do the work well, deliver something you and the client is excited by and happy with.
I’m on Instagram. I write a blog, and once a month or so I send out a newsletter to a small group of readers. That stuff feels more fun than marketing type work though. Sometimes people contact me for interviews, or I try to get interviewed, but there’s not much time for that. It is all word of mouth right now. I’ve not spent a penny on advertising, but often think about it.
How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)?
Being queer has of course impacted my philosophies, my priorities, my empathy, compassion-levels and my world-view. Obviously it’s shaped the personal/political design and art I create.
As a Tarot reader, it’s widened my scope and range. Assumptions don’t help anyone, and I think being a passing self-identified lesbian with a passing trans partner has sure taught me about the ins and outs of all that. I try to widen that lack of judgement to all humans in my spiritual work. Personally, I’m not catering to a specific sexuality or gender. You could be purple or an alien or a bulldog, what do I care? (I’d love to work with a purple bulldog alien, actually, how cute would that be?) At the end of our lives we are all going to the same place, we all have the same feelings, just rearranged in different patterns at different times. I think most people that book Tarot readings with me know I’m a feminist and know I’m a queer.
There’s no reason for my freelance graphic design clients to know my sexuality. It is not like I’m hiding it, there’s just no reason for it to come up. In those cases it’s much more important that I’m talented, timely, professional, a clear communicator and trustworthy.
What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?
My financial ‘advisor’ Paco is really great and has helped me so much. I’d recommend working with Paco to anyone in the greater LA area who wants to get a grip on their business.
The writer and teacher Esme Wang is amazing, she offers advice for those ambitious souls who have chronic, debilitating illnesses. Before her, I hadn’t really found a creative who so bravely discussed creating through limitations. Its been heartening to read her journals and be reminded I’m not alone in my struggles with chronic illness.
Paul Jarvis has good topics and helpful tips. I appreciate his transparency about his business, his process, and his habits.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
Be as kind as you can be to everyone. Don’t be afraid to stick to your boundaries. Make sure you have like 2-3 super tight or trustworthy friends or family that can be there for you emotionally while you deal with the highs and lows of working for yourself.
For goodness sake, be original. The plethora of copycats now has become almost too much to bear. Work through your own ideas, create your own authentic work that is unique. This world needs your special voice!
Define your key values early on (these will change). Is your top value getting better at your craft? Is it making as much bank as humanely possible? Shape your days accordingly. Annie Dillard wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Examine how exactly you’d like to spend your days.
Find more of Sarah’s work at sarahgottesdiener.com, buy goodies from her online store, Modern Women, or check out her site on Tarot and the Moon cycles at Visual Magic. You can also keep up with Sarah on Instagram.
Are you following your arrow? Making a living doing what you love…or trying to? I’d love to hear about it! Drop a line to beth at autostraddle dot com with a description of your work and a link to your website.
I’m interested in entrepreneurs, side-hustlers, founders of charities, freelancers and all the other people who eschew employment to do their own thing. As always, I’d be especially excited to hear from women of colour, trans women and people who are working in the margins.