Meet the Makers

“Creativity takes courage.” It also takes grit—particularly if you want to make a living at it. These Georgia creatives arrived at success via persistence and a tenacious belief in themselves and their craft.

The creative industries represent a combined $29.2 billion in revenue in Georgia, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, encompassing not only visual and performing arts, but also advertising, architecture, design, software, video games, publishing, and of course, music, TV, radio, and film.

All told, it represents 4.2 percent of the state’s total gross state product. But does that translate into opportunity? Can you really make a living producing art? And how does an artist monetize their work without compromising their vision and craft?

While there’s no magic potion for turning a dream into a reality (much less a reality that pays the bills), there are some words of wisdom worth heeding from those who’ve paved the way.

Bet on Yourself

Bill and Shannen Oyster were well-prepared for an economic crisis when Covid-19 struck in March 2020. Twelve years earlier they sat across from an attorney, ready to sign a loan on a workshop and guesthouse for their handcrafted bamboo fly rod business. And then Lehman Brothers fell. “Are you sure you want to do this?” the attorney asked.

“Go big or go home,” Bill said, before he and Shannen—husband and wife and 50-50 owners of Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods—signed the agreement. The Oysters laugh about that moment today, but serious financial difficulty ensued. They responded by doubling down on themselves—and working even harder. Bill, an avid fly fisherman who grew up in Wyoming and graduated from the University of Georgia, began crafting bamboo rods in 1994 using a technique popularized in the northeastern United States in the 1840s. He was already traveling the country to teach tying and casting at fly fishing shows. Eventually he brought along his rods.

Anglers took note of his craftsmanship, and in 2000, an Atlanta Journal Constitution story introduced a wide audience to his wares. “I woke up Sunday morning to a whole bunch of messages on the answering machine,” Bill says. “It was all these people wanting to buy rods from me.” There’s been a waiting list for Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods ever since.

Bill treasured the art but was far from making a living from it. Shannen understood that for the business to flourish and sustain their growing family, they needed to diversify and expand their reach. So Bill started custom engraving the reel hardware. Then he led rod-making workshops. When e-commerce emerged, the Oysters were quick to adopt it.

Bill quit his day job in 1998. Shannen worked double duty selling real estate and managing the company’s finances and marketing until 2006, when she joined full-time and they lived on what they made from the rods, “which was nothing at that point,” Shannen says. That vulnerability compels most people to quit, but the Oysters pushed on. The fishing industry demanded inexpensive products made quickly from manmade materials, but the Oysters never veered from their labor-intensive, high-end rods. “We’ve always bet on ourselves,” Shannen says. “But you have got to expect to grind it out and fail constantly. And you’ve got to leave those failures behind fast.”

Bill still obsesses over the craft. Shannen still obsesses over the numbers. The Oysters took a hit on the building they financed in 2008 but stayed afloat, and in 2011, built Oyster Bamboo Fly Rods’ current home: a 6,000-square-foot store and workshop topped by two floors of guest rooms in downtown Blue Ridge, Bill’s favorite place to fish.

They receive a lot of calls from craftspeople asking for business advice. Their response is always the same: “Make it your only source of income,” Shannen says. “If you’re serious about doing it, you can’t be afraid to invest in yourself.”

Build the Product You Want

Shanayla Sweat can’t remember a time when her grandfather George Lester wasn’t well-groomed and stylishly dressed. “He was always going to look good and dress well—probably more than the women in the house,” she says. “You’re never going to catch him off his game.”

Growing up, she watched him dutifully care for his collection of suits, socks, wallets, and watches, and learned the importance of dressing for the occasion. In 2017, as Lester approached his 78th birthday, he told his granddaughter his metal timepieces felt increasingly heavy on his wrist. Sweat began the search for a special gift: a lightweight watch that suited his debonair style.

The designs she encountered felt too conservative, and the materials didn’t fit his complexion. “There are tons of watch brands out there, but not a lot of Black representation,” Sweat says. She soon discovered wooden watches but wasn’t satisfied. “I wanted a watch that matched his personality, his swag, his leadership.”

So she designed one herself. Sweat, who was working as a business systems analyst for a healthcare administrative services provider, spent her off hours researching materials, components, and manufacturers. “You wouldn’t believe how many types of wood there are,” she says.

Two years later, she gifted him the George, the watch that launched A Few Wood Men. He soon came to her with a long list of admirers who wanted one for themselves. It sparked a business idea. “The way to know if something is good to go or not is if people are willing to pay for it,” she says.

Sweat incorporated A Few Wood Men in 2019. Since then, the company’s offerings have expanded to include bracelets, rings, and women’s watches, including one that touts the colors of Alpha Kappa Alpha, part of the Divine Nine, a collective of historically Black
sororities and fraternities. Realizing she needed to be fully present to usher the company
into its next chapter, Sweat left her day job in February 2023. Someday she hopes to sell
the brand.

Our Village United’s Elevate Program and Invest Atlanta helped Sweat expand her network and introduce her to sales opportunities. Maintaining close relationships with
her customers has played an instrumental role, too.

“A lot of our brand ambassadors are clients,” she says. “These are people who already have great things to say about the brand. They love our products so we don’t have to sell them on what we do. They want to be a part of it.”

Create a Space

Najee Dorsey understood the value of art early in life: He sold his first painting to his mother for 25 cents when he was five.

Dorsey started presenting his work at small shows in the late ’90s after a mentor, artist-activist Najjar Abdul-Musawwir, encouraged him. In 1999, he returned to his Arkansas hometown of Blytheville to open Dorsey’s Gallery and Najee’s Cappuccino and Jazz, a gallery, coffeehouse, bookstore, studio, and event space.

The concept—a place that fostered an ecosystem of art creators, collectors, and enthusiasts—remained on Dorsey’s mind long after he and his wife, Seteria, also a visual artist, left Blytheville. They moved to Atlanta in 2005 and joined what he calls “the Chitlin’ Circuit of the art world,” traveling with other Black artists to shows around the country. Around 2010, he noticed a persistent problem: Only the most prominent Black artists in Atlanta were represented in art publications, and almost no one was making a living on art alone. “There’s a difference between having places to show and doing business,” he notes. “And that didn’t exist in Atlanta.”

Dorsey created a digital community, Black Art in America (BAIA), where artists could interact and promote their work. It soon had international reach.

“We were growing,” Dorsey says. “We just didn’t know how to make it a business.” So he expanded BAIA to include traveling productions. Its first show, Malcolm on Our Mind, at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan (the site of Malcolm X’s assassination) included live music and performance and visual art. The Dorseys, with Najee as CEO and Seteria as CFO, continued growing BAIA by producing shows around New York and in Miami at Art Basel. But Dorsey still felt the Atlanta market wasn’t reaching its potential.

Identifying opportunity is part of being an entrepreneur, Dorsey says, but also part of being an artist. “We see things that don’t exist. We make the invisible visible.”

In December 2020, the Dorseys purchased a former church in East Point and opened BAIA’s headquarters, a 4,000-square-foot gallery with a 12,000-square-foot sculpture garden, located four miles from Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Earlier this year, Faron Manuel, formerly of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, joined BAIA as director of its foundation, which supports community-based art and art education.

“It functions primarily as a space where people can learn and buy art from exceptional artists,” Dorsey says. BAIA hosts events, including a music series and farmers market; maintains a gallery of rotating exhibits; and hosts programs to educate attendees on collecting.

“They come into a contemporary space that would fit anywhere in the world,” Dorsey says of BAIA visitors. “But they also find a garden space where they can connect with nature. It’s a sacred and safe space that’s intentional about who it serves and what it’s about and that makes all the difference in the world.”

Tell Your Story

Look down. It’s advice Gogo Ferguson’s grandmother Lucy gave her as they roamed Georgia’s Cumberland Island, where Lucy lived and Gogo spent childhood summers. The words inspired the jewelry designer’s three-decade (and counting) career, which remains rooted in the natural world.

The Fergusons descend from the Carnegies, who purchased most of the island in the late 19th century. By the 1950s, when Gogo first explored it, most of Cumberland belonged to the federal government and was managed by the National Park Service, as it is today. “We were feral kids just running wild,” Ferguson says. “We were always adorning ourselves with feathers or shark vertebrae or something we found.”

When she moved to the island with her three-year-old daughter, Hannah, in 1988, Ferguson resumed walking the tideline and riding horseback on dirt paths, eyes fixed on the ground in search of organic treasures, but also as a way to make a living. Between shifts at the Greyfield Inn—a Carnegie family home turned luxury guesthouse—she began crafting jewelry out of fishing line and bones.

“It was survival mode in the beginning,” she says. “I had no idea how to turn it into a business.” But her life spent on a wild island made for an unparalleled origin story. She packed up several pairs of sun-bleached rattlesnake rib earrings and flew to New York City, where she knocked on the door of every fashion editor she could find. People magazine published a piece. Barneys and Saks bought in. Thirty-four years later, Ferguson splits her time between Martha’s Vineyard and Cumberland Island, and Gogo Jewelry is a multi-million-dollar company. Her creations are sold in her eponymous flagship shop on St. Simons Island and in boutiques in five states.

These days she creates molds from armadillo scapula, garfish scales, fossilized sea urchins, and other found flora and fauna, and then casts her jewelry in sterling silver and 14-karat gold. She sometimes embellishes pieces with precious stones but practices restraint. “I try not to  change the natural beauty of the bone,” she says. “They’re just beautiful on their own.”

Her Cumberland Island studio brims with bones, shells, and other relics she’s discovered over the years, and she works with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources to ensure the island and its 16-mile coastline, a National Seashore, remain as exquisite as they were when she first started exploring with her grandmother. “She created for us such a sense of where we were in nature and what we could find if we really opened our eyes to it.”