Committed to Living a Creative Life – Mary Hamby of Twenty Two West

More so than ever, I feel that our community of makers is being called to commit even deeper to living a creative life. Art brings beauty and balance into not only our own lives, but into the lives of others. Our role, as creative people, is essential.

In this upcoming series of artisan features, we will be focusing on what it takes for makers to live a committed creative life. Making a living doing what you love doesn’t just happen. It is the result of dedication and commitment.

Mary Hamby of Twenty Two West is a wonderful example of an artist committed to her creative journey and business. Her company combines her nostalgic roots with modern designs to create minimalist handmade pieces of jewelry.

Mary’s background is in Interior Design, a creative field that she loved, but something was missing. She felt called to work more with her hands. In 2015 she started her jewelry business, Twenty Two West. “It’s part of the address of my childhood home, a place that means so much to me because it is where I started my creative journey.”

Now Mary starts her days with clay and threads. Through the process of forming, firing, combing and weaving, she transforms the raw materials into finished pieces.

It was a pleasure to have time to spend with Mary as both of us sheltered in place in our respected communities during this global pandemic.

Becky: Thank you Mary for taking the time to share with us your creative journey. Was there a memorable moment when you knew you wanted to make art a full-time job?
Mary: I have always loved making and have the highest respect for artists. I just never pictured myself as being talented enough to be one. That is why I chose design – it felt more like the science of art and that might be as close as I ever got to the artist world that I was absolutely in love with. I have found that if you let other people label you, you might never get where you want to be. You have to be your own greatest advocate. In 2015 I made the decision to give myself the title of artist (even though writing this still makes me feel a little uncomfortable) and it is something I am incredibly proud of. I love growing as an artist and everyday building my maker muscles to get better at my craft.

Becky: In the beginning, what types of choices did you need to make in order to live a committed creative life, that also supported you financially?
Mary: I made the intentional choice to live a small, happy life and prioritize creativity. My husband is also an artist, so we both committed as a family early on to live small so we could pursue our own passions. I set aside $500 and used that savings to go full time in 2015. My husband went full time into writing and directing in 2016. We had a tiny bit of savings (literally money I saved from babysitting and being a janitor in high school) that we used to buy a fixer upper with an incredibly low mortgage that we have been working on ourselves, negotiated down our bills, don’t do superfluous shopping or much eating out. We sit on our front porch for date nights eating food we cooked together ourselves and we love our little, creative life.

“Owning a creative business is such a hard work. I don’t want to contribute to the glamorization I see so often of the maker life. But if this life is for you, you will know it. I work incredibly hard and I live an incredible life.”

Becky: Did you have a mentor or a role model?
Mary: My mom encouraged my creativity from an early age. I was homeschooled, which put me in the unique position for my education to be shaped by the things that interested me. My mom took me to sewing classes, crochet circles, painting groups, woodworking classes . . . you name, I took it.

The first time I saw someone making a living being a full time creative was when I interned with Lily Pottery. I didn’t know it at the time, but once it gets in your blood the maker’s life is hard to shake. It is so incredibly hard (literally any other way to make money would be easier) but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Lily ended up giving me a job as a production potter and I was hooked. I was incredibly introverted, but working with Lily gave me an instant community, a bit of income, a sense of purpose in my work, and incredible joy from the process.

Becky: Was there ever a time where you weren’t sure how you were going to keep moving forward with your commitment to living a creative life? What did you do?
Mary: Haha yes. I signed the lease on my first studio in June of 2015. It was a small space in Chattanooga, TN and I had my own little studio on the second floor of a building filled with artists. I think it only took about two weeks before I was literally sitting on the floor of the shower crying and not sure how I was going to pay the rent. I ended up selling enough at our open studio night to cover the rent that month and each month after that there was always a way to make ends meet. I signed up for Sunday markets, sent cold emails to stores, taught workshops – all things I still do to this day.

Becky: What does a typical morning routine look like for you?
Mary: I usually wake up around 6:30 and get ready to start the day. I come downstairs to my studio, make coffee (a crucial part of the process), and respond to emails before my team arrives at 9:00. We work together creating pieces and filling orders until they leave at 4:00. I finish up my computer work or any other things that are hard to concentrate on when the team is around, cook dinner, spend time with my husband and pup, and start over again the next day.

Mary Hamby and the Twenty Two West Team.

Becky: Do you have any particular habits or practices that you routinely practice to help you stay creative?
Mary: I sketch all the time. If I don’t have my notebook with me I write notes in my phone like “try out a clay taco shape with a gold dot” that I later get the joy of trying to interpret what I meant. It is just too hard to be creative on the spot, so when it comes time to work on a new collection I have all this inspiration to draw on from sketches I’ve set aside for myself. I also take time to learn new things even if I don’t immediately see how it will impact my work. For instance, I just took a classic Appalachian style broom making class. It was just two hours, I had the best time, and now I’m dreaming in brooms. I am a collector of techniques that I can then draw from when I am designing.

Becky: How do you motivate yourself to be creative?
Mary: I’m a big believer in the power of showing up. I don’t force myself to be creative (I find that if I’m too hard on myself I end up spent and it doesn’t produce great work), but I think the act of being in the studio everyday has power. Even if it ends up just being a day where I organize and clean things up. I show up for my work and because of that creativity tends to show up for me. I am also a big trial and error creator. For each piece that leaves my studio I probably tried a dozen things that never see the light of day.

Becky: What would you say your top three strengths are?

  1. I have a love of business and come at my art from that perspective. I remember when I was 11 and was in a sewing class and I was mentally calculating out how much each project I sewed cost based on the class price.
  2. I have a strong attention to detail. My perfectionist tendencies really come in handy in this occupation.
  3. I see things differently than most people. This allows me to combine different materials in a way that gives my work a creative edge yet doesn’t confuse my customer.

Becky: Are there any books that you have enjoyed or would recommend to people who would like to live a more committed creative life?
Mary: I’m actually really bad about reading books (you cannot read books and make things at the same time and I pretty much always choose making). I did just listen to Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist as an audio book and I felt myself gaining back years of my life. I mentioned earlier my perfectionism as a strength and I do believe it is if handled correctly and I felt like this book helped me balance that. I also love listening to people’s maker stories and none are better than those on How I Built This podcast. We will play those episodes out loud in the studio while we are working and the whole team loves them.

Becky: How does living a life of being creative enhance your level of happiness?
Mary: I am the happiest when I am making. I’ve already said it once but it is worth repeating – this is such a hard job and I don’t want to contribute to the glamorization I see so often of the maker life. But if this life is for you, you will know it. I work incredibly hard and I live an incredible life.

Thank you Mary for choosing to live a creative life. The world is a better place because of the contributions that you make. You and what you create is essential.

Follow Mary of Twenty Two West!

To see more of Mary’s work, visit:
Follow her on Instagram: @twentytwowest

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