Craftsperson Betania Ridenour thrives in ‘wild spaces’—drawing from nature and the elements to create unique, handmade brooms. They share their work on Instagram and via their website, and they also have a brick and mortar storefront and workshop in the town of Twisp, Washington.
They talked to us about the art of seeking mentors, selling on Etsy versus using your own website, and what it’s like being a creative in a small town vs a big city.
Your art inhabits a very unique space which is handcrafted brooms. In such a niche market how do you market your products and find your clientele?
Well, at first glance it might seem like handmade brooms are super-niche, they’re a higher priced version of a tool that a lot of people don’t think twice about, and cheap disposable factory made brooms are really, really cheap.
But the truth is, people like to have nice stuff, and given the choice, people often prefer something enlivened with a story behind it and magic woven into it. An item made by hand creates a moment or task that is much more enjoyable. If your options are to choose either a plastic broom from a sweatshop, or a handmade natural wood handle broom from the person who made it, a lot of people will opt for the one that's more ethical, more beautiful, and if taken care of, will last for decades (unlike factory-made products).
An important part of my work is traveling and teaching hand craft so I continue to meet a lot of people that way. Word of mouth, social media and maker community support is a big piece too. It is an important part of my ethics as a maker to uplift other makers and small hand crafted businesses both on social media and other avenues—I love when I see makers supporting each other's work.
This work would be appealing to a much smaller segment of society if I didn’t incorporate magic, healing, and storytelling into my work as well. I don’t think of brooms as merely simple tools to move crumbs into the trash can. Brooms have been used in sacred spaces and are found in mythology and folklore all over the world. I developed a deep personal connection to the sacred and magical side of their use as a way of coping with and healing from trauma.
I encourage people to build a different relationship to their Broom, to both create and see magic by breaking down binaries within what we may consider a “mundane” task. While sweeping the dust and stale energy out of a space you can be empowered to shift your environment rather than feeling helpless in the face of the mess that we sometimes find ourselves in.
You see craft making as a lineage; in fact, having a mentor is what helped you start your own business. Will you talk about why seeking out mentors in one’s field is so important when starting your own business/creative career? Any tips for how to find someone and approach them for mentorship/advice?
A craftsperson has to be part of a lineage unless they have invented their craft completely on their own. Crafts are a learned skill, they’re complex, and a lot of crafts can never be fully learned in a lifetime of devoted work.
To try to learn on your own ignores the work done by the generations of ancestors and beings before us who have already figured out countless clever tricks and ways of avoiding problems, and how to do the very best work possible. This is really important stuff that people in modern (colonized) cultures tend to gloss over and ignore. It’s centuries of trial and error, and you can’t beat that by watching a YouTube video.
When you really understand how your teachers have contributed valuable knowledge to your life, it makes sense to acknowledge that. That is a part of the integrity behind a craft tradition. I always acknowledge my teachers, both human and more-than-human, when I am sharing with others.
Folks learning any kind of skill can gain more depth in understanding the knowledge if they know where it came from and the stories behind it.
Is it a broken lineage where someone had to piece together a skill with no teacher? Or is it an unbroken lineage, where they learned it from people who learned it from people who learned it from people, places, plants or other beings? Sometimes craft traditions need to be learned without teachers, but in many cases there won’t be the same depth and nuance in the resulting craft.
There’s a trend in modern society to capitalize on anything and everything, and it can be seen in any craft you look at. When you show someone something you made, how often is the response “Wow, that's great. You could sell that.”?
Well, that's exactly what people do.
It’s not uncommon to see a person study a subject for literally 4 hours, then start making a bunch of things and selling them, or maybe they turn around and start teaching and charging for the same thing they knew nothing about the day before.
This degrades a craft in a huge way, reduces it to its most basic level, and forces skilled craftspeople to be compared to a lowest common denominator (“Why is your thing so expensive? This other person sells it for way less? Why would I spend a weekend taking an introductory course with teacher A when teacher B offers the entire subject in an hour?”)
This is only possible because as consumers we’re pressured to buy the cheapest product. For the most part (in the US) we aren’t going to markets where we have to negotiate prices, and we can get by without really examining a product before buying it. Etsy is a shining example of this kind of erosion of quality that's an ongoing problem.
Ethics of craft is a deep and important subject- If you are interested in diving deeper into that - there is a really great little zine put together by Lise Silva who is an Artist and craft person.
Finding a teacher or mentor is one important way to begin to approach craft with integrity. When looking for a teacher it’s important to understand that every person is unique, it’s not like this teacher is equal to that teacher.
You should understand what you want to learn, find someone who’s work in that realm inspires you and who knows the subject well. If you think a person would be a good teacher for you, see if they offer classes, and take them. If they don’t, just reach out and tell them you’re really into learning this thing, and see if they’re open to negotiating something.
When the pandemic happened, you moved away from using Etsy as a distribution tool and built your own website instead. What was the result of this shift for your sales, business, exposure etc? Would you recommend this move to other makers/artists? -
Etsy is great in some ways, but extremely problematic in others. It’s a really easy way to get started selling stuff online, startup costs are super low, and the financial end of things is easy, and trusted by customers.
Once you start selling stuff, it’s a different story. There are still benefits, for example as you get more sales they funnel more traffic to your shop.
However, costs are getting higher all the time, and they charge for stuff they shouldn’t (For example, they charge you for shipping costs even if you offer free shipping, and they pressure you to offer free shipping. They also charge you huge advertising costs without letting you opt out.)
Working with them becomes increasingly risky as you invest more and more into your brand and business. Despite it being your business, it’s not your website, and they can lock you out in an instant without a warning, with little recourse, if you do anything wrong.
Disputes and bad reviews are really sketchy as well. They can shut down your shop if you get complaints, even if the complaints are groundless. They also do very little to protect shops against scammy and abusive customers, and they tend to side with customers in disputes rather than shop owners. I think anyone who has a shop on Etsy should also have their own website as a backup, even if they don’t keep it online.
Moving to my own website has gone well and although it’s not more or less successful than my Etsy store, I enjoy using it much more. I built it mostly myself (via Squarespace) and feel much more proud to share it with others. I feel a sense of accomplishment and ownership that I never felt with Etsy. After all, I crafted and created it myself.
I will also say that for me, because most of my online sales are now through my website, I have realized that most of my traffic comes through my personal avenues of sharing rather than Etsy bringing me traffic, which is helpful to understand.
I also get a lot of sales through my physical shop space, in person at events and through Instagram, so I don’t rely heavily on web sales. I think that diversifying your income is a really good idea for creatives, and other self-employed people.
Many creatives believe that in order to make a living doing what they love to do they have to live in densely populated cities. The Methow Valley is a small place with a population of about 6,000. What benefits does living in a small community have for creatives? And in what ways can creatives in rural areas contribute to the community around them?
I think that this question of living rurally depends on what kind of work you are doing. A lot of creatives can work just as well from a remote location, for example if you’re a writer, a painter, sculptor, web designer, etc.
Living rurally has a lot of advantages over city life for creatives. Price of living is typically more affordable, so it can be easier to rent a commercial space for your own shop, or rent a home with space for a workshop.
In a small community it’s easy to get to know people, and there are all the advantages that come with that. When you’re trying to make it with your own vision of things, it can be helpful if the people around you understand what you’re up to. I would guess it is generally easier to get your work into rural art galleries than urban ones.
A lot of the disadvantages of living rurally as a creative person have been mitigated by the internet. Of course if you’re a muralist, you’d run out of work pretty quick, but if you can sell your craft online then no one really cares where you are!
Living in a small rural community and getting your income from outside of the community means that you’re building up - the local economy- and adding to the prosperity of your community. The money that you got from out of state, or from the big city, is now being spent at the feed store or the local coffee shop or whatever, and some of it’s probably going to circulate locally for a while.