Spelling it Out & Not Selling Out (full Interview)
Getting Down to Business with Trisha Rhomberg
Published February 1, 2019
Read the shorter narrative >
Trisha Rhomberg is an artist dedicated to collaborating with other makers, musicians, and entrepreneurs. In 2003 she co-founded “Pretty Trashy” with Erica Setness, their clothing line grew from sales at craft fairs to being featured at 18 boutiques across the country and two international shops that support emerging designers. In 2007, she Co-founded “Bows and Arrows” with Olivia Coehlo, another Sacramento artist and entrepreneur. This space, a hub for creatives, became the place to discover new music, art, dance, poetry, and handmade goods. Makers Mart was born out of Bows and Arrows in 2009. Makers Mart’s goal is to curate a modern shopping experience by hand selecting diverse artists and crafters.
In 2015, Trisha opened Old Gold, a new space for people to connect and discover in the Warehouse Artist Lofts’ Public Market. Old Gold offers both vintage and handmade goods from Sacramento and beyond. The new location has brought about new projects for Trisha that include curating the WAL Public Market Gallery, hosting live music on the rooftop, and organizing the annual R Street Block Party which drew over 3,500 people each summer.
More recently, Trisha served as Entrepreneur in residence at Hacker Lab and from that experience co-founded Sac-Made with Eric Ullrich and Sarah Barkawi, who observed a growing need to help the unique maker community gain access to resources, scale their companies and become self-sustaining.
articulator: How would you describe your work?
Trisha Rhomberg: I own a store called Old Gold where we sell vintage and handmade wares, I also run a small Gallery called the Wal Public Market Gallery. Both have been open for three years. Previously, I had another space called Bows and Arrows. I did the same sort of thing, facilitating music and art shows while selling handmade wares, along with vintage pieces.
articulator: Is your art integrated with your work at Old Gold and the WAL Public Market?
Trisha Rhomberg: Being a shop owner is my job, painting and clothing design/making is my art life, but lately, that’s been on the back burner, especially after the birth of my daughter. She’s now four, and I haven’t found the right balance between being a mom, owning a business, and my personal art, so that’s been challenging.
articulator: What can you do to find that balance?
Trisha Rhomberg: I’ve always wanted to break down the days and the hours of the week to create a pie chart with different color codes. The coding would indicate the amount of time I should spend working and making money to live, the amount of time I should devote to connecting with my friends and family, and the time I need to dedicate to being a mom. Then I can figure out how to shift those pieces of the pie around, so I’m not neglecting any of those parts.
articulator: What brings you the most satisfaction, your art or your work in supporting the community?
Trisha Rhomberg: It’s so hard, there’s my work as an artist. The paintings I’ve created or things I’ve made like my clothing line, but I feel like I need to redefine my role as someone who brings people together as my art form. I feel like that’s the most success I’ve had and the most beneficial I’ve been to my community. I’ve served my community best by creating events and bringing people together and giving them opportunities to showcase what they do to a broader audience.
I’m also proud of things like Maker’s Mart and block parties and live music on the roof or opening businesses like Bows where I created a home and a stage for artists. The thing I’ve done best is to create opportunities for people to discover each other and be inspired by each other through organizing events and ways for people to come together.
articulator: What are your thoughts about the tension between creative expression and commercial Success?
Trisha Rhomberg: It’s something that I’ve heard everyone I’ve worked with struggle with whether they’re a maker or artist. They define themselves as a maker or as an artist, but everybody needs to make money to live and eat. People feel really tortured by that, they feel like a fake if they are making something just to sell. I believe the answer (and the solution) is to create some kind of balance where you allow yourself days or weeks or hours creating something only for yourself or for your own satisfaction.
And other times you’re working to make money doing something creative. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I think people don’t need to feel like they can only choose one way.
Along the Wayward Path
articulator: When did you first start to realize you were an artist?
Trisha Rhomberg: When I was eight, I liked going to my grandma’s house because she had a craft room where we made puffy paint t-shirts, sweatshirts or crafts, using our hands and tools to create things that didn’t exist. I was really excited about making things look a certain way, and I received a lot of positive feedback that it was something I was good at.
That made me feel good, and I wanted to keep doing that. Which I still do! When I have free time, that’s all I really want to do. I want to be making something, whether it’s painting or sewing or working on a leather bag. I want to be using my hands to create stuff!
articulator: It seems like clothing has been a constant source of creativity for you, is that what led you to retail?
Trisha Rhomberg: I’ve always loved clothing. I am visually attracted to clothing for different reasons; the colors, the prints, and, the textiles. I think back to when I was young, and I had to wear uniforms to school. I didn’t get to pick my clothes, meaning the things that I like to wear, but there were special days when we were allowed to wear what we wanted, like school picnic days. I would dream about the outfit I would get to wear and you know, just kind of fantasize about clothing.
Then, when I was in college, I began thrifting. When I moved to California, I realized that thrifting here was so inspirational because there were so many more cultures and ethnicities in one place, so the varieties of textiles and embroidered things and just things I’ve never seen amazed me.
I found that I could also sell those things in San Francisco. I could take all the stuff I bought for a dollar at a thrift store and make $10 selling them at stores like Wasteland. I was paying my rent that way when I first moved here. I loved that I was getting paid to shop, which was one of my favorite things.
Once I realized I could make money doing that, I learned that I could also take a t-shirt that was plain, silkscreen and draw on it and sell it. Buy the t-shirt for a dollar, create art and sell it for 15 bucks. That led me to participate in my first utilitarian maker event, similar to a craft fair, called Sell Out Buy Out.
I worked on these shirts with my best friend in her garage at Ninth and V, and we worked hard. I have no problem with working hard. I could work all night and go all day because it was fun. Knowing that people liked it and they paid money for it, I was like, oh my God, this is it. I wanted to do that all the time. And so I was able to combine my favorite things like making and shopping and art and be my own boss. I never wanted to do anything else.
articulator: So your move to California really influenced what you do today, what brought you out here?
Trisha Rhomberg: What brought me here was my ex, Jason and being close to mountains and beaches to do all the outdoor stuff we love to do: snowboarding, camping, and hiking. Sacramento’s landscape convinced me to stay.
I transferred to Sac State and graduated with a BA in studio art. I assumed I’d get my Master’s so that I could teach painting, that’s all I wanted to do. Once I focused on getting my Masters to become a teacher, I didn’t really think about much else.
articulator: What happened to your plan of becoming a teacher?
Trisha Rhomberg: While I was working to pay my bills and school, I worked at a clothing shop where people could buy and sell their recycled clothing. I got really interested in clothing and creating things that I wanted that didn’t exist. So I teamed up with one of the girls I worked with to create a clothing line.
So that kind of sidetracked the teaching thing; the other part to that is that I started substitute teaching in the Grant Joint Union High School District and the Del Paso Heights Elementary School district, the experience teaching there for those few years made me want to rethink teaching in general. It was kind of depressing.
articulator: Were you exposed to the business side of art in college?
Trisha Rhomberg: I don’t remember any classes on the business side of art. I mean there was one class, it was on how to write an artist statement for show or a bio, but there was nothing that helped introduce me to opportunities in the real world.
My school was very much inside a bubble. I initially wanted to blame the program because I didn’t realize until after I started showing other people’s art or selling my art that you have to learn and do all these things yourself. You have to make the connections; the community aspect of supporting yourself as an artist is so essential and different from anything technical that I learned in school.
Of course, we went to museums here and there, but we were missing a big, big step in what the real world is like for an artist. I completed an internship during my sophomore year for a gallery in New York, on West 24th Street. I didn’t really realize how little art people actually buy because I was so busy making it and that’s all I cared about. I didn’t really think about what would happen to the paintings that aren’t sold or what you do for money in between shows if you are going to sell your art to make a living.
So, I feel like the importance of community connection wasn’t touched on in school and I felt like that was a big part of what I learned after college.
articulator: So you didn’t learn about business practices in college?
Trisha Rhomberg: That’s right, there are no business requirements in art education. Nothing to do with finances, marketing or even how to price your pieces.
I felt like that was what I would have learned if I had gone on to get a Masters. I had no idea there was an alternative until I found it on my own— I discovered that making clothing is both fulfilling creatively AND a way to make money.
I didn’t know that until I just kind of stumbled into it, schooling had nothing to do with how I make a living.
articulator: What are your thoughts on the pathways model of education and about the idea of combining the Department of Labor with the Department of Education, would that help make the connection you felt missing in college?
Trisha Rhomberg: So at my shop, we’ve sponsored interns for the past seven years and the things that we teach our interns, I feel, are more valuable than a lot of the things they could have learned at school; or at least the opportunity to discover that this is not what you want to do with your life. College does not give you the chance to find that out until after you’ve already graduated with a degree.
I believe that getting paid to do something productive or produce something that’s desirable while you’re learning is the best way. For example, I could go into a high school right now, teach a ceramics class and, at the same time, teach them how to make things well. They can make something they like while also creating something that I know could sell. I’m making them money while they’re learning something they want to learn.
I feel that that’s the best way to learn how to use the tools and how to produce something of value, discovering along the way whether this process is something that brings you joy or not, which is what art is for me; the process is what I really like about art and making things. But, if you’re spending your time and money on space and materials, you might as well make half of the stuff for sale by intentionally making things that you know will sell. I feel like that’s a no-brainer. So yes, labor and education can be related.
articulator: You’re very involved in The Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL), how would you describe this artist community as an economic driver for the R Street renaissance?
Trisha Rhomberg: The WAL project is a perfect example of this; you take one dedicated space, put 150 artists in there, and three years later the surrounding property values have increased, and community events have increased attendance. I’ve sold more art, jewelry, and handmade things in the past three or four years than ever before. A dedicated space for art creates this whole ring around it of positive impacts and energy with things to do, getting people out of their house and into the community. I’ve always thought of art as the glue to the city because it requires people to connect and support each other or at least offer a way to have something interesting to discover.
Without opportunities like music events, block parties, maker’s marts and exciting things to do and discover you’re bored. And art is where new things come from, new ideas, products, connections, and collaborations, and that’s where things grow.
articulator: Speaking of collaborations, your shop in The WAL, Old Gold feels like a collective, is that your intention?
Trisha Rhomberg: Yeah, but it can’t really work that way as a business. Though there is this idea where 5 to 8 people share shop duties, allowing flexibility for artists to have time to work on their art. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean people don’t want it to happen. There’s a missing role, someone to serve as coordinator. Someone who has been there, done that; we need someone to look out for us and manage the schedule.
I feel it’s natural for groups of artists to hang out together, attend each other’s shows and support each other because they have so much in common and genuinely like each other as artists and people. But nothing formal happens because the formalities take time and you’d rather create than write a fucking business plan.
articulator: So, how you determine what is shown at the WAL Public Market Gallery and/or offered for sale at Old Gold?
Trisha Rhomberg: Generally what happens in my shop is someone will ask me, how do you get a show at the WAL Public Market Gallery or to sell in Old Gold? My response is for them to email me or text me a link to their Instagram or wherever they have pictures of their work, I’ll look at it, and if I think that it matches what I’m trying to promote, I’ll arrange a studio visit and see the work in person. It’s like, oh I’ve got an opening in the shop for these earrings or oh, I’ve got opening in the gallery this month. So all you have to do is meet me or send me your stuff.
As a matter of fact, that happened just last week, I reached out to a girl from Chico whose jewelry I noticed on Instagram and felt it was a good match for the shop. She drove down to meet me, and within 30 minutes of opening her box, I sold four pieces and then four more within the next few days. Old Gold was the first shop that’s carried her jewelry, and that has become a common occurrence for the shop. I instinctively know what will sell because I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I know what I know, and that’s what helps artists make money. So I always have new makers, and there are new artists every now and then.
articulator: Have you ever belonged to an artist collective?
Trisha Rhomberg: When my business, Bows and Arrows was open, and we needed a new domain name, I suggested Bows Collective, and that’s still my website. We started out with a site that had 10 artists and short profiles on their work, the goal was to make prints and sell their work. I tried to make that happen, but that was at the same time when we were expanding to include a bar and cafe and hiring 10 new employees. That was a really crazy time yet things all seemed to work out, but nothing official happened.
articulator: Did this group also share studio space?
Trisha Rhomberg: No, but I had a studio at Verge until they bought their building and increased the price of the studio from $137 to $220. That’s when I was priced out. It was a cool community of artists, and in the beginning, it did feel like we were going to do things together and support each other because there were a lot of really strong, smart artists that I believe could have made significant changes. It was also a time that Verge was becoming a nonprofit, and it became a different entity than who we were as artists.
articulator: If you had the time and the opportunity to create a collective, what are the most critical ingredients for success?
Trisha Rhomberg: Physical space that is affordable is the first ingredient.
I have a business plan for space across the street from here called The Foundry. The idea is to put the studio’s and creative workspaces in the back and have retail up front. So we make it in the back and sell it in the front, creating sustainable businesses that create the opportunity to continually make things and produce events within our own physical space.
It’s frustrating, though, that within 10 blocks from here are buildings that the city, county and the state own and have sat vacant for the last 15 fucking years.
Do you know what we could do with those buildings? Art classes, workshops, retail, and events. Jobs can be created out of physical spaces, just give me an empty building to work with, just give me a space.
articulator: What else could or should the City be doing in support of the Arts that it is currently not doing?
Trisha Rhomberg: Creating those jobs that go between jobs. The City doesn’t really understand this world, and we don’t truly understand that world. Money should be set aside for full-time positions with security and health benefits and all that shit for somebody to put their art down and say I’ll do this job. I want to make this happen for the community. They need to dedicate money for these jobs. I don’t know how else to describe this role other than art translator. These are jobs for people to work and collaborate with developers, artists, and entrepreneurs to take physical spaces and turn them into working places that create opportunities and employment.
articulator: What about the investment the City already has made toward the arts, such as artist grants?
Trisha Rhomberg: Grants for artists are significant for the artist to make more stuff, but if you want to have a more substantial impact, we have to create these art translator positions. You can continue to give artist grants of five thousand dollars, and they’ll go buy supplies, and no doubt make something cool but using that money to invest in this other role that provides mentoring, training and facilitating artist interactions with land and property owners can create something more significant that serves more people. I feel it’s a better investment for the City and I feel like no one even has time to think about that, and that it never occurs to them.
articulator: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you feel the City is taking the short view by throwing money at it and getting shiny objects that feel good at the moment, but it’s not a sustainable solution?
Trisha Rhomberg: Yes. Exactly.
articulator: As an alternative to the City creating this position, do you think the Improvement Districts (PBIDS) could act as citywide coordinators that work together on things like scheduling events, etc.?
Trisha Rhomberg: That would be great. I don’t know that it’s not happening, but if they worked together like that, it would be great. But in practicality, the R Street Partnership maintains that they’re smaller and without the funds that Downtown or Midtown have for this type of activity.
I’ve looked for their financial assistance for three years, and after three years the amount of support I received from them for the R Street party remained at the same level. I wasn’t getting the support that matched the increase in the size of the event, which I needed badly. I was also running my business and being a mom and doing all these things. So, looking back, I wish that I had a 22-year-old under my wing at that time so I could delegate the production duties this next year.
articulator: What do you feel the city is doing right.
Trisha Rhomberg: I think that offering money in the form of the micro-grants and grants for the creative economy project was a good start. It got people really excited and made people start thinking about the reality of actually getting some support from the city. So I think that was that was good.
articulator: Okay, and to follow up with that, what are your current thoughts of the Creative Edge plan.
Trisha Rhomberg: I feel that the energy trailed off; there were multiple meetings, get-togethers, and discussions at various locations spread out over a few months where a lot of people were saying the same things over and over, which wore people out and the initial energy fizzled out, you know, like a slow leak in a balloon.
It felt like a long process. I think that the amount of time it takes to make things happen when solutions are offered is a problem. I believe that energy and time are vital which is something that the city government is not good at doing. Things need to happen quickly to keep the energy and excitement and momentum going. So I think they lost a lot of steam.
articulator: Sacramento’s Creative Edge/Cultural Plan talks about making use of current city assets like the library system and Park and Rec Centers, as spaces to promote culture. Do you see the opportunity for connecting these different communities in a formalized structure to share ideas, coordinate event schedules and also encourage cross cultivation of audiences?
Trisha Rhomberg: Yeah. I mean there are, and we’ve done that and the problem, again, is the limited time of the people involved.
I know there are people interested in this in each of the communities and neighborhoods, and we do communicate, but I feel like nothing has happened, there is a need to have dedicated events or days where you have the opportunity to support your immediate community but also support events outside your neighborhood.
For example, First Fridays should be specific to one geographic location. That allows people who like art in that area to still see the art in this other area on second Saturday. Having events on the same day actually limits the opportunity for cross-pollination.
And I feel that there are a lot of cool opportunities within existing spaces like libraries, and even within the homeless communities. This time of year there’s a lot more people who don’t have a place to live. And they need more things to do, can you imagine if we could incorporate art jobs in Mustard Seed or Loaves and Fishes? We take one of their empty rooms and get a bunch of donated art supplies and find an artist with the right training, we can give our time as art teachers.
Imagine mounting an art show featuring work of the homeless people who create this work in your space, It would generate a lot of press for the show, and highlight the work Mustard Seed does, providing a way to incorporate art into local political conversations. The Mayor seems to have backed away from talking about homelessness, and this type of event and publicity is an opportunity to keep the discussion about the needs of our homeless population going.
articulator: Are there organizations doing anything similar to this idea in Sacramento?
Trisha Rhomberg: Yes, the Short Center, DDSO. It’s for adults with disabilities, and that’s where some of my artist friends work; Jared Tharpe works there, I think Waylon Horner used to work there and, I believe Evan Skinner used to work there.
I think it’s incredible, but I wish there were places like that where adults can go and make art and what they create could also be sold. That stained glass piece and these masks, as well as a bunch of paintings, were all bought there and I just bought some cool ceramics yesterday.
I also produce shows for the Short Center once a year. So I’ve gotten to know them, and when I go there to buy art, I tell the teachers, oh, I think my customers would like this and I could take all this work, sell it and make money for the people or for you guys to buy more supplies or whatever.
articulator: Considering that not everyone has the exposure to arts and crafts that you had growing up in a family that supported this activity, I’m thinking of the crafts table at your grandmother’s house, what are your thoughts or concerns regarding arts education in elementary, middle and high school?
Trisha Rhomberg: We’re currently looking at schools for my daughter, Elide, and there’s literally a two-year waitlist for some of the schools that incorporate art into their education. There’s no room because everybody is trying to get their kids into a place where that’s offered, and it’s limited to a few schools.
Art education needs to be everywhere, and for everyone, I’ve always thought art is like a language; whether you speak English, French, German or Spanish, you need language to communicate ideas and to aid in learning, especially for kids that are visual learners.
I feel like it’s a big deal. I feel like if you’re not speaking to a kid who is a visual learner in their language, they’re missing learning opportunities. They’re underserved. We have English classes for people whose first language isn’t English, I feel like every different type of learner needs to be accommodated, or they’re not going to learn, all you have to do is figure out how kids learn best.
articulator: Do you see a correlation between the lack of art education in schools and a lack of appreciation or understanding of art, leading ultimately to people not investing in art?
Trisha Rhomberg: Oh, yeah. I feel like most of the people I’ve talked to feel very intimidated by it. And it’s the same thing where you go to another country; if you’re in Berlin, and you don’t speak German, you have no idea what people around you are talking about, you’re just lost, and it’s uncomfortable to be lost.
Nobody wants to feel like that. So of course, it’s part of the reason why there aren’t a lot of buyers here. As you get older, you discover the things you do like, and when you have less time, especially after you have a family and your time is limited, as is the money to spend in certain places, you already know what you like and what you do for fun or what’s important to you.
So I feel like exposing everyone at a really young age is essential and having additional programs for parents whose kids are now getting this education. Teaching the parents why it’s important that their child is exposed to art education is very beneficial, I can’t stop thinking of it as anything other than another language.
articulator: What are you working on now that is really special to you?
Trisha Rhomberg: Well, we’re working on the Sac Made grant we received as part of the Creative Economy grants. Our goal is to connect this physical world of makers to the physical world of Shoppers; to a broader market through an online resource, so more people can be discovered more often rather than just at the annual Maker’s Mart or something similar. Our goal is to take all these physical things and make them digital.
articulator: What does the future hold for you in Sacramento?
Trisha Rhomberg: I don’t know, it’s tough because this place where we live at the WAL has been the best thing that’s happened. The only reason I’m still in Sacramento is that I can afford to have space in an excellent location, allowing me to breathe and keep working on projects and events and things, but in five years, Eldie will be in school.
Our rent, even though it’s affordable now, still goes up every year, so five years is kind of that place where I would like to be able to buy a house. So far, owning a brick and mortar shop in Sacramento for 12 years hasn’t afforded me the opportunity to purchase land, and so I’m finding it more difficult to want to invest my time and energy in making it a cool city, mainly because I don’t have a stake in it. Literally, every cool event I throw or every successful block party actually pushes my friends and me out. It makes it more difficult for us to ever buy a house here. So that’s something that I feel like I’m really struggling with now. If we do cool stuff we end up pricing ourselves out, it’s really ironic and sad. So I don’t know what the solution is for that. I really want there to be a way for artists to stay in their cities, Sacramento is being rediscovered by the people who left here to live in the bay area. Half my customers now are coming back from there, yeah, everybody’s coming back, and now they can afford to buy things, and that’s great as a shop owner. So I have no idea where we’re going to go and what I struggle with is whether the idea of owning a home is more important than having a high quality of life.
I ask myself if owning a house, owning something that is yours, is really that important? There’s also a sense of sadness about making property owners, who own multiple million dollar pieces of land, more and more money when you don’t see them investing back into the community. Last year’s block party cost $25,000; the R Street Partnership, who represent the property owners, funded $700 of the $25,000 budget and that doesn’t feel right.
And I’m not entirely sure how that balances out, you know, but it feels like you’re working for somebody else when that’s not my intention. I like to work for myself, but I’m really not… I feel like I can’t put my roots down here. I’ve been here 17 years, 17 years. Holy shit. My roots are still in St. Louis. But, I love, love Sacramento. I like where we live. I love that it’s beautiful. Of course, as someone visually inclined it speaks to me, and I love being here, but I’m sad that I can’t have a piece to call my own.
articulator: Is there a fear that an artist exodus out of Sacramento is beginning to happen because of the affordability crisis?
Trisha Rhomberg: If the movement from the bay area continues, we’re going to have to find another place. And I’ve got my eyes wide open; I don’t know how affordable West Sac is anymore but Isleton’s affordable, there’s going to be movement.
At the end of the day, though, if you put 10 of us in one place, we’re okay. We can make it happen. We can create the beginnings of what we need to, but then if we can’t buy right away, we’re always going to be moving. I don’t want to be a nomad.
articulator: Creating stability for artists seems to be working at the WAL, are there other projects in Sacramento that provide alternative spaces for artists, like the WAL?
Trisha Rhomberg: Ali (Ali Youssefi developer of WAL) understood what this opportunity meant for creating and building community.
Sadly, he’s gone now and when you talk about the amount of time and energy that it takes to work through the development process. Moving from an idea to completion requires somebody, a business owner or artist to step out of her business or away from their art to put on this hat that nobody seems to know how to wear.
It’s hard because no one has that job. If SMAC (Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission), or another non-profit, created a position for community facilitator, they could spend time working with developers. Developers want to make money. They need to satisfy their investors, and they’re not interested in dedicating time to figuring out how can we really make this benefit the community, right?
articulator: With that said, what are you optimistic about?
Trisha Rhomberg: Well, the shop is doing good. I am happy for the local makers. Some folks see the people moving back from the Bay Area as a bad thing, and the one good thing about it is that they’re buying stuff. So it feels like it’s a good time right now to be making something that’s sellable. I always tell makers and artists to make the things that are for you and also make things that are more accessible. Have your A and your B products, and you’ll be able to continue to do what you like.
articulator: When you tell people that do they get it?
Trisha Rhomberg: They do get it, and then there are two reactions. First, okay, that’s a good idea. Thanks. I’ll do that. Second, Fuck that shit.
articulator: When you talk about supporting artists, and you encounter the person who is in the fuck that congregation, do they deserve to be supported by the community? Especially if they’re just going to be so internalized with what they do?
Trisha Rhomberg: This is where recognizing real Raw Talent comes in and while sometimes that attitude is not warranted, you can respond by saying, “yeah but you’re not quite there yet but I do see that you have talent”, and those are the people who really need our support, and they are worth supporting.