Spelling it Out & Not Selling Out
Getting Down to Business with Trisha Rhomberg
Published February 1, 2019
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.
Being a shop owner is my job; painting and clothing design/making is my art, but lately, I feel like I need to redefine my art as someone who brings people together. 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, bringing people together and giving them opportunities to showcase what they do to a broader audience.
Along the wayward path
I guess I realized that I was an artist when I was eight; my grandma 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. Then, when I was in college, I began thrifting, and when I transferred to California to attend Sac State, I realized that thrifting here was so inspirational because there were so many more cultures and ethnicities in one place.
Eventually, I found that 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.
While I was doing that to pay my bills and tuition, I also 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.
It’s frustrating, 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 or a bio, but there was nothing that helped introduce me to opportunities in the real world. There are no business requirements for art education. Nothing to do with finances, marketing or even how to price your pieces. 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 made a living. That is why it is important to me that we sponsor interns at Old Gold. The things we teach our interns are more valuable than a lot of the things they could have learned at school, or at least giving them the opportunity to discover that this is not what they want to do with their life. College does not give you the chance to find that out until after you’ve already graduated with a degree.
I also believe that getting paid to do something productive or produce something that’s desirable while you’re learning is the best way. For me, art is discovering along the way whether a process is something that brings you joy or not. The process is what I really like about art and making things.
Another part of this dynamic is in the tension between creative expression and commercial success. Everybody needs to make money to live and eat, but people feel really tortured by the thought of “selling out”, 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.
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.
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 and artists creates this whole ring around it of positive impacts and energy—getting people out of their house and into the community. 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 ideas, products, connections, and collaborations come from, and that’s where things grow.
The WAL works because 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. Nothing formal happens because the formalities take time and you’d rather create than write a fucking business plan.
When you do take the time to write a plan, you also have to understand how to navigate city government, relationships with developers and financing. I have a business plan for a space across the street from here called The Foundry. The idea is to put the studios and creative workspaces in the back and have retail up front. So we make it in the back and sell it up front, creating sustainable businesses that create the opportunity to continually make things and produce events within our own physical space.
It’s frustrating to think 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.
The major challenge of this is that the City doesn’t really understand our world, and we don’t truly understand that world. Instead of focusing on awarding grants to create art, I believe you’ll have a more substantial impact if we were to create what I call “art translator” positions. Giving artist grants of five thousand dollars does enable them to buy supplies, and no doubt create 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, that it never occurs to them.
Offering money in the form of the micro-grants and grants as part of 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.
Now we have the Creative Edge plan, which suffers from the symptoms of a bureaucratic process. Multiple meetings, get-togethers, and discussions happened 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 actually happen is a problem. I believe that energy and time are vital which is something that the city government is not good at focusing on. Things need to happen quickly to keep the energy and excitement and momentum going.
We’re currently 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, connecting makers to a broader market through an online resource. That way 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.
This is exciting, but, as artists, we still face the possibility of being priced out of Sacramento. My rent, even though it’s affordable now, 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 allowed me 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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?