This month, HER magazine had a freewheeling conversation about creativity with Gae Sharp-Richardson, a successful artist and owner of THE chocolate SHOP in Uptown Marion.
When it comes to creativity, a lot of people think you either have it or you don’t.
“I feel that anybody and everybody, and every woman, is creative in her own sense,” Gae said. She notes that it’s all about expressing yourself and not holding ourselves to such a high standard of perfection.
She allows some people may lean toward being more creative, but that we all have that spark inside ourselves.
Even as a kid, Gae was always working on crafts or making things. As one of 10 kids, “my momma used to say that she would count our heads in front of the television or the playroom and one would be missing. She’d go to my room and I’d be there making something.”
From clothespin butterflies with tissue paper wings to painting or drawing or gluing things together, as a child, Gae felt compelled to express herself by putting things together with her hands. Gae is actually a triplet, with two sisters who are identical. “I’m the different one,” she joked.
She remembers making dolls and doll clothes, which led to one of her first business pursuits. Before her current success as an artist and business owner, Gae had what she refers to as “another life,” designing and creating jointed bean bag bears, with movable arms and legs. At one point, more than 30 years ago, she had a copyright on her products and was making thousands of bears that were sold around the country.
She readily admits she didn’t set out to build a successful business, only to follow through on a hobby that she enjoyed. She collected bears and wanted to have more to add to her collection.
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“I never took a business class so I have no idea how to really run a business, but the bears were very successful and THE chocolate SHOP is successful,” she said.
She feels that her success has come from being open to new ideas. “I wonder what would happen if …,” she said.
Gae bought her chocolate business more than 10 years ago and has made a number of big changes, moving the business from Atkins to Marion and switching from almost all wholesale to primarily a retail operation.
“I knew if I wanted to grow the business, I needed to grow it in the retail direction,” she said. “Now, we are a destination, and we have great, loyal customers and great corporate customers that keep coming back.”
Walking into her store, it doesn’t look or feel like your average sweets shop. You won’t find any lace or flowers, but instead funky art and rusty collectibles and her unconventional art.
“My advice is don’t be like everybody else. Don’t open a cookie-cutter store if you possibly can,” Gae said. She adheres to the notion of “talk-about marketing.”
“If you have a retail store, there needs to be something in there that when people leave, they go and talk about it with someone,” she said. “My chocolate shop is very different than most. People leave, and they talk about the cool light that’s hanging from the ceiling or the cool barn beams.” Her interest in extended word-of-mouth marketing is why she also began displaying and selling her own artwork in the shop, to create an experience for shoppers.
“For about two years, there was nothing in those windows, because we couldn’t put chocolate in the windows with the sunshine.” It was her husband, Deane, who suggested putting her art in the storefront, which now gives the shop so much personality.
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“I’m really picky even about the music we play to create an atmosphere,” Gae said. “Music is very important in setting the mood. I don’t play Christmas music, not because I don’t like it, but I think maybe people need a break from Christmas music.” She notes that during the holidays, the shop plays slower music, “so if they have to wait, it calms people down, but not so much that they fall asleep.”
Gae is able to be creative at her shop, coming up with new flavor combinations and developing new packaging. But she notes that in order to make space for new items, some products “get voted off the island.” She’s learned her shop can’t be profitable if she has too broad of a product selection so she pays close attention to how quickly certain items sell. She occasionally gets requests to carry other flavors or other items like fudge. “We make fine chocolate. We make truffles.” So she has had to learn to be unafraid to say “no” to customers, “no” to adding new items that she doesn’t think would sell, “no” to bringing back old favorites, “no” to anything that won’t contribute to the business.
“Not in a mean way, but you have to set limits. That’s how I keep in business.”
She works to teach others, including her employees, to say “no” back to her when necessary. She’s learned it’s only through having free space or free time that one can make the most of new opportunities.
More than others, Gae feels driven to express herself through her art. “I have to make art in order to run the chocolate shop because I need a break,” she said. So she has created several work spaces that allow her to focus on her art at home and at the store, with an art room just off the kitchen in her Marion home and a small studio space in the basement of the store’s building.
“I really like Virginia Woolf and ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ “ she said. “A quote from it that I Iike is, ‘It is much more important to be one’s self than anything else.’ “
She loves the notion in Woolf’s essay that we each must have a room or an area in our lives to be creative, to let ourselves think. “For me, that speaks to a room that I need to have just for myself, for creating art. Somebody else might need that room for reading books. Somebody else might need that room for writing. But I use that ‘room of my own’ as a place where I create. I schedule time for myself in that room.”
Her art is hard to characterize, but it’s primarily three-dimensional mixed media pieces with an edge, many made with found objects. Lately, she’s been creating fabric balls. She’s a self-taught artist, having never taken an art class, and she notes she’s not mastered every artistic skill.
“I can’t cut a straight line worth a darn. I’m not a straight line, symmetrical artist. But I understand balancing things whether it’s the weight or the color of something.” Instead of beating herself up, she has learned to embrace what she is good at and incorporates that into her art. Gae said she used to struggle with things not being “perfectly pretty,” but she’s realized over time she was imposing rules on herself that were holding her back.
She speaks fondly of a time almost 10 years ago when she, with the help of her young grandson, was able to get more in tune with herself as an artist. She was looking for a way to spend quality “grandma time” with her grandson and came up with a project they could do together. “Every day we would draw something. We would open up a book, and we would pick a picture and we would both draw it,” she said. “Those little drawings became better and better.”
Today, she admits that if you asked her to illustrate something, she would still struggle, but she learned a lot from that time -- to not be afraid to try new things, to not feel like we always need to act like we have it all together.
“I’m finally following who I’ve been inside all along. I’m a work in progress. So is my business. So is my art. Always a work in progress with permission to change.”
HER takeaway on creativity:
-- Ask yourself “what would happen if?”
-- Don’t be afraid to say “no”
-- Give yourself a “room of one’s own”
-- Don’t let self-imposed rules hold you back
HER book suggestions
“Craft a Life You Love” By Amy Tangerine
Creativity doesn’t always have to come in big strokes. If you’re trying to bring new ideas or a renewed sense of creativity to your work or home life, small steps can add up. Author Amy Tangerine has made a name for herself, turning her sewing and scrapbooking hobbies into successful businesses. Her new book/workbook offers 28 simple exercises with room to write and reflect. This inspiring read will not only help you be more creative but give yourself permission to do the things you love.
“A Room of One’s Own” By Virginia Woolf
Gae Sharp-Richardson of Marion likes this extended essay that was first published in 1929. Based on a series of lectures she gave, Woolf discusses women’s struggle for independence and creative opportunity.
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“It is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people...Think of things in themselves.”
HER Quotes to Inspire
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
-- Maya Angelou
“Social media has colonized what was once a sacred space occupied by emptiness: the space reserved for thought and creativity.”
-- Mahershala Ali
“Routine kills creative thought.”
-- Scarlett Thomas
“One sure-fire way to stay creative: force yourself to learn something new.”
-- Harvey Mackay