Interview with Artist, Calligrapher and Author Melissa Dinwiddie
Melissa Dinwiddie tells us about her shift from dance to art and calligraphy work and her Creative Sandbox Community.
Melissa Dinwiddie Bio
A full-time freelance artist and calligrapher for 15 years, Melissa Dinwiddie is now chief instigator and lead facilitator of Creative Sandbox Solutions, a creative consultancy that helps organizations future-proof their people and their plans through the strategic use of play. She also runs the Creative Sandbox Community, an online community for women, as well as in-person creativity retreats, hosts the podcast Live Creative Now, and is author of The Creative Sandbox Way: Your Path to a Full-Color Life. She lives in Silicon Valley with her husband and Siberian cat, Nika, and plays ukulele in her notso-copious spare time.
Please tell us what you do?
I’m an artist, speaker, author, and creativity instigator, on a mission to help people take the fear out of their creativity and bring back the joy.
At the center of everything I do is the metaphor of the Creative Sandbox — the mindspace of being a four-year-old, where there is no wrong, where the purpose is not to impress anyone or make money or win awards, but simply to experience the joy of the creative process.
Last year I published a book that expounds on this core metaphor, The Creative Sandbox Way: Your Path to a Full-Color Life. Part coach-ina-box, part journal, part coloring book, The Creative Sandbox Way is not just for reading; it’s a hands-on interactive playbook, designed to get you taking action.
A love letter to my younger self, this is the book I wish I’d had when I was just getting started as an artist, when I was struggling with burnout as a creative professional, and even long before that when I believed I wasn’t creative at all.
In addition to my book, I run an online community for women called the Creative Sandbox Community, where we put into practice my Creative Sandbox principles and concepts. This is the main way people have to interact with me directly, since my openings to work with clients are very scarce, but in the Creative Sandbox Community I host live group calls throughout the month. I used to offer online courses throughout the year, but they’re all consolidated into the Creative Sandbox Community now.
I also host an annual retreat in the Fall, Create & Incubate Retreat, with plans for more in-person retreats and workshops down the road.
Since the book came out I’ve also been doing more speaking, bringing the message of The Creative Sandbox Way to high schools, colleges, corporations, conferences, and other organizations.
In my copious spare time (ha) I work with a very small number of private coaching and consulting clients, and in the meantime I still run a ketubah art business on the side (a ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, which is a traditional part of every Jewish wedding ceremony). You can see my ketubah art at http://ketubahworks.com.
Technically, I do have art for sale on my website, although that’s not the focus of my marketing (I’m more interested in instigating other people’s creativity than selling my art) so I don’t sell much art online. I do hold an Artist Open Studio once a year in the Spring, however, which I find a lovely way to connect with my local community.
I read that you started with dance, how did you shift into calligraphy and other art ?
Yes, I fell madly in love with dance as a teenager — it was my first creative passion, and I moved to New York to pursue a dream of being a professional dancer. During my first year at Juilliard, however, I developed a vicious case of tendinitis, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, that turned out to be the end of my dance career.
It took me several years to discover another creative outlet. For about nine years I pursued an academic path, while on the quest for the miracle cure for my tendinitis. I truly believed I was a “non-creative” person during this time, and not surprisingly, given what I know about myself now, it was a very grey period of my life. I actually earned a masters degree, en route to a PhD, before I realized that I wasn’t happy in academia. (Thank goodness I figured that out before the PhD!)
Then, the summer after marrying my first husband, I suddenly decided I would be a writer. It made such logical sense — after all, I’d always gotten such good grades on my college and grad school essays!
But now, with the pressure on to produce amazing writing, I found I couldn’t write a thing. Every word I tapped out sucked — or at least that’s what the gremlins in my head convinced me.
So I started making arts and crafts to procrastinate.
Literally, that’s how I got started. And because there was no pressure at the time (after all, I wasn’t an artist), I felt completely unhindered and free.
It didn’t matter if I sucked, because unlike with the writing, I wasn’t trying to impress anyone.
So surprise, surprise, making arts and crafts was fun and ease-filled, whereas writing felt like pulling teeth — excruciating. It felt like the Universe was telling me to quit writing and make art instead, so that’s what I did.
I started taking every art class I could get my hands on at my local art centers: calligraphy, watercolor painting, drawing, ceramics, you name it. At first I was enamored with the variety, but within about six months I found myself skipping my other classes to stay home and practice calligraphy.
Eight years after losing dance, I had discovered another passion! I joined my local calligraphy guilds, took every workshop they offered, and quickly turned my passion for calligraphy into a little “hobby business.” When my marriage fell apart a few years later, I grew that business into a living as my ketubah business.
How did you get started with your blog and your other artist focused products ?
The tricky thing about making a living from your art is that it’s very easy to get caught up in the idea that everything you create has to make money. The problem is, if you’re not very careful to set up sacred Creative Sandbox time to let your spirit play, purely for the joy of it, it’s a fast route to burnout.
This is what happened to me.
I was so focused on making sure my bills would get paid that I neglected to make sure my creative spirit got fed. I made a lot of art for clients, but I stopped making art for me, and that leads to nothing good.
By 2007 my ketubah business was on track to six figures, but I was burned out. And then 2008 happened, and the U.S. economy tanked.
For the first time ever my business didn’t go up, it went down. And it didn’t just go down a little, it tanked right along with the economy.
I didn’t really know how to run a business — I’d been skating along on luck up to this point — so I panicked. I “threw money at the problem,” as they say, and over the course of two years succeeded at nothing but getting myself into debt.
Cut to February of 2010. I was in financially dire straits, with no savings left, and no way to pay my mortgage, which was coming due in a few days. In quick succession two things happened:
First, through sheer stupidity I lost a big sale that would have more than paid my mortgage, and I had a massive breakdown.
Then, right on the heels of this, my boyfriend, the man I thought was my life partner, betrayed me, kicked me when I was down, and left me in even worse financial straits.
It felt like the Universe had walloped me upside the head with a 2×4, and I was lying in the proverbial gutter, lower than low.
The thing about being in the gutter, though, is that there’s nowhere to look but up, and suddenly I realized I’d been walking around with blinders on for years. I’d been burned out and deeply unhappy being a ketubah artist, but until that moment of despair it hadn’t actually occurred to me that I could do something else with my life!
Suddenly I saw a world of possibilities open before me. I decided then and there that I was going to create the life I really, really wanted (what I now call a full-color life), starting with figuring out what, exactly, that life was!
Within a few weeks I started my blog, Living A Creative Life, in order to chart my journey, and hopefully make a difference for others along the way. This is the journey I’ve been on ever since.
In one of your interviews, you mentioned Chris Guillebeau as an inspiration, can you please explain?
Right after my hit-bottom moment, someone forwarded me a link to Chris’s site. I’d never heard of Chris before, and I wasn’t familiar with many blogs or bloggers back then. Chris was really the first person I was aware of who was doing something he loved, making a difference in the world, and making a good living while doing it.
He was a true role model.
For me, that was hugely important. Some people have the imagination to charge ahead with a vision even if they’ve never seen anyone else modeling that vision. Most of us, though — me included — need more help.
We need role models to blaze the way and show us what’s possible. Chris did that for me, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
Do you think creating courses and community for artists is a good business direction for artists to take?
I would never make a blanket statement about a business direction for anyone. What makes a good business direction for you entirely depends on you, your particular market, your particular personality, and so many other factors.
The one thing that is a constant, however, is that if you want to succeed in business, you must be willing to learn to embrace marketing, get to know your market, and be flexible. If you can do those things, you’ll have a much better shot than if you want to just make art all day long and hope someone else will take care of the rest for you.
If you could start over, what would you do differently?
That all depends on how far back I’d be starting over! One thing is for sure, however: I’d carve out sacred space and time for play every single day — Creative Sandbox time for pure joy. And as I strategized and built my art business, I’d make sure it nourished my soul in addition to putting food on the table.
A business that burns you out is not sustainable in the long run.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
As I wrote above, carve out sacred time and space to play every single day, totally unattached from money or the need to impress anyone. No matter how desperate you may feel to earn a buck, this is essential.
Even just fifteen minutes can make a difference, and could keep you from burning out. If you can’t take fifteen minutes, make it ten. If you can’t take ten, make it two. Make it ridiculously achievable, but make it happen.
Trust me on this. Small daily acts build creative confidence and joy. You won’t regret it.