Jessica Watkins is an artist, photographer and small business owner in Los Angeles, who runs one of my favorite shops, Tiny Deer Studio. Her vintage-inspired jewelry, housewares, photography, and other stationery items often feature geometric patterns or floral-inspired themes that play with light and color. A Texas-born Chicana artist, Jessica also co-owns The Pin Department, a custom pin and patch supplier, with her husband, Jacob.
Earlier this year I was proud to be a part of one of Jessica's pop-up markets at Tiny Deer, a regular event that has a small rotating selection of vendors from stationery and prints to plants and homegoods. I was struck by her generosity in hosting everyone at the market outside Tiny Deer HQ in Los Angeles, especially the offer to take some product photos (and pet portraits!) before the event. I love the care she clearly puts into her pieces and how that spills out into the community of artists around her. I'm glad we've been able to connect and am happy to share this interview where we cover her path as an artist, building community, and setting boundaries as a business owner.
As a multi-disciplinary artist, I'm excited by other creatives who combine media/interests into a larger practice. I'd love to hear more about how your work evolved from your photography to the range of home goods and accessories that are now a big part of Tiny Deer Studio.
The evolution happened over the course of so many years! The photography part of the biz just kind of happened on a whim, and for a long time it was all I did. Then the big pin craze came along, and I happened to be at the right place at the right time - to help a ton of other artists and brands make their own pins. Once I started thinking about how my other biz (The Pin Department) needed to evolve to suit the changing needs of my clientele, Tiny Deer Studio essentially became a showroom of sorts for that. Treating it as such allowed me the freedom to play around with different products, while also gaining knowledge on best practices and how certain items sell. That's all super helpful for running The Pin Department, as a lot of my clients rely on that knowledge. I know that sounds like it's all business - but it's also really fun for me!
Did you have any preconceived notions about being an artist and photographer that changed during that evolution?
Not really! I kind of just went along for the ride and didn't have to put too much pressure on myself when trying new things. Since I had the fortune of Tiny Deer Studio still being kind of my "baby" during the evolution, with The Pin Department being the bill-payer, I was able to do it more casually and more of a method of experimentation (while treating it as just another business expense). The coolest thing, that I did not expect, is that Tiny Deer Studio has grown so much since I started the evolution into other goods, that it actually helps pay the bills now, too!
On a kinda similar note, being an artist doesn't necessarily mean you'd love to run your own small business featuring your work. How does the business side of things factor into your practice? How did both Tiny Deer and The Pin Department start?
I honestly was so slow to start the business side of my art, mostly because I also had so many hobbies and a demanding full-time job. It took the encouragement of my friends and family - and then ultimately losing my job, to really go for it. Tiny Deer Studio started with just postcards and very cheap prints, sold at local pop-ups in Houston and then eventually some local shops. The shop owners helped me hone in appropriate pricing for my work, which was so appreciated. I did basically every pop-up I could do, which helped me gain some regular customers (mostly in Houston). All the folks I met at these pop-ups were so open and encouraging and kind; without that I'm not sure I ever would have kept it going. Community means so much, especially for someone who is just starting to really put themselves out there.
I kept up basically the same pace with TDS for years, always as a side-hustle, while I worked managing arthouse movie theaters, learning design and office management at stationery shops and a design firm, and eventually doing a bunch of other creative, sales and logistic-type work for a screen-printing shop. Eventually, my husband and I decided we wanted to move to Los Angeles, and it was his idea to start The Pin Department. It was just the next logical step, for me to take all of the skills I'd gained from helping other small businesses succeed, and do it for myself. So I did! We moved to LA, found an apartment within a day or so, and hit the ground running.
How does collaboration factor into things for you? I know that you collaborate on pins and other accessories, but your pop-up is very community-minded as well, which I really admire.
I appreciate that! As I mentioned, community means so much to me. Moving to LA, without a community established, when coming from a very active creative community in Houston - was so daunting. It didn't take long to find my people, especially with pins still being pretty major when we started, and we really put ourselves out there and went to a bunch of events and talked to people everywhere we went.
The product collaborations are really fun for me! It lets me bring ideas to life that I couldn't accomplish on my own, too. I get to play "creative director" with folks who have different styles and skills than me, which I love.
Once we moved into the space we're in now, which is a big ol' 1900's house on a major street, seemingly built for business and commercially zoned, it was a no-brainer for me to start the pop-up. The house has three front doors, one of which goes to my little shop space. With COVID, I didn't want to pop-up at any events, and I know that was the case for a lot of other creatives. I started inviting peers and clients to pop-up at my place, which has a gated parking lot out front, and quickly realized it was the perfect spot for them to kind of get back into pop-ups without the pressure of booth fees and with more space and comfort for their health.
It's been so rad! I love being a hostess, I love bringing my peers together, I love lifting up other makers, and I love seeing folks succeed. After being a vendor in SO MANY pop-ups of varying sizes throughout the years, I aim to just make it chill and fun for the vendors. We (by which I mean my husband, Jacob) pop-up the canopies we provide before the vendors arrive, we have tables and chairs to lend out, and we fill our break room with snacks and drinks for everyone. I can't believe we've been doing it for over a year now!
Social media can make it appear like artists have it all figured out or that things run like a breeze. Is there anything about being a working artist and business owner that you wish artists who are just starting out understood?
Oh, it's hard. On so many levels. But so many people are willing to share their knowledge and help you figure things out.
Something I feel like I'm telling folks who have even been doing this for a long time: you don't have to work all day, every day. Rest. Set boundaries. I literally pause my inbox after business hours so I'm not tempted to just work forever. No emails after 5pm, y'all! And I only work pop-ups and special projects on weekends.
Also, hire a CPA to help you file your taxes.
Is there a medium or form for your work that you want to explore next? Even something that might seem unrelated to your current work? Do you have projects that you don't really show anyone?
Even if just to justify the expense: I really want to start using my laser cutter more. I started making these hanging acrylic planter shelves for my own use, and even sold a few at the last pop-up! I love the idea of making more functional items and I also really want to design some fabric. I pretty much show everything I make, even the little sewing projects I've been doing for fun.
We have miniature figurines all around the house in and around our plants, and I love your miniatures series. Do you have a favorite miniature and/or is there one you're looking for but haven't found yet?
Oh my gosh, you do?! Sometimes I forget how many prints from my original work I still have. Something weird happened when we moved to LA, and I just kind of stopped shooting new work with the miniatures. They're still packed up from our 2017 move from Texas since they're so delicate.
I think the deer are probably my favorite. That makes sense, right? They're the first ones in the collections, and I found them in an old apartment I lived in for a few years. The buck isn't the original one. My brother knocked him off the shelf by accident and I had to find a replacement. I haven't looked for new ones in a long time, but I'd probably start with trying to find one that looks like my dog!