by CHRIS ROGERS
When Kari Yearous got started, she learned there was a name for people like her, a pejorative sometimes claimed with pride: “momtographer.”
As an at-home parent with two young children in 2009, Yearous wanted to take really nice photographs of her kids. It’s natural. The children are only little for so long, and Yearous loved the way photographs could capture a moment with them so well. However, she had no photography experience. The last artistic thing she did was taking mandatory art class in eighth grade. But over the past nine years, Yearous got a real-world education in photography, photo editing, and the art of figuring out how to make any money from art.
Winonans have probably seen Yearous’ photographs. Twin-hulled canoes on Lake Winona, colorful boathouses and autumn foliage, ornate steamboats at Levee Park — she specializes in landscapes of the island city. Her work has been featured in local papers and in shops all over town, in the form of postcards, notecards, calendars, puzzles, framed photographs, and a coffee table book.
These days, Yearous drives around with photo equipment in her minivan, ready to catch the perfect sunrise or foggy morning. She texts friends for up-to-the-minute reports: “Does anyone know if there’s hoarfrost down at the lake?”
Back before she sold her first photograph, Yearous was out with her family and saw some canoes lined up neatly at Lake Lodge with Sugar Loaf towering in the background. She clicked the shutter. “My friends said, ‘Wow, that’s really great. You should really try to sell your work.’ I said, ‘Ha, that’s funny,’” Yearous recalled.
The thought had never occurred to Yearous, but she had a little experience running a small business in the past. So she went for it. Yearous had a few notecards with the canoe picture printed, mustered her gumption, and approached then-bookstore owner Chris Livingston. His response: this is great, but I need a dozen more different images. He wanted one complete side of a display spinner full of Yearous’ work or nothing. Internally, Yearous’ reaction was, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! I can’t do this.” What she told Livingston was, “OK.”
What followed was years of figuring out what people would buy, often by trial and error. To Yearous’ credit, she was open to getting an education on what retailers wanted, Livingston said. “When you’re working with local artists, a lot of them, it’s a lot more work for retailers,” Livingstone said. “They create great art, but understanding how to make money off that art is not something they’re often taught,” he added. When it comes to cards, shop owners are used to working with wholesalers who send sales representatives to re-stock card displays, refund and take back product that is not selling, and fill it up with something new, he explained. “Kari did that,” Livingston said. She put in the work to check in on her displays and see what was selling, and she built a reputation for great quality control, he added. Yearous used Livingston as a resource, too. Did he think this product idea would sell? “Before she did it, she did research,” he said.
What is it like figuring out what would work? “That’s a huge adventure that can result in lost money and products sitting around your house,” Yearous said. “It’s about taking small steps. See how that goes, and keep investing,” she advised. “It’s exciting, intriguing, and it’s maddening or frustrating at times because something you think is going to go over big ends up being a business flop, or something that you never would have thought becomes a hit,” she added.
While Yearous does a lot of business online, she also went to lots of local shops to pitch them on carrying her products, and many of them said “yes.” “Without their open-mindedness, it would never happen, and it all started with Chris,” she stated. Yearous credited seeing local papers run her photos with helping inspire confidence, too. “It’s hard when you’re starting out to think that what you’re doing is really worth anything,” she added.
Some people might draw a line between the “high art” people spend hundreds of dollars on to hang on their walls and postcards Yearous sells for a few bucks each — she produces framed photographs, too — but Yearous does not care. People need to buy cards for birthdays and anniversaries, so why not buy something produced by a local artist? A framed photo can be a tough sell. “[A notecard] is solving a problem,” Yearous said.
Yearous is an unapologetic user of Photoshop and photo editing, too. “A lot of people have different opinions. ‘Oh, that’s cheating. That’s fake,’ But when you think about it … you can get [an edited photo] a lot closer to what you actually saw when you were actually there,” she stated.
So is her photography a livelihood for Yearous? Her kids are older now, and Yearous is working part-time outside her photo business. “For me, it started as a really nice way to fund my hobby,” she said. “And from there, I was able to buy the equipment, camera, and lens I thought I needed, and have things left over to be able to put toward family expenses. And for me, as a stay-at-home parent, anything I could put toward family expenses is really helpful.”
Yearous picks her projects, too. “I have to look for the things that are most efficient, most profitable, and most enjoyable and go with those.”
Yearous’ business is on Facebook at Kari Yearous Photography and online at www.winonagifts.com.
This was the first story in an occasional series on local artists and the business of art. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.