“When the horse dies, get off.” Strange as it seems, those six words may have changed the course of Alice Shepherd’s life.
At the tender age of 19, Shepherd began her career in bookkeeping in Nashville, TN, where she was born and raised. It wasn’t long before she had worked her way up to a position in public accounting and also became a certified QuickBooks Pro advisor, leading classes and instructing others in the use of the accounting software. When asked why she chose accounting, Shepherd replies in her lilting Southern accent, “I was good at accounting, plain and simple. It didn’t have much to do with liking it or not liking it; it served me well.”
Throughout her adult life, Shepherd did all the things she thought she was supposed to do. “I went to high school, briefly went to junior college, met a wonderful man, and got married. I got promotions and moved up the career ladder, and later went back to school. I was the first woman in my family to graduate college. But something was missing.”
As an accountant and bookkeeper, Shepherd often worked with women who were in the process of setting up their own businesses. During this time they would tell her their stories; share their dreams. And one day, one of these women said something to Shepherd that resonated with her in a way that nothing else ever had. “She said to me, ‘When the horse dies, get off.’ That’s it. It sounds crazy but it just struck home,” she laughs. “And from that moment forward, I began thinking about what other options I had. I realized my horse had died a long time ago.”
Shepherd believes wholeheartedly that leaving her job to create art full-time was the right decision, but it was not an easy one. “My husband was incredibly supportive, but we needed to get our financial ducks in a row. We are not wealthy people. We changed our lifestyle dramatically. We didn’t have a lot to begin with, but we reduced our overhead in any way we could. If you really look at what you spend, you might be surprised at the places you can cut back. We decided we needed to take stock of what we had, and not think about what we didn’t have.”
There is something else that Shepherd wants women like her to know: “Before I started this, I didn’t think it was possible. I’d see the stories of women who left their careers for other pursuits, but these women had plenty of money – they were women who had been making six-figure salaries. And me, I’m working class. That’s not what we do. You get your desk job, your benefits, you’re happy if you’re not on your feet all day. That’s it. But I knew wanted more than that.”
Shepherd says she’s always been a bit of an entrepreneur. “When I was about nine or ten, I got one of those little looms to weave potholders. Not only did I make potholders, but I went door-to-door around the neighborhood trying to sell them. And you know what? People actually bought them! Everything I make, people want. But you do have to be objective and know the difference between what is good and what is a hobby.”
Her entire life she has loved to create things, to make art, but it had always taken a back seat to her “real job.” So in 2011, she left bookkeeping for good. After quitting, one of the first things Shepherd did was to secure an internship with a local artist whose work she respected. “It was scary, reaching out to an artist who was much more established, and who I admired so much. But I screwed up my courage and contacted her, and to my surprise she said yes. Once I took that first step, everything else became easier.”
Shepherd also knew that she had to get out into the community; she was too isolated. “I love working alone, but in terms of a business, it’s not viable. I needed to get out, and get my name out.” She taught herself how to build her own website. Though she hadn’t even had a Facebook page before, she taught herself to use social media. She brainstormed ways to get out and meet people, like volunteering with a community art project. And all of this paid off.
By 2013, Artwork Cubed was born. The 51-year-old Shepherd turned her garage into an art studio and today works primarily with kiln-formed glass and lightweight metals, as well as any other materials that inspire her. Her newest line, called The Birthstone Collection, is a series of twelve bowls, one for each month, crafted from hand-cut transparent and iridized glass inspired by the birthstone of that month.
A chance meeting played a role in growing her business as well. “I needed to drop off a flyer for an event I was helping with. I walked into Picture This Gallery to ask if they might be willing to hang a flyer for me. I had been working in my studio all day, looked a fright, and the person in the gallery I just happened to hand a flyer to was Matt Fischer, the Metro Arts Commissioner!” This bit of serendipity opened up many opportunities for Shepherd.
“I have finally found a community that I have something in common with– people I really enjoy being with. I worked with some wonderful people in accounting, but I never really hung out with them. That should tell you something; if you aren’t friends with the people you work with, you’re probably in the wrong career.”
Asked if she has any regrets, Shepherd answers emphatically, “I do not! Still, it is one of the most anxiety-inducing things you can do. But the more fear you have, the more you know you are on the
right track. You should be afraid, but you should not let that fear paralyze you.”
Shepherd is now working on developing new lines and showing and selling her work in a variety of outlets. She also takes as many classes and workshops as she can. “I want to provide meaningful objects, something that people can really connect to, that don’t break the bank. I don’t know those people who can walk into a gallery and spend $5000 on something beautiful. My mission is to make beautiful things that people can actually afford to buy and share.”
And finally, whatever you do, do not refer to Alice Shepherd’s work as a hobby. “Motorcycle riding is my hobby. This is my career, which is not always easy for people to understand. Many people define success in terms of money. I disagree. You get to decide what your idea of success is, you define it. Don’t let other people poison it for you.
“I’m working seven days a week, fourteen hours a day or more. But my eyes fly open in the morning, and I’ve got a million new ideas. I throw on some clothes and I can’t wait to get to my studio. My work is my play is my life, and I love every minute of it. I’m happier than I could have imagined.”
Artwork Cubed is a new business that still faces many challenges, financial and otherwise. Career 2.0 will be checking back with Alice Shepherd periodically to chronicle her artistic journey. You can follow Shepherd on her Facebook page.