A Conversation with Maria Ernest Fragopoulou

Maria Ernest Fragopoulou is the talented artist, photographer, and maker behind the online atelier Mouse In the Dollhouse. She's a professionally trained art historian, a mom to two girls, and she currently lives with her family in a seaside university town in Crete.

We chatted a few weeks ago (before her family left for their August holiday) about everything from promoting on Etsy to the challenges and constraints that are an inherent part of the work-from-home artist's life. I'm so pleased to take Hudson + Daughter readers into Maria's inspired and whimsical artistic world...

What is your background and education? 

I studied Archaeology and Art History at the University of Crete in Greece and then moved to New York for a Master’s degree in the History of Decorative Arts at the Bard Graduate Center. I focused mainly on Italian Renaissance art but also worked extensively for the preparation of a big Byzantine exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When I returned to Greece, I worked for a big art gallery in Athens and then at an art and history research institution in Rethymno, Crete, where I live.

What made you decide to become an artist?

I was an artist all along but I thought I wanted to devote myself to the study of the history of art and not the practice of studio art. I was always making art on the side.

Was that a difficult transition?

Even years after making the decision, my mom keeps hoping that I will find a real, steady job, with a steady income. I don’t mean to criticize my family with my answer—they were always very supportive of my choices. It is more of a criticism of the middle-class mentality. It is a criticism of a system of values that measures happiness by counting money, houses, cars, publicity, and careers.

What is a typical day for you?

I start my day slowly by reading literature with a cup of coffee. I move on to answering emails and to attending to everything that is necessary for my online presence, whether that means photographing, uploading new images, or renewing expired listings, for example. Then I visit my favorite websites, web-magazines, artists’ blogs, or design blogs. Around noon I have warmed up enough and if it is a good day I paint or draw for two to three hours before picking up my kids from school. I have lunch with my children and my husband who usually takes an afternoon break at home and returns to his office after a couple of hours of rest (he is a university lecturer working on visual perception). My afternoons and evenings are filled with classes. I help my oldest daughter with her homework and then take both of my daughters to their ballet class twice a week. Two of my evenings are devoted to my workshops—a painting workshop and a jewelry workshop. Later in the evening when the kids go to bed I usually continue my work, including scouting the internet for inspiration and learning.

Can you talk about your process for inspiration and research?

I read a lot—literature mostly. I have a big library with a decent section of art and design books. Books and travel have been my only real investments and where I spend most of my money. They are connected—a book always offers travel to another land. I like seeing other artists’ work, study their creative processes, and their spaces. I am always inspired by the work of others, whether it is painting, jewelry, or photography. I use photography for my portraits and old masters’ drawings and paintings have inspired several of my painted portraits. My attention can be captured by a look, the position of the head, light and shadow, or a color, and I use this kind of detail as the starting point for my work. With the exception of the sea, which will always inspire me, I am not a fan of nature at all. I am a city girl. Commuting, seeing people, walking with others, sitting at a café and observing, visiting a gallery, or attending an exhibition at a museum—this is what inspires me.

How has living in Greece influenced your work?

It has influenced the light in my work and the color of my work. The sea and the color blue is part of Greece and is part of who I am. Greece of today has influenced my work in an additional way. The hardship of unemployment and the fact that I was unable to work in my field of study, Art History, affected my everyday life. It affected my happiness. It gave me time to search for what I had lost years ago—the dream of me and of who I wanted to be. We usually know that when we are kids and it is often a good idea to stick with that first dream.

Good for you for being able to reconnect with that part of yourself. So, what's your workspace like?

I work from home, and my workspace is my living room filled with all of my books and a big dining table that I've turned into a permanent desk. It holds my notebooks, sketchpads, my iMac, my MacBook, my scanner, cameras, books I am currently reading or use for research and inspiration, jewelry I am creating, and anything else I'm currently working on. I paint on the kitchen table and on the floor. I keep paint and brushes stored away and pull them out only when I need them. I think that the space restrictions have resulted into the small format art that I create—I can easily store it. Also, I like finishing the paintings I do within a day or two. 

How did you get to the point of selling your work?

Friends were attracted by the art I was creating and started ordering paintings for their kids and as gifts. This is how it all started. Up to that point I was only painting for my pleasure and never thought of showing my work to an audience.

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What is your main source of revenue as an artist?

I sell through Etsy and have made other retail sales to people who are friends or friends of friends and have learned about me by word of mouth. I have exhibited a little—I take baby steps in terms of exhibiting my art at galleries because I am shy, and could improve when it comes to Marketing my work. I upload paintings on Saatchi Art occasionally, and also offer my work through a very new online marketplace called Great.Ly, where the work of creators (like me) is selected by tastemakers/bloggers and promoted and offered to the buyers through their online boutique storefronts. It is a fresh idea and I hope it will work out for me. I sell mostly original drawings and paintings, some photography and digital work, miniature portrait jewelry, art and design for kids, and just a few limited edition reproductions.

Do you have any strategies you can share for promoting your work on Etsy?

I started my Etsy shop during the summer of 2011 but only this year did I start to do more with the shop by uploading a lot of additional listings. What works, besides the right keywords and the tags and taking good photos, is joining groups, creating treasuries and promoting the good work of other fellow makers and artists. It is something I need to work on. It requires a lot of time, and a daily commitment and discipline, but it does help. I've noticed that the users with many followers create treasuries on a daily basis. Often times, a seller will reciprocate by including one of your pieces in their own treasury, which might take you to the front page, which exposes you to so many more followers and buyers. There is a lot of information about these and other strategies on the Etsy blog.

How do you figure out pricing?

I do take the market under consideration and in most cases I try to have a price that is fair for me, representative of the time I spent on a piece, and is also fair for the customer as well. I take a look at how similar items are priced on Etsy or on Saatchi Art, for example. For certain pieces, I'm sentimentally attached and I neglect the market and the fairness of it all and set a price based on what I believe the piece is worth. I say to myself, "I will not give that work for less than X amount because this is what it means to me.”

How do you manage staying focused and avoiding distraction as a full-time artist?

I don’t… distraction is part of the creative process for me. Or to put it more accurately, it is part of my character, my personality, and my temperament. My mind travels from one interesting idea to another until I get really obsessed with something and actually sit down to execute what is in my mind. Once I start, and I'm onto something, I shut everything else out. Phone calls are not answered and I am afraid I become very irritable with my kids and husband and everyone who is around me. I know this about myself, so I make sure to get into the actual execution of a painting when no one is around (during school for my kids and my husband's office hours, and if I have to, late at night). I need the daylight, so nights are reserved for very tight deadlines or free sketching projects on the couch.

Is it isolating to work as a solo creative? How do you stay motivated? Do you connect with other artists?

I need this isolation. I like it! I do value the time where I get to communicate my ideas and my questions to some people, however. I've participated in a painting and drawing workshop for the last two years and it has been a life-altering experience for me, mainly because of the very cultivated artist/instructor I'm working with. He pushes me to see the things that I don’t, in terms of light and shadow and the representation of the two. With this strict process of observation, I am realizing so many things about myself. I had thought that I was a very observant and detail-oriented person. I am not. Instead I tend to avoid seeing the details and I try to simplify them in order to understand them or organize what I'm seeing. I am realizing that I could never interpret a scene in a realistic, naturalistic way but only in an abstract one. It is like being in psychoanalysis. All of this helps define my style and my personality as an artist. Also it is so interesting to see how other artists interpret the very same scene. Each one of us interprets a fragment of reality and through the prism of his or her personality and his or her mood on a certain day. This subjectivity, this individuality, is something that interests me a lot. Participating in a group of artists once in a while offers me this kind of inspiration and clarity.

Americans seem to be obsessed with work/life balance. Do you struggle with feeling over-worked as an artist in Greece?

I am human, so yes, I dream about work/life balance, having it all and achieving maximum happiness, however, I also know it doesn’t really exist. I am afraid I am a bit cynical. As a parent I know I will always feel insufficient because I would always want to do more for my children and my family, in terms of time I can spend with them playing or reading a book. As far as work is concerned, it is sad to think of what could have been accomplished with more effort and time. So yes, I struggle, but I also try to take pleasure in the little things: the company of good friends sharing a meal, a book I manage to read to my daughter late at night, a painting I complete after days or weeks of thinking about it, the day I am spending on the beach holding a book under the shadow of a tree without my computer, phone, TV, or iPad. Happiness is somewhere in there.

What is your advice to someone starting out?

I am uncomfortable giving advice to others, so I will say this to myself: you cannot avoid who you are, so the sooner you find that out the happier you will be. Don’t stay still. Stay curious and keep learning. Learn to be patient. Learn from the slow process. Do more things with your hands.

Who inspires you right now?

I have started researching the Color Field Painting movement for my next project. I'm looking closely at the work of artists such as Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler. Paint flowing is something that interests me right now.

What's coming up that you're most excited about?

I was asked by a musician friend to create an artistic work as an interpretation for each one of a dozen musical pieces for his new album. He composes very elegant jazz and rock pieces and for this particular album, a writer was also invited to create a piece of writing for each piece. I haven't done anything like this before and I'm very curious about the result. The music is almost finished and so far, I've read half of the texts. It’s all very soft and strong at the same time. It's summery and erotic. As with all  of my projects, ideas swirl in my head up until the actual execution of the artwork.

Where can we follow you and your work?

You can check out my portfolio site, Mouse in the Dollhouse, follow me on Facebook or Pinterest, and browse my work for sale at my Etsy shop.