Episode 8: Staying True to Yourself with Lynn Dolan
Today, we are in conversation with the amazing and always thoughtful, Lynn Dolan. Lynn started her paper flower journey nearly 7 years ago and before long, she was teaching how to make paper flowers and botanicals at Castle in the Air. She currently teaches workshops at Etui (Fall workshop schedule forthcoming).
Be sure to listen to Lynn as she talks with Quynh, Jessie, and Priscilla, about her art and inspiration.
Lynn has been around the block for a while now so it’s no surprise that she’s got tons of useful insight into the paper flower art form and why she does what she does:
Let’s first learn a bit about Lynn:
1. Who is Lynn Dolan?
I'm an ordinary person in love with the world and the different types of humans in it - and especially in love with the natural world. It blows my mind that there is so much going on, just on our little blue planet, that an entire lifetime is not enough for anyone to become acquainted with all of it.
Not being an expert at any particular thing myself, I'm grateful for and really admire experts - scientists, naturalists, writers, painters, craftsmen, musicians, cooks, etc. I would like to keep learning from others as I continue to "grow up". In my daily life, I'm also a mom to a young teen who doesn't quite "get" my plant fascination, but is pretty patient about my projects and corny "mom humor". I was also supposed to have been a nurse by now, but I took a little detour until my son is a little older.
2. How did you find your branding style? How has your brand and style evolved to what it is today?
This is a tricky question - I don't see myself as having a "brand". I'd like certain freedom to evolve and indulge in whatever project interests me at any given moment - even if it's not "popular". I'm not obsessed with realism, but I aim to be respectful of whatever it is that makes a type of flower/plant what it "IS". So, a certain level of detail is important to me, but you're going to see it through my eyes and hands.
I am influenced by old paintings and botanical illustrations - especially Persian and renaissance depictions of plant life. Not a lot of it is "realistic", but you definitely know what it is that you are looking at, and it is quite graceful and the works have a unique finger-print to them.
I keep all of my old work in my IG gallery -- you can scroll all the way down to the first post to some of my "dorkier" stuff and see the 'evolution' of my paper art. a lot of "halfway-done' projects are there too! If you need a short answer - you could say my brand is: Plant portraits!
3. What are some of the challenges you've faced during your paper florist career?
The number one challenge: Simply explaining to others WHAT it is that I do. I think people hear the words, "paper flowers", and immediately picture something 'cutesy' or 'crafty' in a quick, simple way. I'm still reluctant to call myself an artist -- it's okay to feel like I am something in between a "crafter" and an "artist'. However, I STILL get a lot of inquiries for projects, collabs, commissions and there's a pattern: "You are so talented, your work is beautiful - blah -blah" - "Can you make (some absurd number of thing) for (an absurdly low cost) in an (absurdly short time frame)" - I used to see the disappointment /balking at my reply coming and try to come up with a defense/explanation of my work because I understood that they equated crepe paper with "quick, easy and cheap".
I usually would not even get a reply back. Now, I just give my rate, turn-around time, and a simple, "thank you for your interest" and let it go. I'm not emotionally invested in those interactions anymore. A lot of people still misunderstand what it is that I am doing and approach our work with some weird notions about its value -- in a way they would not other art using paper as a medium. I also long ago decided not to work in the wedding industry (although I think there is a healthy market for our craft in it!) because it didn't allow me to do the type of work that is personally gratifying to me.
4. How have you made your paper flower voice stand out in the crowd?
I just do my own thing - I don't know that I stand out?? Some things strike a chord with others and some of my favorites are only my favorites! I know some makers feel anxiety if they feel their work isn't received in a way they'd like - I choose to see a kind of freedom in it - no one owes me a "like" and I don't owe anyone any content!
I confess to getting a little bored of seeing the same things over and over sometimes - but I totally understand that there are certain flowers with wide appeal and that there is definitely an arc that people follow when they first get into this particular craft with certain "gateway flowers" - I did too! I'm happy when I see more people putting their own twist to the work and I'm working at being better at showing my appreciation when coming across subjects or work that is original.
5. How would you define your customer base?
For the most part, they are plant and natural history lovers, and lovers of botanical art in particular. They love objects, display pieces - and things that have an element of a 'joke' to them (hence, the boxes). They are fantastic entertainers, love a beautiful table, and are also great gift-givers. Usually, my commissions have a personal reference to them - a certain plant or something done in an unusual color - in honor of a loved one or memory.
I make sure my clients understand that this material is not archival quality - so they are ready to embrace the fading of the paper or any of the changes this medium undergoes over a period of time. My clients are very cool in that they "get" that!
6. What advice would you give to a paper florist that is starting out today? And one that is about to give up?
Oh, this is heavy --- I am aware that I am doing this for different reasons than many paper flower crafters. I KNOW that I would continue to do this even if no one else cared. I claim ownership of my work as something I ultimately do for my own pleasure and am truly grateful that I am able to indulge in it as much as I am able to these days. I am grateful to have been able to connect with others who share the same spirit.
I think you really have to sit down with yourself and examine (actually write down) what are the material and emotional returns you are wanting to get out of doing this thing? What sacrifices are you willing to make for those goals? If any of it sounds cringe-y to you afterward, alter your course. I think there are actually many who get into this "scene" with the same attitude as some of my would-be clients - "OOH! pretty, fast, cheap, paper!" - and it shows in their work.
This has made me a kind of a snob when it comes to e-commerce sites like Etsy, because I see the pages flooded with work that I actually think is underpriced for the amount of time/effort that has gone into pieces - not to mention, customers who can't tell the difference between a detailed piece and the productions stuff because it's "all just paper". IF YOU PRICE YOUR WORK TOO LOW, OTHERS WILL NOT SEE VALUE IN WHAT YOU DO NOT VALUE - AND you bring down the value entire market really.
Incidentally, Instagram amplifies that need for instant gratification by implying that you need to quickly cultivate a market or audience and do those weird "engagement growth" tactics, etc. I've been doing this paper thing on IG long before a lot of bigger accounts came on the scene. I saw the switch from personal/social accounts to marketing a business on quite a few - they'd be better to ask for business advice. I made a deliberate choice to keep a low-tech social approach to my own account.
I'm on here to make real friends! I am an observer by nature - and I did notice people talk about negative feelings associated with work comparisons, the pressure to be innovative or "keep up", getting approval from others, and the struggle associated with hustling 'to make it' to a business goal. I saw others who turned to marketing aggressively with their accounts and then they just kind of "dropped out" altogether - which felt inauthentic and merely transactional, but to each his own!
Why are you giving up? Did you have clear goals realistic from the beginning? Did you place some unrealistic time frame on your goals? More importantly, are those goals rooted in business or in art? Did you imagine a potential for "easy" income? Is this something you are ultimately doing for personal development? Are you merely following a trend? Do you know that trends come and go?
Would you STILL do this thing if no one else cared?? If you really do LIKE what you are doing, you will be more fearless about it and the right language to describe your work will come naturally to you. In the end, I enjoy this art/craft. The process is therapeutic and I find joy in the act of making these things. It gets me out of doors and using my eyes in new ways. That there are people willing to pay me for the results is merely a bonus - I'm happy that they understand the basis of what I do and that they are sympathetic! I'm not making income hand over fist, just enough to feed my passions!
The only solid business advice I have is from personal experience. You are not obligated to please people. It is OKAY (and sometimes beneficial) to say NO to projects and other requests. Respect your work pace and make room for being a well-rounded human being - or it will show in your work. I firmly believe in not becoming a mere 'producer'. This is why I turn down most production work - but that's just me. I realised how unhappy and bored I was making too many of one thing at a time - and then the entire lot of that work was never really appreciated by the client anyway. I'm anti hustle!
7. Do you have any paper flower making tips to share with our listeners?
I think this applies mostly to beginners --- there is a tendency to be too precious with the paper. Ironically, "It's just paper!" does apply in this case, when you are looking at the paper in its raw state, NOT post-transformation as your finished work. Experiment! Try coloring techniques on scraps. Look at colors as "base colors" not as the final color you are aiming for, and see potential new color palettes open up to you.
Don't be heavy-handed with the glue or the coloring tools, it's always better to have to add more of those than try to mitigate a soggy over-saturated mess. Then, there's the more philosophical advice: Invest in the process - SLOW DOWN. Ask yourself questions as you look at your work in progress. "Is it the right silhouette? Are the petal margins really this perfect?
Do I notice certain patterns or 'behaviors' in the real thing? Avoid making clones of things (that's actually just my pet peeve - WHY would you want 5 roses that are EXACTLY alike in a bouquet?) Use Google images as a great resource tool - lookup botanical prints and macro images of your subject matter. I think 75% of my work is observation and choosing colors.
8. Do you have a favorite tool you use on a daily basis?
I LOVE using wooden skewers to curl leaves, petals, thin wire. I also use them to score surfaces, poke holes, make textures in paper clay, etc. So simple, yet so useful! I also try to make my class projects accessible so that you don't feel like you MUST buy a ton of sprays, coloring tools, etc. You can really use a bunch of things that are on hand at home if you don't get yourself hung up on another person's techniques.
I'm constantly having to improvise - mostly because I have chaotic (translate: BAD) habits! The quality of your scissors is non-negotiable though! You will work more efficiently and save wear and tear on your joints, if you decide that you want to make a lot of things, by investing in the right pair of high-quality scissors!
Want to learn more about Lynn?
Follow her on her Instagram @lmdolan75 to keep admiring her beautiful paper flowers.