- By Chez Oxendine
MUSKOGEE, Okla. — The owners of MoonHawk Art LLC know firsthand the power of persistence.
Five years ago, MaryBeth and John Timothy took a “leap of faith” in starting their own company, a virtual art studio selling works depicting animals, Indigenous people and traditional stories in a variety of media.
From their home studio in Muskogee, Okla., the Timothys have built a small business that allows them to create art full-time.
“I had wanted to be a full-time artist for years, but we had to figure out a way to do that and be able to pay bills,” said MaryBeth Timothy (Cherokee Nation), who traces her passion for getting art out into the world to the Norman Rockwell calendar she “absolutely loved” that her family kept in their kitchen every year.
“When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t dirt poor, but I know my parents struggled, as most do, to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Needless to say, we didn’t have original artwork hanging around the house, but we always had a Norman Rockwell calendar hanging in the kitchen. He is the reason I became interested in art.”
Fueled by that inspiration, MaryBeth Timothy wanted to find ways to bring art and “provide that kind of joy” to everyone.
To help turn that passion into reality, the Timothys turned to a small business loan from the Cherokee Nation that allowed them to purchase sublimation equipment to put their art on items such as decorative tiles, mugs and cuff bracelets, effectively broadening their market of potential buyers.
The equipment purchase also enabled the couple to establish MoonHawk Art as their full-time careers.
“We were both able to quit our jobs within three years,” MaryBeth Timothy said. “Whether people buy a $5,000 original painting or a $12 dollar coffee mug with one of our art images on it, it accomplishes the same goal: It puts art into people’s lives. We all need art. It makes us happy, gives us hope, and helps us get through our days.”
Her husband, John Timothy, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, still marvels that the couple has been able to make a sustainable business from art.
“Having worked in the art/museum field since 1994, I would not have dreamed we would be selling our art and actually making a living at it, but here we are,” he said, crediting the duo’s varied backgrounds and approaches in helping achieve balance and make the business a successful venture.
“MaryBeth has an artist mind and a business mind. The two often do not blend in a person’s mind, especially mine. I’m the free-falling artist type,” he said. “Together we speak to the business-minded and the free-fallers.”
The model appears to be working for the Timothys: MoonHawk Art’s book of business has grown consistently over the past five years, and they’re eyeing another expansion in early 2021.
“We are extremely excited about it — we have a future studio behind our house that we are anxious to get finished so that we can move out of our home office and into more space,” MaryBeth Timothy said. “We will be able to house more inventory and equipment. One goal that we have is to eventually offer small workshops here at our studio once it is completed.”
Like any small business, MoonHawk also has faced its share of challenges, but the key to resilience goes back to persistence and setting goals “all the time to keep us looking forward,” according to MaryBeth Timothy.
“Getting to this point hasn’t been easy by any means. We have to work every day at it. Sometimes it seems like we don’t really have lives outside of our business. But we are our business — it is our dream,” she said.
One major hurdle has been the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated the arts and cultural sector nationwide.
The public health crisis has caused a $13.1 billion financial hit to the country’s arts and cultural organizations, according to an ongoing dashboard from Americans for the Arts. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit reports that 72 percent of arts and cultural organizations have modified their operations because of the pandemic, including 70 percent of respondents who increased their online presence as a result.
Americans for the Arts estimated in May that various cancellations and closings resulted in two-thirds of the nation’s artists becoming unemployed.
MoonHawk has felt the pinch as well, but the Timothys are using it as a learning experience.
“These days, we are having to shift due to the pandemic closing down all of our wholesale buyers and cancelling all of the art shows/festivals that we depended on,” MaryBeth Timothy said. “It’s been another opportunity to challenge us and make us grow. All of our sales are online now. We are learning new things every day that will help take our business to the next level.
“When you are self-employed, any money coming in has to pay the bills and also be reinvested. Starting out, it was slim pickings financially. It is because of these hurdles, these struggles, that have pushed us out of our comfort zone and caused us to think outside the box.”
For other Native entrepreneurs who might be considering starting a business right now, the Timothys recommend reaching out to various organizations and accessing available resources, some of which have actually increased because of the pandemic.
“Research and also find resources to help get you where you want to be,” MaryBeth Timothy said. “Whether it be through tribal commerce, the SBA or Native assistance programs, know that there is help out there. You just have to look.”
More than anything, however, an entrepreneur has to be persistent, she said.
“If you really want it, be tenacious. Tenacity is my go-to word or motto,” MaryBeth Timothy said. “We even named our new cargo van Tenacity, because tenacity gets you there.”