Cottage industry


Dear Artist,

Yesterday morning, Denise called at my studio. Denise is a “vest-pocket” dealer — she works from her home and her cell-phone. Along with her goofy Doberman “Sabre” Denise always has a few paintings in her Ford Windstar. She wanted to take a look at what I was currently up to and “borrow” a couple to show a “special collector.” She and Sabre did their rummaging, helped themselves to two 12 x 16s, and were gone with the wind.

Red House 3, 2013 oil on linen 203.2 x 213.4 cm by Alex Katz (b.1927)

Red House 3, 2013
oil on linen
203.2 x 213.4 cm
by Alex Katz (b.1927)

Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, home-based workers produced all manner of goods. Entrepreneurs visited spinners and weavers and took items away to be sold. Later, these familial relationships gave way to the efficiency of the factory — with the consequent social disruption — long hours of tedium, overcrowded slums, unhealthy and unsafe working conditions.

A lot of what we artists do is a flashback to the earlier cottage days. There are some advantages. Cottage work gets us off the streets and out of the towers and factories. We may choose to live a more rural and quiet life where work can be done at our own speed. We can build ourselves a sacrosanct space where there’s freedom to grow. We have the joy of producing personal and relatively expensive goods that are either picked up or shipped. While we are not in the front line of commerce, there’s the satisfaction of a connection with those whose talent is to share with others. A cottage creator may indulge his or her joy, put the human condition into perspective, and nurture a muse that has the potential to be of high value to mankind.

Black Brook 18, 2014 oil on linen 96 x 120 inches by Alex Katz

Black Brook 18, 2014
oil on linen
96 x 120 inches
by Alex Katz

This morning Denise phoned to say that she had “struck out — the wife loved them but the husband didn’t like the colours. The wife was practically in tears and said she wanted them for Christmas but that was months away and she knew they would be gone.” Putting on my guru-hat I said, “People don’t always give the right reasons when they say no.” Denise, wondering if it might be the money, phoned the people back and told them they could have the paintings and not pay until Christmas. Bingo. Home run. Another beauty of cottage industry — flexibility.

Best regards,


PS: “I don’t mind parting with the corn, but not with the field in which it was raised.” (John Constable)

Esoterica: Major changes are again overtaking society. Everywhere there’s the desire to become more highly realized, to be more independent, to be freer of traffic and tension. More than anything there’s the desire to give from the true self, to be real, not to be used or used up. Cottage industry provides some of this. As Henry David Thoreau noted a hundred and fifty years ago, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

This letter was originally published as “Cottage industry” on April 27, 2004.

Alex Katz’s studio desk, with photos of his family, 2018 Gillian Laub photo.

Alex Katz’s studio desk, with photos of his family, 2018
Gillian Laub photo

I wish each and every one of you well during this global health crisis and encourage you to flatten the curve by staying at home with your creative materials. I hope our Painter’s Keys community can be a source of friendship and creative inspiration during this time and always.
In friendship, Sara 

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“Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.” (Oscar Wilde)



  1. I’ve always operated a “cottage industry” business, but I’ve always had to find my market and deliver my wares….no agents come visiting to take away samples for possible sales. To be ones own boss has been a realized goal and well worth the effort, although lean times are a reality as well. Taking fiscal responsibility for life’s expenditures is also very important, and that fact has had an impact on my creative process by default. I still managed to create what excites me as well as wholesale orders and art show incidentals, and every now and then a piece I can truly call my ART does sell for a price that satisfies me, even though the usual commission skims 50% off the top. On-line sales possibilities are intriguing, but the focus is on a kind of transparency that suits intimacy and ego, and a communal mind set willing to be told what is acceptable ART….the face of a horrific serial killer blown up on a huge digital canvas and hanging in some cozy kitchen is an insult to the word.

  2. John Francis on

    In Britain during the Industrial Revolution it’s estimated that 100,000 weavers were put out of work by the emergence of the factories and mills which sprang up, mostly in the North and the Midlands. Meanwhile, here in Toronto, as this pandemic continues to unfold, it’s rather amusing to see interviews with Musicians and Craftspeople using the time at home to put their ‘crafty fingers’ to work while so many are slowly going ‘mental’ because they’ve simply run out of things to do. I suspect that after this all over, the Craft markets and the Music venues will see a ‘tsunami’ of homegrown and local talent that might not have come about otherwise. Go figure. I’ve already given this fresh cultural trend a name: The Silver Lining.

    • Very timely…my business is actually called Woodcolt Cottage Industries. Wish someone like Denise would drive up to rummage though & find buyers for my work!!!!!!

  3. I remember that well. I do miss your Dad. Sabre has been gone 7 years now. He loved to play with Emily. Savvy now rides shotgun and guards the art. I actually always had a shared office downtown but always drove to clients and artists. Still do. Well not right now, lol.

    • So good to hear from you, Denise…Loved re-reading and re-posting this oldy-but-goody.
      The imagery is so clear!
      Hope you’re well and I’m delighted to know that Savvy has taken over responsibilities.
      In friendship,

  4. Inspirational as always. I love these.
    I work at home, presently where I have the studio. The factory does continue to hold the leash to the freedom of cottage life for me. I find it’s resulting in more plein air painting in my back yard in my situation. Agree it will be interesting to see the resulting creations

  5. It has been such a physically active few years of exhibiting, delivering, shipping work, hanging and taking down shows, I relish the idea of more Denise’s coming around to sort through work to sell to the outside world, I have had one such experience this year and it led to a sale of a baseball painting to a baseball collector. The world can always use way more Denis’s ! I’m starting to see just how precious this time is for many artists during this peculiar time. I’m just recently trying to reorient myself and set aside the many to-do’s and responsibilities and put my painting at the top of my list, way before mowing the lawn. Thank you for these inspiring letters!

  6. Bindu from India on

    Deepest gratitude sara for the beauty of your words, the beauty of your art and the beauty of your generous heart

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