(For anyone who might be wondering, yes, this is a rant. However, it is not aimed at any one specific person; it is more about a general trend I have been witnessing. Accordingly, the examples given below have all been either doctored or entirely made up, and I am not calling anyone out; names have been withheld to protect the guilty.)
A couple of years back, overwhelmed by the depth and range of talent I saw around me in the pagan community, I made a resolution to myself: that I would support my fellow pagan artisans whenever possible by commissioning spiritual items directly from them, rather than going outside of the community or attempting to make everything myself. Yes, there are a number of different crafts and art forms I am passingly good at, and others I could probably learn, but why take time away from my fiber arts to produce something fair to middling for myself in oils, or clay, or metal (or herbal salves, for that matter) when I could pay someone with more skill to produce something amazing? After all, the only way any of us are going to make it in our respective highly competitive fields is if we support each other in some way, and the most immediately useful way we can do that is with our pocketbooks.
For the most part, this arrangement has worked out pretty well. But on those occasions when it fails, it seems to fail spectacularly, and to do so for reasons I would not even have believed possible if you had warned me about them beforehand. As a part-time customer service representative by day, in addition to being an artisan myself, customer care matters to me and I am seeing it ignored or shoved aside in favor of the artisan’s own urges in too many cases. This is not good business practice, because without your customers, you don’t have a business. Sadly, many artists (and pagan ones in particular, for some reason) tend to be self-centered and to consider their customers rarely, if at all; this is one reason why many artistic start-up businesses fail. And so, this brief list of integrity guidelines is designed not only as a public service announcement of sorts to my fellow artisans, but also as a list of reminders for myself to adhere to, and lastly as a courtesy for the general pagan consumer public: caveat emptor, as they say (let the buyer beware).
Everyone knows that custom orders take time, but for the love of all that’s holy, make sure you’re not only upfront about this with your customer beforehand, but also that you’re representing honestly the amount of time involved. Don’t, for example, say that your average wait time is 24 weeks and then take nearly two years to complete an item. If you are ill and know you may go months without being able to work on the commission, be up front about that. If you have a 3-5 year waiting list (like some spinning wheel craftsmen) be honest about that. Then the customer can make his/her own informed decision about whether they want to invest the time in waiting for the item, or would rather find another solution to their needs. Also, you’ll have fewer upset customers, and thus better word of mouth advertising. When you routinely take twice to three times as long for complete an order, word gets around, and it will damage your reputation; people will see you as being irresponsible and unprofessional. (I know this from personal experience, as in one case I was warned—not by the artisan but by a previous customer–that the artist in question had to be “continually reminded of his responsibilities.” Is this really what you want your customers telling people about you?) In the spirit of transparency, I will admit here that I myself have had a few custom orders that took me a lot longer than I had expected to complete, usually due to problems with my materials. (I had one fleece, for example that turned out to be so full of vegetable matter that prepping it for spinning was literally painful.) BUT I have never held up an order that a customer had already paid me for (in whole or part), which brings me to…
As an addendum to the above, if money has already changed hands (in other words, you’ve received a down payment of some sort, or money to buy supplies, or even been paid in full) and you realize that the order is going to take much longer to complete than you had estimated, let the customer know this, and tell her what is holding the order up. Make sure she is informed of every delay that comes up and told how much longer it will take. Don’t wait until you start getting anxious (or angry) messages on your Facebook page asking about the order, six months down the road. And by the way, you should know that if money has changed hands it’s illegal to withhold the promised goods beyond a reasonable period of time without communicating that to the buyer and obtaining her consent; it’s called theft. (It’s just the same as if you had already given your customer the item and she then delayed or withheld payment.)
If you have a pre-paid commission, or a whole list of them, awaiting completion, but you’re dragging your feet on them because THERE’S THIS NEW AND SHINY ART FORM OR MEDIUM OVER HERE that you’re feeling inspired by and you want to create only with that, not with the boring old art form you were commissioned to do, well, first of all you should never have accepted the commission. If you were paid to knit something, for example, but knitting is old hat (pun intended) and sort of boring to you, whereas weaving is new and shiny and look at all the things you can weave, wow, where has weaving been all your life…well, you should never have accepted money for knitting something. However, now that you have done so, it is spectacularly bad form to continually plaster your Facebook page with a series of your brilliant, inspired weaving projects, all the while not saying a single word about a knitting commission that was paid for in full weeks or even months ago. This says to your customer that her wishes and the money she paid you aren’t important, only your precious inspiration is—and since you’re an artiste, naturally that has to come first—right??? Wrong. Very, very bad form indeed. Again, if you are working on dozens of other projects and still haven’t finished your commissions, you need to tell your customer what the hold up is, instead of remaining silent in the knowledge that she will understand a creative genius such as yourself needs to follow her inspirations from the gods instead. Don’t want your genius to be constrained in any way? Don’t be in business.
And perhaps the most important rule of all when dealing with custom items that hold deep spiritual meaning for a buyer: do NOT, on the basis of “feeling called or pushed” by your customer’s deities (or even your own), decide to change something major about the end product you’re designing for her without her prior consent. Do not, without consulting the customer, decide to do a painting instead of a sculpted bust, or a necklace instead of a bracelet, or a green ritual garment instead of a red one. Do not decide to depict a deity seated if you both agreed He would be standing, or give Loki a beard if you both agreed He would be clean shaven, or add flowers (or whatever) if the client didn’t specifically request them. And if you DO feel that you are getting a strong push from a deity to paint instead of sculpt, or give Loki a green mohawk instead of red curls (for example–picking on Loki here because He’s not easily offended), then for the love of all that’s holy (once again), TALK to your client about your perceptions before you decide to go full steam ahead. Anything created for an intimate spiritual purpose also has the power to inflict deep, serious spiritual wounds, especially if it was linked to an initiation or other revelatory period in the customer’s life. You don’t want to trespass there, because to do so amounts to inserting yourself between the customer and his/her deities, and he/she has already deeply honored you and your craft by coming to you with the task of commemorating this feeling, this connection, or this event. Don’t shit on that trust by deciding to go your own way without consulting her first. And if you really feel you must manifest your own vision as a work of art (which I can certainly understand), do it later, when you’re on your own time; make the commissioned piece first, exactly as you were commissioned to do it.
If you have unwittingly committed any of the above offenses, MAKE RESTITUTION. For example, if you made a necklace instead of a bracelet (or a woven scarf instead of a knitted one) and the customer still wants the bracelet (or both scarves), offer to sell her both for less than the combined total price of both of them (especially if you have co-opted any of the customer’s private content, in the form of imagery or symbols she gave you for her own piece, but which you borrowed for your inspirational piece as well—and by the way, don’t do that either without asking first). Make this a substantial discount, enough to make the customer feel like you really might care about what she wants and what she paid you for in the first place.
And that’s about it. I guess what this list boils down to is “remember to respect your customer; remember that without your customer, you are not in business, you are simply amusing yourself with a hobby”–keep that in mind and make it the center of your operations, and you’ll be golden. Forget it, and you almost certainly won’t get repeat commissions, but even worse, you may end up leaving a trail of upset and possibly even hurt customers in your wake—and who wants that? After all, if you disappoint enough people, disgruntled pagan customers will begin turning to professional artisans outside the community for their religious images and cult objects (not to mention their necklaces and scarves)–and with all the talent right here in our own community, really, that would be a shame.