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Sharyn Sowell is a calligrapher and paper-cutting artist whose artwork as been featured in magazines such as Better Homes & Gardens, Romantic Homes, Parents Magazine, and Victoria Magazine. Her work also appears on Hallmark greeting cards, textiles, home décor products, covers for the Amazon Kindle, and more.

haryn Sowell has a knack for making art out of nothing at all. In fact, what started out as a clever way to entertain her kids (i.e., making animal-shaped cutouts from paper lunch bags) eventually led to both a multidisciplinary design firm and an All-Star Award to boot.

A former gold-jewelry designer and the founder of Sharyn Sowell Studio, she discovered her talent for creating silhouette-based artwork during a fishing trip with her father and two young children. To entertain her kids - who had no patience for fishing - she pulled out a Swiss army knife, opened the scissors, and started snipping elephants and giraffes from the kids' paper lunch bags. As the animals took shape, Sowell realized that she not only had a talent for snipping out wildlife, but that with little more than a good pair of scissors and some paper, she could probably create licensable art as well.

Roughly 10 years later, Sowell's unexpected talent has given birth to a successful business (which now includes paper cutting along with artwork created via watercolors and Sowell's own antique letterpress) and has allowed her to publish two books on paper cutting. Despite the fact that her studio is a tiny, rose-covered cottage in back of her house in Mount Vernon, WA, and that her business only has two employees counting herself, her art has graced everything from lampshades and greeting cards to Christmas stockings and covers for the Amazon Kindle.

Not surprisingly then, Sowell employed this same kind of do-it-yourself ingenuity for her 2009 exhibit at Surtex, which draws roughly 6,000 manufacturers and retailers in search of licensable art to integrate with their product designs. Turning what was a lackluster 8-by-10-foot booth with about as much va-va voom as Susan Boyle into a compelling exhibit that crooned "clever" and "creative," Sowell did far more than set herself apart from the competition. With a price tag of just $500 (sans space-rental fees), the booth also garnered considerable media attention, brought in more leads than she knew what to do with, and even scored the crafty maven a 2011 All-Star Award to boot.

A Blank Canvas

Given Sowell's artistic talent and knack for making something out of nothing, you'd think that her trade show exhibits would have wowed the crowds right out of the gate. But just as with her paper-cutting art, the success wasn't immediate. In fact, according to Sowell, from her exhibiting debut in 2000 through her 2009 show calendar, her exhibits were about as clever as the "Tardy for the Party" song.

"I typically exhibit at two or three shows per year, the most important of which is the Surtex show in New York," Sowell says. "It's a critical show for generating awareness for my business, not to mention leads. But up until 2010, I hadn't been applying my creativity to my own booth. For a full nine years' worth of shows, my 8-by-10-foot space had been filled with nothing but uninspired posters and portfolios of my art. It's sad to say, but I just didn't give my displays as much thought as I did my own artwork."

But come 2010, something shifted inside the scissor-wielding Sowell. "The business climate has been really tough for a while," she says. "And when I started planning for the 2010 Surtex show, I knew that in order to make my show investment pay off, I'd need to stand out from the aisles of booths that looked just like mine. I couldn't just slap up samples of my work. I needed to apply my creativity, or I should just save my cash and not even exhibit in the show."

So Sowell decided to go all in for the 2010 Surtex show. "To make a lasting impression, I wanted to have some kind of activity, something clever for attendees to take away, and a reason for them to stop back later," Sowell says. "And whatever I planned had to 'out-clever' my neighbors."

As if these problems weren't enough, Sowell had Mona Lisa aspirations on a Dogs Playing Poker budget. "I'm a one-woman show," Sowell says. "And I had a laughable budget. Aside from the space rental that included a table and ugly Formica-like walls in lieu of pipe and drape, I only had $500 to spend. Still, I had to turn this $500 budget into a crowd-stopping, artistic creation."

Designed Inspiration

Facing myriad challenges, Sowell sought solace in her studio, where she brainstormed for creative - yet cheap - ideas. "I cleared off my studio walls and created a clean slate about as large as my exhibit," she says. "Then I started tossing up whatever I could find in hopes of inspiration. I settled on something that I thought might work. I'd still display my work in the booth, but I'd add unique items and actually build my own display mechanism."
The resulting homegrown booth mostly comprised inexpensive, easily purchased items (e.g., bulletin-board paper, 3M Command Strips, etc.), along with various artists' supplies and ancillary items (feathers, brushes, scissors, paper, etc.) she scrounged up from her studio or purchased from specialized vendors. One set of items, however, required a bit of ingenuity.

"I wanted these delicious light boxes to display transparencies of my work," Sowell says. "But the ones I wanted were way over my budget. So I hunted around until I found a vendor who had these old, scratched-up light boxes in the back room of his shop." After a bit of negotiating and some artistic TLC (think soap, spray paint, and elbow grease), Sowell had transformed these battered boxes into contemporary display mediums.

Upon securing the materials for her design, which she planned to bring to life once she hit the show floor, she turned her attention to pre- and at-show promotions - and enlisted a little help from her friends. "Artists in my industry are really good at working together," she says. "Since we all have our own talents, we don't really view each other as competition but as colleagues. So I teamed up with five of my colleagues who also planned to exhibit at the
show, and we created a collective mailer to send to attendees."

Housed in a manila envelope, the mailers contained six two-sided color postcards - one from each artist - featuring each of the artists' work and contact info. Sent roughly two weeks before the show, the mailer also held a group letter that invited recipients to stop by the six artists' booths. Each artist sent the mailers to his or her own list of clients and prospects that would likely attend the show.

Sowell also crafted tri-fold fliers that - along with extra samples of the postcard - she planned to hand out in her booth. The fliers, featuring images of her art, included her name on the front and minimal text about her talents and services inside - allowing her artwork to do the talking.

With pre-show promotions complete, the only objective she had yet to meet was her desire to create a reason for attendees to stop at her booth. Ultimately, she decided to let her craft take center stage. During slow periods in the booth, she figured she could demonstrate her paper cutting and calligraphy techniques - displaying the completed work throughout the show, and thus changing the look of the exhibit and giving attendees a reason to stop back and examine the transformation.

Sowell also devised a handmade notebook using her antique letterpress to serve as in-booth giveaways. "I created a little notebook-cover design featuring my name and one of my images," she says. "I then placed it atop roughly 20 pieces of paper and bound it together to create a little notebook. All told, I created 200 of these notebooks for a cost of around 35 cents apiece."

Sowell also decided to display some of her paper-cutting books in the booth and offer attendees some paper and scissors to try and master some of her simpler designs. She figured that after trying to create their own paper silhouettes - and likely failing miserably - their perceived value of her work would increase dramatically.

So with most of her materials en route to her hotel (where she'd later carry them to the show floor), and her luggage packed to the hilt with artists' supplies, Sowell headed off to the show, ready to craft her own work of art - i.e., her booth - right there on the show floor.

Artist in Residence

Arriving at her space the day before the show, Sowell quickly taped some black bulletin-board paper to the hard-sided walls of her booth to create a dark canvas against which her art would be displayed. She then pulled out some stiff wiring she'd purchased from The Home Depot, cut it into strips, and used 3M Command Strips to attach several horizontal rows of wire to the walls. These wires, then, would serve as the display medium from which she'd hang or drape her artwork and other accessories.

She then used that same wiring to create one-off display devices. She cut and bent the wire into paperclips to attach her work to the suspended wires, and several hanger-like devices into which she could fit small test tubes that she'd purchased on eBay. Sowell used the paperclips to attach her work and the test tubes to the suspended wires, and inserted miscellaneous items - ostrich feathers, flowers, etc. - into the test tubes for an unexpected flair.

After covering the light boxes with transparencies of her work, she attached them to the walls to add drama to the otherwise flat surfaces. She also attached liberal quantities of her work throughout the space and covered the small table (included with booth rental) with the same black paper found on the walls. After scattering a few accessories throughout the space - a portfolio of her designs, books she'd published, elegant ribbons, feathers - she added an aromatic touch. "During the show, I frequently dabbed a bit of organic lemon oil onto the light-box bulbs," she says. "This gave my booth a fresh scent of lemons throughout the show."

When she was done with her booth art, Sowell stood back to admire her work. "It looked like a funky art gallery," she says. And it was certainly different than the staid displays surrounding her. So as the show floor started buzzing with attendees, Sowell sat down and got to work.

Throughout the show, Sowell snipped out silhouettes, some of which she displayed on the table or hung in the space. In addition, she added gold and silver calligraphy to the table in the form of simple swirls and various text, such as "Welcome to my world!" As attendees approached, she asked ifthey'd like to sit down and try their hand at some paper cutting. Drawn in by the cutting activity - and the pleasure of watching the artist at work - attendees also handled the suspended art and eagerly talked shop with Sowell. "Unlike a portfolio in a three-ring binder, the suspended art could be handled, removed, examined, and replaced," she says. "This simple act of touching my art created an organic, intimate experience with my work."

Attendees left the booth with the branded notebooks Sowell had made, their own handiwork, and one of Sowell's fliers. But perhaps more importantly, they no doubt left with the impression that Sowell was indeed a creative mind - one that they certainly needed to watch, if not hire for their future projects.

Certainly, All-Star Awards judges concurred with attendees' impressions, saying, "Sharyn Sowell is a prime example of what to do when you have little or no budget. Attendees must have appreciated her out-of-the-box ideas, and the booth design was a reflection of not only her brand but her creative capabilities."

Masterful Results

Sowell's results, however, weren't just warm fuzzies and admiring accolades. In addition to scoring several press mentions in industry publications such as On The Surface and Gifts & Decorative Accessories, Sowell doubled the amount of leads she received at the 2009 show.

"I had far more traffic than I could handle," she says. "People were shoving business cards at me, and reaching over the shoulders of others to grab fliers."

While there's no rocket science involved in Sowell's creation, that's the beauty of it. And scoring these kind of results on a $500 budget put Sowell over the moon. "As a result of the show, I'm still working long, hard hours to try to catch up," she says.

Sowell's knack for making something out of nothing also goes to show that you don't have to "out-budget" the competition. You can "out-clever" them with a few good ideas and a little artful execution. E

13th Annual All-Star Awards: THE WINNERS


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