During Morning Reports, members of the Emma Willard School community have a chance to share inspirational thoughts from their own life experience. In a recent talk, recent graduate Effie Levenson ‘21 shared her story of a hobby that became art that became a business, with lessons to help “navigate my way through college and life beyond”.
They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Well, in March of last year, life threw me a hell of a lot of lemons. But I'm not going to be drinking that lemonade because I’m pretty sure it has a pH lower than battery acid.
This past year I have lost my dog, my grandfather, my love of school, my relationships with friends, my happiness, my freedom, and so, so much more. My life was thrown upside down. March break turned into online learning for the rest of the year and the one thing I actually looked forward to everyday (yes, school) was now online. And not the same.
Soon the closeness and togetherness of being a family became a chore, as did looking at the walls for days at a time, unsure of what the future held. Grocery stores became a place where I had panic attacks. My home became a place I didn’t want to be, but there was nowhere else to go. I always asked myself, “How can things get any worse?”
I stopped asking.
Here is where two stories merge.
I was never a conventional child. At four years old I begged my parents to let me get on the back of a horse. No one in my family rides horses, and honestly I have no idea where the desire came from, but it has developed into a lifelong passion. When I was younger a friend of mine introduced me to Schleich model horses.
I rediscovered these toys in the boredom of quarantine while I rediscovered my basement (kinda creepy, not going to lie). I used to make small crafts for the horses, like barns out of popsicle sticks and blankets out of felt squares. Now older, and more artistically attuned, I took on the challenge with a newly informed approach. I watched tutorials on YouTube and found inspiration in model horse accounts on Instagram. I never knew a whole world filled with these models existed.
After receiving lots of compliments on my posts, many people messaged me asking if I sold my creations. For a while I even had to put in my bio “I do not sell my stuff,” but somehow that motivated me. What if I could sell my stuff? I started an Etsy account and began selling miniature blankets and accessories for the models. It was a little slow in the beginning, but my small business started to grow. The small world I created with my hands was one I had control over. It felt incredible to finally have control over something, to make a choice for myself.
My life still shook with maddening unpredictability as the virus ravaged the world. I had to learn how to re-make plans. I had to learn how to cope with the predictable unpredictability of life. So, I took the situation and made the best of it.
My hobby became my art and form of self-expression. It became my way to forget about the world and all of its chaos. The range of things I have made and currently sell feels limitless. I have learned how to use a variety of tools and experimented with many types of media. For example, I use an awesome rotary drill to dismember toys before they are resculpted using Apoxie (a self-hardening clay). I learned how to resculpt horses into different positions, first making a scaffolding with wire and then overlaying it with clay. I learned how to use an airbrush (pretty cool, right?), how to tool and dye leather, and make things so small your eyeballs would not believe it.
By starting my business I have learned invaluable lessons including managing money, designing websites, creating marketing campaigns, and packaging and shipping parcels (just to name a few).
I’ve also learned that customers can be awful, deceptive, and outright evil. Yes I got death threats. For selling model horses. Okay people, chill.
I was sick and tired of being harassed, with no way to stop these messages through Etsy. I decided to make my own website. But, would people even find my website, or go on it at all? It was a risk worth taking. Now I have so much more control over my web design and I am treated like a person, not a product.
I also don’t get annoying messages from little kids like:
“Can I have your horses for FREEE!!!”
Or better yet, “My package did not arrive, I only got the shipping label,” uh… how does that work?
As my business grew, my Instagram account and YouTube channel exploded. Currently, I have 26,000 Instagram followers and almost 10,000 subscribers, Crazy, right?
Regardless of how much my empire expanded, I was simply content with the fact that I could make other people happy. It made me happy. Beyond being a form of self-expression, my hobby became a coping mechanism. Making these horses and their accessories for other people made me feel like I had a purpose. I felt like I belonged in a community, a feeling I lost at Emma during COVID.
I met girls from around the world that I talk to everyday. People from the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa, Australia. You name it, I know a person or I’ve sent some of my artwork there. It gives me an incredible feeling to make an impact in these people’s lives. The positive reviews and thank you messages I receive are what keeps me going. The people watching my videos actually enjoy them and find me entertaining. They come to my channel for unboxing videos, tutorials, and reviews and are so, so supportive.
The happiness I can bring someone by reinventing their lost pet into a toy, or creating a young girl’s dream horse are just a few of the things I love to do. I bring realism into a flat, mass produced figure so that it looks real. I have fans. Not just kids, but older collectors too. I get fan mail. I have kids that make me edits. I have people that ask for my autograph.
I even get sponsored by brands to share their products. Sweet gig, huh? My supporters' comments have brought me confidence and have validated what some might consider “stupid, weird, or childish.” What I make is art.
COVID has changed me. I don’t know what the future will bring and that scares me. But who in their right mind thought that the past year would happen? And who knows what will happen next. I have learned so much the past two years in this hobby. Lessons I believe will help me navigate my way through college and life beyond.
So I leave you with this:
You will never stop learning. Every day I learn something new (How can I optimize my SEO? Would this soft body acrylic be better than the one I’m currently using? Why the HECK did that package not get delivered…time to call the post office…. again).
Don’t give up on your dreams. When you fail, keep trying. None of the things I made at first were perfect, FAR from it. But through practice and determination I have grown immensely.
Do what makes you happy and do more of it. If you work hard at anything, you will reap rewards. I never thought doing random things with old toys would make me into a mini celebrity. But it has.
My hobby, which became my business, was the only thing keeping my lemonade sweet. Even if your lemons are rock hard asteroids raining down from the shaken tree, threatening to pummel you alive, you can still make lemonade.
Just maybe dump it out on the ground.