Designer and Artist Jenn Hales on The Line Between “Selling” and “Selling Out”

Jenn Hales, a designer and artist living in Raleigh NC, runs an illustration and design studio that emphasizes locally-made design and sustainability.

In her paintings and illustrations, Jenn explores the tension between the human and animal worlds with childlike curiosity and posits what potential dialogue between species would look like.

“Allure” by Jenn Hales

Jenn works hard to make her artwork accessible to everyone, regardless of their income.  Rather than focus on developing relationships with the few collectors who can pay thousands of dollars for an original painting, she redesigns her originals for an ever-expanding line of prints, scarves, cards, and additional merchandise which is sold in her brick and mortar shop at Blake Street Studios.

As a continuation of this passion for connection and empowerment, in 2012 she drew the illustrations for the book White Flour, written by humanitarian and activist David LaMotte.  White Flour tells the funny and inspiring story of the day that the Ku Klux Klan met the Coup Clutz Clowns, who offered a whimsical and wise retort to their racist rally.

Full page spread from “White Flour”, written by David Lamotte and illustrated by Jenn Hales

Although all her reproductions and merchandise have been produced locally for the past three years, potential royalty deals and new opportunities for distribution are cropping up that would not be produced locally.  By looking at these options, is she compromising her values?

Jenn has butted up against an issue that many artists face when supporting themselves by selling to a wide audience base: where is the line between selling and selling out?

Jenn’s definition goes:

For me, ‘selling out’ is going against my values for money.

“Bathwater” by Jenn Hales

Bill Watterson, who is one of Jenn’s creative role models and the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, talks about this issue of maintaining artistic integrity:

Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in.  Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.

The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

(From May 20, 1990: Advice on Life and Creative Integrity from Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson by )

Regardless of which financial opportunities Jenn pursues, the true value of her artwork and creativity will lie in the meaning it gives to her life. 

To weather the rejection and financial insecurity that goes hand-in-hand with “not selling out,” Jenn points out the necessity of having faith that something is going to pan out and maintaining a safety net of friends and family who will catch you when there is just a little too much space from sale-to-sale or job-to-job.

How do you define the line between “selling” and “selling out”?  Does that line even exist for you?  


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