Behind the scenes of a pop-up shop with Elena M. Sarni

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 She hosts pop-up shops. She supports local artists. Hear her story.

Behind the scenes of a pop-up shop with Elena M. Sarni

Have you ever sold your work at a pop-up shop? Have you ever been to one? Today, I’m sharing with you the story of one dedicated writer, historian and curator who is making it her mission to support artisans by hosting pop-up shops in her community. In fact, she has one going on right now at the Woodman Museum in Dover, NH.

This is a great read for anyone who is trying to figure out how to sell their wares or for someone looking to better engage and support their local artists’ community. Enjoy!


Hi Elena! Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are now.

I grew up in the small coastal town of No. Hampton, NH. It’s gorgeous. You can drive, walk, or bike along Rt. 1A and look out at the Isles of Shoals on a clear day. The ocean view from my home town is still one of my favorites!

I would say that my interest in art and fine craft stems from being raised in an artistic family, although only my dad and sister ever received formal training. My dad is a finish carpenter. When I was a child my father did a lot of restoration work on historic houses throughout the New Hampshire seacoast and southern Maine so I would visit him at job sites. Through this exposure I developed an appreciation for craftsmanship. This formative experience propelled me to study history, art, craft, and museum studies as an adult. My mom is also naturally very artistic and would make and design amazing birthday cakes and decorations for my sister and me. She still does! Then there is my sister, who is an art teacher and a very talented artist. Art and craft just runs in my family as I have grandparents who were poets and violinists, painters and metalsmiths. It was a wonderful environment to grow up in!

During high school I took a lot of art classes and one summer I was chosen to apprentice with my ceramics teacher, the potter Raymond LaBranche, who was a member of the League of NH Craftsmen. I went on to earn a BA in English from the University of New Hampshire. But I continued to take studio art and art history courses as an undergrad. My minor was American Studies, which is the intersection of American art, literature, and history — all of which I love. After college I worked briefly in the publishing field, but ended up being awarded a fellowship at Historic New England to study the folk art collection of Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little. The fellowship was life changing. It reignited my love for the decorative arts and fine craft. It was also the reason that I decided to return to graduate school to become a curator. At the time, the University of New Hampshire was the only school in New England that offered a Master’s degree in Museum Studies so I returned to UNH on a full scholarship and earned an MA in History: Museum Studies to become a curator.

I worked at several historical societies and museums in Massachusetts before eventually relocating back north to be closer to my (now) husband. For years I worked as a freelance art reviewer and traveled all over Maine (I didn’t even have GPS back then!) interviewing artists and reviewing exhibits. I loved it and it was the best way to get to know the state of Maine! I went on to work at a local art association and really found my stride helping artists. I organized a professional development series for artists that included portfolio reviews with gallery owners, a session on photographing your artwork, and a talk by the editor of Art New England. It was really empowering for the artists. And in my spare time I found myself writing a lot of artist statements and press releases for artist friends, as well as helping them select work for open calls.


Wow, you’ve done so many amazing things! And now you host pop-up shops where you feature work of local artists and craftsmen. Can you tell us how you got into that?

I was working at the Old York Historical Society as their Visitor Experience and Communications Director and they were going to be hosting their annual home and garden tour. I had wanted to do a pop-up for ages and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity, as well as a huge draw for visitors. So I pitched the idea to the director and he gave me free reign to find the artists and organize the whole show. I already had a lot of artists in mind, but I also put an open call out through the Maine Craft Association. I ended up selecting thirty-four artists, representing a wide-range of mediums, including printmaking, ceramics, textiles, block printing, glass, metalsmithing, etc. Most of the artists were from Maine so I called it the Mostly Maine Pop-Up Shop. We installed it in the historic tavern on the property, which was a gorgeous backdrop for the work. It was a 4-day show and it was a huge success. After that I knew that I wanted to keep curating and organizing pop-up shops, preferably in architecturally interesting spaces.


And going forward, how do you select the artists to feature in your pops-ups?

I have met a lot of artists over the years, either through interviewing artists, viewing exhibits, or being a consumer of art. Sometimes I discover artists on Instagram, although I generally prefer to work with people that I have met and have had the opportunity to see their work in-person. Often other artists will make introductions or offer recommendations. I am very selective about the artists that I choose and I even work with the artists to select specific items. It’s important to me that my shops feature a diverse array of mediums and price points, as well as both contemporary and traditional styles.


Pop-up shop artisans

Pop-up shop artisans: Top row (left to right): Christopher Volpe, Hilary Rousselle of Fat Cat PotsAnn ThompsonNicholas Zalisk. Second row (left to right): Brenna Wilson of BlockedRebecca May Verrill, Mark Jacobs of Jacobs Woodworking; Third row (left to right): William MitchellEmily PercivalEliza Jane Curtis of Morris and Essex


It sounds like you do a lot to support local artists. Where does this interest come from? Can you tell us a bit about what drives you?

I grew up in a very supportive family. My life path has been far from linear, but my family is always there for me. No one gets anywhere on their own. Every successful person has had some help along the way, whether they acknowledge it or not. Because I grew up with people who believed in my dreams, I instinctively want to help other people achieve their dreams. If I love your work I am going to tell everyone about it, post about it on Instagram, and try to help you out any way that I can.

It’s very hard to make a living as an artist. It’s difficult to continue to have the confidence to promote yourself and deal with the amount of rejection that creative people have to face. I understand this because I am a writer. And while I often find it challenging to sell my own ideas or pitch my own writing, it feels so natural to promote the work of other artists— whether it be to a gallery or a shop. Overall I have found the art field to be very competitive and often people don’t want to help each other. In an ideal world, artists, curators, writers, and creative professionals would help one another and not view their peers as competition. I have done a lot for other creatives over the years and in the last year I have been so touched at some of the things that people have done for me — like my friend, the talented surface designer, Heather Dutton of Hang Tight Studio who created my fun new logo! It was so generous and unexpected. It brought me so much joy and made me realize that other people believe in what I am doing!


What are some challenges you’ve faced so far in your career?

Geography and bad timing have been major obstacles that I have had to overcome. Moving to Maine initially was a culture shock after having lived in Massachusetts for so many years. I was suddenly in a fairly remote area and had to drive 45 minutes to get to a small city. Because of this I’ve definitely had to take day jobs that are not what someone with a Master’s degree in Museum Studies would normally take! I have never been able to find a curator position within a reasonable commuting distance of my current home. Feeling unfulfilled wears on your soul over time so I finally took time off a little over a year ago to work on my book full-time and started running pop-up shops as an independent business venture. It is always difficult to find locations for the pop-up shops. And while I can’t say that at this moment I am making a ton of money through writing or the pop-up shops, there is certainly movement in the right direction. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel and the work is extremely gratifying because I am able to use my curatorial skills, support regional makers, and stimulate the creative economy.


What advice can you give others who may be thinking of hosting pop-up shops in their community, or simply supporting their local artistic community?

I would say that there are many ways to support local artists in your community. Buy art, promote an artist’s work on social media (with their permission of course), tell your friends about work that you love. Build relationships with artists and find out what they need. Fill your home with local art!

I will be honest that running pop-up shops is a very tough job. There are so many details that go into a pop-up that people don’t realize. The selection of the artists is the foundation. The work has to coexist and work with the architecture and design of the location. As I mentioned, I also really strive to offer a wide array of mediums. Finding a location is one of the most challenging parts. I like to work with existing galleries or small museums so that there is already a built-in audience and if you work with a museum than a portion of the proceeds goes towards a good cause. It really is a great fundraising model. The installation and de-installation are physically demanding since you often have to supply your own furniture and props to display the work. It takes a tremendous amount of vision and grit to see it through. This year will be my second month-long pop-up shop. These shows are marathons and not sprints. Although my favorite part is tweaking the shop right before I open each day and making sure that everything looks perfect — a pop-up shop is really so much more than just arranging the work. There are a huge amount of administrative tasks associated with running a pop-up. It is a business after all.

Most importantly you have to develop strong relationships with your artists and do everything you can to ensure that they are happy. So I tend to work with the same core group of artists and add in a handful of different artists to each show in order to keep things fresh. Every new location is a leap of faith on both my part and that of the artists. I always feel a tremendous responsibility for everyone to do well so it is disappointing if an artist doesn’t sell much at a particular show. But it’s never a wasted opportunity because participation entails exposure to a new audience and often my artists receive commissions from customers or attract the attention of a brick and mortar shop or gallery afterwards. Sometimes I facilitate these connections.


What advice would you give to artists who are struggling to sell their work/find a way to market their goods?

I would recommend starting with your local art association as a venue to sell your work and meet people. I would also suggest going to First Fridays, etc. and networking. Make yourself get out there! (I know — easier said than done for many people!) I also love Instagram and think that it is a great platform for artists to both meet and showcase their work. But put the work in and research the appropriate hash tags to promote your particular type of work. You’ll be amazed what the right hash tags can do for your business and the connections that you can make. And then try and meet some gallery owners, or introduce yourself at your favorite local gift shop. Definitely apply to open calls. Or approach a pop-up shop owner! But most of all — keep creating! Most of the time a lot of opportunities come down to being in the right place at the right time. Have faith.


And, somehow you are finding time to write a book on the Folly Cove Designers! Can you give us a tidbit of info on them and what we can expect from your book?

I first discovered the work of the Folly Cove Designers while working as the assistant curator and director of programs at the Cape Ann Museum. I fell in love with their work and continued to study them after I relocated. I was selected to present a conference paper on the group at the 2010 Dublin Seminar and the paper was subsequently published in the conference’s annual proceedings. The reception was really positive so I decided to start writing a book on the group. As the first comprehensive history of the Folly Cove Designers, this book documents and celebrates the group’s tremendous success and the incredible artistry of its members.

The Folly Cove Designers (1941-1969)—one of America’s longest-running artist collectives—was the product of a 1938 exchange between neighbors in Folly Cove, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Renowned children’s book author and illustrator Virginia Lee Burton Demetrios (of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel fame) traded design lessons in exchange for violin lessons for her sons, leading to community-wide design classes, and eventually the formation of the eponymous, juried, block-printing guild.

Ultimately forty-five men and women were juried-in as official Folly Cove Designers, each “designer-craftsmen” responsible for designing, carving, and printing their own work. Together the group produced over three hundred distinct designs printed as household linens, clothing, and other functional textiles. The detail and skill displayed in the designs produced by the Folly Cove Designers is remarkable by any standard. The subject matter is relatable and engaging, while the timeless quality of the work is transcendent and part of what makes the work so compelling. Their designs conveyed personal and regional narratives through the use of shared design principles and the compelling language of pattern.

The group was propelled to international fame through commercial contracts with major retailers, articles in leading periodicals such as Life, and participation in seminal fine craft exhibitions. The time is ripe for a full treatment of their work—one that examines it in the larger context of craft history and textile design and honors the legacy of the Folly Cove Designers by highlighting its continuing relevance as both an inspiration and standard-bearer for today’s blossoming maker’s movement.


Elana Sarni's work
Clockwise from top left: A drawing of Elena by her grandmother, Madalene Castleton; Elena’s cat holiday card; the Pine Tree Pop-up logo; one of Elena’s pop-up installations with pillows by Ebenezer Akakpo of Akakpo.


Can you tell us a few fun things about you that we wouldn’t already know?

  • I am a pretty good photographer. It is a useful skill that helps me promote the pop-up shops! But you will never see me post a selfie!
  • I am the proud aunt to two nieces (a 4.5-year-old and an almost 3-year-old) who are already talented artists for their age groups. They are really excited because this year they were able to visit my holiday pop-up shop. They played pop-up shop for the rest of the day!
  • My husband and I have two orange cats that we both photograph obsessively and we are known for our annual cat holiday cards where the “boys” wear festive outfits. (Yup we are “that” couple!)
  • I love Larry David and am obsessed with Curb your Enthusiasm.
  • I am fascinated by artist/creative couples! Think Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera….
  • Although I am not super outgoing, I feel totally at ease going to an exhibit opening where I don’t know a single person in the room. It’s actually a nice way to meet people.
  • My sister jokingly describes me as “high brow, low brow” and I’m OK with that!


Want to learn more about Elena and her work? You can find her on Instagram!

If you liked this interview, please check out other featured designers.

And make sure you share this post far and wide! Let’s support Elena and help spread awareness of her work!


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