I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Thurman, co-owner of Thurmanovich Gallery, magazine publisher, landscape photographer and environmental activist. Despite (or maybe because of) spending her formative years in the grey concrete jungles of the Far East, she fell profoundly in love with Mother Nature and now uses art to inspire her protection. Inveterate nomad, her two favourite places are in her tent camping with her husband and two dogs, or in her beloved darkroom developing and printing images of the forests and woodlands that are so magical to her.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The journey to where I am today gives new meaning to the words “slow burn”. I’d always known that working in tech wasn’t right for me, but I wasn’t sure what else would be. In 2000, alongside my full-time job, I started an MSc in Environmental Decision Making. It took me 14 years, though, to find the right way to use that qualification.
The pivotal moment that led to my career change came in the autumn of 2013 while I was photographing an enormous felled tree trunk in my local woodland. People walking past asked me what I was looking at. I showed them the textures, the shapes, and the insects that made the tree their home. “Oh”, they said, “I’ve never really noticed that”. It was the first time I really registered how often people walk in nature and don’t really see or appreciate her. A seed was sown that day.
That seed did what seeds sown in winter do. Not much. But it started to germinate in the spring of 2014 when I left the corporate world and headed off on a 3-month camping trip to Scotland. I saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, but when my husband and I would show our pictures to people in nearby towns they would say “Wow, Canada’s beautiful, isn’t it?”. That day On Your Doorstep, the movement, was born. The Magazine came two years later, and Thurmanovich Gallery a year after that.
What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?
Thurmanovich Gallery’s mission is to use art to inspire the protection of nature.
We take an optimistic, positive, uplifting approach to help people see how they can be the hero of the sustainability story rather than the villain. Various organisations have spent decades trying to shock us into action by showing us the vast environmental damage we’re inflicting on this precious planet and while those messages are very important, the problems they relay are so big they’re overwhelming.
We take a “glocal” approach, bringing global issues to a local level that people can relate to. We inspire them to protect nature by helping them see how beautiful their own area is, and by showing them how even small daily actions can make a difference. Once people have engaged with what’s on their own doorsteps, it’s easier for them to see and respond to regional issues, then national and international ones.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is taking to tackle climate change? Can you give an example for each?
We have a few tools in the toolbox, but they all support the same two aims: to help people see the beauty of nature on their own doorsteps, and to inspire them to appreciate and care for her.
Anyone can fall in love with the iconic landscapes around the world. The magic lies in inspiring people to see the beauty in the mundane. We use touring exhibitions to bring the beauty of truly non-iconic locations to people’s attention: the river that runs near their homes, the woodlands barely ten miles away, the urban parks in their cities. Each exhibition we’ve held has resulted in a small kernel of people taking up the baton in their own towns and inspiring their friends and neighbours.
On Your Doorstep Magazine, our free quarterly publication, expands on that, allowing artists of all kinds to celebrate their own doorsteps with a global audience. We give talks and support artists’ in their conservation initiatives. OYD also offers monthly “5in5” tip sheets offering 5 examples of easy things people can do in 5 seconds or less to help save the planet. For example, if everyone in my home town, population 220,000, turned off the water while we brushed our teeth we would save roughly the equivalent of 3 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Or 32 million cups of tea (or glasses of wine), if you prefer. Or 14 million pints of beer. Every single day. We have plans to expand our activism activities in 2019.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your company/organization? Can you share how you overcame that. This might give insight to founders who face a similar situation.
The most difficult thing I faced at the beginning, and still face today, is finding a comfortable balance between needing to be commercial and wanting to focus entirely on the non-revenue generating activism side of things. I recognise that without funds, that side will not survive. I also love the artists we represent — we choose them carefully, and they’re all environmentally active — and I want to help them make a living. I even love making my own art. But the call to serve Mother Nature is strong, and I struggle with the idea of making money from something I hold so dear.
I’ve found that having a well-defined, frequently-reviewed strategy helps keep me on track. On a more daily basis, I follow the 90-Day Year framework. It breaks the year down into 90-day goals and further into two-week segments, with regular reviews which make it easy to catch any drifting early. It has instilled in me the daily discipline of focusing on the key priorities. Of course, I still have those days when I go off piste but at least it’s single days now, not whole weeks.
Many people want to start a company to tackle environmental issues, but they face challenges when it comes to raising enough money to actually make it happen. Can you share how were you able to raise the funding necessary to start your organization? Do you have any advice?
We’re a young business so we’re still working on funding, but we’ve found a few ways to get off the ground and to keep going. We started out with our own savings and a grant we got from England’s Arts Council, which saw us through the first two years of exhibitions. We’ve also made use of government-backed loans which offer competitive interest rates and will lend to small start-ups when many banks won’t. We’re now looking at crowdfunding for the On Your Doorstep side of things and have very recently dipped our toes into the water with Patreon.
My advice is to be highly disciplined about where the money goes. I know I’m not alone in having invested more in technology at the outset than I needed to, and not enough on marketing and PR. I’ve also come to see the value of domain-specific mentoring (although I’ve been a mentor myself for nearly 30 years — if that’s not a case of the cobbler having no shoes, I don’t know what is!). I would have invested more in that in the early days. Start-ups actually need very little in the way of technology and operating procedures; those things become important when the business starts to ramp up. Initially the focus needs to be on getting the product/service out into the world.
Do you think entrepreneurs/businesses can do a better job than governments to solve the climate change and global warming issues? Please explain why or why not.
Not a better job, a different job. Governments, NGOs, companies/entrepreneurs and individuals all have their own roles to play; companies can’t legislate and governments don’t produce products and services. It’s important for governments to set regulatory policies that support the fight for the planet, not penalise it. It’s also important for companies to embrace corporate policies that give equal weight to the environment and to profit.
It’s individuals, though, that are really the key to success. Obviously, individuals run companies and sit in governments, but we also make a whole raft of climate-related decisions each day. It’s up to each one of us to do our bit in our daily lives. Saving water when we brush our teeth prevents rivers, dams and oceans from drying up, which prevents rising temperatures. Stopping the destruction of a local woodland prevents the deforestation that leads to the loss of carbon sinks and erosion, and therefore greater climate change. And so on.
What are some practical things that both people and governments can do help you address the climate change and global warming problem?
Governments can adequately fund arts programmes and environmental initiatives. They can take more input from creatives in the search to find solutions — the answers don’t always lie in technology, engineering and so on. Initiatives like Dear Climate and Mel Chin’s Unmoored show that innovative ideas come out of the art world too.
Individuals are the most powerful ambassadors for the nature on their own doorsteps. By sharing the beauty they see around them. By supporting the artists who are fighting to save the planet, and environmental initiatives like the rewilding projects taking place all around the world. By encouraging their friends and neighbours to do the small things in their daily lives that really do make a difference. By working to enhance and protect what we have, and by rising up against anyone who wants to destroy our precious planet.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It has to be my mother, who always made me feel like I could achieve anything I set my mind to. By asking the hard questions, by letting me read almost anything I wanted, by including me in the adult dinner parties at home, and by embracing whatever crazy notion I had at the time, my mother instilled in me a “can learn, can do” attitude that has stood the test of time.
It was also my mother who instilled in me a great love of art, in spite of myself. I remember being eight or nine years old, one summer vacation somewhere in Europe, and asking Mom whether we really needed to go to the third museum of the day. The carefully crafted explanations she would give as we stood in front of yet another artwork helped, but it was her passion not the details that ended up rubbing off on me.
Through all the years I spent in the corporate wilderness, my mother would gently ask me if I was sure I was making the best use of my talents. My one greatest sadness is that dementia has robbed her of the chance to see that I finally am. She would so embrace what I’m doing now.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
1. How long it really takes for a business to become profitable. That’s particularly true in the art gallery world, where the average time to break even is 3–5 years.
2. Half of the entrepreneur’s life is riding the crest of the wave — all focus, clarity and joyously reaching for goals. The other half feels like walking through treacle. Some days I’m planning, writing, networking, exhibiting, talking with artists and feeling great. Other days I’m juggling bills, fighting with broken technology, dealing with human resource issues and trying to shove myriad doubts and fears back into their box.
3. Having a strong support network is important. Really important. I’m naturally reticent and it took me a while to share deep, dark stuff with others, but I’ve conquered some of my greatest doubts on my early morning dog walks with the “two Julies”. My husband Mick keeps me honest and has taken over the “hard questions” role from my mother. He also knows when I just need a listening ear, a boost, or a couple of hours on my own with my camera. I doubt I would have gotten this far without them and the mentors who have generously offered their insights, time and enthusiastic encouragement.
4. How hard it is to be the face of the business. Fronting the Gallery and On Your Doorstep demands that I overcome my natural reticence every day. It also means that I have to deal with my worries about these polarised times, when having strong opinions about things like the existence of climate change is risky. Doing something I fiercely believe in helps me step up.
5. How fulfilling it is to follow your own path, doing something that aligns with who you are and what you value. Being my own boss means that I don’t have to make the compromises in excellence that are part and parcel of working for someone else. The compromises I make now are of my own design and those things that are the most important — our five values of integrity, protection of nature, appreciation of beauty, optimism and quality — are non-negotiable.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good to the world, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m already working on it! The movement is called On Your Doorstep, and its aim is to inspire people to become ambassadors for the planet. OYDers work within their communities to bring about a greater awareness of the beauty of nature and the easy things that can be done to protect her. We support them by providing tools (like our 5in5 tip sheets which are particularly popular with schools and scout groups), helping with exhibitions, giving talks, offering training, and more.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Our website is www.thurmanovich.com
On Instagram, Facebook and Twitter we’re @Thurmanovich.
If you’d like to help us in our On Your Doorstep quest, you can find our Patreon page here https://www.patreon.com/onyourdoorstep
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!