WORDS: Georgina Morrison | IMAGES: Chloe Smith Photography
If you had told Jess Keeli in high school that she would have a successful art business today, she wouldn’t have believed you.
As a full-time pharmaceutical chemistry student at La Trobe University Bendigo and part-time artist, Jess’ life is a beautiful combination of science meets creativity. But she admits this isn’t something she anticipated – until she left school.
“To a lot of people’s surprise, I didn’t really like art in school. I loved the creative side of it, but I hated the symbolism and trying to attach meaning where there was probably none to begin with. I wanted to paint a yellow sunflower because that’s what sunflowers looked like,” says Jess.
“I really liked maths enough to do two maths subjects in year 12 which everyone thought I was insane to do. But I still liked getting creative at home, it was my down-time.”
When Jess took a gap year following secondary school, her creativity really sparked.
“I didn’t really know what my style was so a lot of my early work was mimicking what I saw in other places, and eventually I started experimenting and worked out my own style.”
It wasn’t until friends and family began to ask for prints during her first year of university in 2019 that she began to consider turning her passion into a hustle.
“I thought, ‘I could do something with this – I could set up a little Etsy shop, and if it brings in a few extra dollars here and there, then that’s exciting’.”
And so, Jess Keeli Creative was born.
After making a few sales each month or so, at the end of 2019 Jess shifted into more of a business mindset.
She established an Instagram account and Facebook Page to promote her work. The little customer base she had built was the beginnings of exciting things to come. During lockdown in 2020, Jess’ little business catapulted into success. She remembers how excited she would be to get just one order a week. Jess started posting in the Buy From A Bush Business Facebook Group.
“I was starting to think it wasn’t really working or worth it. But then – I don’t know what was special about this day or time or the post that I put up – it just exploded.”
In 20 minutes, her post had over 1,000 interactions. In 24 hours, Jess had over 350 orders. In the same period of time, her Facebook Page grew exponentially from 300 likes to in excess of 10,000.
“It was insane, and very overwhelming. Mum tells everyone how she remembers being able to hear me in my room trying to pack orders cursing as I would pack one, but then get another 15 come in.
“I had to shut shop after a day just so I could get on top of them all. It took me a week to dispatch and another week to recover.”
Jess said that the timing was unexpectedly fortunate as she wasn’t on campus at La Trobe University in Bendigo.
“I was home (in Portland) from uni because of COVID and lockdown, and lucky to have the extra time not going to classes, and to have Mum and Dad around. They would finish their work, and come to help me get through mine. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Ever since, Jess says it has been a completely different experience, with regular orders coming in now. She also made the decision to discontinue offering commissions, to ensure she maintains a balance between work, life and study.
“I had everyone asking, ‘Can you paint my dog? Can you paint my horse? Can you paint this bird?’. It got to a point where I had a wait list with over 30 people on it, and by the start of this year I had only got through five – so I had to tell the rest I just couldn’t do it.”
Although Jess no longer accepts commissions, people still make suggestions for subjects all the time. However, for anyone holding out hope that Jess might paint one particular Australian bird – it’s not going to happen.
“I get so many suggestions to paint a magpie, and everyone says they’re so gorgeous, but those birds used to personally seek me out and swoop me at school – I have not had a good time with them. So no, I will not be painting one. I just cannot get around it.”
It’s the charm of her Australian animals and flora that has warmed so many customers. Jess’ products have even made their way overseas including Germany, USA and England.
“I get so many people sending my Australian paintings to friends and family who are overseas either to remind them of home, if they have left Australia, or just as a little present from Down Under.”
With the pandemic making everyone more conscious of their space at home and looking to invest in art, Jess says she feels like there is greater interest in creative products.
“COVID has really given everyone a better appreciation for local, small, hand-made businesses. Up until last year, everyone was just buying cheap from overseas because that’s the way we all did it then. But I feel like now it’s not happening so much, and people really love to buy something and say, ‘This was actually made in my town, in my state, in my country’. That has really helped the mindset shift in customers and encouraged them to shop small instead.”
Having a small business, and becoming involved In the OAK Magazine community has also led to beautiful collaborative opportunities for Jess. From working with local Bendigo businesses like Ashley Morales Creative and The Teacher Collection, Jess has enjoyed the process of combining her work with other creatives.
“I just love working with other businesses and doing little collabs – it’s so exciting to see what you can create when you put two different skill sets together.
As for what the future of her business holds, Jess assures her customers it’s here to stay, alongside her science career.
“I think I could never do one without the other. At markets people always assume I’m doing an arts degree but when they find out I’m studying science and running an art business, there’s this really common idea that I have to choose – that I’ll reach a point where I have to pick one. And why would I have to pick just one? They’ll both always be there, and part of me in some way.”
This article was first published in OAK Magazine Issue 10.