TRANSCRIPT Ep 277: Artist Success Story ft Book Artist Bel Mills


[00:00:00] Miriam Schulman: So as creatives, we’re often concerned with what and how. That is the creative aspect of our soul. And that’s the creative aspect of every human being’s soul. The creative aspect of our soul is concerned with the what and the how. And it serves us well when we’re in creation mode. But when it’s time to go and sell, when it’s time to go and share our work and share our message, we have to reflect On the sacred aspects of our soul.

[00:00:28] Announcer: It’s The Inspiration Place Podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. 

Welcome to The Inspiration Place Podcast, an art world inside a podcast for artists, by an artist, where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the arts. And now your host, Miriam Schulman. 

[00:00:51] Miriam Schulman: Well, hey there, Artpreneur. This is Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration. Welcome to The Inspiration Place. 

Today we have a special guest joining us who is not only a talented artist, but also a remarkable teacher who has built an incredible online class focused on the art of upcycling books. We’ll be exploring her journey, how she got started teaching this unique art form to discovering her voice as an artist.

Before we get there, by tuning in, I also want to give you a chance to grab our exclusive free tech guide, discover the nine tools recommended by top artists to create stunning art videos. These tools will not only help you captivate your audience, but also attract collectors, followers, and art students to get your hands on it. Just go to – tech as in T E C H. Now on with the show. 

Before I bring on today’s guest, I want to share with you what’s going on in the art world. So, I’m a part of a national women’s professional group. It’s known as Art Table. This group is made up of professionals who are curators, art consultants, gallerists, appraisers, museum professionals, like membership chairs at the Met Museum, and of course people like me.

Now, one of the best things about this group is that I get exclusive invites to art tours and VIP tickets to art fairs. So last month, I attended the Armory Show, which is no longer at the Armory. I don’t know when it stopped being at the Armory. It’s actually at the Javits Center. So yeah, it’s a really huge art fair and this is Amazing artwork. Lots of galleries. I saw art by Grace Hartigan. I saw art by Elaine de Kooning as well as contemporary artists, some of whom I know only vaguely, some of who I’ve never seen before. And it’s just amazing. 

Now, I did miss the VIP opening. The VIP opening is special because that’s where you get to celebrity spot and hobnob with the art world elite. And I had VIP tickets, but I had procrastinated so much on a commission, I didn’t get to go. And I actually will be deep diving into this whole procrastination fiasco. I won’t call it a fiasco because it did have a happy ending. It’s really about fighting my inner demons. I will be saving that for our Halloween episode, so I’m not going to get into that now. 

But I did prepay for the art table brunch, so I did not want to miss out on that. It’s a chance to socialize with other women who hold leadership roles in the art world. And actually, they have expanded their language, so it’s for women and non binary people.

So this time I sat down with for coffee and cake with two art consultants from Seattle. They looked like nice people. I’d never seen them before. And they had come in just for the art fair. And that’s kind of what’s cool about this organization for these huge New York art events. We do get people who come from LA and Seattle and Dallas and elsewhere.

And it gave me a chance to pick their brains on what kind of art they buy, what the price points are, and all that. So I can share that information with you and with my clients. Now, I have good news and bad news. The bad news for independent self representing artists is that these particular art consultants confirmed that they only work with galleries when choosing art for their clients. That does not mean that all art consultants do that. But these women work with corporations who purchase art from anywhere between 5K and 40K, and part of their responsibility is also helping them maintain their art collections.

And here’s something else that I thought was interesting to share with you. They were also very curious about what I do, and they wanted to know the main thing I help artists with. Now, since you heard me preach about email marketing so much, you probably would guess that that’s what I shared. But actually I didn’t.

Now, for those who join the Artist Incubator, you absolutely get very detailed coaching on email marketing. You get swipe files that will help you do it faster, easier, better, more authentically; everything you need to know to do it on your own. But when they asked this question, I had just finished helping two of my acceleration clients. And this mastermind is a step up from the incubator. I refer to these artists as my inner circle. I only work with about between, right now I have eight artists in the group, in the cohort. And that cohort never grows above 12. And I work with them for a few months at a much closer level. They get lots of one on one and detailed coaching with me. One of the first things I do with them, and now I consider this one of the most important work that I do with artists, is I help them with their messaging.

This is what I share with those consultants that I help them with their messaging. And I wish you were there to see their faces. They both had these, like, they look like so relieved. They said, Oh, thank God. This is what we think artists need the most help with, too. And they’re, like, I hope you help them with their artist statements. I go, yeah. 

So mostly what I do with the artists I work with is I help them with their about pages, which really is like an artist statement. It is your most general artist statement, and it’s really a way for your collectors or your art students to understand what it is that you do for them. And I went on to chat with these women about how we’ve seen too many about pages and artist statements all say the same vague things, like they paint for joy or they’ve been artists for as long as they can remember.

And the other problems that we agreed that we see over and over is that artists get far too into the weeds about the what and the how, rather than the why and the who. So as creatives, we’re often concerned with what and how. That is the creative aspect of our soul. In fact, that’s the creative aspect of every human being’s soul. The creative aspect of our soul is concerned with the what and the how. And it serves us well when we’re in creation mode. But when it’s time to go and sell, when it’s time to go and share our work and share our message, we have to reflect. on the sacred aspects of our soul. The sacred aspect of our soul. And the sacred aspects of other souls is concerned with the why and the who.

So when I work closely with artists, we are deep diving into the why and the who. And, believe me, it isn’t easy to do this on your own. Too many artists are caught up in their how. And a great analogy of this is, like, if you were a travel agent and you wanted to sell someone on going to Hawaii, you’re not going to focus on telling them the size of the plane is this many seats on the plane and the plane goes this high in the air. And when you get there, the hotel offers breakfast from 7 to 10. That’s not what you do. You sell them on the destination. You sell them on the fantasy of Hawaii. 

So how does this analogy translate into what we do for messaging? Well, if you’re explaining too much your process, how the sausages are made, the size of the canvas, your process with the photos and the layers and how you choose your collage elements, that’s describing the plane. Or if you’re an online teacher, maybe you’re overly concerned with how many videos you offer or how many modules there are. Again, that’s describing the plane. You want to focus on the result, the fantasy, the destination. 

So since today’s interview is with a book artist and an accelerator member, her name is Bel Mills. I’m going to be bringing her on, I promise, in just a moment. But I’m going to read to you two paragraphs from her brand spanking new about page that we worked on together. And I absolutely love what we did together. So actually, I’m only going to read two paragraphs from it just so you can get a taste. You can go check out her website. It is linked in the show notes. This is episode number 277. So

Ok. Two paragraphs from her about page: Join our merry band of imaginative book artists. You see, we’re not just bookbinders, we’re adventurous explorers who believe art is a way to reimagine the world. We see magic concealed in ordinary materials and find potential where others might not. To us a simple cereal box isn’t boring, it’s a book waiting to be born. Envelopes, cardboard boxes, paper sacks, even old file folders. These are our raw materials ready to be transformed into exquisite handmade books and mail art.

Best of all, every one of my classes follows this philosophy. I’ll show you that you’re surrounded by bookmaking supplies if you know where to look. This approach liberates us from the fear of ruining precious materials. Encourages us to follow the call of creative experimentation and infuses our bookmaking journey with freedom, whimsy, and delight. Our adventures result in clever, personalized journals that aren’t just beautiful, they’re an absolute joy to create and use. 

Isn’t that amazing? Now, if you want to get this level of help with your messaging, I’m already started considering applications for the first cohort of 2024. This cohort will fill up fast, so save your spot. You can apply over at, that’s B I Z, B as in boy, I as in ice cream, Z as in zebra,

If you’re not sure if you’re ready for this level of support and coaching, well then that’s what the Artist Incubator is for. And we are opening doors to the incubator this week. So you don’t want to miss out. 

All right, my friend, you can check out both of those programs actually on biz. 

All right, my friend, now that you see what’s possible, let’s get on with the show. 

A book artist living outside DC, today’s guest is the owner of Scrap Paper Circus Upcycling Book Art Studio and the founder of the Paper Alchemist Upcycle Book Art School. Her passion is creating bespoke, one of a kind, handmade books out of salvaged paper and using online workshops to teach her students to do the same. Using cardboard boxes, envelopes, file folders, and paper bags as raw materials, she sold over 200 handmade books on Etsy and has taught dozens of classes for art centers and museums, including the Nevada Museum of Art and the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Her classes are featured on Skillshare and Creative Bug, and her designs were recently spotlighted by Print Magazine. Last year she closed her Etsy shop to focus exclusively on online learning. And in May opened the Paper Alchemist Upcycled Book Art School, where she now offers on demand classes on how to transform ordinary paper into extraordinary handmade books.

Please welcome to the inspiration place, Bel Mills. Well, hey there Bel. Welcome to the show. 

[00:12:51] Bel Mills: Hey, Miriam. I’m so glad to be here. This is a dream come true, truly. 

[00:12:56] Miriam Schulman: Well, it’s always fun to have one of my students on the show and somebody whose journey I’ve been following for a while. But I don’t know your backstory. How did you get started doing this? Did you always want to be an artist? 

[00:13:09] Bel Mills: I would say I was always creative. But both my mother and my sister were, kind of, better artists than I was because they knew how to draw. I didn’t know how to draw So I thought well, I can’t be an artist. So really it was something that I came to After my children were born, I was actually working as a newspaper journalist when they were born, and then I decided to stay home as a full time parent.

Well, by the time they had started elementary school, I was thinking about getting back, you know, working outside the home. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to go back to the newspaper world. So I decided to take classes at our local university. And I’d always loved art and loved books. At that time, I was actually thinking about writing a children’s book.

So I thought, well, I’ll take a book arts class and I can learn, you know, I’ll write the book and then I can, kind of, design the book myself. But by the time I’d finished the class, I had really just falling in love with book arts in general and decided that I wanted to continue with that.

[00:14:16] Miriam Schulman: All right, can you tell us what is book arts?

[00:14:19] Bel Mills: So book arts is really just the art of making handmade books. It can either be blank books, like blank journals. Or you can also make artist books, which are really just art forms in the form of a book or every page is going to have some sort of original artwork on it. A lot of book artists do printmaking and letterpress. It’s a very popular way to do it, but there are others who do watercolors or collage. There’s just really all sorts of different ways to do book arts. And I do both of those. I teach people how to make light books and then also collage artists books. 

[00:14:58] Miriam Schulman: Okay. So I’m really curious. So I know you sold two, 200, over 200 of these on Etsy. Who were buying them and what was the reason they’re buying them? Because it sounds like such a personal thing to make these art books that you have to flip through. So tell me a little bit more about the collectors behind these types of artworks. 

[00:15:19] Bel Mills: Sure. A lot of them were, you know, journalers, the ones who would buy, sort of, the blank books. The artist books, I don’t always, sort of, get a very good sense of who the customers were on Etsy. But I did have, you know often in a review, somebody would say to me, for example, I remember I sold an artist book that had kind of an ocean theme, and she said, Oh, you know, this is going to be the perfect thing to put on the mantle at our beach house or that sort of thing. It would definitely be something that, you know, an artist book that would either be on a mantle or sort of like a coffee table book. You know, something that people would just, kind of, want to pick up and page through. In a relaxed moment. 

[00:16:02] Miriam Schulman: Okay, but here’s a question about upcycling. So we’ve, kind of, danced around what this is. There’s these handmade journals, but I still don’t think we got into the heart of it. So could you explain a little bit more about it.

[00:16:15] Bel Mills: Absolutely. So upcycling, I think the best way for people to understand it is to, kind of, contrasting with recycling, which most people aren’t familiar with. So recycling, like, for example, if we imagine recycling paper, we would take a piece of paper that normally would be disposed, you know, that would just this disposable and we would send it to a processing plant and it gets made into pulp and made into a new paper item that is also disposable, but never kind of gets removed from the waste stream.

The idea with upcycling is that you’re taking something that would normally be throwing away and you’re, kind of, upgrading it. You’re making it into something that’s permanent and beautiful. And in this case, we’re taking cardboard boxes or envelopes or file folders and we’re turning them into books. And hopefully there’s something that people would, you know, fill with their thoughts. It would be something that they would hold on to. Or, you know, more of an art piece that also, you know, wouldn’t be something that people would tend to throw away. So that’s sort of the idea. I think in a lot of cases people think of upcycling like, Oh, you know, you take a, like a gas can and you turn it into a table lamp. And that’s, that is also, that’s exactly kind of the same idea. You’re sort of taking something that people don’t normally look at as beautiful or something worth saving and you’re turning it into sort of a precious, beautiful object. 

[00:17:35] Miriam Schulman: Okay, so I know this is getting into a little bit of your class, but if I were signing up for your class and okay, where do I start? Where do I get this book that I’m going to upcycle? What do you tell your students to do? 

[00:17:47] Bel Mills: In the class, I mean, you can upcycle books. So that is one way to do upcycling. Like I could get a vintage book and I can, you know, remove the pages and I can repurpose the cover and make them into a new book. But then the other way of making upcycled books is that you take paper that’s not books and you make it into books. 

So in this introductory class that I just created, we’re going to be taking file folders. So this is something that people would not necessarily think of as beautiful or, you know, something that would be a keepsake or worth really holding on to and then also souvenir postcards. I mean, I’m somebody, whenever I go to an art exhibit, I’m always coming home with postcards of, you know, my favorite paintings that I saw. So we’re taking these objects, sort of ordinary paper objects, and we’re turning them into books. So in the class, we make four different notebooks and the students learn four different decorative stitches.

So, for example, if you have a friend who loves cats or they love bicycles, it’s a really great way to sort of give them a very custom, you know, thoughtful, personalized gift. If you can get postcards that have these sorts of themes and create a set of notebooks, it’s a neat gift idea and also just a great way to use postcards that you may have collected over time and that really are just sitting in a drawer. It gives you a way to bring them into your life so that you’re looking at them and, you know, using them in a sense.

[00:19:15] Miriam Schulman: That’s great. Okay, so if you’re listening and you want to learn how to do this, actually we do have a link for you. So we’ve included that in the show notes, but if you’re driving it’s You’ll be learning how to bind your own book and do all the techniques Bel teaches.

So Bell, this is one of your first online art classes, what was the biggest challenge about doing this? 

[00:19:40] Bel Mills: The hardest thing was really, sort of, getting over my own hangups about selling classes. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with. When I first started teaching I kind of, you know, I was teaching in person classes at that time, and I think I had kind of some beginners luck. The first few classes I taught filled up. But then I hit this dip where I was having a really hard time. I would have maybe two students sign up for a class and a lot of the places I was teaching for at that time had a five person minimum. So we would have to basically just cancel the class after I put all this prep work into it. So that was sort of like this difficult kind of just a past experience that I had to get over that I really had to set aside and stop worrying so much about, you know, how is this going to go, who is going to sign up, and what if nobody signed up and how is that going to make me feel. 

And I really had to remind myself, and this is something that really listening to your podcast and reading your books and being in the artist incubator has really helped me with, is just remembering that it’s not about me, you know. I really need to put the focus on the student and what I know that they stand to gain from the class and just being excited about conveying that information. Really thinking, you know, there’s somebody out there who is going to look at this sales page, you know, that I might be nervous about, and this is going to be the class that they’ve been waiting for. And maybe not everybody, but there will be some people. And so I write the sales page for them. And that helps me bring a lot of positivity and a lot of good energy because it makes me excited about what a great experience it’s going to be for them to learn how to make these books from paper that they have around their house.

So that has been really, I’d say, the biggest help for me is just really kind of taking myself out of the equation and focusing on the students and what I know they’re going to get out of the class and then also just getting help. I mean, that was another thing that I had to get over was this idea that I could do it all myself. Because for a long time it was just, kind of, trying to do everything myself And you know getting coaching has just been such a great step for me.

I think a lot of people, you know, we live in, like, a very individualistic kind of culture and we grew up sharing it all self reliance and we all want to kind of climb to the top of the mountain ourselves. But really there’s nothing to be gained from going alone. And you can just, you can, again, focusing on the customer or the student, you can really get the work to them a lot quicker and a lot higher quality if you’re working with a coach.

So that’s just been a huge breakthrough for me is just being able to join the Artist Incubator. So that really just, kind of, getting over myself and saying, okay, it’s not about me. It’s not about me being this great artist who did it all myself. It’s all about the students and it’s all about me getting whatever help that I need to give them what I know they’re going to love.

[00:22:56] Miriam Schulman: That’s great. And I understand that you were very successful with your first course launch. How many people did you have in there? 

[00:23:02] Bel Mills: I have about 130 people sign up for the class. 

[00:23:06] Miriam Schulman: Amazing

[00:23:07] Bel Mills: Thank you. 

[00:23:08] Miriam Schulman: A hundred and thirty humans wanted to learn this process from you. And because you got over yourself and did the brave thing and offered it to them, they were able to take this class. How does that make you feel? 

[00:23:23] Bel Mills: I mean, it does, it really makes me feel great. It just makes me when I think back about you know the days where I had two people signing up for my classes and how I was just really stuck in this psychological loop of failure or what does this mean and I’m not good at this or whatever and being able to set that aside and Really come to my students with an energy of you’re going to love this, this is so great. And being able to get that response, it’s just a huge lesson for me. 

And really, I mean, it must be a huge validation for you too in terms of just that sort of philosophy of, you know, getting out of your own way and not getting so caught up in all of the thinking. You know, all of the limiting beliefs and all the things that sort of pulled you back when you’re thinking about your journey as an artist instead of thinking about your customers and, you know, what they stand to gain if you can extend yourself to them with the spirit of generosity. 

[00:24:25] Miriam Schulman: That’s so beautiful. 

Okay, so I just want to remind everybody who is listening that if you want to be one of the next students, is this available on demand or you do this in cohorts this class?

[00:24:37] Bel Mills: It is available on demand. 

[00:24:39] Miriam Schulman: So if you want to check out this class, I think I my daughter and I are going to do it. My daughter is 25. So I know that she loves doing this sort of thing So we’re definitely going to check this out, too. 

So go to That’s how you can get bell’s class and make your own books and learn this technique. 

And if you want to make your own art videos, but you don’t know what technology you need, again, I have that free list for you It’s tech as in T. E. C. H. 

All right, Bel, do you have any last words before we call this episode complete? 

[00:25:19] Bel Mills: I do. I do. Really, my last words are just to remember for everyone to remember that it isn’t about you. And if you can kind of get out of your own way, get the help that you need and focus on the folks out there who stand to gain so much from your work and what you have to offer.

[00:25:37] Miriam Schulman: Fantastic. Okay, my friend. So I will see you the same time, same place next week. Until then, stay inspired. 

[00:25:47] Announcer: Thank you for listening to The Inspiration Place Podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at on Instagram at Schulman Art, and of course on

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