If you had told Jess Keeli in high school that she would have a successful art business today, she would not have believed you.
Jess’s life combines science and creativity as a full-time pharmaceutical chemistry student at La Trobe University, Bendigo, and a part-time artist. But she admits this is something she expected after she left school.
“To a lot of people’s surprise, I didn’t really like art at school. I liked the creative side of it, but I hated symbolism and trying to attach meaning where there probably wasn’t any, to begin with. I wanted a yellow sunflower. Paint because that’s what sunflowers look like,” says Jess.
“I liked maths enough to do two maths subjects in year 12, which everyone thought I was crazy to do. But I always enjoyed being creative at home; it was my time.
Her creativity took off when Jess took a gap year after secondary school.
“I didn’t know what my style was, so a lot of my early work mimicked what I saw in other places, and eventually, I started experimenting and developing my style.”
It wasn’t until friends and family started asking for prints during her first year of college in 2019 that she considered 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 a few sales every month or so, at the end of 2019, Jess turned more business-minded.
She created an Instagram account and Facebook page to promote her work. The small customer base she built was the start of exciting things. During the lockdown in 2020, Jess’s small business success catapulted. She remembers how excited she was to get just one order a week. Jess started posting in the Buy From A Bush Business Facebook Group.
“I thought it wasn’t going to work or be worth it. But then—I don’t know what was special about this day or time or the post I put up—it just exploded.
In 20 minutes, her post had over 1,000 interactions. In 24 hours, Jess had over 350 orders. At the same time, her Facebook page grew exponentially from 300 likes to over 10,000.
“It was crazy and very overwhelming. Mom tells everyone she remembers hearing me in my room trying to curse out orders as I pack one, but another 15 come in.
“I had to close the shop after a day to get to them all. It took me a week to ship and another week to recover.
Jess said the timing was unexpectedly fortunate as she was not on campus at La Trobe University in Bendigo.
“I was home (in Portland) from college because of COVID and lockdown, and lucky to have the extra time not to go to classes and have mom and dad around. They would finish their work and help me get through mine. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Since then, Jess says it’s been a completely different experience, with regular orders coming in now. She also quit commissions to balance work, life, and study.
“I was asking everyone, ‘Can you paint my dog?’ Can you paint my horse? Can you draw this bird?’. It got to a point where I had a waiting list with over 30 people on it, and by the beginning of this year, I had only gotten through five – so I had to tell the rest that I couldn’t do it.
Even though Jess no longer accepts commissions, people still suggest topics. However, for anyone holding out hope that Jess can paint a specific Australian bird – it’s not going to happen.
“I get so many suggestions to draw a magpie, and everyone says they are so beautiful, but those birds personally sought me out and beat me at school – I didn’t have a good time with them. So no, I won’t draw one. I can’t handle it.”
The charm of their Australian animals and flora has warmed so many customers. Jess’s products have even made their way overseas, including Germany, the USA, and England.
“I get so many people sending my Australian pictures to friends and family overseas to remind them of home when they’ve left Australia or just as a little gift from Down Under.”
With the pandemic making everyone more aware of their space at home and looking to invest in art, Jess says she feels a greater interest in innovative products.
“Covid has given everyone a better appreciation for local, small, handmade businesses. Until last year, everyone was buying cheap from overseas because that’s how we did it then. But I feel like now it’s not so much happening, and people like to buy something and say, ‘This was made in my city, my state, and my country.’That helped change customers’ mindsets and encouraged them to shop small instead.
Having a small business and being involved in the OAK Magazine community has also led to beautiful collaboration opportunities for Jess. From working with local Bendigo businesses such as Ashley Morales Creative and The Teacher Collection, Jess has enjoyed combining her work with other creatives.
“I love working with other businesses and doing little collaborations – it’s so exciting to see what you can create when you combine two different skills.
As for the future of her business, Jess assures her clients that it is here to stay, alongside her science career.
“I think I could never do one without the other. In markets, people always assume I’m studying art, but when they find out I study science and run an art business, there’s this general idea that I have to choose – that I reach a point where I have to choose one. And why do I have to choose just one? They will both always be there and, in some way, part of me.