For artists like John Roelofs, practical realities come before passion
I’m spending a month on the road exploring the country, photographing and interviewing people to discover what work looks like in modern America. There are countless ways to make a living but I want to find out how people ended up in their job and how they feel about it.
Los Angeles, CA
Curve Line Space is a frame shop, gallery, and wood shop just north of Downtown Los Angeles. I arrived just as owner John Roelofs was finishing up a frame job for a client. With his assistant out of town for a wedding, John was managing it by himself. I took photos of the framing process and then sat down with John and asked him some questions about his job — his path to becoming a business owner, how he acquired the space, what his days are like, his dreams and aspirations, the role of social media and the inspiration he gets (and gives) from running a “queer-owned business.” John was forthcoming with all of it — honest, reflective, and discerning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got here.
John Roelofs: I’m from Virginia. I came to L.A. in 07. Did my undergrad at Art Center, just around the corner from here in Pasadena. In the fine art department. I graduated with a Fine Arts degree and wasn’t sure what to do with that. When people ask me what I do, I say I own a small business, a custom framing shop. We have a gallery and a woodworking studio as well. But our bread and butter is framing artwork.
How well does this job line up both with your skills and your interests?
I think it lines up with my skills more so than my interests, in all honesty. People don’t go to art school to frame other people’s artwork. It’s interesting too because in art school, it’s like dealing with aesthetics is suspect. You have to have this conceptual underpinning for every decision you make, and if you try and justify something by saying you like the way it looks, you get in trouble for that. This is a purely aesthetic practice here. It’s devoid of any conceptual meaning. I guess that’s also why the gallery is sort of an outlet for me to have a little bit more of a fine art presence in the space and I get to work with artists and collaborate and come up creative solutions for displaying their work
Are you better than your average framer out there?
I don’t know. A lot of times when I look at art, framed art, it’s almost unfortunate, I end up getting distracted by the framing because I’m like, why did they do that, or little mistakes that people probably wouldn’t notice I end up seeing. I have really high standards for what we put out. If something is not right and it ends up going out the door, I will literally lose sleep over it.
I think I have an aesthetic that requires me to have really high standards. If minimalism requires you to do a simple thing very well and I think simplicity is deceiving. The more simple something becomes the harder it is to make it perfect. That’s sort of a philosophy that I apply to here. The closer we get to perfection the harder it is to get that fraction of a percent even closer. I think part of it’s inherent, part of it is just my personality and then part of it I was trained in how to work with materials and make things fit and finish.
Do you ever consider the larger economy politics going on, everything that’s outside of you? Does that affect you at all, and do you have a sense of your place within that?
I kind of wear that stuff on my sleeve. I like people to know that I’m a queer business owner. I post about things on our business page that are going on in the world. I don’t see a delineation between the personal and the political. I think there’s a lot of overlap.
I think in the world in which we live, it’s really hard to affect change because of a lot of the systems that are in place. I think one way that people can do that is by choosing where they spend their money. I like to support local businesses. I like to support businesses whose value I share. Just as a consumer, I think about things when I’m deciding where to spend my money.
How does that affect your business?
In some ways, it’s a small gay world. Gay people like to support each other. I know through a lot of the networks that I’ve made, having lived in L.A. for a decade, a lot of people were really excited that I was starting a business and were very supportive and were eager to support my business. A lot of just the friends that I’ve made over the years.
How well is this business now supporting you and your life?
Taking this on is not something I could have done by myself. I had to have the support of family and friends, and the person who I worked with and who I purchased the business from is a good friend of mine. He’s at a different stage in his life. He’s been framing for 20 years and wanted to retire and wanted focus on more personal creative pursuits. But he was really excited about me doing this and was willing to help me. So I didn’t have to take out a loan. He was able to finance me directly, rather than having to pull out a bunch of money and pay interest on something. That was a huge factor in me being able to do this. He and I talked about it for a year before we ended up really deciding on how to move forward with it.
It’s a very fine line. I’m right at that threshold. I think being able to grow the business would allow me to breathe a little bit easier sometimes.
When you come in into the shop, and in the course of an average day, is there something that’s just like the headache side of the business?
I had this idea that I would be able to use this space as a creative outlet and that hasn’t really happened because I get caught up in the red tape, doing the books and making sure everything’s ordered and making sure that my employee has what he needs to do his job. I think the minutiae of the job takes up 50% of my time.
What’s the joy in it? Where’re the moments where the hours fly by?
I think day to day, there’s satisfaction in finishing jobs and seeing the framing design that we’ve laid out for a piece, seeing that come together. There’s something very satisfying about that. Knowing that we made good decisions and that we are making something that will last and protect the artwork and look amazing. When I feel like we did a good job. I have to be able to find satisfaction in those moments because it would be really few and far between if I didn’t.
Actually, the best part is when they bring the artwork in. I get to powwow with my client. Talk to them about their work which they’re pretty excited about usually. Figure out where it’s going and what we’re going to do with it. It’s that moment where we get to put our heads together and play around and put samples together.
Do you feel the influence or pressure from the outside regarding new ways of marketing your business?
I’m terrible at promotion, at promoting. Self-promotion or promotion of the business. It’s probably one of my weakest skill sets. So I have to really force myself to be active on social media. It requires a lot of will, to force myself to take the time to do it. I don’t like doing it. I’m not very good at it. I would love at some point to bring on a business partner. I have designs for how to grow the business and ideas for how I would like the space to be utilized in the future. I think in order to actualize some of that I will need someone else to help me navigate marketing because I’m better behind the scenes. I’m better at just the actual day to day work. It’s been a constant source of frustration and exhaustion for me.
When I do do it, sometimes it happens during regular business hours. I’m taking pictures on my phone, if there’s a cool project we’re working I’ll snap some pictures and I may not be able to post anything in that moment, but that night or the next day, or the following weekend, I might be scrolling through my camera roll and be like, oh that was a cool one I should post it or whatever. After the fact, I’ll do whatever.
What is the future of the business? In your dream, where does it go?
Well, I had a lot of other grand plans for what I wanted to do here. I think the first year was me really coming to terms with no, I need to focus on the framing side of the business for a while because that’s what’s … for anything else to manifest, that has to be completely sustainable.
I have a fully functional wood shop on the other side that isn’t being utilized to it’s fullest capabilities. I want to design furniture, I want to create an in-house furniture line that dovetails with our framing. I like the idea of creating a space out front here that functions a little bit more like a boutique where fine art has a presence but so does various home goods and sundry objet d’art. In terms of woodworking, I don’t want there to be anything I can’t do with this space. So if people want to custom credenza I want to be able to handle that.
That growth sounds pretty exciting. That idea of transforming this and transforming businesses sounds pretty cool.
I think so. Framing has to be the foundation for that, but I do feel like there’s room for me to grow. I think that would make it a more satisfying experience for me. It can be a grind. You have to frame a dozen pictures this week and it’s a very rote process.