We had the good fortune of connecting with Colette von and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Colette, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
One word: necessity.
I started working for myself, officially, in 2015, by running an art gallery in Echo Park, ONE ONE SIX TWO. I had worked for a number of employers where I felt stifled and under-utilized. They wanted “yes” men and that wasn’t me, so I got out of there!
I had done a number of smaller-scale projects, but it wasn’t until the gallery that I really relied solely on my own dedication and self-employed mentality. I wanted to make the rules, and offer opportunities to marginalized artists.
Since then, I can’t picture myself going back to work for someone else. I set my own rates, make my own schedule, and practice a much healthier live/work balance.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
LA UP is a combination of the artistic things I love, and the creative and technical things I can do. On one hand, it is LA UP Gallery, (Lift Artists Up) which allows marginalized artists (women-identifying, POC, LGBTQIA+) to showcase their work in both traditional and non-traditional settings. Through the gallery, I offer curation, exhibition, and artist services. On the other hand, it’s LA UP- Installation Services, which provides art layout, design, installation and mounting for residential, business, gallery, museum, and outdoor settings.
I am known for maintaining high standards and dedication to my clients, be it curating a show or installing a 40-piece collection in a perfectly aligned grid. It’s hard for me to self-promote haha, but I am often told by my clients that they chose me because they liked my previous work, and trusted me to do the job the right way the first time. I mean, I have OCD so making sure installation pieces are aligned or look properly hung and spaced is literally the only thing I can do haha. These days, I have done enough installs to stop getting that imposter syndrome feeling I had years back. Now, if I don’t know how to do something immediately, though rare, I am confident I am capable of doing the proper research to get any project completed with the highest standards of quality, longevity, and safety in mind. I love learning, especially as it pertains to my craft. If I could tell anyone anything, it would be to keep learning, stay sharp, and accept that it’s okay if you don’t know the answer because you can always learn it.
How did I get here? Hard. Fucking. Work. Lots of tears, and many years of learning skills and racking up experience, while also learning what I didn’t want. I had an odd career trajectory from music performance to restaurant managing and teaching to event planning and a variety of side-hustles. In a funny and round-about way, I started working with a gallery and was asked to participate in various roles and event coordinating, which really lit my passion for visual arts. From there, I co-launched, then took over and ran a gallery for few years, and then transitioned to art installation and exhibition design full-time for a healthier live/work balance.
Because I have years of service, hospitality, and art industry experience, skill-wise, I can handle any type of client you can imagine- professional business men, house wives, chill 20-somethings, celebrities, Type As, Bs, Cs haha, anyone. Some are a breeze, some need a little more finesse or attention and that’s all fine, it comes with the industry. I’ve learned to listen to client’s needs, and honestly, I can figure people out fairly quickly, and deliver to them more than what they ask for. Sometimes that’s in the conversation, sometimes it’s involving them in the process, and sometimes it’s just coming in with 100% confidence and rocking the job with a smile because they just want to be taken care of.
I am a pretty tall, muscular woman on the femme/tom boi side, and even in these environments, where I’m confidently wielding power tools, 20-foot ladders, and lifting heavy art pieces, I still occasionally have to hold my own against guys who come in telling me how to do my job, explain how to use the tools I’m knowingly using, or question my methods. Owning and maintaining confidence in the work is key in those situations.
These instances are more and more rare, but do still happen, so it takes thick skin and confidence to work through that. There aren’t many women in this industry, so encountering me must sometimes seem like an oddity for people haha. I thank my Dad for the work confidence- he’s been very supportive of my “handy ma’am” work haha, and helps me anytime I have questions. He’s an amazing engineer, and inspires me with his craftsmanship and dedication to quality work. I grew up watching him connect with his clients, and display his knowledgeability, so I like to think I picked some of those skills up from him, too. You know, this was the sweetest thing- he gifted me a great set of Dewalt power tools and drill bits to get started when he found out I was in need of upgrading my drills, and I still use that set almost daily.
Additionally, and equally important, are the abilities to say no, knowing when to push back, and asking your worth without compromise. I’ve had clients try to haggle my rate down after the job was done, or ask for discounts, or tell me some reason as to why they shouldn’t pay my rate. Once, in the beginning of my installation days, I let a client talk me into lowering my fee, and I still think about. Never again, it’s just not what I’m about. These skills pay the bills, and it has taken considerable time and effort to get these skills sharpened. It’s one thing to volunteer, which I do, but my best advice is to GET PAID!
I guess another challenge I should mention is, I’m very visually impaired. I’m talking, ‘use a white cane now’ and ‘looking into getting a guide dog soon’ blind. I’ve been legally blind since first grade, with a degenerative disease called Cone Dystrophy. Obviously being in a visual industry, it’s tough. My clients are always surprised when they find out I don’t drive. I don’t get why, but to me, problem solving is second nature. I thank my mom for that- basically her motto was “make solutions, not excuses.” I hated that as a kid, I wanted to complain haha, but I’m truly thankful for that now because I’ve learned to be resourceful as hell haha.
Now, I don’t typically do interviews or blog posts or even a lot of social media these days, but through this chat, I’m hoping to help change how the world sees blind/visually impaired people- we can still do dope shit! Hahaha. The business aside, I struggle a lot with accepting my degenerative vision, but getting out into the world and succeeding despite the vision loss has been the biggest help. I talk with a lot of blind/VI people, and hear story after story of experiences they have with sighted-individuals who don’t think they’re capable humans. It’s just not the way things are! Blind/VI people in media are totally misrepresented, with isolated, single people, often bitter, hopeless, and/or mean! There’s a common joke shared, “I’m blind, not slow,” as we’re often spoken down to with basic, slow dialogue, despite the problem being related to our eyes, not our minds. I’m hoping my story can help shift, and add to a more fact-based perception of what the blind and visually impaired community is capable of!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I don’t want to share my favorite spots out of fear they’ll get busy haha. Just kidding, I’ll share a few. Go at your own pace. There’s a lot to LA. Vibe out what you’re interested in.
I LOVE the Huntington Library & Gardens in Pasadena. It’s a 207 acre botanical garden with beautiful plant collections in themed sections: desert, Australian garden, jungle garden with little waterfalls, the tall trees, a European-style theater, Japanese and Chinese gardens, rose garden, etc. there are galleries and a beautiful tea room- I love it. Kyle and I got a membership this year and go every other weekend. It literally saved my us during the pandemic shut-downs.
Other points to visit: The Getty, Griffith Observatory, Manhattan Beach, paddle swan boats at Echo Park Lake, LACMA, the DTLA Architecture Tour, or concert at The Hollywood Bowl or Greek Theatre.
Food Spots: get Street tacos. Pull over on the road and get some tacos out of a little truck or sidewalk stand. Just do it. Also check out: Button Mash (pinball arcade bar), Howlin’ Rays, L & E Oyster Bar (Happy Hour), and Holbox in South Downtown LA.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Honestly, I owe everything to my better-half, partner, husband- Kyle. He has stuck with me through the tough jobs, self-doubt, late-nights, financial stresses, everything. He has listened to my gripes, and talked me through some tough decisions. While I have definitely worked hard and put in the time to build a business and reputation, there is absolutely no way I would be in this position now without him. I’m more than happy to share the credit with him!
All photos taken by Colette von.